The Road Not Taken in American Education

The Road Not Taken in American Education

I was heartened to read Jenna and Ben Storey’s recent piece in the New York Times (reprinted at AEI’s site), which distinguishes two incommensurable roads for higher education: college as a pathway to ever-increasing economic opportunities on the one hand, and college as a community of genuine discernment, in which students are encouraged to explore the shape of a meaningful life, on the other.

Drawing upon their time at Furman University, the Storeys provide a convincing description of college co-eds. Though quick to espouse casual relativism (“Happiness is subjective!”—Or worse, see Dr. Mary Townsend here), young people remain open to reason, provided their teachers are willing and capable of leading them. With judicious use of the great books, the Storeys have led young people to discover “the art of choosing”: reasoning their way through opinions to understanding.

Unfortunately, as the Storeys point out, much of higher education fails even to consider this higher aspiration for education an option:

The reigning model of liberal education — opening doors without helping us think about what lies beyond them — prevails because it reprises a successful modern formula. Agnosticism about human purposes, combined with the endless increase of means and opportunities, has proved to be a powerful organizing principle for our political and economic life. It has helped create the remarkable peace, prosperity and liberty we have enjoyed for much of the modern age. Modern liberty and modern anxiety are, however, two fruits of the same tree . . .

The Storeys argue that the young are reaping a harvest sown with increasing fervor over the course of modern history: the displacement of the timeless by the timely. Seemingly limitless “opportunities” offered without the guidance of trusted authorities have left the young ill-equipped to choose wisely. For the Storeys, universities should be “constructively countercultural institutions… initiating students into a culture of rational reflection on how to live.”

In my estimation, most institutions of higher education are not providing that initiation to their students. Moreover, it is preferable, even crucial that young people begin such rational reflection long before they enter college—which is where Great Hearts is providing a countercultural institution which promotes much more than “the next opportunity.”

The extraordinary growth of Great Hearts and the classical renewal movement demonstrates that there is “market demand” for something more. Yet, many “consumers of education” are unaware of the fundamental flaws in institutions of education, from kindergarten to university. We have much work to do to make the clear and compelling case for genuine liberal education available to Americans at large. With your help, we have a fighting chance.


Dr. Robert L. Jackson is Executive Director of the Great Hearts Institute.

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