Part I: A sad realization
While we Ricochetti may find it regrettable, the vast majority of human beings aren’t interested in ideas. In my Advanced International Relations class, we met once a week after reading a book. It was mentally electrifying. We ran the gamut of different ideas and theories and hammered out what they all meant. The teacher was superb, and it was a smaller class, so it was perfect for discussion. The class was among the most intellectually productive things I’ve ever done. Sadly, I doubt that a majority of the students were really into it. I asked my Professor why the students were so uninterested in the morality of torture and wars and Empires. He shrugged and said that while he always found it odd, it was usually that way.
Furthermore, some of the straight-A students were as intellectually stimulating as dusty cardboard. They perfectly regurgitated whatever the Professor spoke or whatever the textbook said, but they never bothered to think about anything they absorbed. My Uncle and my Dad hate this argument. They think they can force people to be intellectual and thoughtful. I never saw a lot of that on campus, did you?
The majority, perhaps the vast majority, of college students want to get the accreditation and move on with their lives. To paraphrase Rob Long, “Probably the majority of college students treat their professors with mercenary calculation. They listen and they repeat what their Professors say just to get the grade.” He expressed himself much more eloquently than what I can recall, but the point is that without a love of ideas and history, repeating the Professor isn’t that useful.
Then there is the timing of it all. Why exactly is a class on Shakespeare more useful to a 19-year-old then a 39-year-old? Furthermore, young people have a lot of health and energy and can endure long hours to develop both wealth and, more importantly, skills that employers value. Putting all that energy into queer theory isn’t adding to the economy.
Part II: Accreditation and the problem of straight-A students
What we ought to do is separate the acquisition of useful skills from the acquisition of knowledge and the pursuit of the good and beautiful. All the straight-A students are going to get As with or without love of knowledge so might as well teach them the most utilitarian skills. Getting an A in philosophy without any love for wisdom means nothing.
Employers will always try to hire the most qualified people, so it might be useful to have qualifications that actually mean something. Instead of accreditation, we ought to create tests that demonstrate skill and or knowledge. Think of the Bar exam or the Sommelier test. Those are serious tests that convey competency in a given field.
Socrates did not give grades or teach marketable skills. He asked people what was good and bad, and he pursued what was good. That is fundamentally a non-monetary ambition. Socrates had no tests, and he did not ask his followers to agree with him (see Phaedo) but he always asked that they love Truth and that they pursue Truth. That cannot be replicated with grades and tests and bureaucracy. We shouldn’t pretend that it can be. The entire point of the first four books of Socrates is a spiritual one. It is about a human being aspiring to live in Truth and pursue Truth. Personally, I feel that Socrates demands the pursuit of Truth everyday. Ergo, if I read something on Facebook that sounds plausible and contradicts my beliefs, I am obligated to research. Pretty much like I did with my Professors in college.
Part III: The black lung disease of the intelligentsia (George F. Will)
On one of those wonderfully long back and forth discussions on Ricochet, a throwaway comment made me rethink the entire purpose behind higher education.
Zafar, our friendly liberal interloper, was saying that the American right and left can agree that Female Genital mutilation is a bad thing and that the laws against FGM were established in Michigan with strong support by the state’s Democratic Party. Some Ricochetti said that the left was too dominated by post-modernism and white guilt to demand that American immigrants abandon FGM. I said off-handedly that I agreed with Zafar and that only college-educated liberals would ever think that FGM would be good thing. … After I wrote that, I had to think for awhile.
Now, at a dinner party, people ask a doctor questions about medicine and they ask a lawyer legal questions. But an illiterate man has 50/50 odds of giving a more moral and sensible answer than a humanities major. So what exactly is a point of a college degree?
Speaking of the inadequacies of the elite, I heard from fellow Ricochetti that the workplaces where higher education was required were flooding with the tears of leftists. I was just finishing my shift at my blue-collar gig and everyone was surprised at the result. But they were all too busy living life to be concerned about politics. They had kids that needed to go to school tomorrow and bills to pay and actual problems to endure. The only political comment I heard from the staff on the following day was shock at how “butthurt” everyone was on Facebook. Clearly, the hysteria has gotten even worse with the attacks on Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald.
So after spending years of youthful energy and tens of thousands of dollars, higher education seems unable or unwilling to diffuse the ideas that make people happy, stable, and moral. I must ask a question that leads the answer: What’s the point?
Part VI: For the love of Wisdom
To replace the corrupt, sclerotic system of American higher education we need more than accreditations. We need to create a culture that values the pursuit of knowledge after you leave college. Even the most educated people only go to college for a fraction of their life. Knowledge needs to be a lifelong pursuit. It’s OK if you are busy with kids or a high-stress job for about a decade, but society needs to encourage intellectual growth throughout your entire life. I’ve known Ph.D.s that, once they get their degree, stop thinking and debating anything.
Over a decade ago, I trained with Sigun Eric Lee, and he mentioned that getting a black belt can be devastating for certain students of the martial art. Once they get a black belt they feel that they don’t need to learn anything more. “Some practitioners haven’t learned a new technique in 10 years,” he said with lamentation. “Always have a white belt mentality and always be ready to learn.”
That mentality, above all other things, is what we ought to pursue.Published in