The secret about our universities (seldom even whispered among Professors)

This is the second in a series of posts about America’s education system.  Links to the other posts appear at the end.

In College education in America, another broken business model (3 July 2009), we discussed the economics of undergraduate education.  Left untouched was its purpose.  Why bother?  By now most of us realize it no longer has any purpose beyond giving new adults a paper to slot them into America’s class system.

Undergraduate education is one of the most expensive functions of our society.  Not just in the cost, but in that it consumes 2 to 4 years of priceless time of so many citizens.  What do these “students” get in exchange?  What does American get for this expenditure?

For answers to these questions — as to so many critical questions about America — we turn to Allan Boom’s The Closing of the American Mind.  It is the book I most strongly recommending reading.   Red emphasis was added to these excerpts.

Excerpt from the chapter “The Clean Slate”

Those of us who can look back to the humble stations of our parents or grandparents, who never saw the inside of an institution of higher learning, can have cause for self-congratulation. But — inevitably but — the impression that our general populace is better educated depends on an ambiguity in the meaning of the word education, or a fudging of the distinction between liberal and technical education.

A highly trained computer specialist need not have had any more learning about morals, politics or religion than the most ignorant of persons. All to the contrary, his narrow education, with, the prejudices and the pride accompanying it, and its literature which comes to be and passes away in a day and uncritically accepts the premises of current wisdom, can cut him off from the liberal learning that simpler folk used to absorb from a variety of traditional sources. It is not evident to me that someone whose regular reading consists of Time, Playboy and Scientific American has any profounder wisdom about the world than the rural schoolboy of yore with his McGuffey’s reader.

From the chapter “Music”

The first sensuous experiences are decisive in determining the taste for the whole of life, and they are the link between the animal and spiritual in us. The period of nascent sensuality has always been used for sublimation, in the sense of making sublime, for attaching youthful inclinations and longings to music, pictures and stories that provide the transition to the fulfillment of the human duties and the enjoyment of the human pleasures.

Lessing, speaking of Greek sculpture, said “beautiful men made beautiful statues, and the city had beautiful statues in part to thank for beautiful citizens.” This formula encapsulates the fundamental principle of the esthetic education of man. Young men and women were attracted by the beauty of heroes whose very bodies expressed their nobility. The deeper understanding of the meaning of nobility comes later, but is prepared for by the sensuous experience and is actually contained in it. What the senses long for as well as what reason later sees as good are thereby not at tension with one another.

Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be. But this is a lost art.

Excerpt from the concluding chapter, “The Student and the University”

The Cornell plan dared not state the radical truth, a well-kept secret: the colleges do not have enough to teach their students, not enough to justify keeping them four years, probably not even three years. If the focus is careers, there is hardly one specialty, outside the hardest of the hard natural sciences, which requires more than two years of preparatory training prior to graduate studies. The rest is just wasted time, or a period of ripening until the students are old enough for graduate studies. For many graduate careers, even less is really necessary.

It is amazing how many undergraduates are poking around for courses to take, without any plan or question to ask, just filling up their college years. In fact, with rare exceptions, the courses are parts of specialties and not designed for general cultivation, or to investigate questions important for human beings as such. The so-called knowledge explosion and increasing specialization have not filled up the college years but emptied them. Those years are impediments; one wants to get beyond them. And in general the persons one finds in the professions need not have gone to college, if one is to judge by their tastes, their fund of learning or their interests. They might as well have spent their college years in the Peace Corps or the like. These great universities — which can split the atom, find cures for the most terrible diseases, conduct surveys of whole populations and produce massive dictionaries of lost languages—cannot generate a modest program of general education for undergraduate students. This is a parable for our times.

… Now that the distractions of the sixties are over, and undergraduate education has become more important again (because the graduate departments, aside from the professional schools, are in trouble due to the shortage of academic jobs), university officials have had somehow to deal with the undeniable fact that the students who enter are uncivilized, and that the universities have some responsibility for civilizing them.

If one were to give a base interpretation of the schools’ motives, one could allege that their concern stems from shame and self-interest. It is becoming all too evident that liberal education — which is what the small band of prestigious institutions is supposed to provide, in contrast to the big state schools, which are thought simply to prepare specialists to meet the practical demands of a complex society — has no content, that a certain kind of fraud is being perpetrated. For a time the great moral consciousness alleged to have been fostered in students by the great universities, especially their vocation as gladiators who fight war and racism, seemed to fulfill the demands of the collective university conscience. They were doing something other than offering preliminary training for doctors and lawyers. Concern and compassion were thought to be the indefinable X that pervaded all the parts of the Arts and Sciences campus.

But when that evanescent mist dissipated during the seventies, and the faculties found themselves face to face with ill-educated young people with no intellectual tastes — unaware that there even are such things, obsessed with getting on with their careers before having looked at life — and the universities offered no counterpoise, no alternative goals, a reaction set in.

Liberal education — since it has for so long been ill-defined, has none of the crisp clarity or institutionalized prestige of the professions, but nevertheless perseveres and has money and respectability connected with it—has always been a battleground for those who are somewhat eccentric in relation to the specialties. It is in something like the condition of churches as opposed to, say, hospitals. Nobody is quite certain of what the religious institutions are supposed to do anymore, but they do have some kind of role either responding to a real human need or as the vestige of what was once a need, and they invite the exploitation of quacks, adventurers, cranks and fanatics. But they also solicit the warmest and most valiant efforts of persons of peculiar gravity and depth. In liberal education, too, the worst and the best fight it out, fakers vs. authentics, sophists vs. philosophers, for the favor of public opinion and for control over the study of man in our times.

The most conspicuous participants in the struggle are administrators who are formally responsible for presenting some kind of public image of the education their colleges offer, persons with a political agenda or vulgarizers of what the specialties know, and real teachers of the humane disciplines who actually see their relation to the whole and urgently wish to preserve the awareness of it in their students’ consciousness.

… To repeat, the crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization. But perhaps it would be true to say that the crisis consists not so much in this incoherence but in our incapacity to discuss or even recognize it. Liberal education flourished when it prepared the way for the discussion of a unified view of nature and man’s place in it, which the best minds debated on the highest level. It decayed when what lay beyond it were only specialties, the premises of which do not lead to any such vision. The highest is the partial intellect; there is no synopsis.

… Moreover, a great disaster has occurred. It is the establishment during the last decade or so of the MBA as the moral equivalent of the MD or the law degree, meaning a way of insuring a lucrative living by the mere fact of a diploma that is not a mark of scholarly achievement. It is a general rule that the students who have any chance of getting a liberal education are those who do not have a fixed career goal, or at least those for whom the university is not merely a training ground for a profession.

Those who do have such a goal go through the university with blinders on, studying what the chosen discipline imposes on them while occasionally diverting themselves with an elective course that attracts them. True liberal education requires that the student’s whole life be radically changed by it, that what he learns may affect his action, his tastes, his choices, that no previous attachment be immune to examination and hence re-evaluation. Liberal education puts everything at risk and requires students who are able to risk everything.  Otherwise it can only touch what is uncommitted in the already essentially committed.

The effect of the MBA is to corral a horde of students who want to get into business school and to put the blinders on them, to legislate an illiberal, officially approved undergraduate program for them at the outset, like premeds who usually disappear into their required courses and are never heard from again. Both the goal and the way of getting to it are fixed so that nothing can distract them. (Prelaw students are more visible in a variety of liberal courses because law schools are less fixed in their prerequisites; they are only seeking bright students.) Premed, prelaw and prebusiness students are distinctively tourists in the liberal arts. Getting into those elite professional schools is an obsessive concern that tethers their minds.

The specific effect of the MBA has been an explosion of enrollments in economics, the prebusiness major. In serious universities something like 20 percent of the undergraduates are now economics majors. Economics overwhelms the rest of the social sciences and skews the students’ perception of them—their purpose and their relative weight with regard to the knowledge of human things. A premed who takes much biology does not, by contrast, lose sight of the status of physics, for the latter’s influence on biology is clear, its position agreed upon, and it is respected by the biologists.

None of this is so for the prebusiness economics major, who not only does not take an interest in sociology, anthropology or political science but is also persuaded that what he is learning can handle all that belongs to those studies. Moreover, he is not motivated by love of the science of economics but by love of what it is concerned with—money. Economists’ concern with wealth, an undeniably real and solid thing, gives them a certain impressive intellectual solidity not provided by, say, culture. One can be sure that they are not talking about nothing. But wealth, as opposed to the science of wealth, is not the noblest of motivations, and there is nothing else quite like this perfect coincidence between science and cupidity elsewhere in the university. The only parallel would be if there were a science of sexology, with earnest and truly scholarly professors, which would ensure its students lavish sexual satisfactions.

For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts about America’s education system:

  1. College education in America, another broken business model, 3 July 2009
  2. The secret about our universities (seldom even whispered among Professors), 5 July 2009
  3. Women dominating the ranks of college graduates – What’s the effect on America?, 7 July 2009
  4. A better answer to “why women outperform men in college?”, 8 July 2009
  5. Is a college education worth a million dollars?, 10 July 2009
  6. What should a student learn from college? Why go to college?, 1 November 2009

27 thoughts on “The secret about our universities (seldom even whispered among Professors)”

  1. Financial Crisis

    From the “Sociology of Philosophies” by Randall Collins (see Amazon) — p 521-2, “Coda: The Intellectual Demoralization of the Late Twentieth Century:

    “Which of the three types of stagnation do we exemplify? Loss of cultural capital (Stagnation A), certainly, marked by the inability of today’s intellectuals to build constructively on the achievements of their predecessors. Simultaneously there exists a cult of the classics (Stagnation B): the historicism and footnote scholarship of our times, in which doing intellectual history becomes superior to creating it. And also we have the stagnation (C) of technical refinement: to take just a few instances, the acute refinements and formalisms of logical and linguistic philosophy have proceeded apace in little specialized niches; in the same way among all factions of the intellectual world today we find the prevalence of esoterica, of subtleties, and of impenetrable in-group vocabularies…In our own day, as at the end of medieval Christendom, all three types of stagnation exist and interact …

    “Education has become a currency controlling opportunities for employment; it now expands autonomously through the interplay between credential inflation, driven by the competition for more schooling, and the resulting rise in the credential requirements of jobs. As each level of education becomes saturated and deflated in value, superordinate markets for cultural credentials are added beyond them. The relations between the supply of and demand for education are circular an self-reinforcing; the spiral is pointed upward with no end in sight (Collins, 1979; Ramirez and Boli-Benett, 1982; Bourdieu, 1988).

    “The production of academic intellectuals rides on this wave of credential inflation. As demand expands for educational certificates, there comes an increase in the numbers of higher degree holders to train those of the next rank down, an explosion of Ph.D.’s…

    “Analogous processes take place in the commercial markets of popular culture. In this atmosphere of superordinate arenas of cultural production pyramiding upon one another, the content of modern culture has become self-reflex and ironic. We see this both in the pop culture, with its themes of privatized alienation and showy nihilism, and in the successive waves of ironicization among intellectuals…
    “Our structural condition as intellectuals can be summarized in the phrase loss of a center of intersecting conflicts, loss of the small circle of circles at which our arguments can be focused. It is not a center of agreement that is lacking; creative intellectuals never had that. What is lost is a nexus where disagreements are held in tension…”

    I appreciate your introducing me to Bloom’s work, FM. I plan on reading it when I have finished Collins’. The BA in Sociology which I recently attained coincided nearly exactly with the recent relatively drastic economic downturn, thus Bloom’s words ring particularly true to me.

  2. Financial Crisis

    From “Simulacra and Simulation” by Jean Baudrillard (see Amazon), p149-150 (“The Spiraling Cadaver”)”

    “The university is in ruins: nonfunctional in the social arenas of the market and employment, lacking cultural substance or an end purpose of knowledge.”

    “Power (or what takes its place) no longer believes in the university. It knows fundamentally that it is only a zone for the shelter and surveillance of a whole class of a certain age, it therefore has only to select – it will find its elite elsewhere or by other means. Diplomas are worthless: why would it refuse to award them, in any case it is ready to award them to everybody; why this provocative politics, if not in order to crystallize energies on a fictive stake (selection, work, diplomas, etc.), on an already dead and rotting referential?”

  3. Bloom wrote, “It is not evident to me that someone whose regular reading consists of Time, Playboy and Scientific American has any profounder wisdom about the world than the rural schoolboy of yore with his McGuffey’s reader.”

    Recently I had the opportunity to see an 1890s middle school/lower high school examination, a comprehensive test across many fields of knowledge (English composition, grammer, mathematics, science, geography, history, philosophy, the classics of Greece and Rome, etc.); what immediately struck all of us reading it was its rigor. It was of sufficient difficulty that most undergraduates – and many graduate students – could not pass it. The level of achievement expected of the high school graduate in those days was equivalent or better than what is expected of college grads today.

    Then: higher schievement (or at least higher expectations), lower cost per student, less time to produce the expected outcome; probably a one-room schoolhouse

    Now: lesser achievement/expectations, much higher cost per pupil in public school, plus ruinously high cost college, more time spent in the system

    Draw your own conclusions…
    Fabius Maximus replies: I disagree. These 19th cetury exams tell us very little, other than the body of knowledge that defines an educated person has changed during the last 100 years or so. See the Snopes analysis for a detailed analysis.

    An easy way to see the absurdity of the comparison is to imagine how well an 8th grader in 1890 would do on a similar test given today.

  4. OK, when I got my physics degree it was free and murder combined.

    (1) We were, unusually for that time, encouraged to take on other courses. I did computer science (2 years), 1 year psychology and (don’t laugh) 1 yr accounting. Yes I was a masochist, or just interested in a lot of things .. and a masochist.
    (2) The workload was intense. Add physics lectures, maths lectures, other related subjets and lab work, plus my other subjects (ie computers), it was 9-5. THEN you did all your study and preparation for tutorials, etc. I rarely got home before 10:00pm.
    (3) I had to do a dissertation. Took my entire Easter ‘holiday’ to do it. (Deconvolution of Physical Data = mathematical techniques to clean up data, commonplace now but groundbreaking back in those days).
    (4) I, like 1 in 10 students in those days, were externaly tested. To ensure standards were kept up. Mine was a professor of Crystalography. My dissertation advisor (and the prof of the dept) s**t themselves and were there. I was ok, but their dept was on the line.
    (5) All this and I came from a dirt poor background, by even UK standards (3rd world at the time by US standards then).

    My argument was that is the right way to do things. Make it free, but set standards up there. Make it tough. Our failure rate was 40%.

    To be fair, in Scotland at that time the state schools (like the US ones used to be) were very good. So talent was found and encouraged. Plus it was tough. In by school days our O and H level tests were 3 hours in duration. My english test included writing a composition .. in the exam. Plus grammer, criticising 3 books, plays and poems, etc. No multiple choice. God, in geography we had to draw maps in the exam.

    Yep standards have slipped a lot. I’ve met PHD’s who did less than I did for my Bachelors (nowadays my aper for by Bsc would get you a Phd in may places). I’ve met BA’s who did less then I did for my school O levels.

    Make it free and make it tough. Its an investment in the future. Those who can’t make it, then there are many alternatives. How many skilled workers have been lost to them becoming ‘media advisors’ or useless corporate drones or aromatherapists.

    And then we need to look at the, now non-existant in Anglo countries, apprentiships building skilled workers.

  5. Note also how age and computers have destroyed speeling. My old primary teacher, Miss Barker .. who taught my uncle and Billy Connely would turn in her grave at those spilling mistakes I just made.

  6. Indian Investor

    FM, I’m reposting my comment just to bring some actual facts to the attention of the bloggers here:
    Fabius Maximus, Let’s try to be practical and get the facts as they are today. Here’s a link to a report from the National Center on Family Homelessness. “One in 50 U.S. Children Is Homeless”, 10 March 2009 — PDF of the full report here. Extract:

    A new report released today by the National Center on Family Homelessness finds more than 1.5 million children are homeless annually in the United States—one in every 50 American children. America’s Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness offers the first comprehensive state-by-state data on the status of homeless children and ranks the 50 states from top to bottom. The report urges federal and state action to end child homelessness and recommends how this can be done.

    In a situation where 1 in 50 American kids are homeless, why are you pallidly complaining about what appears to be the non – availability of low cost College Education for ALL. These kinds of unrealistic promises are made by leaders all the time,and they’re never kept. The equivalent in India was Roti, Kapda aur Makaan (Bread, Cloth and Shelter) for 5 decades and in recent years it’s been changed to Bijli, Sadak, Paani (Electricity, Roads, Water).
    Fabius Maximus replies: I am rapidly losing patience. First, this is off-topic. Second, the report you reference is low-grade agitprop (like so much so-called research by advocacy groups). Such as the definitions of rape that lead to 1/4 of women consided to have been raped — even if they don’t consider themselves to be raped. This report uses a definition of “homeless” so broad that it makes their conclusion a lie. The analysis is so confused as to make extracting a true estimate of homeless children difficult, but the report clearly overstates the problem at least 10x. For a brief review see here.

  7. FM: random comments.

    1:I usually take issue with the word education as it is used today. Preparing for a job is training. MBAs, physicians, nurses, lawyers, accountants, communications, marketing, all students within engineering colleges, etc. receive training. When we talk about “preparing for today’s competitive work environment” we are referring to training and NOT education. I agree that lawyers and some physicians were tourists in the liberal arts, but at least they were tourists. MBAs, accountants, engineers do not even want passports.

    2: I work as a engineer, but never took an engineering course. I have a B.A. with a math minor that got me past the interview and then self-teaching and OJT from a mentor quickly got me to the level of my work peers. I am (silently) appalled at the disdain my work peers have for the humanities and arts, at their unexpressive vocabulary, and at their lack of curiosity about the broader world. I sometimes have to think their common hate for English (the subject) and History are a defence mechanism. A work peer told me he hates (classical) art because it has to be explained and it is of no intrinsic value anyway. Many have stated they are better than humanities majors since engineers can teach English, but an English teacher cannot teach digital signal processing! (The final comment emphasizes how uneducated they really are.)

    3: Education has more value than salary enhancement. I used to frequent morning coffee shops where retired blue-collar men would hang out. All they could do was either retell the same work stories or bitch about current events (usually parroting Limbaugh, O’Reilly, etc.). They were unable to see past their gripes or what their wife just bought at Walmart. Retired, even partially educated (i.e. not trained) friends of mine seem to be able to talk about a book, a movie, a place they travelled to, what another friend just did. Education gives you the facilities to enjoy the world and its vast offerings and to do more than just swear along with Fox News during your retirement.

    4: I sense much of your presented quoted material is bemoaning the lack of preparation to join the ranks of the old-time philosopher clubs, the Gentlemen positors. That world is gone. We can no longer debate the world based solely on evidence available to our direct senses. The body of knowledge is way past what we can individually afford to acquire. Who can afford his own cyclotron, Hubble telescope, Mars probe, trip to deepest Africa, training in the Amazonian languages, AND molecular biology lab. I cried when the first moon-lander was launched. Laymen forever after had no role in selenology – it was strictly for specialists.

    5: There is no one-size-fits-all definition of education, though this seems to be implied. Education (encompassing the cultural, Cultural, scientific .. basis of a society) can be quite different for an Eastern culture. We seem to be thinking about a Western-education here.

    I selfishly admit that I want to enjoy life while I am here. Training gives one capabilities to trade for money. Education gives one facilities to enjoy life, to resources to adapt if your training is out-of-date, and to keep learning. Training is usually finite. Education is infinite so there is nothing wrong with an incomplete education. Can Allen Boom speak Attic Greek, act Shakespeare, quote Goethe, write Gauss’ field equations, describe the ionic flow of a nerve action-potential, explain the absorption spectrum of hydrogen, present the Battle of Tours, discuss Locke, sing Verdi, prepare French cuisine, contrast Polynesian and Nordic mores, practice Zoroasterism, paint in the Cubist style, predict the next tectonic plate slippage, let alone quote the preamble of the Constitution of the U.S.A.? I bet not. We are all at best tourists. The question is whether we buy Lonely Planet or buy a package tour.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand your #4. The questions discussed are …
    * What is the purpose of a liberal arts education?
    * Do American colleges deliver this today, for most students?

    Perhaps you believe that the purpose of the 4 year degree should be something different than it is today. That’s an interesting but only theoretical question at this time.

    I have no idea what you are saying in the last paragraph. It sounds like your standard of comparison is godhead. That’s expecting a bit much from a 4 year degree; I know of nobody else who considers that a reasonable goal.

  8. anna nicholas

    When I was forced ( hormonally being in my nest building era )to take up a university place I’d won , I wept . Law, Medicine , Becoming a Lecturer , Working In A Laboratory , the choices seemed like prison walls . Exam success meant I could not train horses , or drive the big red tractor for a living.
    But now there is so much brilliant choice ! With a degree you can be paid to count newts , measure mountains , collect snow , scan the planets. ( Until the money runs out .)
    My plan is :
    Schools should offer inspiration and enable individual interests ; they should also teach a huge amount of history . Forget exams , coursework : think exposure , diffusion .
    All undergraduate education should be free , open to all , all ages and on-line /correspondance in own time ,or day-release from work .
    Post graduate education should be offered in the same way or at a few remaining universities , the main function of which would be research and debate .

  9. The way you phrase the issue, “a failing business model”, pretty much answers the question. Whether it ever was or not, education long since ceased to be the ivory tower of higher values, discourse and dissent. When I taught freshman English, Matthew Arnold and TS Eliot (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”) were popular texts. Both mourned the passing of “culture”, just as earlier thinkers mourned the passing of religion. Bloom is in that tradition, of mourning the passing of earlier values.

    Education reflects its society, and serves society’s ends. The higher culture that Arnold mourned was appropriate for an English middle class that was just embarking on its “civilizing” mission to the world. World War One pretty much shattered that civilizing myth, and with it the values of western culture which supported it. In the century where rapacious capitalism fought totalitarian fascism and communism for control of the rest of the world, the elegant rationality of John Stuart Mill, the passionate belief in liberty of John Milton, the fascinating ambiguities of Hamlet’s mind, were bound to move into the “optional” curriculum.

  10. As a specialist (Engineer) and an MBA, I may be treading on thin ice, but for most students, I don’t think a liberal arts education is of any benefit. Let me explain why.

    Unless one inherits enough wealth to support themselves for life, one of the first things a person has to do is be able to provide for themselves. i.e. They should make themselves useful to society in a way that allows them to enjoy a standard of living they find acceptable. For most people, those skills are what schools, be they technical, community, undergraduate or graduate institutions should initially provide.

    Do Universities, Colleges or Technical Schools adequately teach this material? I believe the teach it as well as anyone has. Could they do it better? Absolutely. Is the business model broken? I’m not so sure. I believe we need many more plumbers, engineers and electricians. These Specialties are taught at many community, technical and state institutions at reasonable prices.

    But that is not what Allen Bloom is talking about. He is talking about Liberal Education. Unless you really picked the right birth canal, I’m not sure how beneficial liberal arts education is. Do twenty-somethings confront questions liberal education prepares them to resolve or do they confront questions of supporting themselves?

    There is a place for liberal educations, but surely it’s better timed so that it’s presented when one is confronting those questions and struggles? Maybe liberal arts education is more beneficial after you’ve experienced more and been confronted with subtler questions than most twenty-year olds struggle with. What is wonderful, is that the opportunity to learn is always available when the student reaches a point where they start struggling with those questions.

    As to your July 3rd question: “As an MBA, why does analysis of colleges so seldom mention college’s rent-seeking behavior — skiming the cream of the “selection advantage” confered by a degree? It’s basic economics, and explains much of the rapid increase in college costs.”

    If I understand your question, let me give my take in two parts.
    1. In a capitalist society that strives for equality, the rapid increase in costs and the “selection advantage” are difficult to discuss. Elite universities look to select the wealthiest and the smartest people. If you can “select” those two groups, your goal is to influence the path of society; you probably do not want to talk too openly about it.

    2. As far as not analyzing college’s rent-seeking behavior, I’ll answer by quoting one of my good Alabama red-neck friends: “Only a fool’d give you the club you’re gonna use to clobber him with.”
    Fabius Maximus replies: I doubt anyone believes that a 4 year liberal arts education is of substantial material benefit. The intangible benefits — making people better citizens, fuller human beings — are IMO largely excuses to justify the social tracking function of colleges. It could be done just as easily by Harvard just taking a check and mailing the degree, but that would not support the facade.

  11. To me the crux of the problem is the artificial connection between advancement in work, or in economic class, and getting a “Liberal Education”. In my experience with the working world, a “Liberal Education” confers little of value to a business, so why do we artificially connect the two things? I disagree that “Liberal Education” is valueless, I just think its true value gets obscured when people expect it to make them successful in business.

    It is as if we had pegged the value of the dollar to the market price of paintings from Picasso’s Blue Period. The popularity of Picasso’s Blue Period would suddenly become a grave matter of national security and pride. We would force kindergarteners to draw pictures in all blue, grade-schoolers to contemplate the wierd, sad, stiff figures standing on the seashore (link: “The Tragedy”), high-schoolers in the college track would need to write twenty-page papers on exactly why this guy played the guitar while asleep (link: “The Old Guitarist”). (Non-college-track kids could just look at de Kooning or some crap.) There would be government programs dedicated to measuring exactly what the public was thinking about Picasso, and the color blue, on any given day.

    All this activity would artificially “inflate” the social value of Picasso and his Blue Period, certainly. At the same time though, it would make kids secretly hate Picasso, hate the color blue, hate stupid old men who sleep with guitars. What was simply meant to be a way to allow the human race to contemplate the beautiful color blue, contemplate solemness, would instead become something no-one wanted to ever contemplate, unless forced.

  12. My undergrad was in Electrical Engineering (on an Air Force ROTC scholarship) so I’m pretty far removed from the person who paid tens of thousands of dollars for a liberal arts degree. My masters was in multidisciplinary Space Studies so I think that might have been a bit closer.

    From an outsider’s view of looking at the Liberal Arts field, my immediate reaction is that the sole purpose of the discipline is to create socialized critical thinkers. In other words, people that have had the opportunity to interact with a large number of peers to debate, discuss, and rationalize the process of thought. A secondary benefit is probably that it exposes students to a wide variety of topics and thus may help them find something that interests and intrigues them.

    I don’t think the need for socialized critical thinkers in a democracy or globalized world is debated. Rather, the debate is about 1) whether a 4-year college program is the right way to do this, 2) whether it comes at the right point in their lives, and 3) how much it should cost.

    My personal views are that it might be more beneficial to find a way to do a shortened (1 or 2 year) version of this for all college-bound students, regardless of their eventual field of expertise. I can think of many fellow engineers who would benefit greatly, especially from the socialization aspect. Then perhaps you follow with a 2 or 3 year degree specialization.

    There are probably some flaws in that proposal, but it’s my first approximation.

  13. A 19th century English writer (probably socialist) said something like “I am doing this (manual) work so that my son can study law, and he will do that work so that his son can be an artist or a writer.” (FM might know the actual quote and the source.) A liberal arts education is supposed to be the top of the educational mountain, the reward for a society that has solved the problem of economic scarcity and created the leisure/liberty for some of its people to cultivate their higher faculties. It’s not a means to an end, it’s an end in itself.

    It’s kind of wonderful that America, in its infinite optimism, felt it could provide the reward of a liberal education to all of its people. However, that reward depended on the belief that the economy was capable of infinite expansion. The “failed business model” of higher education in the present is only a reflection of the failed business model of the society as a whole.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not believe this is correct —

    “It’s kind of wonderful that America, in its infinite optimism, felt it could provide the reward of a liberal education to all of its people.’

    Nor do I understand why so many believe (as seen on this thread) that other developed nations can provide low-cost college education to so many young people — and the far richer US cannot. For hard data on this I suggest reading “Education at a Glance 2008: OECD Indicators“.

  14. senecal – I’m not sure if this is the quote you were looking for but it is very similar:

    “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
    — John Adams

  15. I think the “great disaster” of liberal education has been the abandonment of objective truth and beauty. While the sixties and seventies were a time of great activity in the humanities, I believe they ultimately eroded their foundations.

    Contrast with the hard sciences. Although I am as yet a humble peon in the scientific establishment, I have published scientific findings based on peer-review. It is a cumulative effort, and the body of knowledge established by science only continues to grow in scope and accuracy.

    Art once had a similar trajectory. In painting and music, Western art grew in sophistication and beauty. One only need to look to East Asia, where Western classical music is almost universally considered superior to native music in technical depth and sophistication. Philosophers pondered human nature without irony. Historians sought not to deconstruct, but to tease a glimpse of the grand arc of humanity. Playwrights did not seek controversy and shock, but to inspire, uplift, entertain.

    “Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be. But this is a lost art.”

    Indeed it should be, but modern “high-art” has deemed the universal virtues of honor, truth, and beauty too imperialistic. They would rather wallow in self-flagellation, convincing each other that that life is an oppressive, meaningless and hypocritical affair. They will produce nothing of lasting value. Their reams of poetry, their modern dance, their abstract modern art will all be forgotten. Rather, it is popular-art that will stand the test of time. It is jazz, rock-and-roll, Casablanca, Roman Holiday, and yes, even Michael Jackson – popular art that speaks to the human condition – that will endure.

    As little a century ago, the liberal arts university led the way in exploring the human condition. They have abandoned that project for navel-gazing.

  16. Brian W: thank you, that’s exactly the quote I misquoted (almost beyond recognition!) I got it from watching the excellent series in which Paul Giamatti played Adams.

  17. By Seneca, comment #9: “Education reflects its society, and serves society’s ends. The higher culture that Arnold mourned was appropriate for an English middle class that was just embarking on its ‘civilizing’ mission to the world. World War One pretty much shattered that civilizing myth, and with it the values of western culture which supported it. In the century where rapacious capitalism fought totalitarian fascism and communism for control of the rest of the world, the elegant rationality of John Stuart Mill, the passionate belief in liberty of John Milton, the fascinating ambiguities of Hamlet’s mind, were bound to move into the ‘optional’ curriculum.”

    What you say is right, as far as it goes: something like this has, indeed, happened. However, it’s not clear (to me, at any rate), how you wish me to take your remarks. If you are just making the obervation; made by many others;that Western civilization was one of the casualties of the Great War, then I agree. But your tone seems to suggest a certain “get on with it” mentality, as though we ought to accept this disaster, and just live with the results, or perhaps even get to like them. I think that’s silly.

    This makes me think of a man who once climbed a tall tree to get a look around, and noticed an odd tilt to the world. After a few moments, he realized that the loggers had just finished sawing through the trunk of his tree. He reacts by saying to himself, “well, the era of calm rational observation is past, I must learn to live in this new, fast-moving world.” He forgets, of course, that falling trees;like falling civilizations eventually come to an abrupt halt.

    The appalling culture we endure today is a distorted caricature of what it once was. Nostalgia for the better times past is a rational and wholesome reaction to the tilted world. I’m all in favor of nostalgia.

  18. Hmmm. Is there any way to enable previewing comments, Fabius? I hate it when bad HTML makes my comment look even dumber than it is. That first para should probably have been in blockquote elements…but I forget what works on which site.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It’s free, so we cannot complain about WordPress! I’ve tweaked your comment’s formating a bit.

  19. I’d say that the waste of time and money in American education starts considerably earlier than college—high school seemed pretty pointless to me at the time; college was just more of the same. It wasn’t until an honest, principled professor told me that a paper I’d written was “bullshit” that I started taking the education thing seriously. I mean, here was somebody who could actually tell! (I coerced him into being my doctoral adviser…I’m sure he wished on many occasions that he had been more diplomatic when he composed his marginalia on that first paper.)
    But yes, I think you’re right—what we call “education” embraces a lot of wasted time, money and effort put forth by both students and the state. A good basic education could be had in 12 years, not the 16 that are expected now (with the universal requirement to get that college degree). For most people, 10 years of basic learning and 2 years of trade or technical school would be quite sufficient. I say “could be had” because I don’t think that American educators know how to deliver an education at any level—and I’d be surprised if Europe was much different.
    But I still have a fond dream of University life as I imagine it ought to be, with students who—at least some of the time—get excited about learning things that have no material value whatever; things that are (to put the slogans I mouthed in the 60s in reverse) completely irrelevant to their lives. I’d like to see those young people who want to learn impractical things indulged. Perhaps they would grow into individuals who are much more interesting to talk to than most of the dullards I have to deal with in my daily life, who believe that to make an argument means to speak in a loud, angry voice.

  20. I don’t think we will get the “higher” education we want until we stop strangling the desire, the passion – to learn in its cradle.

    With so much available – free! – in the modern world, could we not return to the days when the education system taught the learner how to learn for himself, individually, and set him on the road with less and less supervision each year?

    Of course, that would require changing the certification aspect of modern education, essentially a big business in itself, and would require employers or investors to determine an individual’s level of self-educational attainment.

  21. You should rethink the “broken business model” claim for universities – even now people seem to be desperate to borrow tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to risk on the possibility of reaping greater rewards later on. I do not see how an industry which generates that kind of demand for its product can be said to have a failing business model.

    Perhaps “immoral business model” is a better term. As opposed to finding a need and creating a product to fill it, universities seem to have constructed the product – then created the need. Most professions that used to be accessible through apprenticeship (even law didn’t always require a degree) are now limited by state regulation to only those with graduate or higher degrees – the universities being the greatest proponents and beneficiaries of this arrangement. And the idea that anyone could grow up to be president has been replaced by “only those fortunate enough to hold an Ivy League degree need apply”.

    The government creates regulations requiring the purchase of a degree as the cost of entry into the higher strata of economic life; the degree providers support the student loan industry, and so long as the academic/government axis holds power, the education bubble can not burst. It is a business model a cigarette company would envy.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Some of this seems correct, some no longer so.

    “even now people seem to be desperate to borrow tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars”

    I suspect you are wrong, looking backwards. US savings rates are steeply climbing, and household access to debt is shrinking. Esp two of the major sources of borrowing for college: the student loan market and home equity loans. Hence both people’s willingness and ability to borrow for college is decreasing (in aggregate).

    “Most professions that used to be accessible through apprenticeship (even law didn’t always require a degree) are now limited by state regulation to only those with graduate or higher degrees”

    Agreed. Over the last centuries guilds have come to increasingly dominate the economy. Historically this has been a sign of social decay, leading to stagnation.

    “the education bubble can not burst.”

    No. Household debt in the US has clearly reached its maximum level. People’s belief that debt could increase without limit is one aspect of America’s increasinly delusional thinking, now colliding with reality.

  22. I don’t think universities are a “broken business model.” They seem profitable enough — or rather, since they never seem to actually have any surplus funds (“profit”) no matter how much they charge, I would say that they are effective ways of channeling resources to their stakeholders, which are mostly the professor class and administrators.

    As for their purpose, their purpose is simply social tracking. Even if universities “should” teach “liberal arts,” I don’t think they can. The lecturer/class/grade format is not conducive to any kind of vagaries or experimentation. Universities are best when teaching rather clearly delineated material, like accounting or pre-med, in which there is an ABCD and you have to pick the right one.

    From the student standpoint, universities are rather poor institutions. It is easy for a young person to become confused that a university has any purpose besides social tracking. Plus, they are hellishly expensive.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You are looking backwards, not forwards. The borrowing by students and their families temporarily allowed universities to charge more than their customers could afford. That era has ended, as described at some length in the post and comments. Not mentioned, but perhaps as significant, is the budget crunch of so many States. Universities will suffer, being lower on the ladder of essential services than welfare, police, and such.

  23. Thanks for the reply. A couple of thoughts, and I hope I am not keeping an old thread alive and wasting time, but when you point out that the traditional lines of credit are no longer available to the college-bound, I don’t think the universities see this as a crisis but an opportunity.

    Let’s use the language of politics here: “The greedy financial institutions have, in their lust for profit, cut America’s hard working families off from the means to improve their children’s future, so the government must step in and fill the void.”

    Medicare, Medicaid, social security, fannie mae, freddie mac, socialized medicine … government funded college education is just a small step along the path. It has the added benefit of falling under the “for the children” canard.

    The colleges win an inexhaustible source of funding, with the attendant opportunities for graft, kickbacks, and general feeding at the public trough, plus the cachet of being the source of all good things for the future of America’s underprivileged (never underestimate the power of moral vanity). The government gets another means to make sure the citizenry think right thoughts, and believe right things. Under the new setup, to be kicked out of college for heresy against the established order would mean being cut off from the economic life of the nation. So toe the line, or flip burgers, unless the short order cooks of the future will need a degree also; then you’re really screwed.

    Is it some grand conspiracy cooked up by the government and the universities? No, but everything I know of history and human nature tells me that is how it would end up nonetheless.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Threads never die on the FM site.

  24. Andrew .. why not both? They are not exclusive.

    When I grew up we aspired to music and the arts, and knew engineering. Wealth was seen as the the freedom to enjoy quality of life. Work weas not seen as a meaning of life but as a path and a duty.

    It is not one or the other. In fact in my humble opinion they are complimentary. Some are necessity (you gotta eat or have water), some are enjoyable (good company, good music good reading good drama ….), some are both (a beautiful building).

    Is our aspirations just for more ‘things’ or ‘stuff’. Can’t we have both, more money and leisure and then using it to have a better quality of life. Me? My music is largely American folk (plus the blues and jazz and Scottish and Irish ballads) .. me I’d dream about the same salary for a 4 day week, or haven a 3 day week. More camping, get back to guitar and banjo playing, get the old motorcycle fixed up, catch up with my old mate and do some hiking before we are too old … and so on. Maybe do a trip to the US and listen to some great guitar players? And, for nothing else but guilt (but I care so I’d get involved anyway), I’d get involved more the community. I’ve already done somethings over the years.. I’d do more.

    Doesn’t mean we don’t all have to do a turn building or fixing a sewer or building a water pipe. Again where I grew up we had a strong sense of duty and necessity (my old mum in her 80’s still went out and cleaned the stairs in her tennement (appartment) block. Maybe that’s a possible model to eliminate a class system in the future? We all have wealth and leisure but there is a civic duty to ‘do your turn’.

    Whatever model evolves in the future .. the current model does not work!

  25. re 22, FM: “People’s belief that debt could increase without limit is one aspect of America’s increasinly delusional thinking, now colliding with reality.

    Did that delusional thinking come into existence because higher education failed to uphold the classical liberal model (as Bloom says “discussion of a unified view of nature and man’s place in it, which the best minds debated on the highest level.”)?

    Again, the deterioration into anti-democratic (“uncivilized”) cultural tendencies flows from the rise of postmodernism (pluralism/relativism), and a counterreaction from a set of memes that provides the basis of Corporatist plutocracy (all values are reduced to money).

    A “unified view of nature” is a modernist assumption (it flows out of Lockean thought, Natural Law theory, and so forth). Such assumptions were deconstructed by postmodernism, which is, as has been pointed out, “infected” by narcissism/nihilism.

    re 24, mike: “The colleges win an inexhaustible source of funding, with the attendant opportunities for graft, kickbacks, and general feeding at the public trough, plus the cachet of being the source of all good things for the future of America’s underprivileged (never underestimate the power of moral vanity). The government gets another means to make sure the citizenry think right thoughts, and believe right things. Under the new setup, to be kicked out of college for heresy against the established order would mean being cut off from the economic life of the nation. ”

    So, there is a connection bewteen the banking scandal and the higher education scam?

    Again, the absurd forms of intellectual corruption that are now common in higher education (political correctness, thought policing, the “public sector” version of Corporatist New Totalitarianism and plutocracy) are a product of postmodernism and the reactionary “conservative” movements that oppose it.

    Old Liberalism is necessary, but not sufficient. Integralism contains a critique of the “mean green meme” (postmodernism) that open up another possibility besides nostalgia for the “glory days” of Old Liberalism. I would even suggest to FM that the best way for the valid aspects of Old Liberalism to “survive” is within an integral/holistic paradigm.

    To summarize: Old Liberalism has lost its vitality (tragic, but true). Postmodernism, which pushed Old Liberalism aside, has become corrupt. In the resulting “moral vacuum”, Corporatism/plutocracy/new-totalitarianism is flourishing. A new moral paradigm is clearly needed, but one that can satisfy the “coherence needs” of culture in the wake of the “disaster” of postmodernism.

    Here is some material that hints at the pragmatic aspects of what integralists are doing to address issues of social change: “A Conversation with Susanne Cook-Greuter“, Intergral Leadership Review, 20 January 2003.

  26. Wow, what a profound insight. I’m only 24 and just recently got my associates in Criminal Justice, but this article brought back the feeling I had at about halfway through my education. It began to be repetitious and unuseful. Trying to teach you things that you could never fully grasp without real experience – which is the reason I didn’t pursue a BA. Well that and because of our current economic fiasco.

    But there was one major required class that I fell in love with and couldn’t stop thinking about……Sociology. After taking two courses it was the only thing I became concerned about and wanted to study (on my spare time). It was the one subject that led me pursue my own intellectual curiosities – philosophy being one of them (I recommend Plato’s “The Republic”). It is these subjects that bring about true character in an individual.

    Thanks Fabius. Truly a wonderful article and skillfully articulated. three thumbs up!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: