Our University-Culture: Introduction

“A society is guided by its ruling philosophy — the prevailing conception of the “good” social order. Some political-economic philosophy must be the basis for intelligent social policy. Forthright and continuing discussion is necessary if this conception is to serve as a clear and coherent guide on numerous particular issues. Otherwise, statesmen and citizens will continue to lose their bearings amid the economic and social complexities of the mid-Twentieth Century.” — James M. Buchanan, economist and Nobel Laureate

In 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses protesting the corruption and abuses of the Catholic Church on the door of the church in Wittenberg. This, and its widespread distribution via the printing press Johannes Gutenberg developed in 1450, began the Protestant Reformation that ended the dominance of the Medieval Catholic Church not just in the religious lives of the people of Western Europe, but in their political, economic, and cultural lives as well. Medieval society was a guilt culture, meaning people were socially regulated by comparing their actions against God’s laws, which were of course promoted and enforced by the Church. Once people were freed to make their own decisions about how to interpret the Bible, once people came to believe they could rely on their own reason to understand the world and make moral decisions, once the printing press made writing more widely available and thus literacy more widely practiced, Western Europe evolved into the responsibility culture of the Enlightenment. The Catholic Church would never again have the power it had, even as it underwent its own Counter-reformation and reforms to solve many of the problems Luther had previously pointed out. With the spread of literacy and a culture of reading, which was necessarily a solitary practice, ideas of individualism developed throughout the West, bringing the West fully into the Modern Era.

The contemporary university also came out of Germany — Prussia, to be more precise. Thus, the Modern Era is, in many ways, a product of German institutions. While these institutions were revolutionary and transformative at the time of their introduction, these same institutions have resulted in cultural, political, and economic stagnation. Over time contradictions have accumulated, resulting in the situation we now find ourselves in.

Yet, this is not a situation with which we are entirely unfamiliar. It happened to Christianity as well. In the beginning, Christianity was a revolutionary force. It transformed the Roman Empire and all of Europe as it spread. It became a major power in Europe as the Catholic Church consolidated power, centralized power in Rome with the cardinals and the Pope. As this happened the very institutions which were once revolutionary and transformative became sources of homogenization and stagnation. Over time, contradictions accumulated, resulting in the crisis of the Reformation and the Renaissance, the transitional periods to the Modern Era.

The modern university is the contemporary Catholic Church. It is the institution at the center of our culture, the source of our contemporary postmodern ideas on morals, politics, society, the economy, and culture. In the same way that the Catholic Church helped maintain Medieval guilt culture, our university system helps maintain Postmodern collective guilt culture. It does so through the influence of the majority postmodern progressive professors’ messages delivered, either directly or indirectly, in their classes. And with over half of high school graduates now attending college, it is an influence which will only grow. In addition, almost every Western artist and literary writer goes through the university system — most have MFAs, which help mold our writers and artists, homogenizing them into the current repetitive, bland “it’s all been done” artistic and literary culture we see today. And almost all of our philosophers have gone through our university systems, with the result that most philosophers are actually little more than scholars commenting on others’ philosophies, adding little to our understanding of philosophy or ourselves. As in the Middle Ages, philosophers have become Scholastics arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Finally, almost all of our scientists go through the university system in order to have the institutional support to do their work — within other universities. The result is reinforcement of university ideas and ideals: postmodernism, political correctness, and progressivism. These positions are rarely questioned, and when anyone does have the audacity to question them — directly or indirectly — they are attacked, shamed, and pressured into apologizing for positions others chose to find offensive while being accused of being racist, sexist, and homophobic, even if no opinions were expressed on those issues.

The arts and humanities are, of course, hardly the only areas directly affected by the overwhelming dominance of our universities. With the ongoing mantra that everyone everywhere must go to college or else they are and will continue to be of no value to anyone anywhere,[1] we see more and more people attending college. Accountants, financial advisors, business people, computer programmers, etc. all get their training in our colleges. And none of them actually need to do so. Practical experience in these jobs, from mentors at the jobs, would be more than sufficient. The same could be said of the aforementioned artists and writers. Indeed, there are probably few areas outside of academia, law, and medicine (not coincidentally the original areas of study, with academics taking the place of clergy) in which the university could or should probably be involved. While scientists and scholars remain creative (precisely because they are who our universities ought to be training to the degree that these people need training in addition to an education), we see college-trained business people and artists stagnating, ceasing to be entrepreneurial, being transformed into homogeneous worker bees. More, they are homogenized by our universities in other ways: in their thinking, in their morals, in their cultural attitudes. They are fully institutionalized, and they take the university with them wherever they go.

If many — if not most — people do not have to go to college, why is it so many do? The answer to that question is complex. One answer involves a logical fallacy people employ when it comes to college. It’s called the “fallacy of composition.” The fallacy of composition occurs when you falsely assume that just because X is good for one person or a group of people that X must therefore be good for all people. A good example of this is gluten. There are people out there who hear that because people with Celiac disease or gluten allergy must avoid gluten to be healthy that therefore everyone would be healthy if they avoided gluten. The assumption that because college is good for some people that college must be good for all people is a form of this fallacy. College is not necessarily good for everyone; worse, attempts to make it good for everyone by dumbing down the curricula to try to accommodate everyone has made it good for fewer and fewer. Although the fallacy of composition lies at the center of the common reason given by most for more universal university education, the fact of the matter is that increased pressure to get a college education followed the Griggs vs. Duke Power decision. This decision stated that companies could not use employment tests to weed out people, based on the belief that the tests tended to discriminate against minorities. Businesses then started using college attendance as a proxy for the intelligence and knowledge tests they had been using. This created a demand for college diplomas for many jobs that beforehand had never required college attendance. College became a way of signaling to potential employers that you have certain qualities, such as the intelligence to get into and stay in college. This attitude toward college as a way to signal your worth to potential employers has only expanded in scope, so now perhaps most positions have a college diploma requirement for application. And most of these positions do not in fact require anything you may learn at college to do the work. Credentials have replaced competence as the criteria for which one is hired. We should not then be surprised that with the loss of interest in competence, universities have dumbed down their curricula. If competence isn’t in demand, why provide it?

But these are not the only things driving the growth of our universities. In the same way that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church was replicated in medieval society in serfdom and political aristocracy, our universities’ bureaucratic structure is mirrored in our businesses and governments. Indeed, one of the main reasons for the reforms of the German university, which we have inherited, was so bureaucrats could be trained for the government. It should not surprise us that the trainer of bureaucrats should itself end up become bureaucratic. In recent decades we have see bureaucratic structures being increasingly reinforced within our universities, driving not just university bureaucratic growth — at the expense of full time professorships (which are rapidly being transformed into part-time adjunct positions with incomes below the poverty rate) and institutional innovation — but increasing costs to students, which in turn gets translated into massive student loan debt. This debt in turn binds college graduates to employment by others (rather than creating the conditions for increased entrepreneurship, which is what drives economic growth) with homogenized thinking and fear-inducing debt. As a result, few who graduate from college — let alone finish graduate school — are prepared to do anything but work for others.

Universities are particularly good at producing more bureaucrats — meaning they are producing a mandarin class, a group of scribblers whose self-interest lies in ensuring their own position is safe and secure. Naturally, they can then be counted on to always defend the status quo and to grow the department for which they work. Bureaucracies always drive toward the creation of zero-sum institutions at best, and negative sum institutions when bureaucrats engage in rent-seeking and/or are part of government. The creation of more and more bureaucrats thus drives us toward economic stagnation.

The university system currently in place is protected from reform and competition by the considerable financial and legislative support state and federal governments provide. School accreditation also protects the status quo, and only works to reinforce homogeneity. The argument for accreditation is that a certain minimum degree of quality is ensured, but this assumes that reputation is only properly granted in a top-down manner by third party institutions rather than being emergent from people’s experience with each of the universities themselves. Further, and perhaps most importantly for both the accreditors and the universities, accreditation also works to keep down real competition. And it consequently prevents real innovation.

But accreditation can also directly create the conditions for ideological homogeneity. Take, for example, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which accredits university programs in social work. According to their website[2]:

As of the February 2015 COA meeting, there are:

  • 504 accredited baccalaureate social work programs
  • 235 accredited master’s social work programs
  • 16 baccalaureate social work programs in candidacy
  • 19 master’s social work programs in candidacy

So they are obviously a major influence on the curricula of social work programs, since those programs have to meet the CSWE requirements. And what are those requirements? Among those listed in their Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards[3]:

The purpose of the social work profession is to promote human and community well-being. Guided by a person and environment construct, a global perspective, respect for human diversity, and knowledge based on scientific inquiry, social work’s purpose is actualized through its quest for social and economic justice, the prevention of conditions that limit human rights, the elimination of poverty, and the enhancement of the quality of life for all persons.

There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly objectionable in this list — with the exception of the statement that “social work’s purpose is actualized through its quest for social and economic justice,” which everyone knows to mean supporting leftist ideology and opposing free markets. Both of which may in fact be in direct violation of their requirement for “knowledge based on scientific inquiry.” Later in the document they say that programs have to “engage in practices that advance social and economic justice,” the latter of which they identify with a right to an “adequate standard of living, health care, and education.” More than that, students have to “advocate for policies that advance social well-being,” based, of course, on the ideology of social and economic justice — meaning, they are required to advocate for more government programs. So if you disagree with government redistribution programs, universal health care/insurance, or public education, you will be in violation of these standards. A program full of people who did not believe in social and economic justice would not be able to be accredited by CSWE. And what program doesn’t want to get accredited?

Most notably, the Standards keep emphasizing the importance of “diversity,” but how much diversity can there really be when the standards literally require belief in leftist ideology? While it is true that their list of what constitutes “diversity” does include “age, class, color, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, immigration status, political ideology, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation,” this standard, which ironically includes “political ideology,” is in direct contradiction with the explicit political ideology the program is supposed to promote. One must assume that “political ideology” is included to ward off any opponents to their standards rather than being something to actually be taken seriously, given the overwhelming emphasis on how programs are to promote and advocate for leftist ideology.

The issue here isn’t that the ideology is leftist — there would be problems if there were a conservative accreditation agency that dominated a particular degree. It is the domination of a particular ideology, driving ideological homogeneity among college programs, which is the problem. And it is a problem that will continue to exist so long as there are accrediting agencies.

There are those who might point to private online universities, but in fact places like the University of Phoenix have structured themselves not to compete, but to play the same game as traditional universities. The job of all colleges and universities is to provide people with signals to businesses that those people are good worker bees. And they provide those signals at a cost that requires most people to take out student loans to afford it. Even the market has produced colleges and universities that are the distilled essence of what the public universities have become, with the latter still trying to maintain the illusion they are providing a place where real learning under the guidance of real scholars is taking place. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that, just as in the market-driven universities, the vast majority of faculty at our public universities are part time adjuncts or full time lecturers, meaning they are hired to teach and nothing else. The role of the university as a place of scholarship is falling away. Students are promised a place of entertainment while they get their signaling document (diploma) so they can get a “good job” at the end of all of their conspicuous spending. As a result, the students are increasingly demanding that they “get what they pay for.” And what, exactly, are they paying for? They aren’t paying to learn. No, they are paying to get the signal they need to get a high-paying job. The professor is seen as being in the way of achieving that goal. The point is to get good grades to get a diploma to get a job, not to actually learn anything. And when professors make the mistake of thinking their job is to actually teach someone something, you may rest assured that the department chair will hear about it. And if you don’t have tenure, that means you’ll get canned. Better, then, to just let everyone pass. This is the true source of grade inflation.

Our university system is the foundation of our contemporary postmodern culture in practically every way — both good and bad. It reinforces the increasing bureaucratization of society, reinforces victimization and political correctness and notions of privilege (even while pretending to be against privilege), and enforces speech codes to try to avoid anyone offending anyone. In doing so, it pushes us toward a more homogenous way of thinking. At the same time, and much more positively, it also discourages racism, sexism, and homophobia, encourages us to look at different cultures as being merely different rather than superior or inferior, and creates the conditions for more complex ways of thinking. But while a particular way of thinking, such as postmodernism, arises in response to the contradictions which became overwhelmingly obvious in an earlier way of thinking, the new way of thinking will itself have contradictions and give rise to problems that in turn have to be overcome. The answer isn’t to go back to those older ways of thinking to which the current way of thinking was the answer — we should not return to Enlightenment thinking any more than the Enlightenment thinkers, upon facing their own contradictions, should have returned to Medieval thinking — but rather find new ways of thinking, discover new ways of doing things.

But if we are going to find new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things, we have to begin the work of understanding the problems of today and the sources of those problems. I am suggesting that the source of the problems we find in our society — problems exposed by the 2008 crash and our ongoing wars — are to be found in one of our most dominant institutions: the university system. I have seen what this system looks like as an undergraduate student, as a graduate student, as a community college adjunct professor, as a university adjunct professor, and as a university lecturer. I have seen what this system produced and produces in a recursive fashion — after all, the students universities receive were taught by teachers taught by those universities, and in my experience those students are almost completely unprepared to receive a true university education. And those teachers are almost completely unprepared to teach anyone much of anything. And that is the fault of the universities. Because universities do not provide teachers with an education, but rather with pedagogical training. And those are not even remotely the same things.

This book is primarily a work of cultural criticism. Given that our culture is almost entirely founded in and constructed within our universities, my focus will be on how our university system maintains our postmodern culture. That culture is one that is superficially pluralistic, but deeply homogeneous in its thinking and world view. Different ways of thinking are in fact not tolerated — though that intolerance only extends to those “within” one’s own culture, meaning the religious, conservatives, and classical liberals, as well as a range of thinking we all too often mislabel as “mental disorders,” but which are quite often ways of thinking and experiencing the world that are simply different from how most people think and experience the world. In this latter case, medications have been developed to homogenize those who cannot be homogenized by our educational system.

I am sure that because I am focusing on the issues surrounding higher education that I will be accused of anti-intellectualism, but it is actually those critics who defend the current university system, who defend the current culture, who are anti-intellectual. We have de-intellectualized our universities, and it is that institution as it actually exists and not the ideal one of intellectual inquiry which those critics defend. Rather, I am here to in no small part defend true intellectualism. I want to defend it against the mandarin class our universities have created, who pretend to intellectualism, but have none of the content necessary to be an intellectual. I want to defend it against the illiberal forces within our universities that oppose liberal education. I want to defend it against those who argue that intellectual pursuits have no value, so it will be no big loss if we defund the humanities, for example. The humanities are not “practical,” so why support them? Don’t we need more technicians and people educated in practical pursuits?

Nietzsche once observed that there is an inverse relationship between the strength of the government and the strength of the culture. The same could be said of the relationship between the strength of the university system and the strength of the culture. There cannot be a strong culture any time there is a dominant institution monopolizing it. True diversity — intellectual, mental, psychological, moral, epistemological diversity — is what drives cultural creativity. What it cannot be created by are homogenizing forces.

The dominant institutions of a culture will determine that culture’s morals, artistic content, attitudes, politics, and even wealth distribution. So it matters a great deal that our culture is dominated by our universities. The structure of those universities matter, as they affect the content of the products of those universities, whether it is the research and scholarship conducted or the students educated there. And as larger and larger percentages of our population are educated in this system, the effect on society becomes more and more profound. At the same time, we are starting to see the weight of the internal contradictions of university ideology, of the egalitarian, postmodern world view, being felt on our cultures and in our economies. This book is my attempt to identify these contradictions and to suggest some ways out. But knowing how we got here is an important step to finding that. While postmodernism might itself promote antifoundationalism, that hardly means it doesn’t have foundations.

[1] Manual labor jobs are today looked down upon, although mechanics, electricians, plumbers, etc. can make a very good living. The argument that nobody should have to choose such jobs is, as is so often the case, transformed into the argument that nobody should want to choose such jobs. Of course, those who most look down on such jobs are those who, because of such snobbery, are in most need of the people who can do those jobs for them.

[2] http://www.cswe.org/Accreditation.aspx

[3] http://www.cswe.org/File.aspx?id=13780, accessed 3/31/2015

NEXT: Chapter 1 (Part 1)