How times have changed. Nowadays “speak truth to power” has to be placed in inverted commas, to distance us from its earnestness. Among the educated professional classes, no one would be caught dead confusing intellectual inquiry with a quest for ultimate meaning, or with the effort to create an independent self. Indeed the very notion of authentic selfhood—a self determined to heed its own ethical and aesthetic imperatives, resistant to the claims of fashion, money, and popularity—has come to seem archaic. In an atmosphere dominated by postmodern irony, pop-neuroscience, and the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism, the self is little more than a series of manipulable appearances, fashioned and re-fashioned to meet the marketing needs of the moment. We have bid adieu to existential inwardness. The reduction of the mind to software and the brain to a computer, which originated among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, has been popularized by journalists into the stuff of dinner-party conversations. The computer analogy, if taken as seriously as its proponents wish, undermines the concept of subjectivity—the core of older versions of the self. So it should come as no surprise that, in many enlightened circles, the very notion of an inner life has come to seem passé.
One consequence of this seismic cultural shift is the train wreck of contemporary higher education. Nothing better exemplifies the catastrophe than President Barack Obama’s plan to publish the average incomes earned by graduates from various colleges, so parents and students can know which diplomas are worth the most in the marketplace, and choose accordingly. In higher education as in health care, market utility has become the sole criterion of worth. The monetary standard of value has reinforced the American distrust of intellect unharnessed to practical purposes: the result is an atmosphere toxic to the humanities. We need a defense of the humanities that takes these cultural developments into account; that claims more for the liberal arts than the promotion of “critical thinking” and “people skills”; that insists, without slipping into platitude, on the importance of the humanities for their own sake.
Jackson Lears, The Liberal Arts vs. Neoliberalism | Commonweal Magazine.
Because of the cultural vacuum in their earlier education and because of the informal education they receive from the communications media, which both shape and reflect the larger society, today’s liberal arts students come to college, it seems to me, bearing a sort of relativism verging on nihilism, a kind of individualism that is really isolation from community. The education they receive in college these days, I believe, is more likely to reinforce this condition than to change it. In this way, too, it fails in its liberating function, in its responsibility to shape free men and women. Earlier generations who came to college with traditional beliefs rooted in the past had them challenged by hard questioning and the requirement to consider alternatives and were thereby unnerved, and thereby liberated, by the need to make reasoned choices. The students of today and tomorrow deserve the same opportunity. They, too, must be freed from the tyranny that comes from the accident of being born at a particular time in a particular place, but that liberation can only come from a return to the belief that we may have something to learn from the past. The challenge to the relativism, nihilism, and privatism of the present can best be presented by a careful and respectful examination of earlier ideas, ideas that have not been rejected by the current generation but are simply unknown to them. When they have been allowed to consider the alternatives, they, too, can enjoy the freedom of making an informed and reasoned choice.
via Ave atque vale by Donald Kagan – The New Criterion.
Because it needs saying, I’ll be the one to go ahead and say it: making higher education an “economic imperative” misses the point of higher education entirely. Until we manage to decouple higher education from the job market, we are going to persist in misunderstanding education’s true end. It may well be that in the past—i.e., in a debt-based economy incapable of imagining how top-heavy things eventually fall over—a college degree has been a stepping stone to the middle class, but those days are over. An economy that can’t help a college graduate retire an enormous debt is not going to look upon a college degree as a stepping stone to the middle class. Colleges, obviously, will continue to look thus upon the degree how they will wield the mighty frame of education, how build, unbuild, contrive to save tuition costs, but this is just one more thing among many about which they will be wrong.
And although it is true that we shouldn’t make higher education a luxury, it is truer still that we shouldn’t make it a commodity. When it once again becomes difficult, it will be neither a luxury nor a commodity. Making it so “every American should be able to afford it” is no different from making it so every American can do it, which is the same thing as rendering it meaningless. — Jason Peters
via President Obama vs. Walker Percy and Another Jefferson Lecturer | Front Porch Republic.
In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino, California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.
via How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy: Virginia Postrel – Bloomberg.