Useless Knowledge

A good friend printed on his Facebook page a list of clever Latin phrases that colleges might adopt for their institutions. On that list was one that stood out to me:

Pro scientia inutili
“For useless knowledge”

This, of course, is tongue in cheek and meant to make us smile, if not laugh outright. But I would like to make a case that this as what colleges and universities should aspire too. This is a motto any self-respecting college or university should embrace. We are focused far too much on utility in this country — to the point that if something is not found useful it is tossed aside. But some of the greatest ideas ever shared among humans were initially thought to be useless. Like the notion of human rights, for example. Or the notion that persons are ends in themselves — the root and branch of ethical behavior. Moreover, many of the things we treasure above all else are useless, things such as love and beauty, for example, not to mention the smell of burgers cooking on a barbecue or the taste of your favorite cold beverage on a hot summer’s day.

But, returning to the subject, the point is that the most valuable knowledge is useless knowledge. In any event, knowledge in and of itself is not what education is all about. On the contrary, most knowledge is a means to an end while education is what is left after we have forgotten all the “knowledge” we learned in school. Education is all about putting young people into possession of their own minds — as I have said again … and again. It’s about learning how to think. And that may or may not involve knowledge. At best, knowledge can lead one to think: as noted above; it is, or ought to be, a means to an end — even though seemingly useless.

America has shown itself repeatedly to be a country that denigrates not only useless knowledge but intellect itself. A fundamentalist preacher  recently noted on his radio show that educated women make the worst mothers. This is not only offensive to women, it is downright stupid. Moreover, it is an attack once again on intelligence. And as such it simply joins a long list of attacks against the development of the human mind that we find when looking back on American history.  I have often wondered where this suspicion of intelligence, this anti-intelligence, comes from. Were the first people who came to this country — often as outcasts from their homeland — the mindless dregs who were regarded as a burden on those who remained behind? One does wonder.

In many European countries intelligence is prized above all other human accomplishments. Teachers are regarded with respect and even admiration (witness tiny Finland where teaching positions are prized by the best and brightest). In America they are regarded with suspicion and distrust and relegated to the dustbins. “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” And they find themselves at the bottom of the list of professional occupations: low pay and low esteem. We don’t pay those who want to help others learn enough to allow them to live comfortably. The brightest young people in this country as a rule do not aspire to teach. This, again, is because of the inherent distrust of the mind and the rejection out of hand of the notion that intelligence is something worthy of development. Teachers, like the things they teach, are also useless.

I generalize, of course. But it has been said by others much wiser and more widely read than I that ours is a country that has been from the outset anti-intellectual. Even our founding fathers who were among the most intelligent of those who made America their home — people like Thomas Jefferson — regarded usefulness as the prize to be achieved, not realizing that useless knowledge was what made folks like them stand out. They were, by and large, practical men with little patience for useless knowledge. They set the tone.

The liberal arts have always been useless. They are about acquiring the tools of intellectual growth, about learning how to learn and how to think. In this country they are dismissed as “elitist.”  As Robert Hutchins once said, however, the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers. They do not lead to practical results, but they force us to think and think again. Useless knowledge is about those things that we ponder and which make our minds grow and expand, enabling us to work through the plethora of information that passes for knowledge to those tiny insights that are valuable in and of themselves. Useless knowledge enables us to recognize fools and charlatans when we see them and makes us wise enough to vote into political office those who might actually be qualified for office and not merely able to pose as wise when they are actually quite stupid. It makes a human life worth living.

Usefulness is not what it is all about. On the contrary, useless knowledge is what it is all about — if our goal is to become as intelligent as possible. Think about it!

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Beacon?

On one of my favorite shows on ESPN recently there was a discussion around the table about the new football coach at the Arizona Cardinals who has announced that he will take a break every so often in team meetings to allow the players to check with their phones. There were about a half-dozen people around the table and all of them, except for the main man (a graduate of Northwestern University I am ashamed to say), pilloried the coach calling the move “childish,” or “foolish,” and simply stupid –an attempt to prove his coaching methods are “cutting edge,” an attempt to draw attention to himself, perhaps.

The main man at the table (whom I generally agree with) disagreed heartily with the entire group saying that the younger generation are wedded to their phones and coaches generally need to tailor their approach to the generation they are dealing with. These young men have shorter attention spans so we should give them time to check their phones and they will return to the meeting with renewed attention. This is a younger generation (one of the group actually used the correct term “millennials” to describe them) and we need to adapt.

In itself this is a trivial discussion, but looking at the larger picture, as a reflection of the attitude among teachers, coaches, and parents generally  it is just a bit alarming. What it suggests is that we need to tailor the material we teach, coach, or hope our children to learn to the children themselves. In a word, we need to teach down to the kids. This translates into “dumbing down the curriculum” in the schools, which, of course, is what has occurred across the nation at all levels.  If we set the bar low enough everyone can get over it and will feel good about themselves. No child left behind. Don’t ask them to try to do too much.

To which I say “BOLLOCKS!” The young need to grow and learn and the only way they can do so is by their parents, teachers, and coaches demanding that they reach a little higher. As John Stuart Mill once said, we don’t know what is possible for a person until we ask them to do the impossible. The effort will cause occasional failure, but that in itself can be a valuable lesson. In the end they will realize that what is worth doing may not be altogether pleasant or provide an immediate reward, none the less it may prove to be very rewarding.

In the instance of education, Robert Hutchins said it well many years ago: “education is supposed to be a beacon, not a mirror.” We have turned our schools and homes into mirrors. We don’t ask the students or children — or now young adult professional footballers —  to do what they don’t want to do. Worse yet, we ask them what they want and then attempt to give it to them — hence the mirror analogy. This, of course, is the business model that has impacted our culture at so many levels: find out what the customer wants and then sell it to him.  We enable them and thereby cripple them. Instead of reaching higher and growing in the process, they find things made simple and the rewards instant and universal: everyone succeeds; no one fails.

As I say, this is bollocks.  We rob the young and we cheat them all in the name of making life easier and lowering the bar so everyone can skip over easily with no effort whatever. The footballers want to clutch their phones to see how their social networks are doing so we allow that and in doing so we tell them that what they want is more important than what their coaches know damn well they need. In this case, finding out how many “likes” a man receives is more important than learning the game plan for Sunday’s game.

Make the players turn their phones off and pay attention for a few hours. Man up! A football game doesn’t really matter, of course. But as far as life-lessons are concerned this is a serious problem. This is a formula for failure, pure and simple.

The group was right in this case: the coach’s move is stupid, to say the least. And the Northwestern alum who led the group and who should know better (and who based his weak argument on his own experience with his teen-age children) was wrong. Sorry about that.

Reality

One of the first essays I assigned as a brand new Instructor at the University of Rhode Island many years ago was the question: “What Is Real?” The students were allowed to take the question wherever they wanted and provide reasonable answers to the question. It was one of my first thought exercises in the spirit of Robert Hutchins’ admonition: the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers.

Be that as it may, there is a genuine problem out there in our world that has seldom, if ever, been addressed in a direct manner. It surfaced recently in a comic I like to check out each day as a young girl staring at her iPhone told her parents who were captivated by a fireworks display that “Snapshot” had shown a much more thrilling event recently. She was completely bored by the real thing. Think about that: reality is boring because it fails to measure up to make-believe.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that is essential for humans to develop in a healthy manner — the ability to separate reality from illusion. At birth we know only hunger and crave the pleasure that comes from satisfying that hunger and the quick response to our other immediate needs — including love from our parents. We spend the rest of our lives wishing we were back in the womb where it was safe and all our needs were immediately satisfied. But life hits us squarely in the buttocks and we grow painfully into adulthood. In the process we occasionally retreat into our own heads and find it a safe place to retreat to when things in the real world become too threatening. It’s called becoming an adult. But a large part of growing up involves the realization that we cannot remain within our own heads and become healthy, mature adults at the same time.

The point is that as we grow older we are also supposed to also grow more certain about what is real and what is make-believe. And frightening as reality can be at times (especially these times!) we must prefer it to an imaginary world in which we are all-powerful and in complete control — like the world of electronic toys. We already know these toys are addictive: they release quantities of dopamine into the brain, just as does gambling or alcohol. But I speak here of a deeper problem. For many who engage with these toys reality becomes hard, too hard, and they retreat into a make-believe world which seems safer but which can entrap them for the remainder of their lives. Reality shrinks and the world of make-believe becomes larger and it becomes OUR world. It’s called “delusion,” or eventually “psychosis.”

Many of us are aware that our feckless leader lives in such a world. It is disturbing to say the least. But it pales in contrast to the fact that he is joined in that make-believe world by growing numbers of people who find reality simply too hard to deal with in a direct and honest manner. Thus do games, and, indeed, the world of entertainment as a whole, draw us to them and the imaginary world becomes the real world, a world in which we are at the center and a world that bends to our every wish. The problem is that this is not the real world. The real world is one of pain and struggle with a blend of heroism, love, sympathy for others and, we would hope, a sincere wish to belong with others to a world we share but cannot bring utterly under our control.

One must wonder where this will eventually lead us all, given the genuine need to address real problems and suggest real solutions. There is much to do and there are problems waiting to be addressed. We start in the wrong direction if we take in hand an electronic toy that leads us to believe that it is all very simple and problems that arise can be solved by pushing an icon.

In answer to my own question, then, I would say reality is what we experience daily; it is a struggle tempered by occasional beauty, a remarkable number of good people, and those few who are close to us whom we love. It involves frustration at times, but it also rewards heroic efforts — or even the slightest effort — to do the right thing. We cannot solve all the world’s problems, but we can certainly address those closest to us which allow us to make small inroads into solutions that will help make the world a better place. The real world, not an imaginary one.

An Oldie But A Goodie!

 

Given what Jerry Stark said in the guest bog I posted recently about the birth of a new morality in this country, our democracy would appear to be in serious difficulty. This is especially true with the president determined to deconstruct the nation and build it anew in his own image. Thus, as I noted in this blog posted many years ago, education remans the key to the survival of this Republic — especially with a vital election on the horizon.

In the 40s of the last century H.G. Wells told us that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Since that time, education has been weighed down in this country by the burden of low regard, and it is not clear, given today’s political climate, that it can win the race.

Victor Scheffer, a marine biologist of international reputation worried about the battle that is going on in public education and suggested that “Education may now be entering a feedback loop in which ill-informed voters are continually creating administrations that blindly deny the value of education.” Indeed. Given the hostility in Wisconsin a few years ago toward the audacious attempt on the part of teachers and other public employees to make a decent living, one suspects that this ship has sailed. And this is just the beginning, as taxpayers in other states seem to be following Wisconsin’s lead in their mania to save a few dollars at any cost. Sad to say, part of the fault for this reaction on the part of the voters must lie with educators themselves. But only part.

I have argued in print for some time now that education has lost its way. It suffers from a lack of a clearly articulated purpose. Instead of concentrating on the essential role of putting young people in possession of their own minds, educators have gotten side-tracked and bought into the myth that education is really about building self-esteem, or, worse yet, training the young to get a job. Further, those who fund education are married to a business paradigm that requires that all “outcomes” be quantified and the bottom line be black, which is absurd. This is part of the explanation of how we could have come to the point where people like Dr. Scheffer rightly worry about the “feed-back loop.” The schools have built an immense bureaucracy that towers over them and dictates educational policy; they are overseen by shortsighted managers who hold teachers to inapplicable standards; and the teachers themselves stumble about in the dark trying to teach out-of-control kids who are ill-prepared for school in the first place. The result is that the schools simply are not turning out the kinds of graduates who can see beyond their own immediate, short-term demands — much less the “common good” that is supposed to be the focus of a democracy.

It was widely understood by our Founders that in order to work a democracy must presuppose educated citizens. This is why, given the uneducated masses, they restricted suffrage well into the Jackson years. And this is why as suffrage was extended the nation opted for universal, public education. As Dr. Scheffer suggests, education is the key. But if so, it is a key that doesn’t seem to be turning in the lock.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley predicted that America would eventually elect an actor to the Presidency. We not only did that, we also elected the village idiot to that highest of offices. Twice. Huxley saw what was coming. But my home state has no room to crow: we elected a former professional wrestler to the governorship. In any event, we should know better: education does seem to be failing to play the key role it must play in a Democracy. And if this is to turn around, parents must spend more time with their children, and those who would teach the young must learn to put their students’ needs first — not their “wants,” but their needs. They must realize that they themselves know what is best for the students in their charge, or there is no reason whatever for those students to be there in the first place. Education must stop being a mirror, as Robert Hutchins said many years ago, reflecting the demands of unknowing, spoiled young people, and become the beacon it was supposed to be in the first place.

If and when educators put their house in order, those who graduate from the schools  and go to the polls must be willing to spend money on education and recognize that education requires more than the measly 2.1 % of the national budget (contrasted with the military’s 42%); they must be willing to allocate sufficient funds at both the state and national levels to pay those who teach a living wage and make teaching an attractive vocation for the best and brightest minds in the country. As Dr. Scheffer said, “I wish that we Americans would respect, value, and compensate our teachers — caretakers of the mind — as we now do our physicians — caretakers of the body.” Until we do, we will continue to lose the race, and while “catastrophe” is a strong word, if Wells’s dichotomy is viable the fact that we are in a “feedback loop” does not bode well for a democratic system that seems to be faltering, led as it is by weak men and women who are subject to corporate pressure and unable to rise above self interest and party politics to envision what is best for the country.

Are Artists Obligated?

Today’s post centers around the question raised in the title and will consist mostly of questions rather than answers. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are the ones that cannot be answered. Perhaps our question cannot be answered, but it is well worth asking.

It arises in the case of such things as the extraordinary propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” made by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935 at the behest of Adolph Hitler. It turned out to be one of the most remarbable pieces of cinematic magic, incorporating numerous technological feats never before attempted — and tricks such as filming Hitler from below to make him look taller! But it was also incredibly effective, attracting thousands of young men and women to the Nazi fold. It does raise the question whether the film-maker did the right thing. Should she not have made that film?

During the Renaissance painters of considerable reputation used their mistresses as models for the Modanna to the horror of the spiritually certain who regarded such things as blasphemy, worthy of condemnation of the artist and a refusal to  even look at such paintings. So it is with the spiritually certain, and, though few of us would worry about such things as blasphemy these days, we might still ask the question whether the artist has an obligation to show only “morally approved” subjects and avoid even the hint of the morally reprehensible.

Is the artist, in a word, above the moral law? Does she or he have license to create works of art that not only convey immoral messages, but perhaps even promote them? China Achebe, the African novelist and critic, wrote an essay condemning Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because of the liberal use of the “N” word. He argued that folks should avoid reading the novel because the novelist was a racist and his book promoted racism. I published an essay that takes Conrad to task because the case cannot be made the (a) Conrad himself is a racist and (b) his novel does not “promote” racism. In fact, his use of the “N” word — like Mark Twain’s use in Huckleberry Finn — is entirely appropriate since that is the way folks spoke at that time and place, especially seafaring folks. Novelists, like any artist, I argued, need not be overly concerned about the hang-ups of the slightly paranoid and overly sensitive. At the very least the text can be used as a platform for discussion about the morality of the use of prohibited terms.

We have found our way to the root of the “political correctness” tree that spreads its broad, dark shade over so much of what is forbidden to be said these days. It is argued that not only artists but all sensitive folks need to avoid saying anything that might possibly offend somebody some day some where. This is, of course, absurd. But there it is. We might call it the reductio ad absurdum of the argument that novelists and artists, not to mention the rest of us, must never offend anyone.

I do not wish to deal with the question whether there is a moral right and wrong. I take that as a given. But, granting that there is a right and a wrong, the question whether artists should avoid offending sensibilities is well worth asking. Personally, I think they should have license to say anything they want — short of inciting a riot — because there is no one holding a gun to the head of those who might read or see the work and who might just as easily simply avoid doing so. Censorship in any of its nasty forms seems to me to be out of place.

A similar problem arises in the case of the scientist, of course, who might be asked to curb his or her desire to work on weapons of war. Does science have a license to do whatever is required to “advance” human knowledge regardless of the consequences? As Tom Lehrer sang of Wernher Von Braun who worked on rockets: “If the rocket goes up who cares where it comes down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”  His only “department” is to make sure the rocket goes up. Is it?? Should scientific medicine continue to find ways to prolong human life on a planet that is already overcrowded and in danger of facing widespread human starvation? These are serious questions and in both cases, that of the scientist and the artist, the issue is whether art and science trumps morality or the other way around.

Education As Business

 In the spirit of self-promotion, which is all the rage these days,  I post here a piece that will appear in my upcoming book. It is a post from a few years back which develops the theme suggested in the rather cryptic note I posted recently after learning that the University of Wisconsin offered graduate degrees in glass blowing! There is no doubt whatever but that higher education has lost its sense of direction and the reference in this post to the book by Jerry Selingo makes that crystal clear (sorry).

Jeffrey Selingo, the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a book titled College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means To Students. In his book he says, flatly, that “American higher education is broken” and lays to rest any faint hopes people like me have that the creature will somehow take on new life and make possible the education of generations to come. The creature has turned into big business and, like all businesses, it will adapt to changing circumstances and the demands of its clientele — or perish. As one of the people Selingo interviews remarks, “In other industries, those who don’t innovate go out of business. . . Higher education shouldn’t be any different.” In a word, education is business and, like so many institutions in this country, including the Church, it has adopted the business model and is all about making a profit — not educating young minds. And in order to do that higher education will have to become whatever its prospective buyers want it to be, like Walmart. Selingo is not in the least sanguine about the current state of things; he recognizes the importance of the liberal arts to the students themselves who must acquire the skills of communication and thought to succeed in any enterprise whatever.  In a particularly telling passage he expresses his dismay:

“More than ever, American colleges and universities seem to be in every business but education. They are in the entertainment business, the housing business, the restaurant business, the recreation business, and, on some campuses, they operate what are essentially professional sports franchises. As colleges have grown more corporate in the past decade, they have started acting like Fortune 500 companies. Administrative salaries have ballooned, and members of boards of trustees are chosen for their corporate ties, not for their knowledge of higher education. Colleges now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products.”

As things now stand, it’s a booming business. There has been “an almost insatiable demand for college credentials.” And that is what education is now all about: credentials. Students approach colleges and universities in order to get a tailor-made program that will prepare them for the careers they hope to pursue for the rest of their lives. They refuse to buy off the rack: they want their suits made-to-fit. This is, after all, the age of entitlement. And the colleges are adept at meeting those demands, instituting 300 new majors in 2010 alone — added to the 1,400 already extant — to make sure they can attract and hold the growing demand and give the kiddies what they want.

Gone are the days when folks like Robert Hutchins dreamed that colleges should be beacons rather than mirrors. They are mirrors, pure and simple. If they have not completely jettisoned the basic core requirement in the liberal arts — which used to be what higher education was all about — they have pared it down to a series of electives in a smattering of academic disciplines that guarantees the student very little knowledge about a range of unrelated subjects. This hardly passes muster as education in which the young are liberated from narrowness of vision and the short-sighted view of the world we associate with business where it is all about profits. Despite the fact that these students have no idea what they  ought to know in order to propel them into a changing world and that they are practically guaranteed to change their career objectives several times before they are forty, they plunge ahead into a college that feels comfortable and take the courses that the brochures and marketing professionals hired by the colleges have assured them will guarantee them success and happiness here and now, and forevermore.  Please note, the message is all about “information,” and, as Selingo points out, there is very little talk about how to process that information — i.e., how to think. This oversight is reflected in the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test given to currently enrolled upperclassmen in which over the years, especially, students who major in the more popular fields, such as, education, sports science, social work, and business tend to score low and follow-up research indicates that they are among the least successful college graduates — “three times more likely to be living at home with their parents, more likely to have run up credit card bills, and less likely to read the newspapers or discuss politics.” But, hey, caveat emptor.

The effects of the changes are widespread. For one thing, students “have come to regard their professors as service providers, just like a cashier at the supermarket or a waiter in a restaurant. . . . who must constantly innovate to serve students better, servicing students’ curiosity and their desire to apply knowledge to create impact.” This has resulted in a “major power-shift” in the classroom in which the students call the shots and evaluate their professors in the social media — hard graders scoring low. Selingo recounts a case in which an elderly biology professor who was giving low grades to his students was summarily removed from his classroom, in mid-semester, and replaced by another, younger professor who immediately boosted the grades of all students remaining in the class by 25% (many had already dropped out). After all, we don’t want to displease our customers: they might take their business elsewhere. And we wonder how grade inflation became rampant in the colleges and universities!

I have always felt as though I was on the bow of a huge ocean liner pissing into the wind as the ship heads blindly and very erratically into the unknown. I have this fear that the captain learned his trade online and hasn’t the slightest idea how to captain an actual ship — how to manoeuver in the fog or avoid icebergs. I have grown hoarse over the years trying to fight the inevitable — and I have known all along it was inevitable. And despite the groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni who have joined me on the bow of the ship trying to insist that colleges hang onto at least a semblance of a core, liberal education in the midst of handing out easy credits for whatever happens to be the day’s most popular fad, it seems clear that the future of education has been determined. From the perspective of the colleges and universities, the students are customers, they are not young people who need to be put in possession of their minds. In fact, their minds pretty much belong to the corporations that have molded them and who now own the colleges and universities and influence what students will learn in order to become obedient followers of the corporate piper in years to come.

 

Indoctrination

Readers of my blog are fully aware that I am somewhat fixated on the topic of education — what it is and what it is not. In reading Jean Jacques Rousseau’s notions about education (an author who wrote Emile, one of the supposed great works in education) I found myself disturbed by his confusion between education and indoctrination. It made me reflect on the fact that we tend to make the same confusion — though we would be reluctant to admit it. After all, who would agree to pay teachers to indoctrinate their children rather than educate them? The answer should be obvious: most of us do (to a degree).

But, back to Rousseau for a moment who, among other things, did not believe that the children of the poor and disenfranchised should be educated. In his words:

“The poor man does not need to be educated. His station gives him a compulsory education. He could have no other. . . .Those who are destined to live in country simplicity have no need to develop their faculties in order to be happy. . . . Do not at all instruct the villagers child, for it is not fitting that he be instructed; do not instruct the city dweller’s children, for you do not know yet what instruction is fitting for him.”

The sort of “education” that Rousseau recommends for the remaining few is most interesting:

“It is education which must give souls the national form, and so direct their opinions and their tastes that they are patriots by inclination, by passion, by necessity. A child, on opening his eyes, should see his country, and until he dies he should see nothing but his country.”

These two comments are worth considerable reflection. They both raise red flags, for different reasons. The first quote focuses on Rousseau’s conviction that some people (most people?) cannot be educated. The hero of his book, Emile, was a privileged son of a wealthy father and was privately tutored. Rousseau simply took for granted that the children of poor villagers could not be educated and that any attempt would fail. This is interesting because we are, as a society, committed to the notion of universal education, the notion that all are educable and “no child should be left behind.” Unfortunately, as it happens, this is not true. To an extent Rousseau is correct. Not all children are educable. Take it from me! But it is impossible to state a priori who is and who is not educable and therefore the opportunity should be made available to all. But the notion that all children can be taught something by good teachers is a stronger position, because teaching children “something” does not necessarily mean they are educable.

This leads to the notion of indoctrination which is clearly implied in Rousseau’s second comment above. So much of our teaching is directed toward teaching children “something” rather than teaching them how to use their own minds to determine what “somethings” are worth knowing and which are only worth ignoring altogether. In point of fact, much of what passes for education in this culture is really job training, teaching the young those skills that will enable them to make a living. This is assuredly not education; it is indoctrination by another name. And there are those among us who would insist that the sorts of flag-waiving that Rousseau recommends should be taught as well. In a word, we ignore the fundamental distinction between education, training, and indoctrination. These are not at all alike, and while training may be advantageous to all, education ought to be but, as Robert Hutchins said long ago, we have never really made the effort. We are satisfied if the kids can get a job after they graduate, whether they are able to use their own minds or not. And were the schools to buy into the sort of brain-washing that Rousseau recommends it is fairly certain that a great many parents would rejoice.

In brief, we need to be clear in our minds just what it is we are talking about when we talk about “universal education.” If we really believe in it, we should embrace the concept fully and make it available to all — and not settle for indoctrination or job training. A democracy, as I have said on numerous occasions, requires an educated citizenry. It was the assumption of the Founders that all who voted would be aware of and concerned about the common good and also they would be “schooled” to the point where they could distinguish the worthy candidates for public office from the frauds. Recent experience has proven that a great many of our citizens do not exhibit “social virtue” and cannot vote intelligently and this should make us even more determined than ever to insist that teachers focus on enabling all of their students to use their own minds and not settle for anything less.

Educate For Freedom

I have blogged a number of times (some would say “endlessly”) about the shortcomings of our educational system. It is a topic close to my heart, given that I spent all of my adult life in schools and colleges. I have even written a book about the nature of education, focusing mostly on higher education (so-called) but also mentioning in passing what seems to be going wrong in the lower grades.

In any event, I have been consistent in my defense of a liberal education at the collegiate level — though as Robert Hutchins said many years ago there is no reason why we couldn’t pursue a liberal education at the lower grades. And there are some schools that have actually returned to the fundamental notion of the seven liberal arts to form the core of their grade-school curriculum for kids. But, by and large, the liberal arts, which many confuse with the Humanities, are an intellectual challenge and seem to a great many students and their parents to be irrelevant to their real-world needs after college, not practical, not the kind of thing that will lead to a job and success in later life. I would challenge that.

I recently chatted with a professor of cardiology at the Mayo Clinic who majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. When I mentioned that most of today’s students avoid such subjects as impractical he said that philosophy was the most practical course of study he had ever taken and he found himself every day drawing on his undergraduate major at Vanderbilt University. I have also known liberal arts graduates who have been successful in the world of investment banking, business, the ministry, and law. It provides a broad base of study that allows the student to take different directions as times change.

We have known for years that young people growing up in the work force change their jobs many times before they are 40. Nowadays the “millenialists” change jobs even more — perhaps because they don’t like being told what to do! This is a spoiled generation, to be sure, used to getting what they want when they want it. If it requires real work, many are simply not interested. And the liberal arts require real work.

Let’s be clear at the outset, however, that the liberal arts include not only the Humanities but also the sciences. Originally they formed the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the quadrivium of geometry, music, astronomy, and arithmetic. Note the heavy emphasis on mathematics and science (music being regarded as a mathematical science, carefully ordered as it is and reflecting as it does the harmony of the universe!) These subjects seem esoteric these days and those seven original liberal arts — “liberal” because they free the mind held captive by bias, immaturity and shrunken perspective — have given birth to hundreds of college courses all of which claim to free the mind. But, as we know, most of those subjects are really job-training in disguise; they cater to the students’ current whims while putting blinders on them thereby forcing them into a narrow track from which they find it very difficult to escape later on.

But the original liberal arts were designed to free the minds of the young and open to them new horizons to explore. As I like to say, they put the young in possession of their own minds. This seems especially appropriate today, given the changes in career paths mentioned above. The liberal arts prepare the student for a world of change, and change is the only thing we can be certain about in this world of ours. If we ask (demand?) of the young that they take subjects that require that they use their minds, deepen their understanding, gain the ability to manipulate the symbols of mathematics and language, and learn about their past we can expect that they will be best prepared for this changing world.

The claim is often heard that those who follow such a course of study will not be able to find work after graduation; there is growing evidence that this is untrue. In addition, for those students who want to advance in the work place, it has become increasingly clear that a liberal education is extremely beneficial. As a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities tells us:

The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. Few think that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is what is most needed for individuals’ career success.
80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. . . .
When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.

Moreover, students who study the liberal arts will be able to adapt should they want to change jobs or if they should happen to be “let go” by an unfeeling company that feels the need to “downsize.” The best possible education for now and the future is a liberal education. The evidence is out there.

The Tail Still Wags

A recent story caught my eye. The headline made me wonder if there was still hope for the education of students at major football colleges:

The University of Alabama-Birmingham will officially shut down its football program at the end of the season, the school announced Tuesday.

UAB becomes the first Football Bowl Subdivision/Division I-A school to drop football since Pacific in 1995.

A release by the university cited the results of a review conducted by CarrSports Consulting that said in order to preserve the greater good of the athletic department, UAB needed to end football, bowling and rifle at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.

But after I read a bit I realized a couple of things. To begin with, this university’s football team is not a “major player” as they  say. It’s among the lesser lights of college football. Further, they shut down the football program to “preserve the greater good of the athletic department,” whatever that means. I did think it funny that they also shut down the bowling and rifle teams — I mean, seriously, what do such activities have to do with education? And that’s the point here: major college sports have allowed the tail to wag the dog, as I noted many years ago. The higher purpose of education, to help young people gain control of their own minds, has been lost in the tizzy to (a) get into the fast lane and make big bucks, and (b) make sure the kids have fun and don’t transfer elsewhere. This is why so many colleges and universities have become summer camps, with recreational facilities that are designed to make sure the students are happy and continue to pay their inflated tuition fees without flinching. (They can pay back the loans later on. For now, let’s just make sure they come to our place and stay.)

When Robert Hutchins dropped intercollegiate sports at The University of Chicago back in the dark ages, it was done for the right reasons — to guarantee the integrity of the educational program at the university which Hutchins recognized as the only real purpose of the university. Despite the hue and cry that followed his outrageous move, the university not only survived, but it thrived and is among the best academic institutions in the world today, recognized everywhere for its commitment to the students’ “greater good” and not the “greater good of the athletic department.” The former is what is important here, and while UAB did the right thing, it did so for the wrong reasons. Thus, while I had hoped it might be a sign of good things to come, I returned to earth after a moment of euphoria and realized that it means little given the relative size of the program and the fact that it was all about costs and not in the least about educating young people.

The Business of Education

Jeffrey Selingo, the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a book titled College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means To Students. In his book he says, flatly, that “American higher education is broken” and lays to rest any faint hopes people like me have that the creature will somehow take on new life and make possible the education of generations to come. The creature has turned into big business and, like all businesses, it will adapt to changing circumstances and the demands of its clientele or perish. As one of the people Selingo interviews remarks, “In other industries, those who don’t innovate go out of business. . . Higher education shouldn’t be any different.” In a word, education is business and, like so many institutions in this country, including the Church, it has adopted the business model and is all about making a profit — not educating young minds. And in order to do that higher education will have to become whatever its prospective buyers want it to be, like Walmart. Selingo is not in the least sanguine about the current state of things; he recognizes the importance of the liberal arts to the students themselves who must acquire the skills of communication and thought to succeed in any enterprise whatever.  In a particularly telling passage he expresses his dismay:

“More than ever, American colleges and universities seem to be in every business but education. They are in the entertainment business, the housing business, the restaurant business, the recreation business, and, on some campuses, they operate what are essentially professional sports franchises. As colleges have grown more corporate in the past decade, they have started acting like Fortune 500 companies. Administrative salaries have ballooned, and members of boards of trustees are chosen for their corporate ties, not for their knowledge of higher education. Colleges now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products.”

As things now stand, it’s a booming business. There has been “an almost insatiable demand for college credentials.” And that is what education is now all about: credentials. Students approach colleges and universities in order to get a tailor-made program that will prepare them for the careers they hope to pursue for the rest of their lives. They refuse to buy off the rack: they want their suits made-to-fit. This is, after all, the age of entitlement. And the colleges are adept at meeting those demands, instituting 300 new majors in 2010 alone — added to the 1,400 already extant — to make sure they can attract and hold the growing demand and give the kiddies what they want. Gone are the days when folks like Robert Hutchins dreamed that colleges should be beacons rather than mirrors. They are mirrors, pure and simple. If they have not completely jettisoned the basic core requirement in the liberal arts — which used to be what higher education was all about — they have pared it down to a series of electives in a smattering of academic disciplines that guarantees the student very little knowledge about a range of unrelated subjects. This hardly passes muster as education in which the young are liberated from narrowness of vision and the short-sighted view of the world we associate with business where it is all about short-term profits. Despite the fact that these students have no idea what they  ought to know in order to propel them into a changing world and that they are practically guaranteed to change their career objectives several times before they are forty, they plunge ahead into a college that feels comfortable and take the courses that the brochures and marketing professionals hired by the colleges have assured them will guarantee them success and happiness here and now, and forever more.  Please note, the message is all about “information,” and, as Selingo points out, there is very little talk about how to process that information — i.e., how to think. This oversight is reflected in the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test given to currently enrolled upperclassmen in which over the years, especially, students who major in the more popular fields, such as, education, social work, and business tend to score low and follow-up research indicates that they are among the least successful college graduates — “three times more likely to be living at home with their parents, more likely to have run up credit card bills, and less likely to read the newspapers or discuss politics.” But, hey, caveat emptor.

The effects of the changes are widespread. For one thing, students “have come to regard their professors as service providers, just like a cashier at the supermarket or a waiter in a restaurant. . . . who must constantly innovate to serve students better, servicing students’ curiosity and their desire to apply knowledge to create impact.” This has resulted in a “major power-shift” in the classroom in which the students call the shots and evaluate their professors in the social media — hard graders scoring low. Selingo recounts a case in which an elderly biology professor who was giving low grades to his students was summarily removed from his classroom, in mid-semester, and replaced by another, younger professor who immediately boosted the grades of all students remaining in the class by 25% (many had already dropped out). After all, we don’t want to displease our customers: they might take their business elsewhere. And we wonder how grade inflation became rampant in the colleges and universities!

I have always felt as though I was on the bow of a huge ocean liner pissing into the wind as the ship heads blindly and very erratically into the unknown. I have this fear that the captain learned his trade online and hasn’t the slightest idea how to captain an actual ship — how to manoeuver in the fog or avoid icebergs. I have grown hoarse over the years trying to fight the inevitable — and I have known all along it was inevitable. And despite the groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni who have joined me on the bow of the ship trying to insist that colleges hang onto at least a semblance of a core, liberal education in the midst of handing out easy credits for whatever happens to be the day’s most popular fad, it seems clear that the future of education has been determined. From the perspective of the colleges and universities, the students are customers, they are not young people who need to be put in possession of their minds. In fact, their minds pretty much belong to the corporations that have molded them and who now own the colleges and universities and influence what students will learn in order to become obedient followers of the corporate piper in years to come.