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