Trying to arrive at clarity on the state of higher education

I’ve been exploring issues in higher education over the last 10 years, trying to understand what I’ve been seeing with both the political discourse that’s been happening in the Western world for the past 12 or so years, and what’s been happening with campus politics for as long, which has been having severe consequences on the humanities, and has been making its way into the academic fields of math and science.

Rob Montz, a Brown University graduate, has done the best job I’ve seen anywhere of both getting deep into a severe problem at many universities, and condensing his analysis down to something that many people can understand. I think there is more to the problem than what Montz has pointed out, but he has put his finger on something that I haven’t seen anyone else talk about, and it really has to do with this question:

Are students going to school to learn something, or are they just there to get a piece of paper that they think will increase their socio-economic status?

I’m not objecting if they are there to do both. What I’m asking is if education is even in the equation in students’ experience. You would think that it is, since we think of universities as places of learning. However, think back to your college experience (if you went to college). Do you remember that the popular stereotype was that they were places to “party, drink, and lose your virginity”? That didn’t have to be your experience, but there was some truth to that perception. What Montz revealed is that perception has grown into the main expectation of going to college, not a “side benefit,” though students still expect that there’s a degree at the end of it. There’s just no expectation that they’ll need to learn anything to get it.

What I asked above is a serious question, because it has profound implications for the kind of society we will live in going forward. A student body and education system that does not care about instilling the ideas that have made Western civilization possible will not live in a free society in the future. This means that we can forget about our rights to live our lives as we see fit, and we can forget about having our own ideas about the world. Further, we can forget about having the privilege of living in a society where our ideas can be corrected through considering challenges to them. That won’t be allowed. How would ideas change instead, you might ask? Look at history. It’s bloody…

We are not born with the ideas that make a free society possible. They are passed down from generation to generation. If that process is interrupted, because society has taken them for granted, and doesn’t want the responsibility of learning them, then we can expect a more autocratic society and political system to result, because that is the kind of society that humans naturally create.

A key thing that Montz talked about is what I’ve heard Alan Kay raise a red flag about, which is that universities are not “guarding their subjects,” by which he means they are not guarding what it means to be educated. They are, in effect, selling undergraduate degrees to the highest bidders, because that’s all most parents and students want. An indicator of this that Kay used is that literacy scores of college graduates have been declining rapidly for decades. In other words, you can get a college degree, and not know how to comprehend anything more complex than street signs, or labels on a prescription bottle, and not know how to critically analyze an argument, or debate it. These are not just skills that are “nice to have.” They are essential to a functioning free society.

What Montz revealed is if you don’t want to learn anything, that’s fine by many universities now. Not that it’s fine with many of the professors who teach there, but it’s fine by the administrations who run them. They’re happy to get your tuition.

Montz has been producing a series of videos on this issue, coming out with a new one every year, starting in 2016. He started his journey at his alma mater, Brown University:

In the next installment, Montz went to Yale, and revealed that it’s turning into a country club. While, as he said, there are still pockets of genuine intellectual discipline taking place there, you’re more likely to find that young people are there for the extracurricular activities, not to learn something develop their minds and character. What’s scandalous about this is that the school is not resisting this. It is encouraging it!

The thing is, this is not just happening at Yale. It is developing at universities across the country. There are even signs of it at my alma mater, Colorado State University (see the video below).

Next, Montz went to the University of Chicago to see why they’re not quite turning out like many other universities. They still believe in the pursuit of truth, though there is a question that lingers about how long that’s going to hold up.

Canadian Prof. Gad Saad describing events at Colorado State University, from February 2017:

Dr. Frank Furedi talked about the attitudes of students towards principles that in the West are considered fundamental, and how universities are treating students. In short, as the video title says, students “think freedom is not a big deal.” They prefer comfort, because they’re not there to learn. Universities used to expect that students were entering adulthood, and were expected to take on more adult responsibilities while in school. Now, he says, students are treated like “biologically mature … clever children.” Others have put this another way, that an undergraduate education now is just an extension of high school. It’s not up to par with what a university education was, say, when I went to college.

Dr. Jonathan Haidt has revealed that another part of what has been happening is that universities that used to be devoted to a search for truth are in the process of being converted into a new kind of religious school that is pursuing a doctrine of politically defined social justice. Parents who are sending their children off to college have a choice to make about what they want them to pursue (this goes beyond the student’s major). However, universities are not always up front about this. They may in their promotions talk about education in the traditional way, but in fact may be inculcating this doctrine. Haidt has set up a website called Heterodox Academy to show which universities are in fact pursuing which goals, in the hopes that it will help people choose accordingly. They don’t just show universities that they might prefer. If you want a religious education, of whatever variety, they’ll list schools that do that as well, but they rank them according to principles outlined by the University of Chicago re. whether they are pursuing truth, or some kind of orthodoxy.

For people who are trying to understand this subject, I highly recommend an old book, written by the late Allan Bloom, called “The Closing of the American Mind.” He doesn’t exactly describe what’s going on now on college campuses, because he wrote it over 30 years ago, but it will sound familiar. I found it really valuable for contrasting what the philosophy of the university was at the time that he wrote the book, as opposed to what it had been in the prior decades. He preferred the latter, though he acknowledged that it was incomplete, and needed revision. He suggested a course of action for revising what the university should be, which apparently modern academics have completely rejected. I still think it’s worth trying.

I don’t know if this will come to fruition in my lifetime, but I can see the possibility that someday the physical university as we have known it will disappear, and accreditation will take a new form, because of the internet. In that way, a recovery of the quality of higher education might be possible. I have my doubts that getting the old form back is possible. It may not even be desirable.

Related articles:

Brendan O’Neill on the zeitgeist of the anti-modern West

For high school students, and their parents: Some things to consider before applying for college

 

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