Destroying the University

by Daniel A. Kaufman


We are witnessing a transformation of the University in the United States, the result of which will be its destruction, at least as the institution has been understood since the Second World War. Similar developments are afoot in other Western nations.

Some of the changes I will describe are at my own university, but Missouri State (formerly, Southwest Missouri State) is in many ways an everyman in American higher education: reasonably large (20,000 or so students), public, relatively undistinguished … the sort of place from which an awful lot of Americans receive their degrees. So, the developments I have observed over the course of my twenty years here undoubtedly will be familiar to many who attend or work in colleges and universities across the country.

My title suggests that I think what is happening is a bad thing, and I do to a great degree, as the University is a critically important institution. That said, what is happening represents an effort to correct for the wild and misguided expansion of the institution undertaken over recent decades. My worry is that we have now taken things to the point at which the correction itself has become wild and misguided; no longer a correction, but a wrecking ball.

By “the University,” I mean the institution that grants baccalaureate degrees and is staffed by largely doctorate-bearing faculty who teach students and engage in scholarly research. It may also offer masters and doctoral degrees, as well as professional graduate degrees in law, medicine, business, etc.

The University, understood this way, marries several distinct functions, within a single institution: (1) the acculturation of the next generation of elites, by way of the civilizing influence of the Studia Humanitatis that stretches back to the Renaissance and is the source of our present-day liberal arts curriculum; (2) the education of the next generation of scientists and engineers; (3) the preservation of the existing body of human knowledge and expansion of it by way of academic research; and (4) the preparation of students for entry into the “white collar” workforce.

(1) and (3) represent things the University has been tasked with doing since its origins in the Middle Ages. Science and engineering came to the institution in the wake of the Industrial Revolution (or at least, in the big way we are familiar with today), though their entry was the cause of some discomfort and conflict early on, as memorialized in C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture (later published under the title, The Two Cultures) and F.R. Leavis’s sharp – some may say intemperate – reply.

It is (4) that represents the biggest break with the history of the University – other than with regard to a small number of professions like Law – and which has been mostly responsible for the ongoing transformation of the institution that we see today.

In hindsight, it never made very much sense to use the University to train people for run-of-the mill professions, such as accounting, school teaching, restaurant management and the like. Given the academic pedigrees required of its faculty and the facilities necessary for the sciences and engineering, the University is a tremendously expensive institution, and it is unclear why your average accountant or fifth grade teacher or restaurant manager needs to be taught by a research-grade professor in their field or why they need to attend a school that also employs research-grade professors working in Form Criticism, Anthropological Linguistics, Latin Classics and the like.

What may have made little sense in hindsight is unmitigated lunacy in the current environment. Since the Second World War, but really picking up speed in the 1960’s and on, the University has become an instrument of mass education. The forces responsible for pushing it in this direction – the G.I. Bill, the expansion of the middle class, the de-industrialization of the country, social and cultural democratization – are many and complex, but the result has been that the overwhelming majority of a much larger population of students are at the University for one reason and one reason alone, namely (4): to prepare for entry into the white collar workforce. What we have discovered — and which should have been no surprise to anyone — is that this is unsustainable; that the University is far too expensive an institution in which to train every accountant, fifth grade teacher, restaurant manager, and the like and that the 4-5 years it takes in order to acquire a baccalaureate degree today is too long of a time in which to do it. Missouri is a rather poor state, with a population just slightly larger than that of Brooklyn and Queens, and yet we have two large state universities, four or five more regional ones, private universities and colleges, and scores of associates degree granting two year colleges. This could never last for very long and now is in the process of unraveling.

This unraveling involves a whole series of desperate moves, the purpose of which is to maintain the status quo; to allow the University to continue to provide mass professional education, despite the fact that it is entirely the wrong institution in which to do so. Instead of a much-needed correction, then (and at the end of these remarks, I will indicate what an appropriate correction might have looked like), what we are doing instead is riding the University to its death.

The single most important reaction to the transformation of the once elitist University into an instrument of mass education, beyond the unprecedented proliferation of colleges and universities itself, has been its adoption of what is essentially a business model, though one very heavy in administration, which is the academic equivalent of corporate middle-management. Of course, with the University adopting the posture of a business, students and their parents are turned into customers, and the governing logic of the institution as a whole becomes one of customer service and satisfaction. The most obvious indicators of this are the absurd (and absurdly costly) amenities that even modest colleges and universities now offer, but the evidence of business imperatives at work can be found throughout the entire institution and especially with respect to customer satisfaction regarding curricula.

The liberal arts curriculum has suffered the most in this regard and likely will never recover, as the new “Mass Ed. U” posed two very serious challenges: First, the social and cultural democratization that provided the moral rationale for mass higher education rendered the original mission of the liberal arts curriculum (to acculturate the next generation of elites) an embarrassment; second, as it turned out, the average aspirant accountant or restaurant manager has no interest whatsoever in studying the Iliad, Republic, Annals of Imperial Rome, Divine Comedy, Critique of Pure Reason or anything remotely like them. Enrollments and the number of students choosing majors in these areas predictably plummeted, relative to their pre-professional counterparts, and the new business-minded cadre of academic administrators predictably deemed this unacceptable. What to do, then, with all the philosophy, literature, classics, and other such faculty, now that we have them at every single one of the now greatly inflated number of colleges and universities in the state (and country)?

As a way of answering this question, those of us working in these areas found ourselves peddling some of the stupidest, most disingenuous nonsense about the humanities and liberal arts that one could imagine, namely that studying them provides “critical skills” that are “necessary” for everything from morality to good citizenship to the very capacity to think critically itself.† That this is obviously false is indicated by the significant numbers of people who have had such an education but exhibit none of these qualities and by the equally significant numbers of people who have had no such education and exhibit most or even all of them. That this is clearly disingenuous is evident from the fact that if we really believed it, we would require the intensive study of these subjects in primary and secondary school and perhaps even make it a condition for voting and citizenship but, of course, we do nothing of the sort.

Nonsense it may be, but peddle it we must, and the result has been the relegation of the once rich, highly sophisticated and refined tradition of arts and letters to a generic “General Education” curriculum, required of all students in tiny, disconnected, low-level morsels. The idea of general education may predate the emergence of Mass Ed. U, having been introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as disciplinary specialization began to take hold and concerns were raised that graduates would emerge too narrowly educated, but it didn’t take its current form, becoming what is essentially a ghetto for the humanities and liberal art, until Mass Ed. U had arrived on the scene.

It was always an unstable, slapped-together remedy and is already in the process of disintegrating. Whole departments in the humanities, liberal arts (including my own), and even some of the social sciences are entirely dependent on servicing these general education curricula, but the never-ending escalation of the cost of a University education, combined with the customer-satisfaction ethos of Mass Ed. U has sent everyone in search of other options. In my state, what we have done is reconceive our community colleges, turning them from largely vocational schools, tasked with preparing students for whatever remaining blue collar trades there are – electrician work, plumbing, HVAC, etc. – into cheap, front-end Universities. Through state action and a series of short-sighted, intellectually bankrupt “articulation agreements” that make it easy to transfer credits from one institution to another, we now financially incentivize even the best Missouri students to take all of their general education courses at our community colleges.

That this will turn our state Universities into two-year colleges themselves – the back-end to the community colleges’ front-end – and the havoc this will wreak upon every department and program, not just philosophy or religious studies, either has not occurred to the dim bulbs that fill academic administration or indicates that they simply do not care. For those of us who rely almost entirely upon general education enrollments, it is nothing less than an imminent death sentence.  For the more theoretical and abstract sciences and mathematics, the proverbial writing is on the wall, and they will face a similar fate not too far down the road. The number of their majors and minors are dwindling too, and unlike the humanities and liberal arts, they do not have much of a place in general education curricula. So while they may die a little later, they will do so much quicker.

Related shenanigans have eviscerated the study of modern languages. At Missouri State, despite the fact that very few students have been interested in majoring or even minoring in foreign languages for decades – this despite a rapidly globalizing economy and the obvious professional applicability of language proficiency within it – the modern language department survived on the university’s requirements for the Bachelor of Arts, which include two years of foreign language. Unsurprisingly, students fled the B.A.-granting disciplines in droves, leading those disciplines – including, I am ashamed to say, my own, under my leadership as Department Head – to drop their B.A. in favor of a B.S., the latter of which carries no language requirement. Hence, the bizarre spectacle of people getting B.S. degrees in philosophy, history, and the like, not to mention the elimination of the last thing sustaining the study of foreign languages to any degree. The B.A. is now essentially extinct on our campus, as is the study of foreign languages.

Colleges and universities seek accreditation from accrediting agencies in order to insure a certain kind of credibility, and for a while, inspired by the elimination of our Classics Department, I wondered just how much damage Missouri State could inflict on its humanities, liberal arts, and foreign language programs, before accrediting agencies would refuse to certify us as a credible baccalaureate granting institution. It was not long before I realized that the accrediting agencies are as much complicit in this stupid, corrupt, and destructive game as the University itself, and that Hell likely will freeze over before they do anything to halt or otherwise stem our self-engineered debasement and destruction.

The tragedy is that none of this was necessary. The need for mass professional education could have been met by building upon the tradition of vocational education that we already have in this country. Rather than the budget- and soul-busting expansion of the University that we undertook, we might have expanded the two-year community college system, so as to include both blue-collar and white-collar job training. Preparing people to be accountants and fifth grade teachers and restaurant managers requires neither research grade Ph.D. instruction nor expensive facilities and takes no longer than it does to train a plumber or electrician, and like the latter already do, the former would benefit tremendously from a comparable apprenticeship system.

Had we done this, not only would we have provided much better, more relevant, and significantly cheaper professional education, we would have left the far more expensive and rare University alone and intact, thereby allowing it to continue performing its own crucial functions, as described in (1), (2), and (3) above. And regarding (1), yes, we still have elites today, more than ever, and we always will. The only difference now is that on top of being elites, they are also philistines … which is not better.


† I addressed this in my essay, “On Some Common Rationales for Liberal Education (and why they aren’t very good).”


67 responses to “Destroying the University”

  1. s. wallerstein

    This is going to sound elitist, but the great works of art, literature, music and philosophy as well as the great discoveries of science seem like the glory of humanity to me. That being the case, isn’t it a good idea to expose
    as many people as we can to them while they are young and flexible enough to appreciate them? However, high school seems too early: I myself couldn’t understand Shakespeare in high school, but by the time I entered college, I could. It’s clear that the majority of people who are obliged to read Shakespeare or Plato or Sophocles in college are going to read them for the grade and forget them after the test, but a few are going to begin a lifelong love affair with great art and philosophy.

    My father studied accounting, which you refer to above, in the 1930’s during the great depression. It wasn’t a 4 year course and he studied at night and got a Bachelor of Commercial Science degree, not a B.A. He was pressured by the need to enter the labor force as soon as possible: his father had died, his mother was working as a secretary and the family needed another breadwinner. So he was not exposed to the humanities at that age and probably, given the economic pressure on him, he felt he had no time to waste on the life of the mind.

    That haunted him for the rest of his life. In retrospect, I believe that he would have been grateful to have been exposed to the classics while he was young. Yes, of course he could have taken night courses as an adult, but there was little time, he worked hard and retired very late in life, at an age when it is difficult to start from zero at something.

    So why not oblige students to study the humanities when they are in college. Some, even some of those who consider it to be a waste of time, will thank you for it later in life. I’m not saying that those people count more than the others, but they sure do count and you’re in a position to reach them.

    P.S. What beautiful women you teach!

  2. It’s the business model that is the problem, for it entails the customer service approach. But the business model itself is a consequence of mass education and its insane price tag.

    I just don’t see how you do all of it, with the 4-5 year time it takes, and not end up with an unsustainable price. If there was infinite money and a willingness on the part of universities to exercise real leadership, I’d be all for what you suggest.

  3. s. wallerstein

    As you can probably imagine, I’d say “cut military spending” and/or “tax the billionaires” and use the money to provide free or very low cost higher education for all who want it.

  4. I was thinking more about things that might actually happen. And even if you did it, you’d have the leadership problem. I just don’t see any stomach among academic administrators for telling students, “you have to take 4 years of French, whether you like it or not.”

  5. s. wallerstein

    I read French myself and I try to read French literature in the original, but with computador translation, studying foreign languages seems less and less important.

    My partner’s father was a Communist, disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship. During his studies in the Soviet Union he fathered a child who until a few years ago had little contact with her family in Chile. However, with Facebook she began to have more contact with her family here and a couple of years ago she visited Chile. She speaks no Spanish or English and her family here speaks Spanish and very fairly good English, but zero Russian. For a few weeks they spent all day together and communicated through translators in their cellphones. That technology gets better every year.

    However, I get your point. You could rephrase it (I guess) that academic administrators don’t have the stomach to tell students that they’re going to spend 4 years studying Greek tragedy, early modern philosophy, Renaissance art, and
    European history, etc.

  6. Animal Symbolicum

    I’d always ventured that the intellectualist legend, as articulated and challenged by Ryle, was partly responsible for the turn you describe, the turn from teaching through apprenticeship to teaching through classwork (where one’s having memorized statements of fact or of rule is supposed to amount to one’s having learned).

    But after reading your piece, I’m now more inclined to think the intellectualist legend, as exhibited in American universities, is an ideology in the Marxian sense: an ex post facto rationalization emerging in response to the material arrangements and forces you describe.

    The thought, in other words, is that the intellectualist legend is a deeply misleading story we tell ourselves in an attempt to justify the fact — a fact of our making — that restaurant managers and the like are now required to get a degree.

  7. I agree with one of your last suggestions – expand the enrollment in community colleges. A good example is the Canadian province of Quebec which requires all post-secondary students to attend community colleges before going into degree programs at Universities. They call the colleges CEJEPTs ( an acronym). Attendance at these CEJEPTs is virtually free. One thing you didn’t mention is the ridiculous cost of higher education in the U.S. An entire generation of millenials is in debt because of it. On the whole, I disagree with your account. Higher education is valuable to society. You only have to look at Trump and his Republican followers to see why. I can spell it out for you if you’d like: It’s easier to deceive uneducated people and keep them misinformed.

  8. Spell it out. I’d like to see the argument that justifies it without also entailing that it should be a condition for voting and other prerogatives for citizenship. I also don’t accept your judgments of tens of millions of people whom you don’t know. And your last sentence is obviously false as intellectuals and academics have been some of the most easily fooled and bamboozled people on the earth. The last century demonstrated that quite well.

  9. There is also a great deal of cosmo-snobbery involved, as the comment above demonstrates. It’s what got the Labour party the worst pasting in Britain, since the 1930’s, and is what will cost the Democrats the next election.

  10. Interesting analysis, but perhaps you’re overlooking something important: the dismal state of what is called over here “secondary education”, between the ages of 12 and 18.
    After 20 yrs. of meddling by educational researchers, sociologists and well-meaning politicians, secondary education is way too often producing 18 yr. old young people with the attention span of a golden retriever, who have great difficulty understanding a complex sentence and who have an overblown idea of their skills and capacities.

    Of course they need lots of higher education to become an “average accountant or fifth grade teacher or restaurant manager”.

    Not so long ago I had a conversation with a friend who is a professor of physics at a public (“state”) university. When I studied physics, a masters degree took four years, now it’s five. I asked him what the difference was. “Oh,” he said, “the main difference is that we now need that extra year to teach them all those things they already used to know when they arrived here”.

    It’s a huge waste of money, tenured professors teaching their students things for which tenure or having done research is completely unnecessary – but hey, there have never been more university students than now, and that certainly must be Good.

  11. I think the two are intertwined. The causality goes both ways.

  12. Murthwaite

    That’s a good idea, except for the fact that Canadian community colleges are now going through their own transformations, many now with a majority or near majority of international students, who pay much higher tuition fees than domestic students. Many (most?) have either little interest in the programs they are supposedly studying, and attempt to compress two years of study into one year by taking double-full time loads (which is allowed), so they can become permanent residents after graduation and go into the jobs they are really interested in (not related to their studies), or are already professionals in their home country and are only in college so as to be allowed to participate in the Canadian job market after they graduate. They are as bored with and disinterested in mandatory Gen. Ed. and communication courses as domestic job-oriented students are; even worse in a way, as these kinds of courses were not designed for them. It makes no sense, for example, to put a second-language student in need of higher-level academically-oriented language instruction, into a remedial high-school level communication course where the focus is on self-expression and grade-school level grammar. But that is what our college administrators have done. It is as if they were unaware of the very changes in education that they have brought about.

    (And a polite correction: it is CEGEP, College d’Enseignement General et Professionnel, not CEJEPT)

  13. Bharath Vallabha

    Interesting essay. On the alternate path, where (4) is separated from (1)-(3), where could the people going into the expanded vocational education get introduced to Plato and Kant? Seems there are only two options. Either they don’t get opportunity to learn Plato and Kant, or there would have to be structures for introducing, teaching and discussing philosophy outside universities. If the latter (which seems right and exciting to me), the alternate path would have required more than building on vocational education; it would have required building ways to get masses involved in the humanities outside of the liberal arts classroom (as being done by, say, Joseph Biehl as in your recent dialogue with him on Sophia, and by others now).

  14. Certainly i would support any number of efforts at making philosophy available to the public that wants it. But the overwhelming majority of students who are pursuing ordinary professional degrees don’t want it required of them in school.

  15. Voters do seem to like the idea of their children going to university. And here in Britain they seem to associate that with over half of the country’s children going to university. We renamed our polytechnics “universities” a few decades ago, which was popular. And the other half are encouraged to do training.

    We still have Oxbridge and other elite universities being quite distinct from all those other “universities”. Academics can be properly academic there. The problem there is still the old one, of them being full of the children of the well off. It would be nice if they were only for the very clever, but that is unrealistic in the world as it is. At least those children of the rich, destined for top jobs, are being exposed to a good culture.

    And there are wastes of money everywhere. Do we need all these bullshit jobs? Do we need all these family cars? Short of a command economy, run by an intellectual elite that actually knows what it is doing, the business model dominating “universities” is probably not the worst thing in the real world. The teachers there will be complaining about it in the presence of half the future population. Such places provide an environment that is explicitly intellectual, where young voters are continuing to talk to each other. Perhaps they will grow up to vote for something better.

  16. The model is destroying our universities. What I described going on at my school is not an exaggeration, nor is it rare.

  17. Bharath Vallabha

    Makes sense that students don’t want philosophy as a requirement. But they might want it as a option. Going to vocational school means not having it as a option.

    I think your analysis is great re current situation. Though I think the pre mass education university model would have died even if things had gone in the expanded vocational training route. It would just have died in a different way then. If the masses are to claim their rights as citizens, they need more than job and professional training; they need ways to connect to the traditions of philosophy, and in the west, liberal democracy. They need to get that from some place, if their schools are only to teach them how to be plumbers, nurses, etc. Those alternate places would directly be in competition with the elite universities claiming to do (1)-(3); not competition re physics, or anthropology, or formal epistemology, but certainly for phil, literature, history, political science, etc, which are connected to the masses being general reflective people.

  18. I very much disagree with the view that the study of philosophy is in any way necessary for a person to be a perfectly upstanding, productive, citizen. And I see no reason to think that working people — waitresses, carpenters, electricians, HVAC workers, etc — are any less qualified or competent to participate in a liberal democracy than anyone else.

    So I disagree entirely regarding what is required post High School. But regardless, the point is moot. The economics of the situation are going to force these changes upon us. It just would have been nice if we didn’t need to destroy the university in order to do it.

  19. ” If the masses are to claim their rights as citizens, they need more than job and professional training; they need ways to connect to the traditions of philosophy, ”

    = = = =

    I’m sorry, but I think this is just plain false.

  20. Indeed, I will allow working people to decide what they need to “claim their rights as citizens.” Seems like they are doing well without intellectuals advising them. Indeed, in Britain, they just effected the biggest, most devastating landslide since the 1930’s. Seems like they can do just fine without us.

  21. Bharath Vallabha

    Agree with your first paragraph broadly. But if phil is not needed for most people to be citizens or, additionally, to live a good life, why is it a problem that, say, academic phil as it was is getting destroyed? If it is a niche thing for people who just wanted the elite university faculty experience of doing phil because they enjoy it, I see no problem that it is disappearing. For people who wanted that, of course I can see it sucks. But don’t see anything normative following re what would have been better for society.

    I guess broadly I don’t have any nostalgia for what has or is getting lost, but see it only as an opportunity for what can be created now and which didn’t exist before.

  22. I think elite institutions are important for all the reasons I gave in the essay. It has nothing to do with nostalgia.

  23. Bharath Vallabha

    Dan, not trying to disagree. Just curious: on your view of the alternate model, the people who go to the vocational schools, what do you think they can do if they want to learn philosophy? Read intro books and take courses in their spare time the way they might with physics?

  24. Bharath, there is nothing wrong with disagreeing. I expect you to, as we have very different views about a great number of things. I do not write essays to be agreed with. I hope to be able to engage with critics.

    One thing on which we agree is that a rich, accessible landscape of public philosophy is an unmitigated good. And it is there that people who work in professions and trades can satisfy their philosophical interests. The internet, of course, also makes this much easier. Anyone can watch my entire Introduction to Philosophy course on YouTube. A well-produced survey, shot professionally in a studio, pitched at a level that any reasonably inquisitive adult can benefit from.

    People from around the world have watched these, and some of them email me. I always answer. In some cases, I provide additional reading lists, etc.

    I also think elite universities should do some public service. Perhaps, make their introductory level courses available free online. Some do this already. A person interested in philosophy has a ton of resources available, quite easily.

    The sad fact is that the research university, employing research grade PhDs with full science and engineering facilities is simply too expensive of an operation within which to train someone to be an accountant or third grade teacher. That’s just a cold, hard fact. And the way we are dealing with it now is going to destroy the institution. And I don’t see how that is to a working person’s better advantage than what I am suggesting.

  25. My mother’s father was born in County Antrim in 1902. He worked as a fitter and turner, beginning with his apprenticeship as a teenager. He migrated to Australia in the 30s. He had a large collection of “Everyman’s Library” books, and borrowed from public and other libraries. He would have been considered “uneducated” because he was reading Marcus Aurelius and Aristotle in translation.
    I think the idea that one needs an expensively run institution to schedule one’s reading of Shakespeare or well translated Sophocles, Plato or Kant is an assumption that should be probed.
    It occurs to me that these questions, about what makes for a good society, a good life, in the face of massive improvement in levels of education, technological change, and the increased wealth of society were addressed in the 19th century, too (I’ve got “Great Expectations” on my reading list, which I believe is Dicken’s worrying of some of these questions). Before the professionalisation of engineering, law, medicine (nursing, accounting, primary teaching … ) there were Mechanics Institutes, the Arts and Crafts movememnt, J. M. Dent’s publishing of Everyman’s Library, and more – all part of democratising the fine things of high culture and the newest insights of science and technology. I think opening universities to larger and larger segments of the population is part of the same impulse, but it’s by no means the only way to nurture and sustain a culturally rich civic life.

  26. I agree with you.

  27. Bharath Vallabha

    Certainly agree re disagreeing. I meant more like “I don’t meant to be argumentative in an annoying way”. Thanks for helpful reply.

  28. Never annoying Bharath. Never.

  29. I don’t know what I think about the end of the academy, likelihood or consequence. I’ve always considered you the most adaptable bunch – in the age of faith you were all priests and monks, with the renaissance you became classicists and humanists, then researchers after the enlightenment, professionals after the rise of the professions, and in the second half of the twentieth century purveyors of services in a free market. I had always thought, whatever was coming next, the academy would weather the storm.

  30. I am sure that it is quite common, and that your perceptions are good. I am just saying that life is all about things changing, and that it could be a good thing that you are not alone in your complaining, to a captive audience (students) who are there in too-great numbers, about the model destroying our universities. Such models are also destroying wider society and the environment. Complaining that such models are destroying our universities might be a blessing in disguise. It might be academia finally pulling its weight.

    When we still had the left-overs of the command economies of the Wars, we used to have better universities. But that was not a perfect world, and attempts to make that world better turnout out to be immature and ill-thought-out. Those universities were lovely in hindsight, but they seem to have been vulnerable to the later corruptions of freedom. Still, if anyone could learn the lessons of what happened, it is they (you). To paraphrase Marx, I think that the point is not to understand in an ivory tower, but to change the world for the better. The world might not need your school to become an ivory island of excellence, in a world that would inevitably exploit that excellence; it might need your complaints that it is not. (Just a thought.)

    Why was Obama followed by Trump? America clearly needs better voters. And so universities that are too big because of their business models is a hidden blessing. You get a lot of academics not liking it, and a lot of future voters having to listen to them. Free societies need to be less obsessed with growth, if the world is to survive. And young people do seem to have better views than older people, perhaps because of so many of them have been going to “university”.

  31. s. wallerstein

    The fact that intellectuals and philosophers have bought into some of the more ridiculous political ideologies around does not necessarily imply that studying philosophy does not provide tools that can make you a better citizen. As you (Dan K.) point out in one of your Sophia dialogues (I forget which one), you can learn those tools in many disciplines and in many fields outside of academia, but philosophy certainly is one area where those tools can be learned. That philosophy can be misused has been clear since the days of Plato, hence, his many dialogues which criticize the sophists, who, according to Plato, misuse the tools of reasoning. So while the tools of reasoning do not necessarily make you into a better citizen (Nazism arose in one of the most educated societies in Europe and one where philosophical education was widespread. Eichmann cited Kant during his trial, although Hannah Arendt points out that he misunderstood Kant completely), it sure can help.

  32. J. Bogart

    At some point you will need to address credentialing in employment. Employers quite widely require university degrees for entry level positions and for promotion. So in a sense you are looking at changing the economy.

  33. Even if that is true, how essential are you willing to deem it? The problem with the discourse is that it is made out to be so essential that one would have to make it mandatory for civic participation if one was being consistent.

  34. s. wallerstein

    It shouldn’t be mandatory for civil participation.

    I think that we can agree than an informed voter, one who has studied the issues and the candidates, will make better choices when voting than one who votes for candidates because he or she likes their looks or because of the candidate’s astrological sign, but we can’t really forbid people from voting because they decide their choices based on astrology.

  35. “ Why was Obama followed by Trump America clearly needs better voters.”


    The clueless self-importance of this is just amazing. Are you sure you weren’t in charge of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign?

    I would say that going from Obama to Trump shows us we need better candidates. I am not going to presume to tell someone in one of the shitty, de-industrialized parts of the country who Hillary Clinton ignored and maligned how to be a “better voter” or what his interests are.

  36. Agreed. I just don’t think formal education is nearly as useful in this regard as you do. I can’t think of a politically stupider group of people than the students at elite colleges.

  37. s. wallerstein

    Privileged people take longer to grow up than common people (to use the term from the song) do. Money shields them from reality. A more valid test would be to see if graduates from elite colleges were still so politically stupid 25 years after finishing college.

  38. College professors are probably the second stupidest . 😆

  39. s. wallerstein

    Almost all of us gravitate toward ideas which confirm what we already believe. So kids at elite colleges, who have never had to face the fact that life is harsh, cruel, unjust and irrational, because their daddy’s money buys them a dream world (just like the woman’s daddy in the Pulp song, Common People), will gravitate towards ideas which confirm their perspective, for example those which link all harshness, cruelness, injustice and irrationality to the capitalist system (I’m not saying that the capitalist system isn’t harsh, cruel, unjust and irrational by the way), which allows them in addition to pretend to have transcended their capitalist parents.

    Let’s take two works which I read in college and which I assume kids still do, Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Hobbes’s Leviathan (I didn’t read it all) and which tell us that it’s life itself which is harsh, cruel, unjust and irrational.
    At first such works are not going make much of an impression on woke kids from elite colleges, but sooner or later, life strikes back and almost all of us wake to the fact it’s life itself that’s harsh, cruel, unjust and irrational. Works such as that of Freud or of Hobbes take a while to sink it, but with time they do for most or many of us. Some deny reality all their lives, but that takes a special talent.

  40. Buckley long ago had this quip that he would rather be ruled by the first 400 people in the phone book than by the Harvard Faculty, and I feel similarly. I’d rather elections be determined by Diner waitresses than by American philosophy faculty.

  41. s. wallerstein

    The best U.S. president in my lifetime was a professor at the University of Chicago (as elite as Harvard is), Barack Obama. Far from perfect, far from ideal, far from miraculous, but very possibly as good as it gets in the U.S.A.

  42. I voted for him twice, but he is pretty wildly overrated.

  43. Worth noting that that many who voted for him twice in Swing states, voted for Trump, rather than Hillary.

  44. I like boring, efficient, non-ideological presidents. Eisenhower types.

  45. s. wallerstein

    When I said that the best president in my lifetime is Obama, I really meant the best president in my lifetime following politics. I was 14 when Kennedy was elected and so Eisenhower for me was a guy I associated with my grandfather since they were both bald and played golf.

    However, the U.S. under Eisenhower was a different, simpler, less diverse country, in a simpler world with one clear adversary, the Soviet Union.

    The U.S. and the world are incredibly complex today and we need complex leaders, such as Obama, to deal with our world. There are so many variables to deal with and Obama was relatively successful in dealing with them. His foreign policy towards Latin America was probably as good as you can expect from a U.S. president. He reached out to Cuba, he played a role in the peace process in Colombia after 50 years of civil war, he didn’t fuck with Venezuela in the way Trump is doing. The only negative point is the coup in Honduras, but I don’t expect perfection.

  46. What about the Libya fiasco?

  47. s. wallerstein

    Libya: very bad move on Obama’s part.

    On the other hand, he made the deal with Iran, which seems wise to me.

  48. Given your remark about your preference for non-ideological presidents, what did you think of George H. W. Bush? Jonathan Rauch (in 2000) called him “our greatest modern president.”

  49. Trump is making him look better every day.

  50. Charles Justice

    According to Pew Research, twice as many white non-college grads voted for Trump as white college grads. See: If you have so little faith in University Education maybe you should consider retiring.

  51. Thanks for the advice, but I’ll continue teaching for as long as I like.

  52. Thanks for the correction. The rise in foreign students in Canada has a lot to do with Trump’s policies in the U.S. Their loss is our gain.

  53. I am a passionate believer in the teaching of philosophy in high school, and, in fact, earlier. By philosophy, I don’t mean in the ‘formal/academic’ (Kant, Plato…) sense, but as a means of getting students to think and especially to think differently. I have been involved in the preparation of lesson plans, and the results have been amazing, even for young ages. Whatever students do after high school, whether academic or trade, the possibility and ability to think ‘out of the box’ will always be of help.

  54. I agree. Most of what’s driving credentialism is businesses demanding pieces of paper proving you are worthy of hiring. It used to be companies trained their employees. Now they leave all that training stuff up to the individual and society and want new hires to just hit the ground running. This probably also relates to Dan’s point about universities becoming actual businesses themselves, acting as a supply chain of ‘qualified’ workers for other businesses. In addition, a lot of university programs have either added or shifted their courses to online e-learning studies. A technical writing program that I took in person at a local community college a few years ago for instance, has now put the course entirely online, and laid off half the program staff in the process. It seems every Faculty and every Department must generate its own profit now, and some of these are turning into online ‘digital diploma mills’, something that David F. Noble warned about in his 2012 book of the same name.

    As for the romanticization of the blue collar, working class hero trope being bandied about here, it’s pure fiction. I grew up with these ‘wise’ salt of the earth types. My dad was a carpenter, and all his friends were trades people, and they were all idiots. They got their politics from mainstream culture and conventional wisdom, not from any kind of deep thinking. And working in jobs beside these same kind of people most of my adult life — as a construction laborer, a cook, a courier, an oilfield worker, a retail clerk, etc.– taught me just how gullible most of them are to the self destructive ideology of conservatism. But of course, there are idiots in every segment of society. I don’t mean to single out the working class.

    Still, I don’t want to be ruled by anyone, especially people like diner waitresses. That’s how Trump got elected in the first place.

  55. I’m not romanticizing anything. I worked in the restaurant and other service and “labor” industries for many years.

  56. Kripkensteinsmonster303

    Great piece! As someone living in Britain, I wonder if you have any thoughts about our academic institutions. For my part, I’d say that the decline in educational standards caused by the abolition of grammar schools, among other things, making the university’s job harder, and has resulted in more people feeling that university was needed than would be the case if secondary education was at the standard we had between the 40s and 60s.

  57. where you watch your news properly research you’ll know that he is one of the worst Presidents ever did more to advance the Muslim Brotherhood and Islam in general plus ,ain’t heard bout pallets of cash to Iran ?

  58. You should never assume that others’ views differ from yours because you have done your research and they haven’t.

  59. So have I, and we usually had to be very careful anytime the kitchen or the front were being renovated because the construction workers were always stealing things. In the 8+ years I worked as a cook in various restaurants, I never once met any of those enlightened diner waitresses you’d rather be ruled by.

  60. s. wallerstein

    I didn’t know that you had introductory lectures on philosophy in Youtube until you referred to them above.

    I just listened to the first one and half of the second, and from what I can see, I’ll end up watching the whole series, little by little. Your presentation is very clear, neither over my head nor too simplistic for me. Thanks.

  61. Guess we met different people. I worked in the business on and off for two decades

  62. I’m so glad you are enjoying it!

  63. I have struggled trying to determine a reply to this article. I am partly a product of the education boom of the ’60s and ’70s, and am grateful for it. A voracious reader, I could easily have been an autodidact had I not attended colleges; and of course I had the benefit of the kind of high-school education one could acquire in that period, which all but disappeared by the end of the ’80s, apparently. Nonetheless, college enriched my learning by providing access to texts and experiences i could never have had otherwise, as well as challenging discussions concerning these. I owe it a lot. But I am also aware how historically special it was.

    I taught as an adjunct for 12 years; the experience grew less and less rewarding as administrators and their oft conflicting regulations increasingly interfered with the possibility of a creative curriculum, to the point where a steadier – and greater – income seemed preferable to the enjoyment of teaching. Still, I count college professors and adjuncts as friends and correspondents to this day, and sympathize with all the complaints I hear from them..

    But the struggle with the many conflicting emotions remaining as legacy to this personal history has resolved in a most desultory way. I find that I don’t really care what happens to The University, have no investment in its future, and would not be much concerned if it vanished all together. Socially and culturally, the Humanistic tradition has been dead since the turn of the century. The media explosion of the 21st century has reduced its legacy to a joke – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly. But of course it was failing even when made widely available through public education.

    The push for universal education began with in the Protestant cultures of the Reformation, which developed an insistence that everyone ought top be able to read the Bible. Then, when the Bourgeoisie came to dominate the economics and politics of the West by the early 19th Century, they found themselves with a problem – an excess of leisure time. They didn’t really want to spend all that free time reading the Bible; and just getting drunk and sleeping around was self-destructive. So they began to lay claim on the entertainments of the aristocracy. What had been created for the enjoyment of the few was now proclaimed the birth-right of “the People; initially the well-to-do, but, under the pressures of democratic politics, that of the citizenry of the culture as a whole. This generated confusions and internal conflicts, especially among those who accepted the task of creating new cultural artifacts. Cultural criticism necessarily developed to clarify the confusions and mollify the internal contradictions. By the 20th Century, this had become well-ensconced in The University, which had originally developed to teach law and theology, taking science research under its wing around the mid 1800s.

    The social usefulness of these developments should be obvious. The wealthy were provided something interesting to do; the working class were provided motivating aspirations. The illusion of a common cultural heritage helped bind the general social fabric. Great ideas and moving sensory experiences were made available to any willing to exert the effort to acquire them. Any convolutions or confusions would be ironed out by the critics in University Humanities Departments, the professors of which produced an extraordinary number of books and articles for public readership.

    Most of this is now ancient history, as many young people will tell you (although they are incapable of explanation). The wealthy are no longer interested in cultural legacy, the working class no longer aspire to it. Ideas are largely irrelevant to the media quarrels of today, and sensory experiences are more immediately acquired through CGI and ‘virtual reality.’ No one really believes we share a common cultural heritage any more.

    The ‘business model’ is part of the problem, not its origin (and I’m not saying you think it is). But what I would like to suggest is that this ‘business model’ is an inevitable effort to commodify nostalgia for the earlier era of which I write and sell it as a social and economic necessity (all commodities sell better if they are understood as necessities). Hundreds of thousands still buy into this, obviously, and so far have kept The University afloat. How long will this last (in one formation or another)? Who can say. But the age of The University we inherited from the 19th century is already over. If yourself or any other of my academic friends needs my support to keep their departments, their own universities, their continued employment viable, I would do what I could – write letters, sign petitions, even perhaps donate/ But I don’t need to learn how live without The University – I already know how, I already do that. I have for years. I think many of us have; and I suspect more and more will do so in the future.

  64. Hardy

    “Related shenanigans have eviscerated the study of modern languages. At Missouri State, despite the fact that very few students have been interested in majoring or even minoring in foreign languages for decades – this despite a rapidly globalizing economy and the obvious professional applicability of language proficiency within it”

    This is the kind of mistake that fooled nearly a generation of college students who majored in a foreign language, or dedicated considerable credits to studying one, together with studying abroad. Knowing a foreign language under globalization. Doesn’t. Matter. Why? Because there are tens to hundreds of millions of native speakers in that language, and given the rise of mass English education throughout the entire world, most companies, whether foreign or domestic, will hire the native speaker nine times out of ten or more, especially if the native speaker is from a country with a lower standard of living (and therefore reduced pay/benefits expectations). Even when combined with another skill like accounting or computers. There are languages that are exceptions to this, where one in fact can make a living on language skills (often in military/intelligence fields), but thinking that three years of Portuguese and a semester in Rio de Janeiro is going to set you up with a cushy corporate job in sales or account management splitting time between Miami and Brazil upon graduation is a fantasy that was peddled to middle and upper-middle class Americans throughout the 2000s. Such employers will just hire the Brazilian whose English is functional enough.

  65. Ok. I happen to have a number of friends whose experience contradicts your characterization here. All work for American companies abroad.

  66. OC

    I came to the comments to say something like this but you have said well most of what I was thinking.

    I’m reminded also of physicist Robert Wilson’s reply to a Senator asking about the “national security” benefits of building a particle accelerator (i.e., was it going to give the US a magic death ray): “it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

    I believe you can say the same thing about provision of higher ed. (And totally agree with what you said about young peoples’ readiness to learn between HS and university age.) Most of the people in my circle are non-academics, as am I, and most did not continue past a post-college professional degree, if that. But many are interested in books, in movie and entertainment criticism, in modern science, in politics and even in philosophy. The university gives people an opportunity to taste of those where they will. Also, the university is a public good, not just for the undergrads. For my own part, I spurned history at the time, but now find it fascinating. (Events of 100 years ago have a different salience at age 20 than at 60.) Thanks to the release of course materials, lectures & podcasts, I can find lots of ways to scratch that itch.

    As a Californian since right after the passage of Prop 13, which eviscerated state spending on pretty much everything, I recall that the rapidly expanding UC system was until then able to provide anyone reasonably qualified with a world class education for almost no cost to the student (a few hundred dollars per semester as I recall). Now, with per-capita GDP greater than that of Switzerland or Norway, the state contributes only about 5% of the UC system’s budget and tuition is close to that of private schools. So I submit that the big problem is not with the institutions of higher ed (though they surely have problems – witness the growth in spending on administration), but rather with the choices we Americans have made about what is worth spending our vast wealth on.

  67. Hardy

    I believe what you say about your friend circle, but as I referenced, my statement is aimed at those who went to college during the bulk of the aughts and better part of 2010s, i.e. in the run-up to and aftermath of the financial crisis, so our age difference may play significant part in accounting for our differing experience. My experience is what I presented in my characterization, though; friends of mine (all graduated less than a decade ago) who majored/minored in German, Japanese, Russian, and accounting/Korean who ended up doing nothing with the language except study abroad/teaching English in those countries for a year or two and ended up having to go in completely different directions, like graduate or professional school. And I understand why companies do this: with leaner budgets than pre-Crisis, hiring a language major who you will likely have to teach job skills to is much more costly than hiring someone who already has job skills, is natively fluent in that language, and has functional English.

    Which isn’t to say that learning a language is worthless, I loved my language classes, even if the only time I used my Mandarin since college was on a vacation to China, but its salience on a resume is rapidly diminishing given the expanding pool of labor (there are exceptions, though, like Arabic). I feel as if I would have been better served studying the language independently, or through a native speaker friend, so as to dedicate those credit hours to more technical skills.