The Eighth Circle

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States”

(William DuBois)

As last year started to draw to a close — and what a year it was — my mind turned to self-scrutiny and it occurred to me that a confession of sorts is in order. As one who has spent his entire adult life attempting to put young people in possession of their own minds (and free them from the clutches of others, myself included), it occurred to me that what we are doing in higher education is a bit fraudulent. This put me in mind of Dante whose extraordinary Inferno deals with those of us who are guilty of fraud. I speak of the eighth circle of Hell.

There are ten levels in the eighth circle, the so-called “malebolges.” In the sixth of those ten levels — all worked out as if by magic with Dante’s poetic eye on medieval dogma and the wisdom of Aristotle — we find those who are the hypocrites, those who have been duplicitous, leading others to follow the wrong path. As the excellent translator, Ciardi, says in his introduction to this Canto in the Inferno,

“Here the hypocrites weighed down by the great leaden robes, walk eternally round and round a narrow track. The robes are brilliantly guided on the outside and are shaped like a monk’s habit, for the hypocrite’s outward appearance shines brightly and passes for holiness, but under that show lies the terrible weight of his deceit which his soul must bear through all eternity.”

In Dante’s own words, which we can feel in spite of the fact that they are translated for us:

“All wore great cloaks cut to as ample a size

as those worn by the Benedictines at Cluny.

The enormous hoods were drawn over their eyes.

 

“The outside is all dazzle, golden and fair;

the inside, lead, so heavy that Frederick’s capes,

compared to these, would seem as light as air.

 

“O weary mantle for eternity!

We turned to the left again along their course,

listening to their moans of misery.”

Why all the fuss? And why charge myself and my fellow “professors” with hypocrisy? Because there is hypocrisy in the willingness of those of us in “higher” education to say one thing and do quite another. We promise those who pay their tuition that they will be educated. The evidence suggests that this is simply not happening. The students who attend college go away thousands of dollars in debt but little affected by their four years — except, perhaps, having learned how to binge-drink and party hearty. And, perhaps, one or two have picked up a bit of knowledge along the way. So many slip between the cracks. So many go away unchanged in important ways by what has occurred.

The problem is that education has become a business and like any business the only measure of success is the “bottom line.” And the bottom line reveals that higher education, so-called, is taking the undergraduates for an expensive ride and not getting the job done. Students are charged high tuition fees and are promised an education– and, at best, they get job training or, perhaps, an occasional glimpse into a world not of their liking, a world of ideas and wisdom that demands of them more effort than they are willing to put out — or, indeed, are used to putting out — and little assurance of employment after graduation.

There are notable exceptions, of course. There are a few colleges, mostly small ones, that stress the “liberal arts,” that do attempt and at times succeed in educating their charges. But on the whole the entire education edifice rests on sand. The promises have become mere words on paper, they mean little and they smell of gaseous air. Instead of committing themselves to the education of those that come, hat in hand, to be educated they instead provide them with emotional counseling, a country-club atmosphere, and a smattering of tips designed to help them get a job after graduation — whether it fulfills them as human beings or not.

In a word, the colleges care not a tittle about the students and their real needs. Instead, they deliver what the students want and the faculty are willing to deliver — as long as it doesn’t take them away from their own personal and professional diversions — and they get a decent paycheck.  Surely, this sort of behavior is precisely what Dante was talking about and what those who promise one thing and deliver quite another are deserving of in the end.

(My tongue is only part-way in my cheek. My concern here is serious and the problem deserving of serious thought — as is the failure of education on the whole.)

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12 thoughts on “The Eighth Circle

  1. Hugh, these two sentences sum up the problem.

    “The problem is that education has become a business and like any business the only measure of success is the “bottom line.” And the bottom line reveals that higher education, so-called, is taking the undergraduates for an expensive ride and not getting the job done.”

    Non-profit colleges spend far too much of the tuition expense paying for administration and less on learning. The for-profits spend a much higher percentage on just marketing than learning. Rule of thumb for the for-profit colleges, the more popular the spokesperson, the worse the college learning experience.

    I know a couple of retired business people who teach for-profit colleges and they are two-weeks ahead of the class on the material, more often than not. I have also seen colleges try to save money through a rotation of adjunct professors and using professors in one discipline teach a class not in their discipline.

    So, to make ends meet, the colleges are cutting costs in the most valuable part of the equation – the professors. Something has to give and what gives is the education for too many.

    Keith

    • The percentages of increases in administration and “support staff” in higher education, coupled with the cuts in teaching staff, are enough to make a person gag. There may not be enough room in the eighth circle for the many who will end up there!

  2. Thought-provoking post, as always. I agree with Hugh, and would take it a step further. In today’s culture, at least in the U.S., the focus is always on jobs and technology more than true education as you and I might define it. Your comment that college has become a job-training venue says much. I know a number of parents who urge their children to attend a vocational school rather than “waste their money” on college. Thus, it is inevitable that the current trend will gain momentum as a snowball rolling down the side of a mountain. I don’t know how we change this, though … do enough people care enough to spend time thinking about it and determining some solutions? I don’t know. Good post, Hugh! You always make me think!

      • The irony is that those young people who major in the liberal arts end up making more money than those who major in more practical, job-oriented, fields. The problem is finding that first job — but many have managed the feat and have done quite well. How does one persuade the parents when they think they know better!!??

      • I know that, and you know that, but apparently a lot of people don’t believe it. I have a friend who has 6 children and he is actually discouraging them from going to college … he would rather they work at McDonalds for the rest of their lives than spend 4 years and thousands of dollars going to school. It’s a mentality that I don’t know how to break through.

      • That’s the business mentality I have spoken of: college is not “cost effective,” therefore we should not send our kids there. That manner of thinking has permeated our culture — even to the point where enough people thought a businessman would make a good president. Time will tell, but I have serious doubts about the skill set learned in the world of capital will be of any use whatever in the hurly-burly of high-stakes politics — especially when the businessman in question is a failed businessman!

  3. Too depressing. It’s not just the USA. I’m too downcast after reading Jill’s post on women voting for That Man to say more. All I can hope, as with everything else, is that the obsession with marketisation is reaching a peak and that if things do go badly with you-know-who at the helm it will speed it … But I’m not holding my breath.

    • We really do need a complete overhaul of the education system. The problem is (of many) that there are as many systems as there are states and they don’t all agree about how to get the job done! As I have suggested numerous times, however, there are many problems. But the result is an ignorant citizenry that is convinced Donald Trump will deliver them from all their woes.

  4. I enjoyed the entire piece, but especially highlighted this passage: “The promises have become mere words on paper, they mean little and they smell of gaseous air. Instead of committing themselves to the education of those that come, hat in hand, to be educated they instead provide them with emotional counseling, a country-club atmosphere, and a smattering of tips designed to help them get a job after graduation — whether it fulfills them as human beings or not”
    As an employee of higher education, what you mention has more recently become a concern of my own. I witness many students we approve conferring for the sake of “just graduate them”. It’s troubling. Too many students are being shuffled along but at the end can barely write a decent statement on their own behalf.

    • Yes. We appear to be in a downward spiral. Let’s hope we can pull out of it. There will always be success stories, but there are far too many disappointments. Thanks for visiting and the good comment!

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