Three Campus Cultures

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin identifies three predominant campus cultures which are distinguishable, interacting, and sometimes overlapping. Levin labels these cultures, “a culture of professional development, a culture of moral activism, and a culture of liberal education.”

The culture of professional development’s end is obvious: jobs. Levin writes, “The way we often think and argue about higher education policy generally suggest the same: the question is whether students and parents get their money’s worth in terms of postcollege employment and income.”

The culture of moral activism’s end is more amorphous. It has shifted depending on the morality. Levin writes:

Now largely shorn of its religious roots, [the moral aim] often looks like classroom instruction and campus political activism that demand of the larger society a kind of mass repentance for some grave collective sins. The nature of the alleged transgressions reinforces the worldview of America’s elite culture, which today is largely a progressive-liberal one. The content of the doctrines advanced by campus moralists has changed a lot, then. But the motivations of the students and some of the faculty engaged in moral activism today would be quite recognizable to activists of prior ages. Some of their methods, too, and even their excesses, would not have been altogether unfamiliar to their Puritan predecessors.

Harvard and Yale were initially Puritan institutions and were committed to a certain orthodoxy. Today’s moral activists are no less committed, albeit to different doctrines.

The third and final campus culture is that of liberal education. Here’s how Levin defines it:

Liberal education is so called because it involves the kind of learning and formation required to mold free citizens. The idea reaches back to antiquity in the West, and it has long embodied the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) said to make up the liberal arts of the classical curriculum. The concept does more than describe certain fields, though. It constitutes a mode of learning as formation, and an approach to education that seeks the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Problems often arise when people have fundamental differences with regard to what the university is for and how then we should pursue our educational mission. Levin writes, “Each of the three cultures believes it properly owns the university’s core ethic, and at least tacitly looks at the others as inadequate if not illegitimate.”

I think there is a place for all three models. But I think the third model is the right one, that it is the best. That’s the kind of education I received, so I have subjective bias.

I also think that it best aligns with a Christian vision of education, which has as its end the formation of the human person such that they can flourish in accordance with their divine design, becoming people of wisdom as they learn from a breadth of human knowledge, discovering they are endowed with purpose and entrusted to steward their lives in service to God.

This third culture, however, is in the minority, I think, not only within the realm of higher education, but also within the popular imagination.