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  • Writer's pictureAlexander M. Wegner

Higher Education: Illiberal Arts

(C) John Towner

THE SUPPOSEDLY PREMIER U.S. INSTITUTION OF HIGHER EDUCATION at which I studied over the course of four years, tends–on the basis my experience–to attract three kinds of students. First, the noble: those who seek to attain the knowledge and skills that will enable them to comprehend and/ or influence worldly proceedings. Second, the ambitious: those who aspire for the credentials that will facilitate a well-compensated career. And third, the wandering; those who live from day to day, carried along by ever-changing currents. Of course, neither of these identities is absolute or permanent; on the contrary, these identities are prone to be in constant, occasional or eventual flux.

Arguably, the respective university effectively caters to the noble, the ambitious and the wandering alike, by claiming to encourage and facilitate rigorous inquiry, to foster the application of theory to the world as it is, to reward dedicated learners for their integrity and zeal, and, lastly, to cultivate the kind of autonomous thinkers and practitioners that a world riddled with crises and moral dilemmas so direly necessitates. Yet this proclaimed haven of visionaries has proven to be a commercialized myth.

The given university is certainly well endowed, and thereby able to provide the resources, access and convenience that can be conducive to learning–about oneself, about peers, about worldly affairs and about humankind as such. Problematically, the culture that characterizes the respective institution of higher education prevents this endowment from bearing fruit. Rather than cultivating a hermenutic of deference–or principle of interpretation rooted in modesty–of whose vitality Prof. Joshua Mitchell reminds us, in Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age, among those who learn and those who teach–though both ought not to be perceived as mutually exclusive–the given university subscribes to, and fiercely upholds the idea of authority.

Ironically, the absence of a hermeneutic of deference manifests itself in multiple ways. First, in the assigning of unreasonable amounts of reading, encompassing hundreds of pages in the course of a few days; this prompts students to skim required material, to memorize a few sound bites prior to class, and to eloquently reiterate the retained bits and pieces to an instructor–whose expectations have long been downward adjusted–and to peers, who pretend to be informed, and have long grown accustomed to such play.

Second, and conducive to such crooked classroom dynamics, in the disfiguring of education from an arduous process of learning to a sheer instance of certification that rewards those who best conform and endure–as if meant to gradually tailor the minds and habits of students to the particulars of employment. Indeed, those who deceive well in class, will be rewarded with a soothing participation grade; those who please the instructor–regardless of how sensible his instructions are–will find their assignments to be deemed excellent; and those who are judged most pleasingly deceiving, are then categorized as crème de la crème–scarcely resourceful, but comfortingly pleasant.

Third, and following from ominous incentives, in nurturing the pride of man; education thus configured rewards not learning per se–which necessarily springs forth from curiosity and the resulting passion for rigorous inquiry–but rather compensates the often pompous presentation of facts and figures–components of the very shadow play that Plato denounced; curiously, greeted with the instructor’s approving nod and narcissist grin, such play is well received. Rousseau, though misguidedly nostalgic, may rightly have noted–in his First Discourse–that “the Sciences, Letters and Arts . . . spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which they [men assembled] are laden, throttle in them the sentiment of that original freedom for which they seemed born, make them love their slavery, and fashion them into what is called civilized Peoples.”

Fourth, and last, in facilitating volunteering overseas–typically hosted during times intended for leisure, when students would for once be enabled to delve into great works of the past. As if the community whithin which students learn is not afflicted by plenty of crises to be mitigated, students embark on missions in distant lands, of which they tend to know little. Proud–in consequence of being so conditioned over many years–students come not to learn, but to teach, though utterly ignorant themselves. Upon their return, students narrate of the good there granted, swiftly return to their routines, and cherish the addition to their resumes. Simultaneously, the institution of higher education that transformed its students into missionaries, celebrates adherence to its values, as it lures another generation of over-paying customers into its quarters. Inspired as they are, a few of these students may produce–one can scarcely speak of composing–a so called Honors Thesis, which more often then not is deprived of the autonomy and creativity that could yield honor, being supervised by senior staff, who is all too occupied with its own grandeur to be capable of mentoring. Such is the petty reality of rigorous inquiry, application of theory, honoring of learning, and cultivation of character, once promised.

Fortunately, there still are those–both among students and faculty–who recognize the niaiserie of education thus configured; perilously, their voices are firmly silenced or consciously overheard, and their heretical conduct is attempted to be corrected through adverse performance indicators, which–in the case of students–take the form of grades.

Though  students who are at last compelled into heresy should not fear adverse scores–as these are meaningless, and reveal little, if anything, about relative capabilities and potential–heretics have reason to worry; such indicators have come to grant passage through the portals of social mobility, amid an era of credentialism. Those elevated to the various pedestals of power, ought, of course, not to lead, but to follow–a custom that notably differs from heresy. Needless to say, this does not imply the prevalence of conspiracy, but reflects the mere realities of social relations amid order: absent of hierarchies order is elusive; those in power will choose to empower whoever sustains rather than questions or erodes their reign. Universities are the norm, not the exception.

Even when students choose to counter the culture with which they are at odds, their prospects of success are dim, as institutional rules and regulations often shield instructors from having to justify their conduct; hence, institutions of higher education, including the one I attended, are often exempt from the very creative destruction that an abiding commitment to the authority of ideas–whose significance Lawrence Summers emphasized–tends to bring forth. It is, thus, hardly astonishing that some especially creative individuals–most famously, Sir Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, David Karp and Mark Zuckerberg–chose to prematurely terminate their formal education.

This alleged shortage of impetus and talent for innovation, brought forth and cultivated by universities, is further aggravated by the increased intermarriage between educators and employers. Once educators merely serve employers–as prevalent parlance about Education for Employment, naturally advocated by powerhouses like McKinsey & Company, suggests–disruptive impulses turn scarce, and societal evolution slows, prone to come to an eventual halt, prompting stasis at the expense of improvement. Though marginalized, education must not be positioned at the periphery of discourse, as it buttresses society. This has, of course, already been recognized; Plato’s quasi-just–though utopian, if not dystopian–city springs forth both from learned minds and bodies.

The deficiencies sketched herein, not solely afflict virtually all of higher education–as a recent article, entitled “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League” by William Deresiewicz, a former scholar at Yale University, implies–but pertain to a cultural phenomenon. Rationalization and the corresponding centrality of market-commerce have undermined the moral framework that used to encompass societies. Concretely, honor has been supplanted with prestige, wisdom with credentials, and virtue with charisma, destined to erode vibrant communal life–in respect to family, faction and nation. Yet those who acknowledge and address the daunting developments in higher education, often operate outside institutions of learning, which speaks to the malaise.

Reforming, or rather transforming higher education, as presently configured, will neither be an easy nor a pleasant task; vested interests are deeply rooted inside and outside the institutions that were thought to teach the young. Not well-meaning observers, who represent a generation different from the one currently being instructed, but students themselves must demand the education they have sound reason to value.

Indeed, students–particularly at private institutions of higher education, where they are high-paying customers–must dare to think, dare to question, and dare to differ. My experience of higher education, at an allegedly premier U.S. university, suggests that most students are neither capable of nor willing to engage in bold heresy (heresy deprived of courage implies mere self-importance). Yet as the assembly lines of education factories discharge ever more graduates, at increasingly higher pace, students may at least realize that intellect crafted will be more valuable than credentials collected.

Unless liberty and the moral framework it presupposes are restored throughout higher education, students will be conditioned to thrive in illiberal arts, characterized by unfounded authority. Not solely will education thus configured constrain the intellect of students evermore, it will place societies at risk of an Orwellian modus operandi. Those subjected to it–incapable of comprehending themselves, others, and worldly affairs–cannot succeed in recognizing, and averting the danger in time. Subsumed by day-to-day duties, most will disregard this warning, and denounce its advocates. Philosophy, meanwhile, will further be deemed laughable ex-ante, but praised ex-post; fools we are.

Well then, Adeimantus, I replied, may we thus also say that the best endowed souls become surpassingly bad when they meet with bad education? Do you think great crimes and unmixed wickedness derive from a petty nature, not from a vigorous nature ruined by its nurture? A weak nature will never be responsible for great things, whether for good or ill. That’s so, he replied. -Plato, The Republic, Book VI
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