You have perhaps heard about how the University of Virginia board fired the university president Teresa Sullivan, whereupon a huge uproar ensued, and she was hired back.
I’ve heard conservatives lament the re-hiring, saying that the lunatics are in charge of the asylum, that this just re-enforces the corruption in higher education, that this is another example of academic elites stifling reform, etc., etc.
But in this case a conservative philosophy of education was victorious over more progressive attempts to make higher education, which is admittedly frought with problems today, even worse.
First, the board members who led the charge against President Sullivan were liberals and Democratic appointees. But more importantly, the issues she was fired over had to do with her championing traditional education over and against the changes that are already damaging many colleges.
She resisted the proposal to have UVA go in the direction of online programs. (I’m not saying online courses are necessarily bad, but the example of for-profit online colleges is not a good one to follow.) Most telling was this complaint from the board, her resistance to shutting down “obscure academic departments in classics and German.”
Classics an obscure program? In Mr. Jefferson’s day, classics (the study of Latin and Greek, as well as the history and literature of those ancient societies) was about the only program there was! Since classics exists to preserve and pass down the heritage of our civilization, it’s often a haven for conservative faculty and students. German is obscure? The eclipse of foreign language is one of the weaknesses of American education.
What is at issue here is preservation of the liberal arts tradition in higher education over against contemporary academic trendiness.
The problems in higher education are thoroughly documented in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. It isn’t the conflict between “impractical” and “practical” education or humanities vs. science. (Science and math are also part of the liberal arts tradition.) As that book, written by mainstream scholars and not conservative culture warriors, shows, students are graduating without knowing or being able to do very much, due to the collapse of academic standards, bad teaching, a hedonistic student culture, the bad effects of federal funding, and all kinds of other dysfunctions. As a result, graduates are learning less than they did under old school colleges (when the values of the liberal arts ruled).
At any rate, this time conservatives–in the sense of conservative educators and conservative higher education theory–won at the University of Virginia.