America’s Colleges at a Crossroads – Part 3

crossroad-signsYou might want to catch up on Parts 1 and 2 of this series before reading this final installment, although this one, like the others, can stand on its own.

In the first post in this series, I talked about the economic crisis that will force and is currently forcing the realignment and, in many cases, the wholesale revisioning of many U.S. college and university plans. The overwhelming majority of America’s higher education institutions will have to make major changes — raising tuition, eliminating faculty, staff, and entire programs, shutting down campuses, cutting back on student and staff services, and much more — in order to survive the new depression. Many — such as in Washington, Louisiana, and California — already face major decisions. Many won’t succeed, and many that come out alive will do so in a vastly altered form.

(In fact, in the handful of days during which I have organized this post, new info has come flooding across the transom about colleges cutting and planning to cut programs and staff, raising rates, and so on in response to budget emergencies:

And so on.)

In the second post I talked about the distinction between education, properly conceived as the inculcation of a certain literate, critical, and sensitive cast of mind, informed by important thoughts and ideas, and job training, which over the past several decades has come to serve in America’s high schools and colleges, and also (just as importantly) in standard public thought and discourse, as a counterfeit substitute for true education. I did this in response to the claim, which I have had personally addressed to me, that the death of many higher education institutions will be a good thing since “college is useless” insofar as it requires people to engage in economically unhelpful things like studying Shakespeare (for instance) instead of preparing them for the “real world” of work-job-career.

In this final installment I’ll continue with the themes broached in the second one by exploring further — in a more free-form and rantish manner — the muddle of principles and motivations that characterizes the current higher education system and leads directly to our current quagmire.

Revisiting the uselessness of Shakespeare

The bard as he appears to modern consumer-centric sensibilities

The bard as he appears to modern consumer-centric sensibilities

When I recently expressed the aforementioned thoughts about Shakespeare and the distinction between vocational training and a liberal education etc. to an online community, one of the responses that came back was this, which I repeat in closely paraphrased form:

“But I’m an accountant and have never had to quote Shakespeare while preparing tax returns. Sure, knowing the humanities might be a good thing as general preparation for living a meaningful life and all that, but I don’t think colleges ought to require students to read Shakespeare etc. in order to earn a technical degree. When I was going to college I had to pay my own way, and I didn’t appreciate being forced to spend money on classes that didn’t specifically teach the knowledge and skills that would advance me in my chosen professional path. That doesn’t mean I’m a Philistine. I’m middle-aged now, and I read Shakespeare, Dante, Dostoevsky, and so on for personal enjoyment. The thing is, I also enjoy fishing, too, but I wasn’t required to take it in college. Nor should I have been. And the same holds true for the humanities.”

I think this line of thought is hugely helpful and valuable, because it hits right at the heart of what’s wrong with how we have collectively come to think and talk about “the value of a college education,” and have come to redefine and reorient our higher education institutions accordingly.

Should purely academic subjects like literature, history, philosophy, higher mathematics, etc., be required studies for people who are pursuing post-secondary training programs for specific job and career fields? The answer, in a nutshell, is “Hell, no!” — unless those career fields are somehow specifically related to those studies.

But should those subjects be required studies for earning what used to be considered a standard bachelor’s degree? The answer, in another nutshell, is “Hell, yes!” — unless we’re happy to abandon completely the ideal of a liberal education and the type of person it produces — that is, the type of person represented by, say, our founding fathers or Martin Luther King, Jr.

The near universal muddling of this distinction has done incalculable harm to our collective educational situation.

Our educational (and cultural) tragedy

Our problem is that we have tried to collapse the two functions, providing a liberal education and providing job-and-career training, into a single higher education system that never should have been about job training at all, or at least not like it is today. The principle-level conflict was embedded deep in the situation right from the start. Think about it. It’s obvious. How can a college or university justify recruiting somebody for, say, a marketing degree, and then charge them outrageous and always-inflating tuition prices (which interface nicely with the always-inflating textbook prices) while forcing them to take survey courses in British literature or Western philosophy? The answer, of course, is that it’s not justifiable at all. Training in marketing methods or any other purely commerce-oriented field doesn’t require a knowledge of the neorealist poets or 18th century continental philosophers.

But the really tragic thing isn’t that so many people are forced to spend time and money on classes that they truly don’t need to take as practical preparation for their chosen career paths. Rather, the real tragedy, which is considerably more insidious, is simply this: that our current ridiculous practice of forcing those academic classes on people who are only going to college for post-secondary job training (as distinct from pursuing an authentic education) works in tandem with the overwhelming commerce-and-consumerism focus of our insane American culture to make it seem as if literature etc. really are vestigial traces of a now-defunct old way of doing college, and that they ought to be dropped in favor of the business courses and other technical job training. In short, Shakespeare comes to seem inherently useless when the raison d’être for college is redefined in terms of a value system (job training for corporate consumerism) according to which it really is nothing but a waste of time when you’re forced to read the Bard for college credit. This is the height of idiocy. And it’s what we’ve been doing with increasing intensity for decades.

Be a Happy WorkerTo state it another way: For many years the traditional liberal arts have been finding themselves forced with increasing frequency to justify their continued existence and relevance in economic terms. I’m talking about all of the marketing chatter by religious studies departments and philosophy departments and literature departments about their wonderful track record of teaching people to think and write well, and their oh-so-inspiring claims that these will be really valuable skills for getting top-notch, high-paying jobs in — wait for it — the corporate world!

To which I say: Er . . . what? So, let me get this straight. If I’m fascinated by, say, religion, and am passionate about studying the anthropological, sociological, historical, philosophical, and general cultural phenomenon of it all, or if I’m fascinated by Shakespeare and want to devote four years to studying and writing about his life and works, then I’m supposed to be thrilled at the supposed utilitarian value of this passion for gaining me a job as a communications assistant at a bank? Methinks there’s something rotten here.

A further problem: How long can these programs and departments continue justifying themselves on such grounds when their very faculties don’t really believe or agree with them, since these very subjects of study tend, if allowed to speak for themselves and really get under a person’s skin, to inculcate a cast of mind that rejects or at least sees the vapidity of the whole über corporate-consumerist lifestyle?

Over the years this inbuilt contradiction in the philosophical principles that underlie the current shape of our higher education system has steadily hollowed out its soul and rightfully raised all kinds of objections and hard feelings. And that’s where I get around to agreeing, in much qualified form, with those who hail the onset of major crises in that system as a positive boon. I keep hoping that the current world-shifting troubles will act like dynamite on this whole bloated structure of stupidity that is our educational establishment, and will thereby force the culling of so very many things that it will prove impossible to avoid making very hard decisions, and that in the process our colleges (and high schools) may rediscover their own souls.

And that’s the crossroads that America’s colleges and universities find themselves standing at now, with no guarantees about which way they’ll decide to turn.

To college seniors: Everything you have been taught is wrong — thank God

That’s enough from me. As you finish reading my words, why not leave here and go read Sharon Astyk’s recent, brilliant (and hypothetical) college commencement address, “As you go out into the world” (May 15)? Ms. Astyk envisions telling an assemblage of graduating college seniors the following:

It is, I believe, conventional at college graduations to begin from the premise that those graduating are about to embark upon life in the “real” world – a venture that is supposed to be radically different than their carefree college years.  The assumption is that the institution in question has given you what you need to embark upon a meaningful and productive future – you are wiser than when you came in, and perhaps more ethical, certainly fitted to the world of work.  Now, I have been chosen to give you your very last bit of wisdom, something to carry with you into the future.  So here is the sum total of that wisdom:

“Everything you have been taught to expect is wrong.”

She then goes on to talk about the exigencies involved in living through the new depression and the onset of the era of peak fossil fuels, diminished resources in general, and deindustrialization.

Mortar board hatAlso check out the commencement address delivered (in actual fact) a couple of weeks ago by renowned environmentalist, entrepreneur, visionary, and author Paul Hawken to the graduating class at the University of Portland. Hawken said, among other amazing thing:

Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation — but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

. . . . When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.

. . . . This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.

The very fact that somebody really said such things very publicly, and that similar passionate insight is blossoming everywhere, may be grounds for expecting more than the worst.

See the previous installments in this series:

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 18, 2009, in Economy, Education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. For some 500 years universities have served as civic temples to an Augustinian vision of a City on a Hill. As traditionally happens to such over the past 4-5000 years, when the priesthood defines itself as a ruling class, the system collapses. University systems will either realize they are there to support the social contract, or they will fade into their own extravagance.

  2. I would like to let you know that I have posted a link to this post on my blog at I appreciate your intelligence and insight.
    – Gryphem

  3. Thank you for weighing in, gabriel, and thank you for the link and positive feedback, Gryphem. This topic at hand is an important one, and I appreciate your contributions to it.

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