This morning, in stereotypical egghead fashion, I tuned my radio to the Saturday NPR programming, poured myself a cup of coffee, and sat down to read the most recent (June 7) issue of the New Yorker. In the mini-essay section "Talk of the Town," located near the beginning of every New Yorker, there was a piece by Rebecca Mead entitled "Learning By Degrees," which questioned both the logic behind and the wisdom of a recent trend in advice-giving that cautions young people against attending college. This is the advice of Richard K. Vedder (Professor of Economics at Ohio University and founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity), for example, who recently told the New York Times that, because eight of the top-ten job categories that will add the most employees in the next decade (e.g., home-health aides, customer service reprentatives, store clerks) do not requre post-secondary schooling, young people are better off taking the money they would have spent on a college education and spending it somewhere else, like on a house. This kind of advice seems to be finding a particularly receptive audience even among professional academics, largely because of the recession's negative impact on employment and the corresponding bleak outlook for recent grads looking for jobs. According to Vedder and those sympathetic with him, high schools would be better off equipping students with the skill-sets they need to enter the workplace (which he lists as "the ability to solve problems and make decisions," "resolve conflict and negotiate," "cooperate with others," and "listen actively") rather than treating all students as if they should be readied for college. (Whatever that means. Vedder doesn't clarify how "readying students for college" might not include equipping them with the same skills, or equipping them with different skills.) Mead also notes our collective "romantic attachment" to the figure of the successful college dropout (a la Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) that, when coupled with the unapologetic anti-intellectualism currently in vogue in political discourse, serves to buttress the case of skip-college advocates far and wide.
I soldiered on through the New Yorker this morning (including an excellent piece on the goalkeeper for USA's World Cup team, Tim Howard), but couldn't quite shake the sting of that first little essay. So, like anyone who wants to restore his or her faith in humanity does, I went to check in with the Facebook to see what my little corner of humanity had to say for itself. Alas, right there on my Recent News Feed was a link to this article from the Washington Post about conservative revisionist historian Earl Taylor, president of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, who has been tourng the country and mis-educating an angry and naive portion of our citizenry about my beloved U.S. Constitution and the Founding Fathers. Taylor, clearly some perverse ilk of originalist, advocates in his seminars (among other absurdities) that the original intention of the Founding Fathers would not have supported any of the Constitutional Amendments ratified after the 10th Amendment. (For those of you keeping score at home, that means no abolition of slavery, no federal income tax, no women's suffrage, no Presidential term limits and, most curiously, neither the prohibition of alcohol nor the repeal of that prohibition.) And, of course, in textbook originalist fashion, Taylor speculates that if the Founding Fathers wouldn't have endorsed it, neither should we. Now, Taylor's wacko interpretive frame for the Constitution aside, what disturbed me most about this article was the repetition of a sentiment that I had seen in the earlier New Yorker piece, namely, an unreflective and self-congratulatory embrace of anti-intellectualism that almost bordered on... well, stupidity. At the end of the article, Taylor speculates that America is facing a moral and ideological crisis, one for which we are ill-advised to consult the learned among us. The plain-spoken, Main Street, libertarian and so-called populist teachings of his seminar, contrary to the egghead speculations of the amoral (or immoral) educated elite, are the only true salve. Taylor remarks:
When it is all said and done, there will have to be good people who have answers. These things have to be taught far and wide. It's right and it's good, and it's not limited to just a few uppity-ups.
So, I read this piece this morning, adjusted my spectacles, re-tied my smoking jacket, confronted my godless world and heaved the kind of sigh that registers the same "oh-the-humanity" despair that the sight of a helium-filled promise engulfed in flames inspires. I mean, really? Don't go to college because higher education only equips you with impotent, unmarketable skills? Because it necessarily resigns you to the disconnected, useless, irrelevant class of the "uppity-ups"? Really? Seriously, what's so scary about the smartypants?
Rebecca Mead, bless her heart, did try to make the case for a generalist liberal-arts education (even with a major in Philosophy!) near the end of her New Yorker piece, arguing that "what an education might be for" is something other than, but not totally unrelated to, getting a job. Putting aside for a moment the highly-specious suggestion by Dr. Vedder that a college education does not equip one with fundamental (read: "marketable") skills-- and also putting the ressentiment-fueled, misdirected populism of the "good" Mr. Taylor's smug dismissal of "uppity-ups" -- what is needed in this debate, in my view, is a vigorous re-assertion of the "value" of education for a citizenry. One of the chief problems with a reductively "economic" view of the "value" of education is that it forces us all into the exclusive category of "worker." Whatever does not maximize the output of our work or, correspondingly, maximally increase the exhange-value of our work, is taken to be of diminished (i.e., merely supplemental) value. What is missing in that sort of evaluative schema, I think, is the very basic insight that the merit of the contributions of all "workers" is (or should be taken as) equivalent to the merit of their contributions as "citizens." (Arizona-inspired sympathies notwithstanding.) Mead gets at exactly this point when she writes:
One needn’t necessarily be a liberal-arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above all, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently. All these are habits of mind that are useful for an engaged citizenry, and from which a letter carrier, no less than a college professor, might derive a sense of self-worth...
Indeed, if even a professionally oriented college degree is no longer a guarantee for employment, an argument might be made in favor of a student's pursuing an education that is less, rather than more, pragmatic. (More theology, less accounting.) That way, regardless of each graduate's ultimate end, all might be qualified to be carriers of arts and letters, of which the nation can never have too many.
I can hear the objections of Dr. Vedder, Mr. Taylor and anti-uppity-ups decrying Mead's insight as the predictable prejudice of smartypants everywhere. But, even if one were to grant the reductively utilitarian objections of their negative argument (i.e., "one should not go to college because it is not an economically sound decision"), what is their positive argument? Is it-- rather, can it be anything other than-- a counsel to become a "worker," and no more than a "worker," just for the sake of what makes a worker a "worker"? Isn't that, in the end, the heart of Marx's critique of capitalism? That it reduces the "human being" to the "worker" and, consequently, makes him or her nothing more than one more variable in the algorithm of profit-maximization?
There is, of course, an almost perfectly mathematical rationale behind that logic, but it is one that ultimately valorizes the "business" model and, consequently, erases the contribution of the citizen as independently significant and meaningful, because it necessarily conflates the worker and the citizen. My obligations and duties as a citizen must be calculated independent of my interests as a worker, if for no other reason than that the very definition of a "citizen" includes and sometimes negates) a social dimension that exceeds my own personal interests, my own individuated pleasure and pain. Academia, for all its faults, is one of the last places that human beings are allowed to consider their roles as workers, as citizens, as individuals, as family or community members, in conjunction or disjunction qua parts of what it means to be a complex human being. And it is one of the last places that human beings are given exposure to the whole history of human reflection upon how those conjuctions or disjunctions ought to be prioritized. For many, many college graduates, even a cursory encounter with Homer's Iliad, or Shakespeare's Richard III, or Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, or Darwin's On the Origin of Species, or Franz Boas' The Mind of the Primitive Man, or Immanuel Kant's Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals, or Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish can serve as the spark for a whole life of dedicated critical and intellectual engagement. Perhaps more importantly, exposure to those texts and those thinkers can serve as a bulwark against the dangerous seduction of rhetoricians (and so-called "populists") like Glen Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, whose anti-intellectual diatribes slowly and steadily lull the populace they are supposedly defending into self-defeating quietism.
If the choice is between unproductive workers and uncritical citizens, which is what the current business-model approach to higher education seems to favor, let me go on record as favoring the unproductive workers over the uncritical citizens. Why? Because unproductive workers who are also uncritical citizens have no means at their disposal for questioning the social, political, and economic frameworks that imprison them in the restrictive and dehumanizing mode of workers. It is clearly in the interest of that model to figure "the educated" as elitist and disconnected from the "real" concerns of workers, and to dissuade workers from becoming educated themselves, but I think the left-leaning character of the Academy-- so bemoaned by libertarians and conservatives-- is evidence of the disingenuousness of that rhetoric.
Take note, workers (and potential workers) of the world: If you're worried about getting a job, the smartypants are not your enemies.