I’ll open this post with a quote from a talk given by the eminent Peter Green:
Over the past two or three decades, we have become increasingly acclimatized—faculty, by and large, less enthusiastically than administrators—to the idea of universities run according to the corporate model. We were reminded, regularly, that we have to compete. The function of a degree was increasingly seen, in vocational terms, as the ticket to a highly paid job. The idea of searching for, say, the meaning of life, came to be seen as a waste of time, and the humanities generally as a pleasant but inessential top-dressing to what really mattered: scientific facts and figures, the computerized bottom line that led to the new version of the Great American Success Story. The past was irrelevant, other countries and cultures were backdrops for guided tourism with interpreters, isolationism flourished, greed was good. I saw a house ad not so long ago boasting that “a small library in the basement apartment adds a touch of European charm.” Oh, those quaint Europeans, with their books and things! The humanities, you see, have been further attacked, under the all-purpose banner of elitism, by the kind of populist Forrest Gumpery that feels uncomfortable with any kind of mental effort beyond the scope of Joe Sixpack.
Two articles on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website have sparked some debate. The first is Thomas Benton’s “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind‘”, the second is James Mulhollands’s “Neither a Trap Nor a Lie“.
Both articles seem to miss a major point that Peter Green makes: the West, particularly America, has been fooled into thinking that facts and figures are all that matters. The University has become less about the pursuit of Truth, Beauty, Goodness (and to speak of such things is seen as silly, romantic, or naive) and more about training for a job – it has become a vocational center, a 4 year trade school. “Education” rarely happens – it has been replaced by training. We’re no longer looking to create informed citizens, but we have created a workforce that performs its tasks well. This training, by the way, should sound political alarms – a democratic republic can only function well if it has well-informed, moral citizens. Consider, for example, an example given by Peter Green later in the same speech: Bernie Madoff is not in jail because he is bad at business. He’s great at business. He understood how the business world worked in such a way that he was able to swindle people out of their money. What Madoff lacked was an education (and not training) in the humanities. He had no scruples because he figured that numbers were all that mattered. An argument against this would be that humanities professors don’t seem to be more moral on the whole. The problem, I think, is that so few are living out what they have learned – they may quote Plato, for example – they’ve received a training in Platonic thought, but they haven’t fully incorporated it into their lives. They did not educate themselves with Plato.
Unfortunately, the University has bought the lie wholesale. It has served as its own enemy. Instead of dispelling the myth that what is ‘practical’ is all that matters (and what does that mean, anyway?), the University embraced it.
For those of us in the humanities, particularly those whose fields are not seen as particularly ‘relevant’ (I often joke with friends about going to work at a Religion Factory), this should be troubling. This system has created an unfortunate scenario in higher-ed: 70%+ adjuncts, people who feel so pressured to publish that they end up writing absolute crap (which the rest of us have to sift through when we want to deal with what is supposed to be the relevant secondary literature), an over-saturation of various fields with Ph.Ds who cannot find jobs, and students who see these fields as esoteric (rightly so, in some cases).
What’s the solution? I’m not sure. Philosophies will have to change. America will have to realize the error of presentism and ‘practicality’. How we can accomplish this is beyond me.