As Parents Write Tuition Checks to Behemoth State

Robert C. Koons, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has written a piece titled “Dark Satanic Mills of Mis-Education: Some Proposals for Reform” in Humanitas. The problems at Behemoth State University (here Koons self-consciously borrows from Russell Kirk) did not begin, Koons writes, “with Sputnik or the G. I. Bill.”

Instead, Koons—with help from Irving Babbitt and C. S. Lewis—identifies two principal foes, neither one a twentieth century progressive: Francis Bacon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He writes,

We can best understand the modern university by seeing it as built on the synthesis of these two tendencies, Baconian and Rousseauan. We now justify the hard sciences almost entirely in pragmatic and utilitarian terms, as the incubators of technology, not as observatories from which to behold and contemplate the music of the spheres. In contrast, many in the humanities, as well as most in the new fields of “communications” and “education,” have abandoned the hard road of fact to become the playgrounds of “values.” Since all value is the arbitrary projection and construction of liberated egos, there is no true hierarchy of value to be learned and internalized and to structure the course of learning into a true curriculum.

This work is a continuing development of Koons’s earlier reflections on what he calls the uncurriculum that dominates the landscape of research—and many would-be research—universities. Basically, an uncurriculum is the system of distributive requirements that universities demand from students, for the benefit of the professors, under the guise of giving students choices. The result: Professors get to teach whatever they want to teach that furthers their research interests, and students are required to take those classes, independent from their interests or how such classes could help or develop them.

People outside the academy may not realize the extent to which these variations in classes shape (or don’t shape) students intellectually. I gave a lecture on God and morality at a well-respected research institution two years ago, and one of my undergraduate hosts said something that I still remember. After saying that he was taking a course on communist guerrilla warfare to fulfill a distributive requirement, he asked, “I can tell you the different between Che’s tactics and Mao’s, but how does this help me flourish as a human person?”

There are at least four possible responses to offer in defense of the professoriate. The first is that students going to my university don’t need such a course. (Behemoth State kids, of course, need to learn about, e.g., American government—but students here, well, they arrive knowing these things.)

The second response is that professors don’t want to teach such courses because the system does not associate greatness in the profession with greatness in teaching. People write books on communist guerrilla warfare for the purposes of promotion, but they don’t aim to bedazzle their colleagues by teaching undergraduates a general introduction to the history of the Western world. Teaching a course based on your book project furthers your book project and so furthers your career. If research universities want professors to focus on something other than publishing, this argument could go, then research universities should award something other than publishing.

There’s an interesting third possible response: If the university’s endowment is large enough that most students pay little to no tuition, then professors could say that students are receiving a prestigious degree at low cost because they are implicitly willing to be taught whatever the professors want to teach, rather than what the students need to learn.

These possible replies are all interesting, but notice how concern for student learning disappears. Koons’s “Dark Satanic Mills of Mis-Education: Some Proposals for Reform” offers an explanation why: Humanities classes use particular texts as occasions for self-expression and self-discovery.

I wonder, though, whether humanities professors actually believe that they are in the business of helping students express themselves, or that they have captive audiences for their own self-expression. Anecdotally, I think professors find that students express themselves far too much, and they have little desire to share themselves with their students. So it may be that the story is slightly more complicated.

Here’s an attempt at giving that story: A regularly expressed goal for the humanities—indeed, for learning generally—is not a certain body of knowledge but is instead something like “critical thinking.” The book Koons uses to make his point about the abysmal state of higher education, Academically Adrift, itself relies on this kind of assessment, i.e., a test of an ability rather than a test of knowledge. It does so precisely because there is a broad commitment to critical thinking, analytical reasoning, etc.

But if that’s the goal of the humanities—to sharpen students’ minds—then a fourth argument could be made in defense of the status quo: Teaching specific, specialized courses allows students the opportunity to dabble in graduate-level work as undergraduates. I.e., if critical thinking is the goal, then analyzing Che’s tactics versus Mao’s may sharpen one’s critical thinking skills far more than simply reading Thucydides. A sophomore at Behemoth State has the chance to pursue the study of history with the critical thinking skills that other people discover only in graduate school!

If the goal is simply to establish technical expertise, instead of mastering a body of knowledge, then professors are not to be blamed—or should be blamed with a fair amount of sympathy—for teaching what is useful to their own careers. If what ultimately counts are the skills, not the content, then what’s happening in a well taught Mao versus Che class could develop students’ all important critical thinking skills as well as—or even better than—a course in English literature. The question is how well the professors push their students to develop the desired skills, not what the courses are about.

But Koons blames the dark Satanic mills. To do so, I think he has to defend one or both of the following claims: (1) Critical thinking skills are best developed by superior course content, or (2) course content is choiceworthy in itself, independent from its ability to foster critical thinking skills.

(1) endorses the current consensus but offers to find a better way: Yes, let’s go for critical thinking skills, but realize that reading Plato and Shakespeare will get you there faster! By contrast, (2) challenges the consensus: I don’t care whether or not reading Shakespeare will develop your critical thinking skills. You must read him!

(1) could be sufficient for Koons’s thesis, but I think (2) may well be necessary. To get away from the uncurriculum, Koons and others will have to explain how professors are doing their students a disservice by not teaching them the classics.

For (1), Koons could point to books like Academically Adrift that show that courses in the humanities that make students read and write a fair amount help students achieve critical thinking nirvana. Koons could say that a laudable course goal like improving critical thinking skills cannot be achieved independently from course content. (This claim assumes that intensive reading and writing classes devote themselves, at least partially, to the classics.)

For (2), Koons could argue that professors have a duty to students apart from, or in addition to, critical thinking. I’m not sure he states this point explicitly (though he may, elsewhere), but I’m pretty sure he believes it. And here Koons has a friend in E. D. Hirsch, Jr., the author of Cultural Literacy. Hirsch’s argument is that skills arise not in a vacuum but are connected to course content (perhaps like option (1), above) and that students and others ought to learn what educated people currently know (as measured by what appears without explanation in major newspapers). Hirsch offers different reasons for why this specific body of knowledge is important, but what is important for our purposes is that Hirsch argues that students should know things with their minds, and not just be able to do things with them.

It may be, though, that Koons is avoiding these kinds of conversations to avoid sticky questions about what should and should not be taught for the purposes of developing cultural literacy.

Regardless, Koons’s piece is refreshing, even invigorating. I recommend it.

One final note: I am grateful that Koons in this piece, in contrast to earlier reflections, recognizes that not every university is a Behemoth State. I’m on the core curriculum committee at my university, and we take very seriously what can be marginalized at research institutions. I imagine that there are other liberal arts colleges that share our attitude. So not every university is part of the Behemoth State system, though there are many universities that are.