In a previous briefing we directed your attention to the pressures universities and liberal arts colleges are facing in the modern economy. Many of these pressures come as requests for economic justification. Whether the petitioner is a student, parent, state legislator, or policymaker, the question posed to universities is frequently: “What, exactly, do you do? And why is it valuable?” As we observed previously, this has meant that defenders of the university increasingly spend their time doing just that: defending.

Marilynne Robinson is one such defender. In her recent cover story for Harper’s, “America’s Best Idea: In defense of our public universities,” Robinson argues that the need to defend the university (and, more specifically, the liberal arts) should come as no surprise. “Since Plato at least,” she tells us, “the arts have been under attack on the grounds that they have no useful role in society.”

Robinson begins her defense with the claim that if public universities in America are going to be asked to defend themselves on economic grounds, the history of ingenuity and wealth-creation they have provoked should be a decisive argument in their favor. In what she calls a “fact that should be too obvious to need stating,” she says that it would be very difficult to argue that the Land Grant College Act of 1862 “has done us any economic harm, or that that the centrality of the liberal arts in our education in general has impeded the country’s development of wealth.” She extends this line of reasoning with an intriguing thought experiment:

True, a meteor strike or some equivalent could put an end to everything tomorrow. But if we were obliged to rebuild ourselves we could not find a better model for the creation of wealth than our own history. I do not mean to suggest that wealth is our defining achievement, or that it is the first thing we should protect. But since money is the measure of all things these days it is worth pointing out that there are no grounds for regarding our educational culture as in need of rationalization—it must be clear that I take exception to this use of the word—to align it with current economic doctrine.

But if the justification of universities as drivers of innovation and wealth-creation falls on deaf ears, Robinson offers another justification. In her view, the challenges universities face in our moment—public universities in particular—have their origin in a deeper shift within the American self-understanding. As she puts it:

There has been a fundamental shift in American consciousness. The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of this shift, public assets have become public burdens…While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes. The societal consequences of this aversion—failing infrastructure, for example—are to be preferred to any inroad on his or her monetary fiefdom, however large or small.

Though this shift has massive implications for any number of features of our common life, when it comes to higher education, Robinson observes that “the dominant view today is that the legitimate function of a university is not to prepare people for citizenship in a democracy but to prepare them to be members of a skilled but docile working class.”

In the most basic sense, she says, these ideals—Citizen and Taxpayer—are “creations of political rhetoric.” As she has it, the power of political rhetoric is in its capacity to reset the default option for our own self-understanding: are we basically Citizens, or basically Taxpayers? “An important aspect of human circumstance,” she says, “is that we can create effective reality merely by consenting to the phantasms of the moment or of the decade.” Inadequate attention to the power humans have to create a reality simply by naming it effectively has gone a long way to create this shift in American political self-understanding. And we, as a citizenry, are responsible for what she calls our “deflated” sense of citizenship to the degree that we are uncaring or uncritical about the ways we speak about our neighbors and the obligations we have to them.

On Robinson’s view, whatever else American universities have done, they have always been in the business of “democratizing privilege” by “opening the best thought and the highest art to anyone who wants access to them.” This claim places Robinson squarely within the school of thought that links public investment in higher education to increasing civic virtue and social well-being. As she notes in the beginning of the piece, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the power of learning to expand democratic virtues in 1835. As he writes in the introduction to Democracy in America (and she quotes at the beginning of the piece):

Poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance turned to the advantages of democracy and, even when they belonged to enemies of democracy, they still promoted its cause by highlighting the natural grandeur of man. Its victories spread, therefore, alongside those of civilization and education.

Robinson’s elaboration of this basic point is both necessary and masterful. As with any substantial piece of thought, there are points with which to quibble or outright disagree. Yet in this case, we recommend this piece as a trustworthy guide for navigating some of the basic challenges our society faces.