Post Collegium, Ergo Propter Collegium: On the Destruction of Higher Education in America

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My first child having come with no manual, as evidently no child does, my wife and I arrived home with her somewhat bewildered, which was nothing compared to our confusion upon entry into the teenage years, but I digress. In any event, I blame college. Not a single class in parenting was required at the University of Texas at Austin.

This is, of course, absurd—an instance of what might be called the post collegium ergo propter collegium fallacy: the idea that the purpose of college is to prepare students for anything that comes after college. It is now pervasive. Students need careers; college must train them. Students do not know how to find jobs; college must teach them. The world is diverse and the economy is integrated; college must prepare students for both.

But this fallacy is an innovation, and not a good one. This beginning of a new academic year is a fitting time to revisit it.

The purpose of higher education has historically been to cultivate educated human beings and thoughtful citizens prepared for ordered liberty. It happens that an ancillary benefit of education so conceived is that liberally educated people are also engaging writers, incisive readers and innovative problem-solvers. But mistaking this benefit for the underlying purpose corrupts higher education, and the influence of politics shares substantially in the blame.

Politicians have seized on the promise of higher education as a gateway to economic opportunity. They are right. But thinking too literally—these politicians are not, apparently, liberally educated themselves—their analysis proceeds as follows: Careers are good. College can advance them. Ergo, college should train people for careers, and government should encourage them to do so.

The problem is that college at its best prepares students for careers only indirectly. They learn to write by reading great writers, not simply by being trained in writing. They learn to think by grappling with the best that has been thought, not by being taught to think. The rigid vocational model common in European educational systems is indeed good at producing the workers that large employers are constantly asking colleges to train on their behalf. But they are only workers. They are not innovators. Innovators and creators are not trained. They are educated.

The result of this overly literal attitude is the vocationalization of higher education. That is where the funds flow, what the rhetoric emphasizes and, make no mistake, what the dreaded assessment will test should the White House succeed in making itself the consumer’s arbiter of the quality of colleges and universities in America. It has supplied no reason at all to justify this role to which it aspires, save the idea that the existence of such an arbiter would be a good thing and therefore that the government should provide it.

But make no mistake: Its interference—not just this White House; any White House—will destroy higher education. It will do for college what the testing fetish has already done for elementary and secondary education: undermine respect for the beautiful yet untestable and decimate incentives to cultivate the most promising students. It will push government into a realm in which its influence is already felt too much. The overbearing financial presence of the national government provides a lever for all manner of regulatory influence, to say nothing of its inflationary effect on tuition.

But worst of all, inviting the President to assess colleges and universities will destroy higher education by driving it deeper and deeper into technicalities and further and further from liberal learning.

One of my colleagues, Bernard J. Dobski, urges students to study Political Science on the grounds that no matter what career they pursue—and the chances of them knowing that career at the age of 18 are poor; indeed, it is often sad if they do—the one job all of them will have is being a citizen. And that is a job. It requires training: not in the technicalities of how government works alone but in the enduring ideas that animate the regime. It requires an appreciation for the beautiful and the true. It demands an understanding of the genuinely political.

Perhaps most important, it requires the capacity for ordered liberty. A regime founded on that basis cannot long survive a citizenry unprepared for this responsibility. Institutions cannot replace it. Ordered liberty requires a capacity for ethical judgment. It involves consideration beyond the immediate and the self.

These are the products of truly liberal education. One obtains them not in the literal way in which politicians think of education: One needs consideration for others? Require a class in altruism! One actually obtains these virtues by considering Aristotle, by reading Shakespeare, by contemplating The Federalist.

That is the kind of training education must genuinely provide. It should pursue the beautiful and the true—from the Greek tragedies to the study of the natural world—because it is beautiful and true, because that is integral to living a full and good life, because that is essential to what makes us uniquely human.

This is useful but also a good in itself. It is universal “preparation.” The current model is not. Post collegium ergo propter collegium notwithstanding, no institution of higher education actually prepares students for everything that follows, as college-educated parents soon discover. Even those who embrace this fallacy are selective in that for which they choose to prepare students, and what they select generally coincides with their priorities, whether it is the politics of diversity or companies seeking free training.

Higher education was once about this universal preparation for the human good. It ought to be again. Every time a politician praises it instead for fueling economic growth—at least if he or she follows that by encouraging more vocational training on campus—it receives another cut. It can only bear so many.

Reader Discussion

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on September 03, 2014 at 09:57:26 am

Great piece - could we make this required reading for all students - and of course administrators, educators and those few politicians that are capable of reading!

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on September 03, 2014 at 10:20:22 am

I agree with much of what you say. I am, however, uneasy with your repeated use of the term "ordered liberty". Of course, this is the concept Justice Cardozo uses in Palko v Connecticut to legitimize the Court's selective application of the Bill of Rights to the States ( an action that Justice Scalia calls the biggest stretch the Court has ever made). I have no reason to believe that you are implying that connotation. It's just that it's difficult for me to think of in it any other way.

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James W Cotter
on September 03, 2014 at 11:20:58 am

There is, of course, much more to be said about post-secondary education along the train of Dr. Weiner's thinking.

But, despite agreement with the tenor of that thinking. one senses an "acceptance" (or the reality) of post-secondary education as a collective (and now often collectivist) enterprise rather than rather than differentiated, but aggregated commonalities of, individual objective-seeking. [Even when those individuals have no clear understanding of what they seek or why].

Any of us can offer a variety of views on what that level of education *should* be.
Most might see that as being more about **learning** and not so much about teaching.

But, we are observing the results of institutionalization of facilities for learning, occurring by political processes that begin with "Public Education" (a collectivity), initially the required primary instruction followed by secondary teaching - and the political extension of "teaching" into the next levels.

As noted, this may bode well for "Trade Schools," which many professional specializations from Law to Public or Business Administration now have on offer.
Nevertheless, learning or being taught "how it is done" and "how to do it" are not the same as gaining insights into the ways accumulated knowledge has been acquired through forms of learning and gaining some understanding of those forms. It is the latter that is being pushed out further and further into graduate and post graduate "studies" (not the terminology), away from teaching to learning.

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R. Richard Schweitzer
on September 04, 2014 at 22:12:28 pm

All well and good on the broad strokes and the fetish for quantitative measures to assess the value of colleges and programs, but it should be noted that we can in fact assess how well someone learns or digests Plato's Republic or Hobbes' Leviathan. We can determine whether they understand the sublime, whether they know about citizenship and liberty and all those great things. And we don't have to boil those things down to numbers and facile statistics: we can perform qualitative assessments (this is done all the time in the performing arts, for example, which has even become adept at measuring passion and vigor).

I see a strawman argument here, in short. We can retain a liberal focus and still measure quite a few of the things that the author believes are untestable.

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Fabio Escobar, PhD
on September 05, 2014 at 11:13:27 am

In reply to Dr. Fabio Escobar, in my reading of this essay, Professor Weiner is not primarily concerned to criticize the notion that standardized testing is a good thing, nor to assert that the important stuff in education is not amenable to testing. It seems to me that in focusing on these matters we miss the point of his argument.

As I read the essay, the thesis is that when we over emphasize the vocational in education at the expense of study of the good, we devalue education, properly understood. Dr. Weiner wishes to sustain an reinvigorate a neo classical conception of higher education--something with which I suspect most of us here strongly are in agreement.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 05, 2014 at 12:16:24 pm


I think you are quite correct both in your reading of Weiner's essay and in your broader point regarding the need to reinvigorate (and correspondingly, the current absence of) a neo-classical education.
I also believe that Dr. Escobar overstates the ability of "testing" knowledge of neo-classical teachings.
While one may certainly prescribe a rigorous (doubtful in todays' climate) test protocol for students, the true measure of "learning" in this regard may only be apprehended years into the future when these teachings are reflected in "prudent" behavior / thinking. additionally, it requires something more than a smattering of "core' classical courses for such teaching to become a part of a students thinking.

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Image of gabe
on September 05, 2014 at 18:03:45 pm

Admiral Mike Ratliff some years ago gave a thoughtful address to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in which he argued that "freshmen have forty chances to change their lives" when they matriculate at university. His larger point was that education should be transformative, and that on the whole, one is most likely to encounter the kind of deep transformation of character and intellect in the classes one takes. What makes assessment of teaching difficult is that very often, one does not fully appreciate those kinds of deeper transformation until some time has passed--often times years later. Moreover, deep intellectual, moral, and (I believe--but recognize that my faith is liturgical, not reformed) spiritual transformation often takes place when counterpoised with other experiences. So to some degree, my ability as a teacher to inspire reflection and change is out of my control, since the thought, ideas, and so on to which I expose my students, and on which I invite them to reflect, takes some of its meaning from their experiences in other classes, and indeed other life experiences.

All of which is to say that I am in fundamental agreement with both Greg and Gabe, above.

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Kevin R. Hardwick

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