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Values in ConflictReview - Values in Conflict
The University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education
by Paul Axelrod
McGill-Queens University Press, 2002
Review by Larry D. Hultgren, Ph.D.
Nov 18th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 47)

Can universities be responsive to the forces of the market place, globalization, and government policies without turning higher education into a mere commodity?  Paul Axelrod, a Canadian educational historian, believes that we have reached a nodal point where the very raison d’etre of the university, “intellectual life, autonomous scholarly activity, and curiosity-based research in the arts and science”(7), will soon be stunted, if not lost, by the bottom-line demands of the market place. In his book, Values in Conflict: the University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education, Axelrod investigates the foundations and implications of  liberal education in a utilitarian age where higher education is being reduced to function by “a host of narrowly focused, market-driven training programs so cherished by concept-challenged and culturally blinkered policy makers”(85). 

Axelrod believes that the two millennia experiment in liberal education is once again at risk. And he considers a chilling possibility:  its demise!  Although the mission of the university has always been contentious and contested, if denuded of the liberal arts, our author foresees that, “It is possible that a decade from now our universities will resemble little more than giant training warehouses, where short-term corporate needs dictate curricula to students who are increasingly taught not by professors but by advanced, impersonal technology” (5).

Setting as his educational compass point “a more precise and workable definition of liberal education”(9), Axelrod uses Chapter 1: Roots and Branches of Liberal Education to situates higher education in general, and the liberal arts in particular, within a broad historical context.  Here he traces the roots of liberal education beyond the expected discussions of Ancient Greece and Rome to include early “oriental history” as well.  And his discussion of this “most enduring and changeable of academic traditions” (8) branches off into consideration of such often neglected topics as the role of women in this tradition and the Canadian experience.

Chapter 2:  Intellect, Culture, and Community picks up two key questions: “What is a liberal arts education?” and “Why do I need it?”  The reader’s hope here is that our author will cut through the rhetoric and trim back some of the sprouting goals of a liberal education and carefully “demonstrate that the continued devaluation of liberal education will be costly to students and to the communities where they choose to live and work” (34).  Unfortunately, the initial definition of a liberal arts education that is proffered is quite pedantic and reads like a page out of a college or university catalog.  Liberal education, writes Axelrod,  “refers to activities that are designed to cultivate intellectual creativity, autonomy, and resilience; critical thinking; a combination of intellectual breadth and specialized knowledge; the comprehension and tolerance of diverse ideas and experiences; informed participation in community life; and effective communication skills” (35).  However, to his credit, Axelrod spends much of the chapter trying to show that these objectives are not merely cobbled together but “echo the past and situate themselves in the present” (35). 

 We are reminded in Chapter 3: Occupations, Income, and the Economy that liberal education serves a wide range of goals including the preparation of undergraduates for the world of work.  Although Axelrod continually reminds us that a liberal education provides its own justification, this chapter focuses on the economic benefits of a liberal arts education both to the individual and to society.  Axelrod, like earlier Greek thinkers, believes that some things, like education, can both be both good in themselves and good as a means to further goods.

In Chapter 4:  Ideology and Policy, Axelrod, a professor and dean of the Faculty of Education at York University, presents the university experience in Canada as a case study of “academic capitalism.”  He explains how Canadian universities during the past two decades have often succumbed to bureaucratic and political regulation.  The result has been the rise of the utilitarian dogma of “use value,” and the emergence of an educational setting where “[s]o-called clients and customers (students) expect service providers (faculty) to enhance their economic worth in the labour market” (87).

Not only do academics feel assaulted by external political and economic pressures, they believe themselves assailed from within, as well, by students who  “tend to be more pragmatic, more vocationally oriented, and more politically conservative (125).”  Chapter 5: Teaching and Learning attempts to move the beyond “mere impressionism and professorial grumpiness” to constructively discuss the challenges and promises of teaching contemporary university students.  Although University faculty are probably the most severe critics of undergraduates, Axelrod believes that students can respond to the ideals of the liberal arts “if instructors are pedagogically imaginative and personally approachable (127).” He then uses the rest of the chapter to present examples from higher education in the United States and Canada of what he considers to be some of the more creative approaches to teaching and learning: “constructive controversy,” “critical inquiry,” problem-based learning, cooperative learning, and placement programs.     Also included in this chapter are brief discussions of whether educational technology is “[f]ools gold or precious metal,” and popular culture as a potential source for creative teaching and learning.  With respect to the debate over the costs versus the benefits of the new learning technologies, Axelrod delays a final judgment until further research is conducted.  However, he concludes with the conventional Latin warning: Caveat emptor.           

Axelrod’s Conclusion, that if current political agendas and economic trends continue, we may witness the eclipse of liberal education, reminds us that the distinguished history of liberal education is no guarantee of its continued survival.  Universities no longer have a monopoly on higher education.  In the realm of biology, survival requires adaptation.  However, in education, natural selection may operate more subtly.  Those universities who currently survive by  responding to “preference indicators,” “rationalizing” their operations efficiently, and “prioritizing by functions” may well be the adaptive universities who perish in the new millennium.

 

© 2002  Larry D. Hultgren

Larry Hultgren describes himself as follows:

A.B. Grinnell College majoring in Philosophy and Religion; Ph.D. Vanderbilt University in Philosophy. Currently Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Wesleyan College, Norfolk, VA. Since I am at a liberal arts college, my teaching runs the gamut of philosophy offerings. I am especially interested in interdisciplinary pursuits, and I direct the college's Social Ecology Program and our innovative PORTfolio Project, which attempts to bring the liberal arts to life for our students by connecting the classroom with real world experiences. I also serve on the Bioethics Committee of the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, VA, and serve on the Board of Directors of the Bioethics Network of Southeast Virginia.


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