Sunday, August 17, 2014


A subject that has intrigued me ever since I was in high school is the nature of colleges and universities. Perhaps because of my background, it was by no means obvious to me what college was all about. My parents had not attended, and at a deep psychological level they were operating on an ancient model predating civilization: my father was a warrior and my mother was a prize of war. In my mother's mind she was akin to Helen of Troy; she even formalized that idea by legally adding the middle name "Helene" late in her life. I was named after King Paul of Greece, a childhood acquaintance of my grandmother and a first cousin of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Thus, I was raised with an imaginary high social rank, whereas my friends, like most Americans, came from families that were advancing their social status through the conventional means of education, and their families had lingering memories of humble pasts. They were better adapted to the environment than I was.

Because I never cared much about money or linked college to having a career, I thought that it should be something like a Platonic academy where wise people discuss the world with little concern for practical matters. Of course, that was a naive point of view. Colleges and universities have always been practical concerns, starting first as training centers for the clergy and eventually becoming inextricably connected to the professions and government. Generally speaking, the older a university, the larger its endowment and the closer its ties to the corridors of power. From a socioeconomic standpoint, the success of a university is identical to the financial success of its graduates. Pure thought may occur there, but it is at best a secondary activity.

When I arrived at college in 1968, it gradually dawned on me that it was a complex sociological phenomenon that only tangentially related to learning. Yes, there were professors, students and academic subjects, but I always felt something was missing. The majority of the students at the college were upper-middle-class children of first-generation college graduates who had done well financially after World War II. Although it wasn't a well-known, nationally ranked college, it served the purpose of bestowing sufficient status on the parents while affording their children an acceptable route to adulthood. Many of the students, me included, weren't really sure why we were there. I simply enjoyed being far from home and living in an environment that was more intellectually stimulating than what I was used to.

It soon became apparent that, from a sociological standpoint, the college was a place to find spouses and carve a position in the social hierarchy that would benefit you in adulthood. This pattern became blurry over time, because it was the 1960's, and the students soon branched out from beer-guzzling frat parties to smoking pot and posing as hippies. Many of them ended up becoming the self-indulgent, narcissistic Baby Boomers so familiar these days. The most progressive among them transferred to less conservative colleges. Of those who stayed, I and many others married someone we met there.

What I've been thinking about lately is the actual quality of the academics and of academic quality in general. The faculty had good credentials, but it is hard to say that the classes were anything more than what a student might expect to encounter at a mildly demanding finishing school. I recently asked friends whether they had enjoyed any of their courses there, and they said no. I liked a few of mine, but that occurred randomly: Twentieth Century Russian Literature, Greek Mythology and Homeric Greek - nothing that led anywhere. Most of the classes were boring and poorly taught.

I was a Philosophy major and now hold a low opinion both of that department and of the field in general. The department offered good introductory courses but seems to have been unprepared for and uninterested in advanced classes. I was corresponding with one of my former professors until recently but finally gave up. He would make an excellent caricature of a misguided intellectual, along the lines of Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch. Educated at Princeton and Yale, he has always struck me as a quintessential egghead: he picks apart sentences to extremes that few people could comprehend, yet his ideas are all derivative, and he has published little or nothing. Finally I realized that it would be impossible to engage him in the kind of discussion that occurs on this blog. I think he is stuck in a narrow kind of analytic philosophy that bears no relationship to actual life. His working ideas for day-to-day living were all absorbed uncritically through osmosis by living in an academic environment for his entire adult life. Like Casaubon, he thinks he has found a key to deep meaning, but from the exterior he is simply delusional and out of touch. After corresponding with him for several years, I decided that he had nothing interesting or useful to say.

The same goes for many academics, in my opinion. Entering an academic position often has little to do with mastery of a subject or teaching ability. I get the impression that most tenured faculty are just good students who got PhDs and then by default became college professors because that was the only job for which they were qualified. Being a good student often means little more than liking to read and having good work habits, a good memory and above average intelligence. These traits alone are not a guarantee of in-depth understanding or teaching ability. What is often missing is creativity, and by nature creative people are not attracted to teaching, with the possible exception of those extroverts who enjoy having a captive audience. The most productive academics typically abhor teaching and avoid it whenever they can.

Where does this leave the undergraduate student? In the current economic environment, they would be well advised to learn a trade and study liberal arts in their spare time. Otherwise they will need a graduate degree to ensure employment, exposing themselves to the array of boutique degrees of questionable value now marketed by universities to keep up their cash flows. Caveat emptor.

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