Why Avoiding “Liberal” Universities, Departments, and Faculty Is Misguided

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Susan Wise Bauer over at The Well-Trained Mind Blog has put together an excellent post on how many decent folks are asking the wrong questions when looking for a university or a department (either for their kids or for themselves), trying to avoid being barraged with a “liberal agenda.” I’ve heard similar sentiments myself—”I just want my kid to go somewhere that won’t brainwash him/her,” “I don’t want my child to go to UNC because there is so much intellectual arrogance there,” or “I want him/her to go to a Christian college or someplace where he/she will be able to grow and not be attacked.”

As Bauer points out, though these sentiments are based on reasonable concerns—nobody wants their children to be mocked for what they believe or wants their child to be converted to a viewpoint opposing their own, they reflect a lack of understanding of the purpose and methods of higher education (especially a traditional “liberal arts education”). Bauer points out the flaws while trying to point the way towards understanding the purpose of higher education—a large part of which involves training a person to think for himself/herself, learning how to reason, debate, and understand other perspectives.

Bauer’s experience with students who enter classes primed to resist “liberal” faculty mirrors my own experience:

I myself have had a very frustrating time teaching students who come into William & Mary primed to resist the lies of “liberal faculty.” (That includes a lot of home educated students, who register for for my classes because they think I’m safe.) Every time I say something that strikes them as possibly “liberal,” all of their defenses go up and they tune me out. I can’t play devil’s advocate or dialogue with them–they immediately put me on the list of untrustworthy professors and stop listening.

And at that point they become unteachable.

I’m often asked how home educated students stack up against others in my classes. My overwhelming impression is that they’re more fragile. They’ve got little resilience; I can’t push at their presuppositions even a little bit. Maybe they’re afraid those presuppositions will shatter.

(Understand that Bauer is a proponent of home-education; she isn’t suggesting that home-schooling is inferior, only pushing for a bit more emphasis on resilience and critical thinking than learning how to put up a prickly defense.)

I also entirely agree with Bauer’s conclusion, which assumes that students ultimately should be trained how to live in the real world:

What should these parents be asking instead? How about: How can my student find a group of likeminded peers, a religious community, a church, to support them as they study? In my opinion, that’s far more important than finding faculty that agree with you. How can I find a Dean of Students office that thinks parents should be partners in education, rather than telling them to bug off and leave eighteen-year-olds to their own devices? I think the most destructive attitude to encounter in university staff and faculty is the one that says: They’re grown-ups. Pay your tuition and get out of their lives. Do you know of a faculty member in literature/philosophy/biology/history who is thoughtful and trustworthy and willing to mentor? One or two close relationships are important; a whole faculty that agrees with your entire belief system is not.

The article is worth the read…

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • […] Staples (extraordinary fellow who still leaves an impression on me) has cited a piece by another author of conservatives attending liberal universities. I would add, as well, […]

  • Good to know. I’ve been torn about SWB’s books. We have her classical literature program and it is just “okay”. I looked at her history book and I felt it included too much myth or history we can’t confirm…but perhaps I take a much too scientific approach to history!

  • I actually don’t know much of Susan’s work beyond the post I linked to, which I found quite insightful. I’m hoping to give it more of a look once I finish my Ph.D., as I’m interested in doing some work dealing with earlier levels of education also. What made her classical lit program just “okay”?

    As for myth in a history book, it’s a tough line to walk, because so much of what we do know is from sources that aren’t exactly scientific modernists in the way they recorded their data. Again, I’m not familiar enough with the book to interact with it, but I can see how that might be an issue, especially dealing with distant antiquity.

  • I guess my issues are more with the classical idea of dictation/narration, with not much formal or creative writing till middle or high school. We can’t do that since we aren’t sure when we will transition her back to public school ( as most public schools and even most private schools stress highly writing even at the early ages). To get the best of both worlds, I am doing both, particularly since Bauer’s literature curriculum (i.e. first language lessons + writing with ease) is so easy, we have time to add on. From what I can understand, one of the best literature programs is by Micheal Clay Thompson, but it starts at 3rd grade and we are in 1st. Hope this helps!

    • That makes sense. I haven’t looked closely at her stuff yet, but I find it interesting that writing is generally pushed so late. The classical model indeed has it after dictation/narration, but they also started training their kids earlier than our schools. I’d figure by the age of third or fourth graders today, kids should be at the point of being able to begin writing at a higher level. My guess is that this is something of a superimposition of modern theories of child development (which I think are somewhat circular inasmuch as they’re retarded by our tendency to start formal training of our children at older ages) with the classical model.

  • How do I find her article? I have searched with no success.


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