Saturday, June 05, 2010

In Praise of Smartypants

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.


Emma B. said...

While I'm all in favor of an educated citizenry, and risking an argument that would put me out of a job, I have to say that I believe that a great number of folks currently in the higher education classroom SHOULD NOT BE THERE. Secondary education needs to be improved. That's a certainty. It's a crime that so many kids leave high school unable to write a grammatical sentence. It's even more criminal that a huge number of them end up pursuing an academic degree.

I grew up in a country where it was exceptional to attend university, and so many of my friends were massively relieved to get out of the booklearning world as they were SIMPLY NOT CUT OUT FOR IT. They went on to be artists, designers, lighting camerapeople, electricians, animators, plumbers, home-care aides and computer scientists. None of them has a bachelor's degree. They are smart people who read the papers and may not have all the tools for systematic analysis of politics and economics but certainly know enough to be responsible citiizens. Should they have tortured teachers and themselves, tying themselves in knots trying to master arcane texts and write college papers? I really don't think so.

It does not benefit the kids who CAN and WANT TO participate in academic culture to be flooded in the classroom with those who are literally just there to try to generically improve their job prospects, in a context where a college degree is seen pretty much as a basic requirement.

Improve secondary education, and encourage kids to follow thereafter what they are good at and enjoy - whether that's laying bricks, hairdressing, fixing cars, caring for the sick, particle physics, or understanding philosophical treatises.

There are many kinds of smarts...

anotherpanacea said...

I am all for a positive defense of the liberal arts. But since I place a price on my willingness to teach, I can understand why my students would want to clarify the expected return on investment. You don't *have* to go to college to study philosophy, after all. (Tolstoy's "snare of preparation" and all that.) It just helps.

By the way, that Taylor guy is a LOON. An originalist can't ignore amendments without ignoring Article 5 of the Constitution itself! A good example of progressive originalism is Jack Balkin, who asks, for instance, about the "original intent" of the 14th Amendment! Dude's a genius: he's the left's Antonin Scalia.

Lelyn R. Masters said...

Put me down as pro-education broadly speaking.

However, there are many forms of education that I will speak out against, because I believe our public schools are a form of state control. The state controlling what? No, the state controlling who. Compulsory education produces a particular type, a type that is easily co-opted into the corporate world or the military.

Public schooling was not always universal or compulsory in this nation, and it's rise was not really out of a concern for having an informed and enlightened citizenry, but in creating and maintaining a uniform cultural identity, language and ideology. It is no coincidence that students begin each day with the pledge of allegiance.

The recent text book scandal in Texas is a good illustration of my point regarding Public High Schools. What's new there is not the ideological stance, but that it made a scandal. Public Elementary and High School education has always had a bias, and that bias has never protected the vulnerable or minorities.

In fact, our public schooling system took an even more malicious turn in the 20th century, and John Taylor Gato makes that case better than I ever could:

The fact that one's average high school experience doesn't prepare one for college is not a coincidence either. The fact that a college education doesn't lead to a job is a real crisis. Why don't we have Philosophers employed determining public policy? Until we do, I can see asking the question as to what the point is in teaching it at all. We teach all manner of things that in actual practice we prefer to ignore in our public activities, and that is, to me, the more important criticism to make.

I'll give you an example. During my time in the Navy I had the great opportunity to work alongside military Officers. By and large the Officers that make it to the upper echelons of the military, the ones who advise Senators, Representatives and Presidents, generally come from a particular academic background. They don't read Derrida, Kant or Rawls. They don't ask questions about whether or not America should be the most powerful nation in the world, or what an ethical foreign policy would be. The paradigm of truth that runs our public policy is different in kind from the paradigm of truth that conditions our comfortable liberal humanist debates.

Our nation dreams of truth and beauty, while we ruthlessly prosecute our "national interest" abroad.

When someone comes along advocating that less of us go on to college, that is nothing new. Gato very skillfully tells us the story of how business interests have paired and pruned our educational system to get just the kind of subjects they need for their vision of what our material culture should be. Business interests will always have a very strong hand in education reform.

Nor is outrage at this degradation of our already broken educational system anything new.

What would be revolutionary, would be for someone to demand a voice for the humanities in our realpolitik. Why can't we consider axiology before we decide whether or not to go to war or drill offshore? Why does one group of academics criticize colonialism, while the one in power perfects it?

DOCTOR J said...

@Emma: I often find myself torn about just the issue that you raise. Like you, I also don't believe that *everyone* is cut out for higher education. (And, I agree, there are many flavors of "smart.") I think MANY MORE would be cut out for college if the secondary school system in this country were better, or at least more consistent(because, the truth is, students who come into college from private schools or wealthy-neighborhood public schools are fairly uniform in their preparation for college, even if they aren't all equal in their motivation or inclination). Obviously, it's a challenge to tertiary instructors to teach to such a wide range of preparations-- and you're right that it's tough on the "ideal" college students to have classmates like that as well-- but I might be romantic/idealistic enough to believe that a VAST MAJORITY of entry-level college students would or could be prepared for the kind of learning that I suggest in this post if they came in with a better secondary education.

Again, that still isn't to say that I think college is for everyone. But I'm inclined to read your alternative suggestion (even as it is couched in the stereotypically "elitist" college-is-not-for-everyone terms) as actually supporting the rejection of reductively utilitarian thinking that I am rejecting in this post. That is to say, I'm all for cultivating in students at the secondary-school level an appreciation for and inclination toward (as you say) following "what they are good at and enjoy." But doesn't that ALSO include cultivating in them a kind of introspective evaluation of their own capacities and potential contributions as something more than *mere* "workers"? I mean, isn't your model, at its heart, the same as Plato's model in the Republic, that is, to encourage each to dedicate him- or herself to an ergon to which he or she is best suited and which he or she can do better than others? For all of my problems with Plato, I think there is at least a version of that model that could productively wed the "citizen" to the "worker"... but that is NOT, alas, a model that late capitalism permits.

My point-- as I'm sure you can anticipate and with which I strongly suspect you might agree-- is that a large source of the animus towards "intellectualism" (whatever that means)is this reductive economic/business model of measuring human capacities and potentialities, which only "counts" those capacities/potentialities that translate into income- or profit-generating work. OF COURSE there are lots of kinds of work that do not require a college education and which are of themsselves "valuable"... but if we concede the dimunition of the value of education to those who would make "income-" or "profit-acquisition" the only measure of value, then we haven't just harmed those for whom college is the most appropriate path to real, meaningful contribution, not to mention also the artisans, electricians, home-healthcare aides, and anyone else who finds the value of their work in something other than its monetary compensation?

rebelcellist said...

your link: is not working for me. Is there another way to access this?

Lelyn R. Masters said...

Yeah, here you go: Follow the image of the book "The Underground History of American Education."

Lelyn R. Masters said...

I mean the link near it. I'm bad with computers.

B Blake said...

"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"?"

I understand you are probably being a bit rhetorical here--and I'll hasten to add that I find most of your key ideas and considerations in this blog post extremely important and persuasive--but I don't see how ALL people that advocate the "one should not go to college because it is not an economically sound decision" position end up inevitably reducing people to simply the commodity of a "worker." Rather, it seems to me, that almost any sensible person advocating this ultimately (mis)informed position would contend that from a pragmatic point of view there are two roles/needs at stake that have to be balanced. One is the role of the "worker", which has been pretty thoroughly covered. The second is mostly what you're blog post centers on: the citizen. These two have to reach some sort of reasonable balance in order for the person involved to flourish.

Exactly what that balance is and what its kind is seems like one of the the largest issues here, and unfortunately I don't have a well-worked out answer to that. But I am pretty confident that while the "worker" me and "citizen" me belong to two largely different realms, the act of trying to balance them when living one's life is not fundamentally a mistake, if for no other reason than how frequently the two overlap and conflict in day-to-day life (e.g. what products you purchase in the supermarket).

Anonymous said...

Good article, but one technical question: can you please consider redesigning the color scheme of the blog? Right now it is so black that my eyes hurt after reading for more than 5 minutes. It would be nice if you could sacrifice style for some more health-friendly outlook.

DOCTOR J said...

@Anonymous: I've considered altering the design of this site several times, and every time there has been an overwhelming response in FAVOR of the current settings. So, I apologize for your difficulty with the black background, but it looks like it's here to stay for the time being. (I assure you it isn't indicative of a generic emphasis on "style" over "health" on my part.)

If it helps any, you can always become a "follower"... in which case the blog posts will be delivered to your email inbox on a regular black-type-on-white-background format.

Reto said...

May I use your nice egghead picture for a personal blog post? I will put a related note to the source here. Very nice posting BTW!