(Higher) Education Is Destroying America

“[Y]ou offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they … seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” – Plato’s Phaedrus

“I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University,” conservative icon William F. Buckley notoriously remarked. I have always thought of his oft-quoted quip as just that: a clever quip. But we have reached the point today where, given the choice Buckley was contemplating, I would vote for the 2,000 Average Joes over the 2,000 professors in a heartbeat. Even in a firmly Democratic-blue city like Boston, where the politics of ordinary citizens might resemble the professors’ political preferences far more than they would resemble mine, I wholeheartedly believe that those 2,000 random names would bring to the task of governance more common sense and more diversity of opinion. They would ultimately create a healthier, more vibrant and more livable society. And I strongly suspect that I am increasingly far from alone in that view.

Consider this apparent paradox: commanding, as they do, behemoth corporate entities, the media, the entertainment industry and the social media and tech hubs of Silicon Valley, the educated today arguably wield more power, influence and ubiquitous social control than they have ever wielded in American history, and yet they are also as scorned and distrusted as they have ever been. The prevalence of loony conspiracy theories on the political right notwithstanding, less educated people have their reasons for feeling conspired against and for distrusting those who are ostensibly their betters. They distrust the educated contingent’s claims to knowledge and expertise because they both consciously and instinctively know that such “experts” can no longer be trusted, that knowledge claims by the educated elites now routinely come packaged with liberal doses of barely concealed political prejudice. Experts are the ones who tell us that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden will defeat Donald Trump in a blowout and that Democrats are set to pick up significant gains and take control of both houses of Congress in the 2020 election. Experts are the unelected backroom technocrats at Twitter and Google who take it upon themselves, despite having transparent political biases and no obvious qualifications for such roles, to intervene on the side of “Truth” in complex political and factual debates — inevitably citing as backup for their decisions some of their favorite sources, such as CNN or The Washington Post — and then proceed to label, take down, bury and censor competing claims and their conservatives or contrarian sources. Experts are the ones who issue confident pronouncements about Covid-19, only to issue inconsistent but equally confident pronouncements a few weeks or months later, the ones who tell us masks don’t help to protect healthy individuals only to completely reverse that guidance, the ones who command us that frequenting religious services, Trump rallies, restaurants, hair salons or family gatherings poses a mortal risk to our health while turning a blind eye to or even throwing full support behind massive #BLM protests or disregarding their own edicts and going unmasked into chic hair salons or large parties at expensive French restaurants. And, as I’ll have reason to discuss in more detail below, the kind of “expertise” that emanates from the mainstream media or the educational establishment is egregious in its political biases.

The reason for the problem is simple: the “educated” have become a stale, stagnant monoculture, a culture within which groupthink reigns, within which prejudice predominates, bad ideas go unchallenged and the worst ideas get insulated from scrutiny by strictly enforced taboos. In fact, the more “elite” the quality and quantity of the education people receive, the more herd-minded, prejudiced and intolerant of dissent they become. The danger of this predicament is not just one for political conservatives to bear; when a diversity of ideas is choked out by years of ideological indoctrination and enforced conformity, when thought police patrol our public and private spaces and factual claims and ideas remain untested in the crucible of free and open debate, the resulting harm is borne by all. As I will explain in what follows, the ultimate issue springs from a tectonic shift in the complexion of our educational institutions. It will not be solved until those institutions are shaken to their very foundations and remade from the ground up.

Driving Polarization

In recent studies, education — the very thing that is supposed to open minds — has repeatedly been found, instead, to create closed-minded filter bubbles. A 2019 study by the polling and analytics firm PredictWise, retained by The Atlantic for the purpose of analyzing partisan prejudice, found that a high level of education was strongly correlated with political intolerance. The Atlantic reported as well on prior research from University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz that had concluded that “white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity” and that “people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives.” Mutz’s explanation was that such people are less likely to talk with those who disagree with them.

A 2019 study by the “More in Common” project that analyzed the accuracy of people’s perceptions about their ideological opposites reached similar conclusions. Among its notable findings was that “the more educated a person is, the worse their Perception Gap” — their distorted view of and tendency to attribute extreme positions to those on the “other side.” But the “one critical exception” to this finding is that it applies only to Democrats, not Republicans:

[W]hile Republicans’ misperceptions of Democrats do not improve with higher levels of education, Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn. This effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.

Why does this differentiation exist? The “More in Common” research echoes Diana Mutz’s conclusion: “Highly educated Democrats are the most likely to say that ‘most of [their] friends’ share their political beliefs.” While the political composition of Republicans’ circle of acquaintances does not correlate with education, for Democrats the correlation is very direct: the more education they receive, the less likely they are to associate with anyone who disagrees with them. And there is good reason to believe that the composition of those with whom one pals around plays a causal role in creating polarized groupthink: as research by Cass Sunstein, David Schkade and Reid Hastie has demonstrated, when people spend time discussing issues with like-minded others, their views predictably become more extreme.

Education’s Left Turn

Has education always cooked up an over-saturated brew bubbling over with an overpowering flavor of left ideological extremism? No. Pew Research Center findings from 2016 show a widening ideological gap between 1994 and 2015 among those who are more versus less educated. One metric examined the extent to which people’s views have become monolithically down-the-line liberal or conservative over the years. In 1994, one percent of those whose educations stopped after their high school graduation or even earlier leaned “consistently liberal,” while that number was four percent for those with “some college,” five percent for college graduates and seven percent for post-grads — a small upward progression but, all in all, not a massive difference. By 2015, however, the educational divide had become a gulf: five percent of those in the high-school-or-less category were consistently liberal in their views, but those numbers were 12% of those with some college, 24% of college graduates and 31% of post-grads. No similar pattern obtained for those who were “consistently conservative.” Both in 1994 and in 2015, the percentage of down-the-line conservatives hovered between six percent and 11 percent across all education categories, with no particular correlation with education to be found. The massive growth in the consistently liberal-minded over the course of these two decades had not come at the expense of conservatives, but rather, largely at the expense of those with less partisan and more “mixed” political views. While 53% of the “high school or less” crowd had held ideologically “mixed” views in 1994 and 48% held mixed views in 2015, among post-grads, that number had declined from 38% in 1994 to 24% in 2015. The conclusion: something has shifted dramatically over the course of the past 20 years to yield a direct correlation between how many years of education we have had and the extent to which we are immersed in an across-the-board liberal monoculture.

What changed is education itself. Beginning in the late 1980s — not long before the political opinions of the “educated” began to veer sharply to the left — education itself went from being a universally touted pathway to personal enlightenment and professional advancement to becoming a one-sided purveyor of political ideology. Belying any notion that university professors are inherently liberal-minded mainly because liberals are simply more curious and open-minded than their conservative brethren, not so very long ago, a fairly even split in political affiliations could still be found: in 1984, 39% of college faculty identified as left/liberal, while 34% identified as right/conservative, as reported in a 2005 paper from Stanley Rothman et al. A massive sea-change materialized over the course of the ensuing decade-and-a-half, according to the same paper: by 1999, 72% of faculty (and 81% among humanities faculty) identified as left/liberal, and 15% identified as conservative. By 2018, the situation had become still more dire, especially at the most elite universities. A comprehensive National Association of Scholars report from April 2018 headed by Mitchell Langbert of Brooklyn College, which tracked the political registrations of 8,688 tenure-track professors at top liberal arts colleges, found that “78.2 percent of the academic departments in [his] sample have either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference.” At the leftward end of the spectrum were the newly emerged ideological fields, such as gender studies and Africana studies, in which there was not “a single Republican with an exclusive appointment.” Again, casting serious doubt upon any notion that academics are overwhelmingly liberal simply because liberals are better suited to be eggheads, the political affiliations of university administrators are now similarly skewed far to the left. A 2018 survey of 900 college administrators by Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College revealed that 71% identified as liberal, and only 6% identified as conservative.

I have explored the causes of this seismic shift at length elsewhere, and suffice it to say here that the gradual replacement of a highly literate elite by a techno-financial elite dislodged the academic humanities from their once-vaunted perch in which they had served a pragmatic economic function (not a function that I believe true higher education should serve in any event, as I will make clear later). This change opened the door for a takeover of these departments by 60s radicals entering their 40s and 50s and positions of peak influence in the mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s. These original culture warriors succeeded in repurposing the humanities (dragging other university departments behind them to greater or lesser extents), deflecting them from the tasks of education, enlightenment and career prep and re-orienting them to the mission of social critique. The academic humanities, having been displaced from their prestigious mission of preparing a new generation for elite careers, found a new way of clawing back what they had lost by adopting a less practical but, in their eyes, still more critical mission: preparing a new generation of those who could claim elite status by virtue of their ability to stand in judgment over the rest of us. They spawned a new array of ideological victimology departments within academia and a market for diversity consultants and sensitivity training within corporate America and for hysterical and sensationalized media coverage of alleged oppression and persecution of “marginalized” and “vulnerable” minorities of every sort.

Distorted Academic Priorities

It is the lack of ideological diversity, not liberal bias per se, that presents the bigger challenge. I would not want universities or other institutions to be dominated by conservative groupthink any more than I want the current alternative. Thoroughgoing conservative bias at universities that are supposed to cultivate out-of-the-box thinking and groundbreaking research would, I assume, result in stagnation. But this is not the reality with which we are dealing. What we have is overwhelming liberal bias, not conservative bias. And liberal bias at institutions principally intended to instill a love of learning, an appreciation of a great tradition and the pursuit of lux et veritas creates its own specific problems.

A recent study from SUNY New Paltz’s Glenn Geher et al. — a study, it should be noted, that the authors had trouble publishing because of its politically explosive conclusions — building upon the prior work of prominent NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt, found that the profound liberal bias in much of academia today is not without consequence. The researchers surveyed 177 academics in a variety of universities about their political orientations and personality characteristics as measured on the “Big Five” model of personality and then asked them to assign weights to five possible priorities: academic rigor, academic freedom, student emotional well-being, social justice and the advancement of knowledge. What they found is not surprising, but it is disturbing: liberal professors were significantly more likely to place a higher value on social justice and student emotional well-being than were their conservative colleagues, who tended to place a higher value on academic rigor and the advancement of knowledge. While many modern-day liberal academics — whether following in the tradition leading back to the prominent mid-20th century liberal Columbia sociologist C. Wright Mills or of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci ­— believe in activist scholarship, few of us would disagree that if academic rigor and the advancement of knowledge are not at the very forefront of university professors’ priorities, the reputation and reliability of scholarship suffers, and mass skepticism of the politicized professoriate starts to seem justified. Still more concerning is that these researchers found that, of the academics surveyed, those who taught in schools of education — the places that teaches the teachers to whom our kids are handed over for instruction — were the most likely to hold social justice and student emotional well-being in highest esteem. Indeed, we are seeing pre-college education today becoming both radicalized (with 79% of teachers leaning left, including 87% of high school teachers and 97% of English teachers, and becoming increasingly hostile to religion, so much so that they are one of the primary causes of its decline) and racialized (with school systems throughout the country beginning to teach The New York Timesdiscredited, ahistorical and hate-filled “1619 Project” as actual history).

Finally, the study found the Big-Five personality trait of “agreeableness” to be positively correlated with a preference for social justice and student emotional well-being and negatively correlated with academic rigor and advancement of knowledge. While the researchers’ proffered explanation for that result is that agreeable people are more likely to be “inclined to help students with issues that are not strictly academic,” my interpretation of their data would be different: agreeableness is known to be correlated with “conformity to social norms and expectations,” while disagreeable people are less concerned with what others think. Because liberal pro-social justice dogma is unquestionably an ascendant orthodoxy at universities, while dissent requires real intestinal fortitude, it makes total sense that those who are most agreeable are most likely to follow the herd. From this standpoint, therefore, the disturbing aspect of the role of agreeableness in these research results is that it signals that many academics are not so much joining a dominant consensus due to their own independently reasoned conclusions as they are, for fear of bucking the tide, reflexively hopping aboard a bandwagon — and, in the end, adding dead weight to what is fast becoming a sinking ship.

Sowing Ignorance and Stifling Debate

As I have already begun to suggest above, the impact of this comparatively rapid transformation in the core complexion of university staff upon the rest of society has been monumental and remains one of the great under-reported stories of the past few decades. Today, nearly three-quarters of students enrolled in U.S. News & World Report’s top ten colleges identify as liberal, while only 15% identify as conservative. Far from cultivating any spirit of open-minded inquiry of the sort one might expect to be the outcome of a university education, however — but consistent with the findings of the Glenn Geher et al. research profiled above — those top universities are leading the anti-intellectual crackdown against “disfavored” viewpoints. Here, according to FIRE’s survey of 20,000 students from a variety of American universities from earlier this year, are some of their attitudes concerning measures they think may appropriately be taken with respect to speakers with whom they disagree:

Students from Universities Ranked 50 or Below Students from Top 10-Ranked Universities
Okay to tear down speaker flyers/announcements 60% 73%
Okay to block entrances to speaker events 37% 50%
Okay to use violence to stop speakers 17% 21%

These numbers, as a whole, will be disturbing to anyone who values open-minded intellectual inquiry, but the numbers from top-ranked universities are especially alarming, showing a pronounced inability on the part of our purpotedly “best and brightest” to abide opposing views.

More evidence concerning the unrepresentative and muddle-headed beliefs of the highly educated comes from the large 2018 “Hidden Tribes” demographic survey of political attitudes. The survey found that the left-most grouping — those who could be described as “Progressive Activists” — are the wealthiest and most educated subgroup in America, with 59% of this overwhelmingly white subgroup having completed college, as contrasted with a 29% average in the general population. Such people are far more likely to be politically engaged (73% as compared to a general-population average of 35%) and, for that reason, “have an outsized role in political debates.” Such people are also obsessed with what they perceive to be racism, sexism and other identity-based discrimination, and a whopping 69% of them (as compared to 24% of all Americans) are “ashamed to be American.”

Zach Goldberg’s 2019 discussion of data pertaining to such white liberals documents the fact that their leftward shift in beliefs is of relatively recent vintage but largely predates Trump’s Presidency and is, thus, not attributable to him or his policies. Among the highlights:

  • The percentage of these liberals who thought anti-black discrimination to be a “very serious” problem did not change much between 1996 (27%) and 2010 (25%), yet it shot up to 47% in 2015 and to 58% in 2016.
  • In 1995, 2000 and 2007, white liberals were evenly split among those who thought the criminal justice system fair to blacks and those who thought it biased against them. But by 2014, there was a 70%/20% gap in favor of those who thought the system biased.
  • 29% of white liberals perceived there to be “a great deal” of discrimination against immigrants in 2000; in 2013, that number had risen to 57%. The percentage of liberals feeling “very sympathetic” to illegal immigrants rose from 22% to 42% between 2006 and 2014.

Notably, in each of these cases ­— and especially in the cases of racial issues, with our first black President having still been in office through the end of 2016 — there was no obvious, relevant real-world change for the worse that would have spurred the very significant attitudinal change reflected in these numbers. It is the skewed content of their education, not rational considerations spurred by real-world changes, that is getting these highly educated liberals to alter their views.

At least four more of Goldberg’s conclusions with respect to these white liberals merit attention:

  • The attitudes of these liberals on race issues and immigration issues are significantly to the left of the attitudes of the very minorities they claim to represent.
  • These white liberals have recently developed a significant pro-outgroup bias, meaning that, by a significant margin, they prefer other racial groups to their own. Goldberg calls such an unusual bias “unprecedented,” and of course, no other group — blacks, Hispanics, Asians or non-liberal whites — exhibits such a bias.
  • Their “lack of awareness of how fast and far their attitudes have shifted fosters an illusion of conservative extremism,” whereas the data indicates that “[i]n reality, the conservatives of today are not all that different from the conservatives of years past.”
  • Consistent with the conclusion of the “Hidden Tribes” survey, Goldberg observes that while “[w]hite liberals make up 20-24% of the general population, … [they] exert an outsize political and cultural influence. They are more likely to consider themselves activists, are more active on social media, and, significantly, they are one of the most affluent groups in the country.”

That last point, in particular, merits further reflection. Rich, university-educated white liberals are precisely the kinds of people who rise to prominent and influential positions in what used to be called “media” but what, at this point (for much the same reasons professional wrestling is now commonly known as “sports entertainment”) should rightfully be called the “infotainment industry” — combining, as it does, the likes of formerly white-shoe, traditional media publications that have long since buttoned down and given themselves over to unvarnished advocacy, shameless scandal-sheet propagandists, social media “influencers,” Silicon Valley tech authoritarians, moralizing musicians, woke jocks and other species of shrill B-list celebrities.

“Educated” Infotainers

As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has written, “The New York Times, New York, The Intercept, Vox, Slate, The New Republic, and other outlets are today less ideologically diverse in their staff and less tolerant of contentious challenges to the dominant viewpoint of college-educated progressives than they have been in the recent past.” Predictably, the role of the infotainment industry in broadcasting out to the masses the messages our politicized educators have taught them cannot be understated. The “Perception Gap” research of the “More in Common” project that I discussed above reaches this conclusion about the depressing role of the media in driving distorted perceptions of reality:

You might think that people who regularly read the news are more informed about their political opponents. In fact, the opposite is the case. We found that the more news people consumed, the larger their Perception Gap. People who said they read the news “most of the time” were nearly three times more distorted in their perceptions than those who said they read the news “only now and then.”

Zach Goldberg reaches similar conclusions in an August 2020 article fittingly entitled “How the Media Led the Great Racial Awakening,” in which he presents a treasure trove of data convincingly demonstrating that, in a word, the media was in the cockpit of our careening craft. In a few short years, beginning roughly around 2010 (thus, again, well before Trump appeared on the national stage as anything other than a vulgar television personality), the media — with The New York Times leading the charge — began to racialize America, vastly expanding its coverage of race and racism, immeasurably expanding its definition of what counted as “racism” or “white supremacy” to encompass anything and everything that, regardless of the reason, did not produce total and utter demographically proportionate equality and, in the end, getting us all to believe, regressively, that “‘color’ is the defining attribute of other human beings.” The opinions of these infotainment industry thought leaders were quickly adopted by their liberal readers, viewers, listeners and followers, leading, finally, in the summer of 2020, to nationwide protesting, looting and rioting due to the mass adoption of a wildly delusional belief that black people are dying every day at the hands of racist white killer cops — the truth, as FBI data and numerous studies have shown, being that cops do not kill unarmed blacks at higher rates than the crime data would predict and, more importantly, that in all of 2019 (the last year for which there is full data on record), 14 unarmed black people, as well as 25 unarmed white people, were killed by police, as compared, for the sake of maintaining perspective, to 20 (presumably unarmed) people killed by a lightning strike in the same year. As Goldberg documents, the black victims of police shootings generated huge waves of sensationalized media coverage, while the white victims were largely met with the chirping of crickets. What the infotainment industry is doing to our perceptions of race and racism, in other words, might best be characterized as a never-ending, omnipresent Willie Horton ad driving us into irrational paroxysms of racialized mass hysteria.

What emerges from the data I have advanced thus far is a picture in which a massive leftward lurch in the composition of university faculty and administrators beginning in the late 1980s and continuing on through the ’90s and ’00s created, some years down the road, a massive leftward lurch among infotainment industry elites, leading together, in turn, to a massive leftward lurch among the “educated” public as a whole and resulting, finally, in the formation of a fissure between the educated and their less educated peers. This is why the main axis along which pro-Trump versus pro-Biden voters were divided in 2020 is not the media’s favorite bugaboo of race, but rather, education. Trump’s many obvious faults aside, we should not mistake the joyful tears of the talking heads on our screens and the delighted yelps of urban bobos, yuppies and hipsters in the streets on that Saturday when the media called the election for Joe Biden for anything other than what it was: the relieved cry of the educated elites that the most organized mass propaganda campaign this side of Stalin had succeeded in toppling the crude, unhinged, nationalist populist championed by the deplorable underclass and installing the easily puppeted, doddering career politician favored by the wealthy, the powerful and the educated. For this reason as well, the Biden administration is expected to be chock-full of college faculty, a straightforward case of dancing with the ones that brung you to the dance.

Credential Inflation

So education today, and especially elite higher education, is systematically polarizing us, driving misperceptions of the “other” side, fomenting an escalating race war and skewing the composition of the electorate, all while replacing the pursuit of knowledge with politicized groupthink. But is it at least doing a good job of discharging its practical function? Are nominally great universities at least giving us our money’s worth in educating a highly qualified workforce? Not exactly. A recent study demonstrated that when 28,339 graduates from 294 universities — representing universities around the world ranging from the top 50 to 10,000 spots down — were evaluated on various facets of their job performance, for every 1,000 spots lower on the university rankings, the graduates exhibited a performance decline of a measly 1.9%. The starting salaries these students commanded, however, exhibited a far wider gap: while graduates of universities at the top of the rankings had average starting salaries in the high $80,000s or low $90,000 bestowed upon them, graduates 1,000 spots down got average starting salaries in the high $40,000s or low $50,000s, a difference of about 45%. The moral of the story for employers: save your money, and hire the kid from the university a thousand spots down on the list, the one who’ll do almost as good a job but without the political headache and petulant demands the top-tier grad is likely to bring to the job. The moral of the story for the rest of us: highly ranked universities might be paying off financially for some of their graduates (assuming they monetize their credentials rather than pursuing their passions), but they’re not paying off for society as a whole.

What such universities may be producing, in lieu of better qualifications, is what is known as “credential inflation” (a type of phenomenon likely to be especially prevalent during a pandemic-driven recession), in which jobs that never used to — and still technically don’t — require a college education go to college graduates, while jobs that require no more than a college degree go to graduates of the more elite colleges. What happens when we are all reflexively told to go to college is mass underemployment, with, as of September 2020, over half of college graduates and just under half of recent college graduates underemployed, holding down jobs that do not require a college degree. In fact, as a recent Hechinger Report article concludes, college grads could often have gotten similar or higher salaries (without incurring the national average of $28,950 in four-year college loan debt) had they pursued lucrative professional or associate’s degrees in fields such as nursing, construction management or dental hygiene.

Social Instability

What universities may also be producing today is social unrest, not only by mis-educating and radicalizing the public, as I have described at length above, but also by contributing to what the U. Conn. scientist and cultural evolution researcher Peter Turchin has dubbed “elite overproduction,” the phenomenon that occurs when a society manufactures many individuals who would appear to have some claim to elite status — such as by virtue of their educational credentials — without there being enough actual elite job slots to go around to satisfy their inflated self-conceptions. In such circumstances, Turchin argues, history repeatedly shows that these individuals become troublemaking malcontents. They begin to comprise a “counter-elite” that lays the groundwork for revolution by fulminating against their own society, its ruling class and the legitimacy of its governing principles, e.g., against the very notion of American meritocracy. Revolutions, in this empirically driven conception, are not made by Marx’s romanticized immiserated proletarians having reached their breaking point, but rather, by aspiring status-seekers and would-be intellectuals stymied by structural roadblocks that prevent their advancement through acceptable, conventional routes. Consistent with Turchin’s thesis, terrorism — the ultimate outlet for malcontents — is also normally not driven by ignorance or poverty, but rather, by a “lack of adequate employment opportunities for educated individuals.”

That social instability is generally summoned up by alienated elements within the “thinking classes” is something prophetic writers like Dostoevsky understood some time ago: his “commoners” tend to be preternaturally virtuous or preternaturally vicious, but it is various disaffected thinkers — students and the like — who tend to become possessed by dangerous ideas. As Adam Garfinkle has written in an article on the decline of deep literacy published in National Affairs earlier this year, superficial education not vivified by a habit of lifelong learning and deep reading, largely serves to make people ideal victims of and disseminators of propaganda. Such “scantily educated” individuals, emboldened by the official sanction of university credentials and enabled by social media, “contribute scantily supported opinions about things they don’t really understand, validating the old saw that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing” and bringing into being the kind of “distributed mob … the ancient Greeks warned against.” I would add to Garfinkle’s diagnosis just one more proviso: with education configured as it currently is, more does not equal better. In fact, more education will only make the problem worse, adding more dug-in groupthink, more unwarranted self-assurance and more specialized steeping masking deep ignorance.

For all these reasons, fewer people going to college — and especially to high-price-tag, uber-politicized elite colleges — today is a win-win-win, a win for employers who can pay significantly lower salaries without a comparable drop-off in performance quality, a win, paradoxically, for employees, provided they make strategic choices to go into in-demand fields that pay almost as much as or even more than they would have made without incurring crushing debt in the process and a win for society as a whole, which will be saved much of the polarization, systematically skewed politics and social instability associated with contemporary education.

A Higher Calling

But what of education for its own sake? After all, don’t we want people to aspire to the enlightenment that knowledge itself confers? Yes, absolutely. I am far from being one of those philistine conservatives who values only that which can be monetized. I believe firmly that all of us who are truly willing and able to study “the best which has been thought and said” should have that opportunity … but that is certainly not what universities are teaching today. Contemporary universities are little more than social clubs and credentializing degree mills where kids get to stave off the responsibilities of adulthood for four years while insulating themselves (unless they happen to be conservative) from true challenges and discomforts and learning, repeatedly, the pat PBS children’s moral that everyone (except, perhaps, white male heterosexuals) is great exactly as they already are.

There is, moreover, no reason for those intent not on the pursuit of knowledge but on lucrative careers as doctors, lawyers, financiers and techies to waste four unproductive, costly years suffering through classes in elite universities in which they will get little more than some inadequately considered radical politics and an admission ticket into the intolerant American intelligentsia. Just like nurses, auto mechanics or electricians, such careerists should go straight from high school into their professional training schools and not be invited to delude themselves into believing that they are informed aristocrats merely by virtue of their elite credentials and resulting compensation packages. It is only when we take the ruse of career prep out of higher education and reserve such education for those few who want to be working their way, line by line, through the glories of Shakespeare or musing about the wildest implications of quantum mechanics that we will have any chance of purging the universities of the unintellectual students not up to the task and the anti-intellectual academics who thrive by giving those very students the sour-grapes license they need to reject our finest traditions.

To say this another way, the bottom-line problem is that when we made the mistake of trying to open higher education to everyone, we opened the campus gates to people who neither had any interest in learning “the best which has been thought and said,” nor the ability to breathe that rarefied air. We then found ourselves in the position of facing and acceding to strident calls of elitism, racism and other -isms and began to dumb our education down to meet people where they were. A wise observation from T.S. Eliot’s mid-20th-century compendium of essays published as Notes Toward the Definition of Culture puts this point better than I could:

[W]hether education can foster and improve culture or not, it can surely adulterate and degrade it. For there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture — of that part of it which is transmissible by education — are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans.

Eliot’s essay also contains this absolutely critical observation: “A high average of general education is perhaps less necessary for a civil society than is a respect for learning.” While I will leave it to those more qualified for that task to debate whether or not a trickle-down approach works in the realm of economics, in the realm of culture and education, such an approach is exactly what we need. A society in which higher education is reserved for the few who actually crave the precious gifts it confers is one in which higher learning remains an appropriately lofty and difficult arcana unadulterated by the need to condescend to a mass audience. In such a society, elite educated mandarins and, more importantly, the knowledge they command are held in high esteem because they serve as its protectors, keeping it sacrosanct. Then knowledge retains its luminescence, a polestar towards which would-be-initiates will aspire and a guiding light towards which even their less capable brethren among the masses will incline. Lit up by the glow at the top, an entire society is haloed over.

When, instead, the seal is broken, when higher education is instrumentalized in the service of financial rewards or bastardized to avoid bruising the fragile egos of second-rate students, then sacred syllables and profound mysteries are de-solemnized and set adrift in a generalized sea of indifference in which every crown jewel will be lost and every drop of holy water will be diluted. The more open to the barbarian hordes are the gates of our ivory towers, the more closed will remain the minds of those who scramble in their unimpeded headlong rush to the top. When the unreconstructed barbarian resurfaces at the tower’s very apogee and peers down from his newfound perch upon those he now thinks are his inferiors, he may be shocked to find that, far from inspiring the kind of reverence he had imagined came with the role, he will see gazing up from below slightly more ungroomed and unpolished — though also less haughty and more grounded — versions of himself, a sea of expressions betraying skepticism of his claims to expertise and mirroring his own scorn. And when he flings boulders down in disgust to crush dissent, he will find them hurled unceremoniously right back at him.

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