Liberal Education

Taking It to the Streets: Preparing for an Academy in Exile

Let’s pretend for a moment that the arguments of the so-called reformers are right: universities are about to face disruptive innovation from a disgruntled public, unhappy employers and policy makers, and new technologies. Let’s assume, moreover, that the many books that document the sad commercialization of higher education are also correct: universities are becoming more like businesses, students are becoming more like consumers, and research is becoming more like product development.

Now, these worries are most likely misplaced; the worst-case scenarios probably will not happen. Traditional undergraduate liberal arts education will survive. When the fads pass and the economy improves, students will continue to go to college campuses where they will spend several years of their lives in a residential learning community before going out to seek a job or professional training. Professors, not computers, will remain the primary mediators between knowledge and students.

Moreover, since much of the hostility to academics emerged as part of the broader post-1960s culture wars, it is possible that, with changing generations, support for academics and the liberal arts will revive. Already there are bipartisan efforts to articulate the value of the humanities and the liberal arts at a time when they are at risk in universities—and even high schools—across the nation.1

Nonetheless, reformers have money and political support. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes that “we need some disruptive innovation in higher education,”2 and political leaders from both parties are questioning the value of the liberal arts. Unfortunately, many prominent reforms threaten academic life; some are downright hostile to it. In such a context, we academics ought to imagine ways to nurture academic life beyond the university.

The virtues and practices of academic life are oriented around its end: to cultivate a community of scholars committed to the production and sharing of knowledge.3 To achieve this end, universities protect academic freedom through tenure and shared governance. By ensuring that academics play a role in shaping university priorities and curricula, shared governance limits the intrusion of nonacademic values on scholarship and teaching. Critics have suggested that new technologies and economic necessity have made shared governance outdated. In reality, there is nothing new about the pressures scholars are facing from institutional managers, politicians, and business interests. Today, shared governance is more necessary than ever if the university is to maintain its academic purpose.

For the past century, the academy has found a home in the university—they have been co-constitutive. Rising prices, declining state support, neoliberal assumptions about the value of education and how to fund it, and the growing number of students seeking higher education for vocational purposes have placed pressure on the university as an academic institution. As David Hollinger has noted, universities are increasingly devoting more resources, and higher salaries, to “scholars whose careers are the least defined by the university’s original academic mission.”4 According to Michael Meranze, “the basic infrastructure of humanistic knowledge is being dissected: libraries cannot buy enough new books, journals and university presses are under intense financial pressure . . . departments are being closed, fewer and fewer faculty are being hired on the tenure track.”5 While the total number of Americans holding liberal arts degrees has been constant or even increasing, the percentage of American undergraduates who major in the liberal arts has been in steady decline.6

The sustained demand for the liberal arts makes clear that there is no “crisis” for the liberal arts; the crisis is their marginalization within the university. With new technologies thrown into the mix, it is conceivable that in a couple decades, the university will no longer be an academic institution at all.

In such an environment, it is vital that academics start thinking about ways in which to promote academic research and teaching in the liberal arts outside the university. For-profit corporations are not an option since they would make knowledge a commodity and because they turn students into consumers, violating the core ethical commitments of academics. Instead, something else must be found. We have seen in journalism what happens when profit seeking trumps the professional autonomy of journalists.7 Similarly, in medicine, commercial interests threaten the professional integrity and autonomy of doctors.8 The same threat exists for the academic profession, if we cannot resist managerial and political efforts to promote the bottom line over the public good. With this threat in mind, I offer here sketches of four potential ways forward.

Four options for an academy outside the university

Under what I call the “Adam Smith option,” academics could be authorized to teach by universities or disciplinary organizations but effectively would be independent operators—like many music teachers—in a market context. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith criticized universities for permitting academics to be lazy and ineffective. He argued that faculty should earn their keep through the quality of their lectures.9 This critique has limits; it does not, for example, account for the intrinsic motives that inspire teachers to work long hours and to do their best despite poor pay and external rewards.10 Nonetheless, Smith’s model is one way forward. For this model to work, local universities or local or state chapters of disciplines would need to determine which teachers are authorized to teach for credit. Universities, depending on their missions, could set standards for different kinds of degrees and allow students to seek out their own teachers. This would reduce administrative costs, as universities would no longer need large staffs.

A second option is for academics to rely more heavily on philanthropy in order to create teaching and research centers oriented around specific themes or goals. Again, disciplines may have to take the lead in seeking out philanthropy in order to establish endowed institutions that can and are willing to promote scholarly research. Potentially, tenure, peer review, and other academic practices could be preserved and scholarly institutions could offer “badges” and other forms of credentialing distinct from the bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, academics would have to accept more influence from philanthropy. Philanthropists would most likely endow institutions compatible with their own values and interests. Like the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute, these would promote and sustain research. This is, however, nothing new: the modern research university also owes its emergence in part to elite philanthropists.11

A third option is for faculty either to take back the university or to start new universities. This will be hard. Despite some efforts, faculty have never managed to achieve control over universities but, at most, shared governance, in which boards of trustees and their appointed administrators continue to dominate the overall coordination of universities. Unionization will help, since faculty can protect some of their values via collective bargaining. But a better alternative would be to imagine new, truly small liberal arts institutions that would educate small batches of students with about twenty-five faculty members. We live in a society that appreciates the craft production of everything from beer and coffee to clothing. There is no reason we cannot have micro-colleges that engage in “artisanal teaching” and promote “close learning.”12 Assuming these institutions could overcome the administrative burden of accreditation and be affordable (by focusing solely on academics and avoiding the various other services that drive up college administrative costs), they could be run like charter schools and win political support from policy makers on the right and left. The benefit would be the creation of smaller, more intimate schools, perhaps closer to the original American colleges, whose origins can be found in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dissenting academies established in England as alternatives to Oxford and Cambridge.13

A fourth option is the “yoga option.” In this scenario, academics become alternative practitioners who abandon entirely universities that have become too corrupt or vocational to promote the academic enterprise. Academics would have to earn their keep by taking on students or earning research grants from independent institutions or the government. This is not inconceivable, however. In communities across America, yoga teachers, masseuses, herbalists, and all kinds of alternative-knowledge teachers and producers earn a living. These teachers are certified, apprentice under local masters, have networks in which they engage in continuing professional development, and online and print media to which they contribute and from which they learn about their own fields. Moreover, they have found people who want their services.

Academics could do the same. Again, disciplines may have to take on new credentialing services and reimagine themselves to serve academic practitioners not housed in universities. Local communities of historians or political scientists or chemists could meet regularly as well as be connected intellectually and professionally through their disciplinary organizations. The existing disciplines may, in fact, become more interdisciplinary under the broader umbrella of the human and natural sciences. People would teach locally, but academics could join together to offer arts and sciences within a common practice, much as different alternative practitioners do today.14 Academics would also take on apprentices in the anticipation that they, too, would become credentialed—perhaps through writing peer-reviewed papers for journals or books—in order to teach as well. Academics and their students would develop their own local and trans-local networks of knowledge outside universities.

There is significant historical precedent for the yoga approach. The natural sciences emerged in large part from amateur scientific societies in civil society well before the sciences gained the prestige and popularity to become part of the university curriculum. During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, salons and coffeehouses served as nodes in a trans-Atlantic network of political, cultural, and scientific knowledge production and circulation. Thus two of the core pillars of the modern academy—the Enlightenment and science—emerged out of civil society.15

Adult students, in particular, may seek out the service of independent academic practitioners. There is not only a long history of universities engaging adult students, but of adults pursuing their own education through voluntary associations, churches, and other institutions. Adults, no less than young people, need access to the liberal arts in order to reflect on the purpose and meaning of their personal, civic, and working lives.


Each of the four possibilities sketched above is intended primarily to provoke thought. Each of them would face real challenges. The most important challenge from a teaching perspective would be to ensure that students still find themselves in “communities of learning” that replicate what residential campuses offer.16 The research challenge would be how to fund important scholarship in the arts and sciences. In the sciences, especially, the capital costs for cutting-edge research are substantial, and private and public funding sources would want to ensure accountability. Yet, just as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities make public grants to artists and writers both within and beyond the university, public science funding could be offered to academics or communities of academics outside universities.

The biggest challenge would be one of prestige. Today, the authority of educational credentialing is owned by universities. If academics abandon the university, or if the university abandons academics, then academics—like doctors seeking legitimate authority in the nineteenth century, or practitioners of alternative medicine seeking legitimate authority over MDs today—would have to fight to re-establish the legitimacy of their knowledge and modes of research and teaching.

No matter how we proceed, we will need, like churches following disestablishment, to find a way to bring in people who do not know that they need to be converted. Colleges offer students a liberal arts education that many students neither want nor believe they need. But those who go to college and open themselves up to a liberal education often emerge on the other side with new dispositions and a recognition of how liberal education can transform a person’s relationship with the world. We academics will need to ensure that all people—younger and older, richer and poorer—are offered the time and opportunity to see their world anew and to take their new knowledge and skills with them into the workforce, their private lives, and the public life of our democracy.

These options may not work; certainly they are not ideal. On the other hand, as the university becomes more vocational and less academic in its orientation, we academics may need to find new ways to live out our calling. The academy is not the university; the university has simply been a home for academics. University education in our country is increasingly not academic: it is vocational; it is commercial; it is becoming anti-intellectual; and, more and more, it is offering standardized products that seek to train and certify rather than to educate people. In turn, an increasing proportion of academics, especially in the humanities, have become adjuncts, marginalized by the university’s growing emphasis on producing technical workers.

The ideas offered above all build on the core commitments of the academy, and the tradition of seeing the academy as a community of independent scholars joined together by their commitment to producing and sharing knowledge. Increasingly, however, universities claim to own the knowledge we produce, as do for-profit vendors who treat knowledge as proprietary. To academics, each teacher is an independent scholar working with her or his students and on her or his research, but also a citizen committed to sharing her or his insights with the world as part of a larger community of inquiry.

If the academy seeks to create spaces for academic life beyond the university, it will have to be creative. But academic knowledge matters too much to society for us to allow the changing university to determine our fate. If and when we can no longer call the university a home, we will need to build new shelters in civil society. The academic commitment to liberal education may have to find new ways of expressing itself, but one way or another, it will.

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1. See American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation (Cambridge, MA, 2013),

2. Duncan quoted in Mary Beth Marklein, “Universities Bolster MOOCs for Online Learning,” USA Today, May 30, 2013,

3. See Johann Neem, “Making Sense of the Higher Ed Debate,” Inside Higher Ed, September 6, 2013,
-essay; and Chad Wellmon, “Knowledge, Virtue, and the Research University,” Hedgehog Review 15, no. 2 (2013):

4. Hollinger quoted in Robin Wilson, “Humanities Scholars See Declining Prestige, Not a Lack of Interest,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 15, 2013,

5. Michael Meranze, “Curating the Humanities,” Remaking the University (blog), November 28, 2013,

6. See “Humanities by the Numbers,” AAC&U News, August 2013,; Nate Silver, “As More Attend College, Majors Become More Career Focused,” Five Thirty Eight (blog), New York Times, June 25, 2013,
-become-more-career-focused/?_r=0; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Humanities Indicators,”; and Michael Berube,
“The Humanities Declining? Not According to the Numbers,” Chronicle of Higher Education Review, July 25, 2013,

7. See, for example, Andrew Sullivan, “Journalism’s Surrender,” The Dish (blog), December 31, 2013,

8. See, for example, Marcia Angell, “Drug Companies and Doctors: A Story of Corruption,” New York Review of Books, January 15, 2009,

9. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1976). See also George Leef, “The Spirit of Adam Smith Returns,” Commentaries (blog), John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, February 12, 2013,; and John Paul Rollert, “What Adam Smith Can Teach Us about Incentives in Higher Education,” Boston Review (blog), November 4, 2013,

10. See, for example, Katharine Neem Destler, “Creating a Performance Culture: Incentives, Climate, and Organizational Change,” American Review of Public Administration (forthcoming); and William Firestone, “Teacher Evaluation Policies and Conflicting Theories of Motivation,” Educational Researcher 43, no. 2 (2014): 100–107.

11. See John R. Thelin and Richard W. Trollinger, Philanthropy and American Higher Education (New York, 2014); Olivier Zunz, Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 8–43.

12. See Marjorie Pryse, “Artisanal Teaching,” The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, August 5, 2013,
140611?cid=megamenu; and Scott L. Newstok,
“A Plea for ‘Close Learning,’” Liberal Education 99,
no. 4 (2013):

13. See David Reid, “Education as a Philanthropic Enterprise: The Dissenting Academies of 18th-Century Britain,” History of Education 39, no. 3 (2010): 299–317; Matthew Mercer, “Dissenting Academies and the Education of the Laity, 1750–1850,” History of Education 30, no. 1 (2001): 35–58; and H. McLachlan, English Education under the Test Acts: Being the History of Non-Conformist Academies 1662-1800 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1931). For the American context, see Jurgen Herbst, From Crisis to Crisis: American College Government 1636–1819 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

14. This would also require challenging the assumption that, among nonmedical academic disciplines, only psychology can help people think about how they orient their lives. Academics from other disciplines would have to demonstrate that the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences have much to teach people of all ages about their place in the world and what it means to live a meaningful life.

15. See, for example, Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 14–30; and Alexandra Oleson and Sanborn C. Brown, eds., The Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early American Republic: American Scientific and Learned Societies from Colonial Times to the Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

16. The phrase is from Francis Oakley, Community of Learning: The American College and the Liberal Arts Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Johann N. Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University, is an affiliate of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is currently a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.  

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