Three Cheers for Useless Education

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Several years ago Harper’s Magazine ran two articles on “The Uses of Liberal Education.” One article, subtitled “As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor,” was written by Earl Shorris, and describes how poor and underprivileged members of our society were eager to study the great books and benefited from them. He devised a course of study in the humanities for people aged 18-35 from the lower east side of New York City. His goal was to prove–both to the students and to himself–that the great books of the Western tradition belong to everyone, not simply to a few rich people in selective colleges and universities.

The other essay, subtitled “As lite entertainment for bored college students,” was written by Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia, and pretty much speaks for itself. Edmundson describes privileged students who have access to a first-rate education at a top-notch university. “What my students are, at their best, is decent. They are potent believers in equality. They help out at the soup kitchen and volunteer to tutor poor kids to get stripes on their resumes.” More than anything, Edmundson adds, is that they “seem desperate to blend in, to look right, not to make a spectacle of themselves.” In one instance he writes about students who would come to his office to tell him how embarrassed or intimidated they felt when he corrected them in front of other students in class. When he asked one of them if he should let a major factual error go by so as to save the student discomfort, the student said that it was a tough question and he’d have to think about it.

‘No Freshman Found Liberal Arts Useful’

The contrast between these two essays is probably evident–perhaps even trite–but if you haven’t read them they will be worth your while. On the one hand you have people struggling for their existence, but taking big ideas seriously and applying them to their lives in concrete and meaningful ways; on the other hand you have young people largely from the middle- and upper-class who see education, not so much as an opportunity for intellectual challenges or cultural growth, as an entitlement and a means to graduate or professional school or to jobs in business or government. What fascinates me about these articles is that the authors are essentially posing the same question that everyone associated with higher education ought to be asking: What is education? And more specifically, What is its value, and What are we here for?

If you put these questions to today’s undergraduate students, most would tell you that, like Professor Edmundson’s students, they are in college or university for practical (i.e. economic) reasons. The 2005 American Freshman Survey published by HERI reported that 71 percent of students attended college “to be able to make more money.” Similarly, the 2006 the National Commission on the Future of Higher Education reported that a growing number of people “simply want to improve their career prospects by acquiring the new skills that employers are demanding.” A 2008 survey by Administration of the College Senior Survey at UCLA revealed that three out of the five top motivators for attending college focused specifically on getting a job.

No wonder that education consultant George Dehne claims he “never talked to a freshman who found the liberal arts useful.” Or that Timothy Clydesdale, writing about the practical attitude of undergraduates toward higher education in The First Year Out (2007), concludes that the current “liberal-arts paradigm” remains “out of sync” with most college students because the vast majority are not interested in liberating themselves intellectually or broadening themselves culturally. Undergraduate education is valued for its economic benefit–i.e. for doing and getting–which explains the success of degree mills like the University of Phoenix. They’re open for business, and business is good.

The problem with for-profits like Phoenix–and for the record, I have taught at one–is not that profit is their modus operandi. Traditional colleges and universities also worry about the bottom line and have no qualms about expanding it through their own money-makers, cash cows as the saying goes, such as M.B.A. and master’s degree in education programs, and now by offering more on-line courses. Nor have they had any qualms–again like the for-profits–about capitalizing on the prevailing myth that you must go to college to be successful in America. The problem is that, by exploiting students’ anxieties and promoting the value of higher education in almost exclusively in economic terms, both for-profits and traditional colleges and universities reinforce the broader societal and cultural message that higher education is all about getting the degree. If you want a job, you’d better study something practical like engineering or accounting, not some useless subject in the liberal arts that will lead to a worthless degree in the humanities.

College Must Produce Economic Gain, Right?

The message that attending college should lead to economic advancement and more money is one that is sent by education critics and reformers from the President of the United States on down. A 2009 article in The Christian Science Monitor reported that the Department of Education “plans to create free, online courses for the nation’s 1,200 community colleges–which teach nearly half of undergrads–to make it easier for students to learn basic skills for jobs. The courses would be offered as part of a ‘national skills college’ managed by the department.” The President himself provided the rationale. The way “to build a firmer, stronger foundation” for economic growth, he wrote in the Washington Post, is “to create the jobs of the future within our borders” and to “give our workers the skills and training they need to compete for those jobs.” Community colleges will spearhead the charge and “serve as 21st-century job training centers, working with local businesses to help workers learn the skills they need to fill the jobs of the future.”


“The danger of equating higher education with skills training is that students are only taught instrumental knowledge…. They are molded for the marketplace, for doing and getting, rather than taught the art of thought.”


Even conservatives seem to support the notion that a college education should lead to a good job, otherwise it’s not necessary and a waste of money and time. For instance, Richard Vedder has commented here and elsewhere about the surplus of college graduates working at jobs that are far from commensurate with their educational levels. In a recent blog he speaks in terms of education as an “investment” that has unfortunately resulted in “diminished returns” for a large number of graduates. In another essay he praises Steve Jobs (who dropped out of college) both for his creativity and ingenuity and for being a jobs and wealth creator–in contrast to all those complacent and unimaginative faculty and administrators in colleges and universities that produce graduates who can’t get jobs and are a drag on the economy. (Of course, Professor Vedder forgot mention that that the most important course Steve Jobs took at college was in calligraphy–useless indeed!)

I suppose that radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh would also tag calligraphy as useless, just as he recently slammed classical studies as a “worthless degree.” And why? “Because after you get a degree in classical studies, what do you need? You need reality studies. And reality studies is what you get when you get out of college and you start going to work and you learn what you don’t know.” Even the venerable American Council of Trustees and Alumni maintains that a college education is ultimately about employability. “A college education is rightly part of the American Dream,” it writes in the 2011 report, What Will They Learn, and “is seen as the ticket to success in career and community, a credential that repays the investment of time and money that students, families, and taxpayers make in higher education.” True, ACTA is one of the staunchest advocates of solid general education, but only because it serves the “economic reality of the 21st century.”

A chief reason why higher education is under attack and derided as useless is that most Americans–including many conservatives and even the President himself–confuse education with training. Training makes students proficient in particular skills through specialized instruction and practice; education, on the other hand, is a lifelong effort of formation, of becoming then being. The danger of equating higher education with skills training is that students are only taught instrumental knowledge and remain ignorant of the general interests of human beings. They are molded for the marketplace, for doing and getting, rather than taught the art of thought. They become unreflective experts who possess learning without wisdom and habit without philosophy or reflection, as Harold Laski once remarked. Students can (and should) wait until graduate or professional school or their jobs to learn the specific knowledge of their chosen careers. Invariably those who attend graduate school spend the first years repeating what they studied for their undergraduate majors, while Corporate America, which should be investing in employees, gets another freebie (all the benefits without any cost to itself) when colleges and universities train students (at their own expense) in specialized skills that meet its needs. Never mind that too much specialism inhibits the general business of living. Never mind that it divides work into small problems that can be solved by small minds.

Instilling Appropriate Habits of Mind and Thought

At its best, writes T. S. Eliot, liberal education promotes “curiosity of mind–intellectual curiosity–not simply superficial curiosity.” Formerly colleges and universities provided pathways to this idea of liberal education and justified their existence through broad instruction in the liberal arts that aimed to imbue students with appropriate habits of thought and mind. These were hardly monolithic. For Cardinal Newman they included equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; for the Marxist Antonio Gramsci, diligence, precision, poise, and the ability to concentrate on a specific subject or problem. I would emphasize discipline, judgment, and above all else, skepticism as the most appropriate aims of liberal education. A liberally educated person, A. J. Nock correctly observed, is a free and cultured human being who is never satisfied with a conventional account of anything, no matter what, and will instinctively get as close as he or she can “to the reality of the thing, and see it as it actually is.”

While education in general aims to remove ignorance, impart knowledge, and develop intelligence, liberal education in particular is valuable because it promotes liberal culture and generates a broad outlook in students–in contrast to graduate and professional and vocational schools which exist to provide specialized and practical training in a particular field. Liberal education is “higher” education precisely because it is general and disinterested, as William James pointed out in a speech at Radcliff College. Through general education “we learn what types of activity have stood the test of time, we acquire standards of the excellent and the durable,” and our “critical sensibilities grow both more acute and less fanatical.” We see what “superiority has always signified and may still signify.” Instead of fostering these ends, the vast majority of colleges and universities have jettisoned their traditional mission and increasingly focus on credentialing and skills training. Not surprisingly, they are graduating more educated ignoramuses, students who remain like blind prigs or vulgarians, “unable to scent out human excellence or to divine it amid its accidents, to know it only when ticketed and labeled and forced on us by others.” Or as Paul Fussell more recently observed, they are producing “students who automatically join the labor force without the capacity to wonder what they’re doing or whether their work is right or wrong, noble or demeaning.”

Let’s face it, most students want jobs or to get into good professional and graduate schools and therefore care little about useless general education courses and the formative process of education; Corporate America wants skilled workers, not philosophical or reflective employees (who might then question some of its practices); therefore, the marketplace reinforces the economic value of higher education and dictates the nature of the curriculum and the priority of the courses that are taught. To keep up with current trends, many colleges and universities market their product as “a major investment,” as the president of a selective four-year liberal arts college stated, and then added: “And with returns that will last a lifetime, it’s one of the best investments anyone could make.” But students aren’t buying this highfalutin talk. They are buying degrees so that they can make money because Mass Culture U.–television, music, movies, advertising, celebrities–tells them that that means success. Like religion, the life of the mind can wait until, as one student told me, after she gets a job, gets married, has children, and settles down. Then she’ll have time to think about “art and books and all that stuff.”

college-class.jpgThere’s nothing wrong with being practical. Even artists and poets need to eat and pay the bills. And most students have to worry about paying off a massive heap of student loan debt. But the value of liberal education derives from its formative process, from showing students how they might be liberated through literature or that there is more to life than crass materialism, than merely doing and getting. For most students, undergraduate education is the only time they will have in their lives to try to understand their fundamental assumptions, challenge their premises, examine their beliefs, and consider viable alternatives.  By reading great books and other difficult and challenging texts, they become alert and heroic readers, cultivate self-examination, and learn to slow down and reflect. They cultivate taste and judgment and an esthetic vision because they are exposed to fine things. In short, they become intellectually mature and develop cognitive abilities, such as critical thinking, rather than have their heads inundated with facts and stuffed with data so that they can pass their courses and get a degree.

Dr. Mortimer Adler promoted the value of this kind of “useless education” throughout his distinguished career. Video tapes of some of the classes he taught in the Paideia Program show students enthralled by reading great books, engaged intellectually, and willing to participate in meaningful conversation. No one felt excluded because of his or her economic background, sex, or race. On the contrary, Adler got students to feel the value and relevance of such books to their lives.

Edmund Shorris also demonstrated the value of “useless education” in a program that would become the Clemente Course at Bard College. In the article I mentioned earlier he describes how students studied moral philosophy though such great books as Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; and how they were introduced to the tradition of American political thought through Magna Carta, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, the Declaration of Independence, and documents of the Revolution and the Civil War. After taking his class, one woman who had been fired from her job had become emboldened to start a union; another man, who had a history of violent behavior and who found himself in a situation that could have sent him back to jail, asked himself, “What would Socrates do?” This woman and this man found intellectual liberation through the great books, and a practical application for their teachings, precisely because they understood the immediate and “radical character of the humanities,” as Shorris puts it.

And so have some of my own students. I’ve been promoting the “useless knowledge” of great books ever since my first job at a community college, and invariably students discovered that they aren’t so worthless after all. One student, who was the first in his family to attend college and eventually became a police officer, wrote in an e-mail to the chair of my department that “never before, in all my years of school, have I ever experienced a class like this. I couldn’t believe I was actually enjoying a History class. For the first time in my life I WANTED to learn. I WANTED to read the text, and I WANTED more of it. . . . Sure, any professor could have stood up in front of the classroom, and instructed us to read this book or write that paper, but this man did everything with a passion, enthusiasm, and in a fun way like no other professor I have seen before. And like I said, the result is a student that wants to read, and wants to think for myself.”

At a state university where I taught, another student, who was born in Jamaica and moved to Brooklyn in his teens, told me how rewarding my class was and even asked me for a list of additional books that he could read on his own after the semester (please excuse his awkward writing): “I am honestly interested in furthering my knowledge in whichever direction these books that you plan to suggest to me will take me. I have enjoyed Machiavelli and Luther and other readings you have suggested. Even though many have probably told you this your class has opened my eyes to allow me to see the simple box I have lived in majority of my life.”

Locke was right when he wrote that liberal education aims not “to perfect a learner in all or any one of the sciences, but to give his mind that freedom, that disposition, and those habits that may enable him to attain any part of knowledge he shall apply himself to, or stand in need of, in the future course of his life.” So was Rousseau when he said that “there can be no training of the intellect which is not also a training of the character”–a point William James reiterates, as do so many others who have thought long and hard about the purpose and value of education. What could be more beneficial and practical than to see through shams, to know a good person when you see one, to learn to live life well? Maybe it’s time for colleges and universities to get back into the business of offering this kind of useless education.


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