“I’m leaving the university at the end of this year.”
I quickly jolted my head up from the floor, suddenly staring my professor directly in the eye.
Over the past semester, this particular professor and I had developed a relatively close relationship, and I had started randomly popping into his office during open hours some weeks ago, originally to ensure I had a bit of an edge over the other students, but kept re-appearing simply because I enjoyed his company.
“Why?” I inquired quietly, suddenly much more aware of my surroundings than before: the empty bookshelves, the boxes, the official-looking paperwork on his desk.
“It’s been a tough year,” he replied, “…there’s just not much of a future for academics, especially in the humanities. These kids… and their parents… they think they’re here to get job training, and that’s ruining the entire system. I entered academia to do research and write, and with my small [design] business taking off, I will continue do that, maybe go back to France, who knows?”
I nodded, a little upset, but facing another example of what I have long known to be the inevitable — this wasn’t the first case a professor has confided to me about his imminent departure, and, as much as I’d like it to be, it likely won’t be the last.
Even as an undergraduate,I see signs of the so-called “fall of academia” — true, honest, liberal-arts-based academia — everywhere around me.
What these professors are facing — what academia is facing — doesn’t live in a bubble. The decline of the traditional liberal arts education has and will continue to send shockwaves across our entire society.
The pundits argue something along the lines of, “why spend thousands of dollars to a university when you can Google that shit or get an internship for free?” On the surface, their argument seems common-sensical, but their assumptions of what knowledge is, what information is, and what it means to be a free society are fundamentally flawed.
“Liberal arts” are called that because, supposedly, they make man free. They may not make a man materially wealthy, but that’s not the point. In as early as Roman times, we see stoic philosophers such as Seneca reflecting on this notion:
“I respect no study, and deem no study good, which results in money-making. Such studies are profit-bringing occupations, useful only in so far as they give the mind a preparation and do not engage it permanently. One should linger upon them only so long as the mind can occupy itself with nothing greater; they are our apprenticeship, not our real work. Hence you see why “liberal studies” are so called; it is because they are studies worthy of a free-born gentleman. But there is only one really liberal study, – that which gives a man his liberty. It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled. All other studies are puny and puerile.”
Throughout the next several thousand years, we find this debate consistently reappearing:
We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men, and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only. (Petrus Paulus Vergerius, 1400)
But those questions are no longer relavant when discussing education. Undergraduates focusing in philosophy or other humanities get a, “what the hell are you going to do with that degree,” while we somehow ignore the fact that a university education was originally intended to be sought by those with a love of wisdom — in Greek, “philo sophia,” or philosophy:
In truth, liberal arts education no longer exists — at least genuine liberal arts education — in this country. We have professionalized liberal arts to the point where they no longer provide the breadth of application and the enhanced capacity for civic engagement that is their signature. Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the sole model of intellectual accomplishment.
The progression of today’s college student is to jettison every interest except one. And within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less; this, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things. As one moves up the ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as, “What kind of a world are we making? What kind of a world should we be making? What kind of a world can we be making?” are treated with more and more skepticism, and move off the table. (Liz Coleman, 2009)
This, as throngs of venture capitalists with multi-million-dollar checkbooks purport online education will solve everything. But their assumptions are not only unproven, they’re dangerous. In our capitalistic society, education is one of the few remaining purely social institutions designed not for material profit, but to maintain a secular democracy — in a land where all men are created equal, education is designed to be a tool that allows all young people their right to a fulfilling pursuit of happiness.
But there’s something else they’re missing:
The online education utopians ignore the fact that free learning has existed for decades in the form of the public library and despite that availability, every kid within bicycling distance to his local branch didn’t turn into a self taught entrepreneur. Suggesting that online courses are the cure-all for our educational needs is like saying all you have to do to teach kids in the ghetto is give away textbooks on the corner. (Fransisco Dao, 2013)
Education is not about information. Nearly every member of our society has had access to throngs more information than it could possibly handle since the 16th century.
Instead, education is about knowledge and wisdom. While there is measurable debate over what, exactly, defines the essence of “university,” it seems very clear to me that university is not really about the information contained within individual courses. Instead, it is about the pursuit of the information: for instance, writing papers teaches rhetoric, reading Aristotle improves literacy and perspective, and studying European History allows students to understand a world with a very different set of values and social structures.
Unfortunately, like anything in a market such as ours, university is still bound by simple economic principles, and it doesn’t scale well: thanks to cost disease, the more people seeking a degree, the more expensive it will be for each person to receive said degree. Furthermore, the more people that enter the job market with postsecondary education, the more the material value of that education will deflate. What happens when a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough in a highly-competitive job market?
Based on both personal experiences and statistical data, it seems as though most undergraduates are not attending college to learn, or become free citizens. They’re there simply to get a better job. Or hell, any job.
This wasn’t always the case. Historically, university was designed for the intellectually-inclined, and it could support itself relatively well. But since the 1970′s, the number of young people attending college in the United States believing that that it will allow them “to be very well off financially” has risen significantly, while those attempting to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” has plummeted. Do these young people care about philosophy, the freedoms of mankind, and the pursuit of intellectualism? Or do they see college as an opportunity to attend a few dope-ass parties and get a degree so they’re job-market-ready? With billions of dollars on the line, these are questions we need to seriously ask ourselves.
Where the pundits are mistaken, and dangerously mistaken, is when the rhetoric they use to push their mission includes notions that university is simply job training that can be easily substituted. It isn’t. University is the pursuit of intellectualism, of developing a full mind, of vibrant debates, critical thinking, and developing a certain self of self-reliance and self-consciousness. Admittedly, you don’t find that in a textbook. And you don’t find it on Google or YouTube. You find that by by arguing against the textbook, by asking zillions of questions, by writing essays, in one-on-one’s with your professor, and yes, maybe by drinking way too much and making a few stupid decisions.
As I exited my professor’s office, I turned back.
He was one of the best professors I’ve had. An amazing lecturer. An incredible researcher. Tough, but only because he cared. I could tell this was not an easy decision for him. It causes me great distress to know that others won’t be near as blessed as I was.
But, unlike him, I still have hope.
We can fix academia. We can create a intellectual class ruled not by bank accounts but by curiosity, drive, and intelligence. But it won’t happen with Udacity. It won’t appear on Khan Academy.Where I think it will appear is in Google Hangouts, coffeeshop meetups, and in the minds of young people across the country. It’s a grassroots effort that, by design, no amount of money can buy (although some will help.)
We’re entering a new intellectual age, an age that will rival post-Gutenberg Europe. We can allow our new tools to enable us to create wonderful things, or we can lead ourselves down a path of destruction. We have the ability to control our own outcomes. But we can’t afford to give up on our universities.
- Seniors: Put the value of the liberal arts into words and win a scholarship (blogs.seattletimes.com)
- A Liberal Education (city-journal.org)
- India Ink: A New University Offers Liberal Arts as Higher Education Alternative (india.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Liberal arts get a boost (thehindu.com)
- Hollistic Innovation: The value of a liberal arts college (davidnoahperelman.wordpress.com)
- Kenyon Presidents Promise Your Liberal Arts Education Still Matters (thekenyonthrill.com)
- The Nation Pakistan’s Editorial: Good luck, AKU (ismailimail.wordpress.com)
- Higher Education: The Utility of Uselessness? (delong.typepad.com)
- A Liberal Arts Degree Plan: A Well-Rounded Education (deardoll103.wordpress.com)
- Pa. college presidents: Liberal arts have value (kansascity.com)