Society is materialistic. The university used to be a safe haven where ideas mattered and thoughts were given greater standing than finding ways to make more money. Peter Thiel believes higher education is a bubble ready for the bursting — but you can only agree with Thiel’s thesis if you also believe students attend university to get a job. I don’t happen to purchase his premise. I believe students should attend university in order to learn what they do not know.
I realize my argument is in the minority mind. Parents pay a lot of money to buy their offspring status in a prestigious university and the way they see the payoff on their bet is in the acquisition of a proper paying job — but that purchasing of an education to open monetary doors, and not intellectual wondering, makes the university a vocational school and not one of intellectual learning.
That change from intellectualism to materialism in the university is rather new. The university used to be about honing skills to become wise. Now the university is about getting a job. Wisdom is no longer necessary in a computer society.
This focus on jobs started over the last 50 years or so with the rise of the dedicated “Business School” on college campuses. Business students were frowned upon 50 years ago. Then, in the early 1970’s, the business schools began to run the universities and set the agendas because they had the majority of the student majors. In 1971 Yale University — after having survived for 250 years without a business school — opened its Business School and the university’s “Light and Truth” motto has been marred ever since.
Columbia University in the City of New York also opened a Business School — and now that school makes all the campus decisions for the university because 70-80% of Columbia University students are business majors.
Higher education was built to teach us there is no safety in the world. It is wisdom that prepares us for an unsafe world and how to deal with it. A business degree prepares us to count money, but not on how to count on the terrified humanity percolating within each of us. There is no warmth from a tax shelter. There is no wise protection from a financial meltdown.
With the predominance of the business school on campus, we have a failure of people who wish to be educated. These students aren’t interested in expanding their minds or learning what they do not know — they only want to build personal wealth — and so we are all then forced to struggle with their imperfections and lack of safety that they perpetuate on the rest of society. We are now a nation of scared dimwits who are acted upon instead of behaving wisely.
In 1929, at the age of 29, Robert Hutchins became Chancellor of the University of Chicago and the first thing he did was ban football on campus. He believed the first objective of any education is to “help students learn” and sponsoring a university football team did not abide that mandate.
Late in life Hutchins mused about his years in Chicago, “Our idea there was to start a big argument about higher education and keep it alive.” The son of a preacher, he portrayed himself as a prophet without honor in his own country, the lone voice of reason in a world of mediocrity. He often quoted a line from Walt Whitman, and once suggested it as a motto for the University of Chicago: “Solitary, singing in the west, I strike up for a new world.” Claiming that “thinking is an arduous and painful process, and thinking about education is particularly disagreeable,” Hutchins focused on the highest abstractions — morals, values, the intellect, the “University of Utopia,” the “great conversation,” and above all the study of metaphysics — while others, he claimed, preferred to deal with “academic housekeeping.” In fact he inspired a loyal cadre of admirers and fans who spread his gospel across the land.
Hutchins created a course titled — “Organization, Interpretation, Integration” — and the purpose of the course was to create utility thinking skills that could be applied to anything in an unsafe society to explain, understand and solve. Every student was required to take the course — it is still taught today — and every faculty member is required to teach that course at least once. Jewish students on campus call the course “Oy!” because of its initials: OII.
Vocational training teaches us how to live a life for an eight-hour workday. What about the other 16 hours in the day? How are those hours managed? Education cannot be a vocation. Education is 24-hour a day training every single living day.
Tangentially complicating matters today, compared to 50 years ago, is that women hold 50% of the jobs. We now have double the competition for the same slots as gender is set against gender and the university is used as a fulcrum to press bodies into marketplace jobs instead of thoughts into greater concepts for creating a cohesive society that thinks more than it blinks.
A college major is not a vocation. Go to a trade school to learn a skill or a craft. A major is used to simply define the final two years of study that suggest a focus. Skills are not an education. Dr. Howard Stein, while at the Yale School of Drama in the 1970’s and ’80s, would tell his graduate students, “No course you can learn on the job in 30 days will be offered. No ‘How to Audition’ or ‘How to Rehearse a Film’ will be considered as school courses.” That thinking is, of course, right — but that doesn’t mean students then or now accept the fact that higher education must be of the mind and not of the bottom line.
Technology creates a society that is not very smart. We have evidence of that now. We can’t choose our own values, we don’t even know who to vote for president — everything is told to us and thrust upon us and the fault is our own as we tremble in fear for a safety we are no longer wise enough to compel or create or comprehend in our anti-intellectual and routinely vocational lives.