Sunday’s New York Times included a piece by Jim Sleeper entitled “Liberal Education in Authoritarian Places,” which examined the implications of the recent spate of exporting of liberal education institutions to places like, well, Shanghai. Concerns around academic freedom, censorship and much else swirl around such enterprises (using the term in a variety of senses) as NYU’s partnership with East China Normal University and Yale’s engagement with the National University of Singapore. Sleeper says much that is relevant to us all, including those of us with no capacity (or interest) in expanding elsewhere). Here are his words — and some commentary —
“Universities’ mad scramble to expand reflects not so much grasping, imperialistic overreach as fundamental weakness: not only financial and market pressures, but also a drift in purpose and mission.” Sleeper follows this by noting that universities need to be more “missionary” in their enterprises. That is, they must be more freedom-seeking. Hmmm.
Toward the end of the article, Sleeper writes: “At its best, a liberal education imbues future citizen-leaders with the values and skills that re necessary to question, not merely serve, concentrations of power and profit. Universities that abandon this ideal are lending their good names to the decline of liberal education; turning themselves into career-networking centers for a global managerial work force that answers to no republican polity or moral code; and cheapening the value of the diplomas they hand out, at home and abroad.”
All to the good, Sleeper’s critique. But, let’s push it further: are these self-same universities actually engaged in liberal education “at home.” Here, we are required to ask what liberal education is — and how it is best delivered — whether in the United States broadly or in Chicago(land) more narrowly. What constitutes a liberal undergraduate education? More specifically: what are the proportions of breadth and depth of learning required for the best liberal education? What ought be read — or learned through other formats? How is this related to whcih subjects are (and are not) included?
In addition to asking about liberal education in such far off places (metaphorically perhaps) as Shanghai and China, we ought ask ourselves, as well, how our policies and actions (governmental and otherwise) are — and are not — preparing the sort of citizens Sleeper envisions. And, we must ask =- how this relates to the economy they are entering as well as the decline in funding of higher education across the board.
Hmmm. Authoritarian? Or?