Our University-Culture, Conclusion: The University of Contradictions

PREVIOUS: Introduction; Chapter 1 (Part 1); Chapter 1 (Part 2); Chapter 2; Chapter 3 (Part 1); Chapter 3 (Part 2); Chapter 4 (Part 1); Chapter 4 (Part 2); Chapter 5 (part 1); Chapter 5 (Part 2); Chapter 6 (Part 1); Chapter 6 (Part 2); Chapter 7; Chapter 8; Chapter 9; Chapter 10

“Only a nation as wealthy as the US could possibly afford an education system that costs so much and delivers so little.” — George Leef

If our universities collapse, it will be due to the fact that they are full of contradictions. If true contradictions are present, a system cannot continue to exist. You cannot be X and not-X simultaneously. Yet, this is what we see in our universities.

An easy one to observe is the fact that our universities are (supposed to be) institutions of liberal education filled with people whose ideologies are fundamentally illiberal. Leftist economics, political correctness, speech codes — all of these are expressions of that illiberality. Rarely do we find liberal economics, liberal social views, and true freedom of speech in our universities anymore. Perhaps more insidious is contradiction between universities’ stated support for pluralism and their actual support for uniformity. This certainly gets expressed at the ideological level, but it also gets expressed in a variety of ways throughout the university.

For example, the way classes are taught is pretty much uniform throughout the U.S. I could go into any university or college across this country and find composition classes being taught exactly the same way. This would be fine if the result was students able to write. But that is not what is happening. And it doesn’t matter that these universities are turning out students who still cannot write after taking several semesters of these composition classes; what matters is uniformity of teaching content.

However, if you were to sit in on an English Department meeting, you would think the opposite is taking place. You will hear professors defending the professors’ right to teach composition classes as they see fit, rejecting conformity and uniformity. A standard curriculum? How dare you try to impose your standard curriculum on me!

But let us suppose you are a professor sitting in on this meeting. You hear this, and you take it seriously — meaning, you actually decide to teach your class the way you think writing ought to be taught. Heaven help you if you make that mistake! If you do that, you will quickly find that same person who in the meeting was openly defending pluralism in teaching complaining behind your back that you are not teaching the same way he or she is teaching. If you are an adjunct or lecturer, this will likely mean the end of your position. If you are tenure track, you had better conform if you want tenure.

What is worse is that nobody seems to care in the least whether or not your methods worked to teach students how to write. All that matters is that you are doing it the same way as everyone else is doing it — typically the “everyone else” is whoever has the most power. Of course, the worst thing that could possibly happen is for some adjunct or lecturer to outperform a tenure track professor, or any of these to outperform a tenured professor. What matters — the only thing that matters — is that your teaching methods conform to those already established at that university. Unfortunately, the same methods are established at pretty much every university across the U.S., meaning the same outcomes can be expected no matter where you go.

There is a complete disconnect between the stated mission of our universities — dedication to a liberal education, pluralism, academic freedom, etc. — and what is actually happening within those walls. Everyone is so dedicated to the appearance of liberality and pluralism that they even continue to parrot the words, though their actions show those words to be completely empty of meaning.

How long can our universities last filled, as they are, with contradictions? It depends on which direction the universities tip toward. Illiberal people cannot provide a liberal education. Fragmented knowledge cannot provide a liberal education. Training cannot provide any kind of education. But if universities, because they are full of postmodernists who by definition are illiberal and promote the fragmentation of knowledge and are actively replacing education with training, are no longer providing liberal educations, they no longer serve their purpose. They cannot survive. And as for the continued conformity, this will continue to occur for as long as the universities are protected in their cartel. Cartels and unions — which can only exist when protected by governments from competition (private and online colleges are brought into line and cartelized with the rules surrounding getting student loan money) — provide increasingly worse service at increasingly higher prices. They can continue doing this so long as their words contradict their actions. But what will happen when they decide to stop pretending to be liberal pluralists? The contradictions will resolve themselves, and the system will finally collapse.

What we cannot do is reform education. Education reform is impossible.

That’s right, education reform is impossible. You can reform particular organizations — this or that university, or this or that department — but you cannot reform education as an institution. Why? Because education, including higher education, is a kind of spontaneous order.

Spontaneous orders (a term developed by the economist F.A. Hayek to describe the market economy) are self-organizing networks of relationships that do not have a formal design. We can find self-organizing networks throughout the world: the molecular networks of living cells, the neural networks of brains, our social networks, the internet. Spontaneous orders are scale-free networks, meaning they have the same structure no matter how many (equally participating) parts you are looking at, and are built from the bottom-up; in contrast, organizations are hierarchical networks (with unequal parts), and are designed from the top-down. Further, they have bipolar feedback, meaning they have both positive feedback, which creates bubbles (such as the positive feedback between student loans and college costs), and negative feedback, which causes equilibrium, or stagnation. If one or the other comes to dominate, the order finds itself in trouble. Only if we have both occurring simultaneously do we find the system acting in a creative fashion, producing more options to be weeded out via the discovery process we call competition.

Certain institutions can act as stabilizing elements in a spontaneous order, providing a predominantly negative feedback environment that will drive the system toward equilibrium. The German-style university system may be precisely such an institution. Indeed, once the initial rounds of creativity which emerged from the university reforms settled down, we have seen what can only be described as a very stable realm of philosophy in the United States, Britain, and Germany for many long decades. The exception has been France, where the German university system was never adopted. The result is that philosophy and literature have overlapped more:

The bases and products of philosophy and of literature have usually been distinct. The networks of these two kinds of intellectuals have touched on occasion; a very small number of individuals have overlapped both networks and produced memorable work in both genres. Most have been successful in only one attention space or the other; nevertheless, something is transmitted structurally, for where the networks of philosophers and literary practitioners have connected, the result has been to energize outbursts of creativity in either field. (Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, 755)

The “something” being transmitted structurally is the far-from-equilibrium state that comes about from two orders coming into contact with each other. Each order has a disequilibrating effect on the other orders, resulting in creative bipolar feedback. The French Existentialist and postmodernist movements are great examples of this sort of thing, since the main players in each were either hybrid writers themselves (Sartre wrote plays, fiction, and poetry as well as philosophy) or were heavily influenced by literature if they were philosophers or philosophy if they were literary writers.

Collins also points out that when philosophers primarily write for a writer’s market rather than within universities, they become more political. Part of this is from the demands of the writer’s marketplace. Universities promote high levels of abstraction in philosophy, but the popular reading public will not put up with it. Thus philosophers writing for more popular readers tend to deal with more pedestrian topics, like politics. This is why the Existentialists and postmodernists have typically been more radical in their politics than even university political philosophers like Habermas. We can also perhaps begin to see why French philosophy has found a home in American English literature departments (rather than our philosophy departments).

Given all of this, we should expect to see, as universities undergo reform in response to the internet and online universities, a new round of creativity in philosophy (and other fields dominated by the German university system). We should also expect, however, considerable resistance from those who are comfortably entrenched in that system and prefer the stability and predictability of a philosophical system at equilibrium. But this, too, will contribute to creativity, as conservative retrenching has always done in the past.

All of this is bottom-up reform. But if we think of education reform as top-down, with changes coming from new legislation, education reform is impossible. It is impossible in the same way socialism is impossible: you cannot make a spontaneous order do what you want it to do by trying to impose order on it from the top-down. So if you say you are in favor of education reform, you are wanting to do the impossible.

More, your specific reforms for your specific organization are going to have unforeseen and unintended consequences. The reason is fundamental to the way spontaneous orders are structured. Small changes can spread through the system rapidly, but large changes can equally have little to no effect. And what those changes might be cannot be fully predicted. Spontaneous orders are complex, meaning there are many causes with many effects, and it is impossible to fully understand how those causes interact, and what effects might emerge.

Consider, for example, the move away from “standard grammar” when teaching English composition in college. This was viewed as a way of being more inclusive of different ways of speaking. Students were encouraged to write more expressive essays and teaching students how to write by having them read a large number of great writers and teaching them grammar was replaced by teaching them the writing process (method over content). As a result, the pressure was off of high schools to teach standard grammar or to have them read great writers; soon, they too moved toward teaching the writing process. This took pressure off of middle schools, and the same pattern was followed. And in the past few years, teaching the writing process has even hit our Kindergartens. Children who too often do not even know their letters are now expected to engage in the writing process! The result is students being accepted into college who do not have the first clue about grammar or know what good writing even looks like, cannot write, and have no idea they cannot write. More developmental writing courses are being offered to address these issues, meaning students have to spend more time and money in college getting the education they should have received in grade and middle school, and universities now have to spend precious resources to provide it. And all because of some modest reforms in university English departments that spread quickly throughout the higher education spontaneous order.

However, most reformers are thinking of “education” as a hierarchical network — they focus on the organizations that conduct teaching. In their view, these can be reformed because 1) they were in fact formed in the first place, and 2) being goal-directed, they can be redirected. But given the size and complexity of most universities, even this is often problematic. Organizations as large and complex as universities (let alone university systems) begin to look like spontaneous orders in structure (though, being goal-directed organizations, they can never actually become spontaneous orders, but will only ever be nodes in the spontaneous order network), meaning changes in them can also have unintended consequences — such as the kind noted above.

Further, revolutionary changes typically do not work out well. The people involved have to buy in to the changes, and that typically does not happen when there are radical breaks with the past. We can see this problem occurring in the aftermath of the French Revolution (and all of those revolutions inspired by the French Revolution); people reacted so violently against it that first there were mass murders, and eventually the revolution resulted in the establishment of a strict, ordering dictator more conservative, in many ways, than the overturned regime. The American Revolution, on the other hand, was really an example of an evolutionary process. If anything, the American revolutionaries revolted because they wanted to maintain a more British tradition — which was being taken away from them by the English government. We can then see the gradual establishment, over many years, of what came to be our federal government. As Hayek warned, for changes to take hold, there has to be an evolutionary process in which what is new is able to fit in with what has traditionally been in place, each negotiating with the other until change is realized.

What this means, then, is that you have to get people to change their beliefs. Unfortunately, this has historically proven easier said than done. Education in the sense of teaching does not work to change beliefs. If anything, it entrenches beliefs as the students resist what they are being taught. This was demonstrated recently by David Prindle, from the University of Texas, at an Association for Politics and the Life Sciences conference I attended. Dr. Prindle taught a class on evolution and creationism, and polled his students both before and after the class, finding the class split about even among supporters of evolution, creationists, and those who did not know. He said they did a close reading of The Origin of Species, followed by a discussion of controversies among evolutionary biologists, followed by a discussion of evolution vs. creationism and intelligent design. The result? He not only did not change any minds from creationism to evolution (his goal in the class), he in fact lost students from the “don’t know” position to the creationist position. He even lost a few who had originally believed in evolution! The position of greater certainty was more attractive, and students entrenched in that belief system did not move.

So what will change people’s minds such that social/institutional reform is possible? To answer that question, I will raise an interesting fact. Attitudes toward gays and gay marriage did not come about from liberal professors preaching gay marriage in front of their classes. Attitudes toward gays and gay marriage changed because of such cultural factors as the sitcom Will and Grace, which featured two gay men as main characters. Empathy-creating stories create the soil for change to spring up in. and it will be empathy-creating stories that will create the conditions for education reform, by changing people’s minds and motivating them to support changes in the organizations within the institution to be reformed. It is happening in some states where gays are allowed into the institution of marriage, and it can happen with education reform as well.

In other words, you cannot create stable institutional change through legislation (though legislation may sometimes reinforce institutional changes already taking place). And it is unlikely that trying to teach people about the problems in education is going to change many minds at all. Rather, we need to discover what stories demonstrate the problems we believe need to be corrected.

For example, at the same conference mentioned above, I heard Hyo Jin Kim of Texas Tech speak about the difficulties facing the government of South Korea as it tries to shift its focus from emphasizing economic growth alone to creating a culture that supports scientific discovery. But their efforts to create a science-loving culture through teaching science have failed. Now, this does not mean that no one in South Korea is interested in science. There is a subculture of South Koreans who are increasingly interested in science: science fiction fans. Fans of shows like Dr. Who and Star Trek are increasingly interested in science, and are taking it upon themselves to learn more science. This is where the science culture will grow in South Korea.

Similarly, the television show The Big Bang Theory has resulted in increased interest in physics in the United States, while our governments’ increased emphasis on STEMs in our schools has had no effect whatsoever. The number of STEM degrees has remained flat, even declining slightly; however, the number of those going into physics has gone up considerably (17% for physics and 40% for astronomy) since The Big Bang Theory began.

In the end, if we are going to reform education, we have to realize that we will never be able to reform the institution in any direct way. We will not be able to change it by attempting to teach people about what is wrong. They aren’t going to listen. We will not be able to change it from the top-down. Rather, we will be able to change it only by changing people’s beliefs — and one changes beliefs through good stories. When we tell good stories about what we believe will work, we will change people’s beliefs; and when we change people’s beliefs, people will change what they do in their organizations; and when what is happening in those organizations change, the institution itself will finally change. A sitcom about a university developmental writing professor having to teach students who are very obviously unprepared for college, where it is made obvious what the problem are (such as by having an antagonistic professor insist that we should not impose our “normative grammar” on students because those students might learn how to speak in a way that will alienate them from their friends and family) would go farthest toward creating the conditions for real educational reform.

Spontaneous orders only change from the bottom-up. Change the people, and you change the organizations, and you change the institution. This is the only way true education reform within our current institutions is possible. It has to start with a cultural change. And given that our culture is almost entirely created by our universities, I’m afraid that that cultural change will end up being truly revolutionary indeed.

However, there is another choice. Create your own institutions. If the current dominant institutions are not working, create your own. That is how real change takes place. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak didn’t sit around waiting for IBM or any of the other big players to decide to create personal computers. No, they invented their own personal computer and founded Apple. And that is what we need to do in response to our dominant, oppressive institutions. Naturally, the bureaucratic universities, megacorporations, and governments will all fight back — and they all have the advantage of having the government defending them and itself (which is the same thing) — but a few early defeats shouldn’t dissuade us. We have to expect resistance from the powers that be, who clearly do not want to lose that power. We are resisting the Mississippi River, trying to turn it back. And in doing so, we are forgetting what a huge, complex, branching thing it is, with many sources and deeply-entrenched flows. But if we create new institutions that tap into those sources, we can in fact dry the river up and create a new world.

Appendix A

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/20/study-finds-big-gaps-between-student-and-employer-perceptions

There is a complete disconnect between what students think they can do and what employees know they cannot do. As we have seen, some of these things — like being innovative/creative — is not something that can be taught by our universities. If anything, our universities stifle creativity. We have also seen that universities don’t teach diversity; they give the appearance of teaching diversity, all the while teaching kitsch. No one who has read this book should be surprised by these numbers.

Bibliography

Cantor, Paul. 2016. “The Importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum’s Challenge to Modernism.” Elizabeth Millán, ed. After the Avant-Gardes: Reflections on the Future of the Fine Arts. Chicago and LaSalle, IL: Open Court

LeCocq, Jonathan. 2016. “What Shall We Do After Wager? Karl Popper on Progressivism in Music.” Elizabeth Millán, ed. After the Avant-Gardes: Reflections on the Future of the Fine Arts. Chicago and LaSalle, IL: Open Court

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