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The enemy of education is education
August 8, 2013 5:42 PM   Subscribe

Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here? So why make trouble? Why not just go along? Let the profs roam free in the realms of pure thought, let yourselves party in the realms of impure pleasure, and let the student-services gang assert fewer prohibitions and newer delights for you. You’ll get a good job, you’ll have plenty of friends, you’ll have a driveway of your own. You’ll also, if my father and I are right, be truly and righteously screwed.
posted by shivohum (36 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
This guy seems to use "college" and "university" interchangeably, when that is definitely not the case. At least in my limited experience colleges are a ton more teaching focused as they don't have graduate research programs - at least the difference in teaching quality between the small liberal arts college I attended for undergrad and my current graduate institution was a major shock for me.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:05 PM on August 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


Using "college" and "university" is an Americanism as far as I can tell. In the UK, Canada & Australia they're very different things. What everyone else calls "college" Americans usually call "community college". With the exception of university sub-units, like Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
posted by GuyZero at 6:18 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


"No one in this picture is evil; no one is criminally irresponsible. It’s just that smart people are prone to look into matters to see how they might go about buttering their toast. Then they butter their toast."

This is a good essay.
posted by voltairemodern at 6:22 PM on August 8, 2013


Fascinating and clearly written from the heart. As a graduate of a liberal arts degree with my high school years spent in a classical education system, his musings are music to my ears.

Indeed reading the greats allowed me to open my mind to the possibilities in front of me - some of which were imagined by my parents and teachers, and many that were not. My three years at McGill were spent "getting an education" and not preparing to get a job. That would come later - after grad school. By then I had a better idea of what I wanted to do.

Years pass and now I find myself in another city, running a consulting company and well into my tenth year as faculty at a polytechnic institution. When I teach, I try to instill the same curiosity and openness of mind into my students, that I once had as a young student. But students' focus in my classes is to pass the course, get a good grade and graduate - so that my students can continue to climb the many ladders of their various careers. They are missing out, with their laser focus - and because of this, my heart breaks a little at the missed opportunities.
posted by seawallrunner at 6:28 PM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Your professors will give you some fine books to read, and they’ll probably help you understand them. What they won’t do, for reasons that perplex me, is to ask you if the books contain truths you could live your lives by."

American universities haven't been a center of moral instruction since the Land grants overtook the Ivies. Obviously some fields are still living in that shadow more than others.
posted by pwnguin at 6:39 PM on August 8, 2013


I kinda agree with him because I'm kinda like him but there are a lot of people out there who are nothing like him and won't find anything to enjoy in the direction he is pointing them. Luckily, they have no intention of even looking in that direction.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:49 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


What they won’t do, for reasons that perplex me, is to ask you if the books contain truths you could live your lives by.

Because that's not education; that's church.
posted by spaltavian at 6:49 PM on August 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


What everyone else calls "college" Americans usually call "community college"

Not really. "College" in the British/Commonwealth education systems often refers to pre-university sixth-form colleges that prep you for the GCE A-Levels, such as Bellerbys and Concord in the UK, Trinity College in Australia. In the UK, the Oxbridge universities comprise a number of independent colleges that combine residential and teaching facilities.
posted by peripathetic at 6:56 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


But when we expend our energies in rightful ways, Robert Frost observed, we stay whole and vigorous and we don’t weary.

This idea that your proper career is the one that feels like play rather than work seems to be increasingly popular, but I think it can be harmful when taken too far. No job is without headaches, even if you are following your passion or supposed true calling. Many worthwhile endeavors are difficult and exhausting and sometimes not very much fun. We all sometimes have awful times at work; that doesn't mean we gave up our dreams to follow society's expectations, or that we value money over honest happiness. It just means that sometimes work is going to feel like work. Adding in some worry about whether you're not living authentically enough, whether our culture brainwashed you into choosing the wrong career because you don't ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT ONE HUNDRED PERCENT OF THE TIME... That's just unreasonable expectations.
posted by vytae at 7:06 PM on August 8, 2013 [19 favorites]


Soo the essay certainly is a bit self indulgent. Which is neither here nor there. But I guess the point is he's railing in the wrong direction. Rail against the corporate world who made a college degree a requirement. Hell the whole notion of learning as fun stems from an aristocracy which can support it. This seems more like the wailing of the lost south to me.
posted by Carillon at 7:12 PM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


Just because it stuck out at me, sitting across town here... 58 Clewley Road ain't exactly the bad part of Medford, at least these days. (I know that's not the point of the essay. I know neighborhoods change. Just weird to see the address spelled out like that and think "Hey, I got lost in that area once. That's a nice street!")
posted by maryr at 7:14 PM on August 8, 2013


So that was sort of a long trudge to basically say "follow your dreams".
posted by octothorpe at 7:34 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the author unwittingly makes a strong case for the exact opposite of what he's advocating. One of the main reasons why colleges and universities have become certification centers as opposed to places of learning is that, thanks to the internet, knowledge is no longer cloistered within the ivory tower. You don't need to pay tuition to learn how to appreciate Emerson or Yeats. The information is no longer locked away.

Likewise, this author, as a professor, is no longer one of the gatekeepers of such knowledge. Given the poor quality of this rambling, self-indulgent screed, I don't see this as a bad thing.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 7:39 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


What they won’t do, for reasons that perplex me, is to ask you if the books contain truths you could live your lives by.
When it comes to the study of Plato and Freud, that may be because the answers are so obvious it would be excruciating to read the essays. The author's peers in medical and law school, on the other hand, will have to ask those questions about topics from their coursework, and will have the opportunity to test their answers in a laboratory filled with life-and-death consequences.

Studying what one finds exciting is great advice, and vigorously engaging in coursework is a fantastic idea, whatever a student's particular interest may be. Following one's passion also seems like a fine idea, even for those who don't wind up with a successful book deal and slightly-postponed fame and recognition. But, the implicit assumption that the only topics one could possibly be passionate about are those with no material relevance grows tiring.

I realize academics in the humanities feel the need to defend the value of their work against a range of very real assaults. But there must be a way to do so without erecting laughable straw figurines to represent every other field. Believe it or not, your colleagues across the quad also sometimes think about interesting and important things and some of them care about "soul-making."
posted by eotvos at 7:52 PM on August 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


Everyone lives in the belief that their burdens are humanity's and their answers, too.
posted by oddman at 7:55 PM on August 8, 2013 [13 favorites]


When it comes to the study of Plato and Freud, that may be because the answers are so obvious it would be excruciating to read the essays. The author's peers in medical and law school, on the other hand, will have to ask those questions about topics from their coursework, and will have the opportunity to test their answers in a laboratory filled with life-and-death consequences.

In the same passage Edmundson addresses that:
You’ll be the one who challenges your biology teacher about the intellectual conflict between evolution and creationist thinking.

The author is concerned about out the lack of metaethical rigor in contemporary college level education. There is no inconsistency and I think he raises a very thoughtful point.

It is a misreading of the article to conclude that he is/can only discuss education w.r.t. the humanities. He is talking about all of education.
posted by polymodus at 8:30 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not everyone can be a professor and scholar. We need plumbers and garbage collectors and ditch diggers too. Does he really mean to say they don't have souls because they never went to college or studied great books?

And we need lawyers and doctors and business managers, for that matter.

Some people find the meaning of their lives in their work, and they are lucky (and usually "privileged" too.) But a lot of us just get jobs, and find meaning in families or hobbies or where we can.

I believe a liberal arts education is important to, but not that it makes you human or even that you can't be happy and fulfilled without it. Ideally what it does is give you some perspective, lift you out of your own life so you can see what you share with other humans and previous generations. This guy could use a little more perspective.
posted by OnceUponATime at 9:27 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the author unwittingly makes a strong case for the exact opposite of what he's advocating. One of the main reasons why colleges and universities have become certification centers as opposed to places of learning is that, thanks to the internet, knowledge is no longer cloistered within the ivory tower. You don't need to pay tuition to learn how to appreciate Emerson or Yeats. The information is no longer locked away.
This waaaaaaaaaay overstates the novelty of the internet for education. We've had a great public library system in this country for many decades. Having access to information hasn't been, for a long time, a bottleneck for receiving an education.

I think the big thing is having an external structure that reinforces the priority of education. When you have a zillion responsibilities in life (or opportunities for pleasure) and a zillion internet sites that are fun but not educational, are you going to plow through page after page of dense philosophical writing? Are you going to do tedious problem sets to gain mastery of the concepts behind the Higgs boson?

If you want to learn, make it a priority, and go to a place where they say, "Here learning is what we do," and that's what a college or university is.
posted by Schmucko at 9:51 PM on August 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


This waaaaaaaaaay overstates the novelty of the internet for education. We've had a great public library system in this country for many decades. Having access to information hasn't been, for a long time, a bottleneck for receiving an education.

I strongly disagree. First off, there are many, many parts of the country where the local public libraries are woefully underfunded and inadequate. And that's assuming your town even has a local library. Or that you live in the United States, or a similarly wealthy nation that has the resources to spend on libraries.

But more importantly, the internet has brought much more than mere access to information. It's brought explanation and interpretation of that information. Sites like Khan Academy actually teach. This is a huge step up from a book on a shelf in a library. And now MOOCs are taking it to the next level of interactivity with online discussion groups and actual problem sets and exams. Thanks to Youtube, we can watch lectures and debates on almost any subject imaginable; the same can be said for podcasts. Online forums such as reddit's Ask A Historian or Ask A Scientist allow you to get answers and clarification on all sorts of subjects, often in great detail. There are even now services that help you learn foreign languages by facilitating videochat sessions with native speakers overseas. None of these things were available to me before the advent of the internet, and I grew up in a wealthy area with a generously funded library system.

I do not think I'm overstating the novelty of the internet for education at all. The internet has revolutionized our ability to both acquire and process information; I see this as an unmitigated positive.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 10:54 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I could hardly disagree more. "Revolution"? I don't think the internet has brought anything new to the table as far as education goes. It's instructive to look back at past fads. (MOOCs are widely regarded as a kind of education joke that the pointy-haired boss types think is The Next Big Thing, but almost anyone who takes such a course drops out.) We had special "reading labs" in junior high where some machine flashed through the words at just the right rate according to your top words per minute. Educational software has been around decades too. How hard is it to plan ahead to watch an educational PBS show? How much did television revolutionize education? Hasn't it been possible for decades to distribute videotaped lectures?

Having lived in a multitude of parts of the US (NJ, NY, DC, MA, CO, IL, CA, GA, OH), I have never lived more than a few minute ride from a very nice public library. Maybe funding has been going down recently, but the library system is a real gem in this country.
posted by Schmucko at 11:16 PM on August 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


I found, like a lot of people do, that the share house, where you have soul and few hard commitments and it's OK that you are always broke, started to look a lot less appealing as 30 closed in......and the idea of ever again appealing to the parents for help with the rent made my relationship with them feel like I was still a teenager. So I got some jobs I didn't want to take and clawed my way into some that looked a lot better. 12 years into a career that was not my dream or my first choice, I am indeed starting to consider my options for transitioning into something that is more nurturing to my soul, if you will. But I don't think I have lost anything irrevocable or suffered some de-humanizing disaster. I did what people do, I made choices with trade-offs and I found a good way to live with them.

I love the liberal arts, they are beautiful. I still read philosophy and "serious" literature. At their best, they do engage one in something that is close to this rhetoric about what is essential to be human, since it is, I believe, crucial that we engage in critical reflection about what we are doing and trying to do, where we came from, and what we should be doing. But the idea that the only way to practice this way of life is to study the canonized practice of what's really a very recent cultural institution, the modern university liberal education (as distinct from the Classics dominated education that people had until about 100 years ago) is very dubious indeed. You don't have to read Greek tragedy to understand what it means "to be human"; you learn that from life, if you learn it at all. Digging into Euripides could help you think about this stuff better, sire, but so could many other texts. (I don't think, ironically, that they taught much Euripides in the days when half your undergrad before you could even do pre-med stuff was Greek and Latin - memorizing Virgil and Cicero was more like the standard fare).

I read this when it came out, and I kind of liked it. I would have adored it at 19 or 21. The author's heart is in the right place, but I don't buy in to the romanticism like I did then. Perhaps my thoughts reflect mostly the banal journey into middle age, but that journey is mine now. I don't really regret spending my 20's living like a free spirit, but there also was a cost to it. Becoming a doctor and then finding out that's not who you want to be is not the only type of bad thing that can happen in life.
posted by thelonius at 11:18 PM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I don't want to turn this into a giant derail, so I'll just state that you've been very fortunate to have lived in areas where your local public libraries have used their budgets wisely on educational material as opposed to multiple copies of the Twilight series and the latest Dan Brown thriller, (or their 1980's equivalents.) Some of us were not so lucky.

If you really believe that the internet has not brought "anything new to the table as far as education goes" then I encourage you to start exploring. There really are quite a lot of resources out there, many of them interactive.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 12:03 AM on August 9, 2013


I'm teaching the same college course I taught in 2000. Do I make use of what's developed on the internet? Of course. And I try to keep up with what's out there. But what I've found is new as in "novelty" and not new as in "revolution". It takes the place of older materials (slides, videotapes) but not much is fundamentally new.

thelonius, this discussion has reminded me of the opening speeches in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (written before the modern university education), in which the characters all vow to put aside worldly pursuits and hole up in study together, reinforcing each other... But then they find that life is to be found more in participation. That's fine up to a point, and some of life is to be found outside of books, illuminating some of what's inside--but also vice-versa.
posted by Schmucko at 12:17 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


>> (MOOCs are widely regarded as a kind of education joke that the pointy-haired boss types think is The Next Big Thing, but almost anyone who takes such a course drops out.)

Yeah, well.... that may be due more to the fact that the PHB's are already taking too much of our 'free' time away from our families and our other obligations. The amount of time left over at the end of the day for a MOOC (or a trip to the library, or a continuing-ed course at the local university... ) is becoming vanishingly small. BUT: PRODUCTIVITY!
posted by armoir from antproof case at 1:21 AM on August 9, 2013


I can't imagine anyone who does not have an insane quantity of family wealth thinking about their college education in terms that are not principally vocational today. Education is expensive, and living nicely in nice places is even more expensive. Failing to plan for a high income is planning to have a life full of some significant compromises. It's not the end of the world if you have to make those compromises, but who would box themselves into them up front?

Heck, 20 years ago I was an English major but that could make sense to me only because I was math and standardized test whiz and knew that I would be able to go on to a top law school and then have my choice of a law or business career thereafter. Now top law schools cost twice and don't even guarantee your foot in the door thereafter.
posted by MattD at 5:27 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I could hardly disagree more. "Revolution"? I don't think the internet has brought anything new to the table as far as education goes.

This is possibly the most boneheaded thing I have ever read about education.

Let me tell you a story. In 1992 or so, I was trying to learn to program my brand new computer. It didn't do much, but it had QBasic on there, and NIBBLES.BAS was cool, so I wanted to learn to do things like that! Being a good schoolkid, I went to the library, only to find out that their "computer books" section consisted of DOS for Dummies and a couple of books on programming logic controllers. In short, it was utterly worthless for my needs. Interlibrary loan? Nah, the collections weren't linked by the internet yet, so you couldn't just search the catalog and order a book. I ended up learning to program by sheer force of will using those example QBasic files, the QBasic help file, and long (undoubtedly annoying) phone calls to my great-uncle, who had been a mainframe programmer in the early days.

Now, if you want to learn to program, there are tons of free books: How to Think Like a Computer Scientist, The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, Foundations of Computer Science, and a hundred others. Don't like the language that your computer provides out of the box? How about Python, Ruby, Scala, or Haskell? Each of them has comprehensive, up-to-date documentation, of course. Sometimes even awesome tutorials in the style of a slightly off-kilter children's book. You can download tools and compilers whose equivalents cost hundreds of dollars in the 90s. You can ask questions and test yourself. You can use your new knowledge to contribute to real projects.

Now, I'm lucky; I was socially inept enough and determined enough that I learned to program using QBasic and its help file and my geriatric uncle explaining what control structures are and what I could do with them. However, the sheer difference in available resources is incredible! I am still learning today, and the availability of good information in almost any subject I am interested in is unprecedented in the history of the world. I count 1997, when I first got the Internet, as the real beginning of my education; after that point, I learned almost nothing from my public school teachers and surprisingly little from my University classes, because I had become literate enough in information technology to retrieve more resources on any given subject than most of the instructors could comprehend—and that's the threat to traditionalist information gatekeepers.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:03 AM on August 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


I kind of get where you both are coming from - the internet has revolutionized *access* to information, though it hasn't revolutionized the *form* of that information - still largely non-interactive video and text. Now I think the great thing about the internet, and perhaps the truly revolutionary thing, is the ability to form learning communities online. Studying alone is a pain because if you're stuck on something, you're stuck, but having access to something like stackexchange is fantastic.


However, I do not think there is much substitute for *good* teaching, especially when it comes to delving in deep to subjects. I know that even with internet access and the knowledge of how to use it, when I decided to go to grad school, studying for my physics GRE was a pain. Explanations often gloss over certain aspects, and if you need that aspect for the information to 'click', then without someone to ask questions of, you may well be out of luck. The answer to the question could be something obvious it takes 2 minuted to work out on your own, or answering it may have been someone's entire career in the 19th century.

I'll admit, I'm not good at learning from reading - much better at talking and listening and doing, but the difference in learning between trying to study material on my own when I had all the free time in the world, and taking grad school classes that in my opinion were taught poorly, while working part time as a TA, was enormous.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:00 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are colleges that do not match this author's ramblings at all (Editor!).

These are the small liberal arts schools that do not live by the Publish or Perish rule. They require excellent teachers. I went to one of these schools many years ago, and learned to love learning there, after suffering through twelve years of suburban schools. (My daughter goes to one of these schools - on scholarships, mostly. Almost nobody can afford to send their children to a small liberal arts school any more.)

I also went to a large university, for a grad degree, for a job. Ho-hum.
posted by kozad at 8:37 AM on August 9, 2013


Because that's not education; that's church.

Yes, philosophy has no place outside of the church.

Also, I learned programming from the internet. They should just give kids iPads.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:49 AM on August 9, 2013


sonic meat machine, you're right that the internet is revolutionary for technical skills like programming. I've been teaching myself to code in baby steps via Codecademy, and it's better than taking a class in almost every way. I completely agree with everyone who says that a traditional degree program is at best a hoop to jump through for someone who wants a career in tech. But not every field translates so well. Mine (ancient history) is probably somewhere near the top of that list. Let me preface this by saying that while I know most people think of my field as a hobby, I think that access to scientifically rigorous history is a human right up there with the pursuit of happiness (just as an example from my own field, Nadia Abu el-Haj's Facts on the Ground is an extremely interesting, if controversial, piece of anthropology about what happens when a dominant political group controls the official telling of ancient history within a country). Without professional, well-trained historians, history goes back to being the domain of the very rich, which is something that should disturb the rest of us.

There are a lot of really useful tools for history that make use of the internet. I use a lot of them in my own research. Stanford's ORBIS project is very cool. The Packard Humanities Institute's online database of Greek inscriptions is less flashy but more useful. Coin Hoards of the Roman Republic is great too. There are dozens more tools like this, but that's all they are: tools for people who already know what they're doing. They don't teach critical thinking skills, or how to write or debate or contextualize. When I teach undergrads, I don't just recite facts. I trust my students enough to read their textbook. I teach them how to pick information out of primary sources and critique previous historical interpretations, to question the idea that just because an authority says something it's automatically true, how to do rigorous research and back up a statement with evidence. Maybe someday a MOOC can do that, but I haven't seen it yet.

All that said, as someone who grew up middle-class and whose grandfather was a first-generation American and child coal miner, I very much disagree with the author of the article that the purpose of a liberal arts education is the development of a soul. Most of us have souls anyway. The real value of a liberal arts education is empowerment. It's wresting cultural capital from the elite. That is certainly not the first priority of someone who needs to find a job, nor should it be, but it's not trivial.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:06 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


As an alum of St. John's (where plenty of folks who are not wealthy still pursue education for its own sake) who now teaches biology at a public open-access 4 year college, I think about questions like this a lot. I don't know if this article would resonate with many of my students, the vast majority whom predictably answer the question "Why are you in college?" one of two ways: 1) to get a job and 2) because my parents made me.

That said, I had 14 students in an upper level elective Evolution class, which was in no way going to help them get a job, and we had a complete blast discussing theoretical concepts, with several of them still telling me that was their favorite class in college (and no, they don't say that about every class, believe me). And every semester, several sections of Introduction to Philosophy fill up on our campus, even though the course meets no general education or degree requirements for anyone.

I think oinopaponton's statement of "wresting cultural capital from the elite" is something that a lot more of them would understand than what is in this article, or than they ever let on. Many of them are first generation college students, many of them are non-traditional aged students who were discouraged from going to college when they were younger, many of them are first or second generation immigrants, many of them are from historically oppressed groups, whether in the US or in another country. So I do think it's short changing them to say that this is just "vocational education", and I think they short change themselves when they tell me these simple reasons for why they are in college--the act of these folks getting a degree and getting a job that requires a degree is life-changing for them and their families and potentially world-changing for the rest of us. The act of them becoming educated really is "wresting cultural capital from the elite", and it is awesome to be a part of.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:40 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


As for the Internet....even in metro Atlanta, we had a high school physics teacher who told us the Earth was 4000 years old. He didn't think we should bother learning trigonometry. What I would have given to have MIT lectures on the library computer!
posted by thelonius at 9:43 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think the author unwittingly makes a strong case for the exact opposite of what he's advocating. One of the main reasons why colleges and universities have become certification centers as opposed to places of learning is that, thanks to the internet, knowledge is no longer cloistered within the ivory tower. You don't need to pay tuition to learn how to appreciate Emerson or Yeats. The information is no longer locked away.

That's what struck me the most too. Nice point.

The value of universities is mostly the other students (and sometimes the professors.)
posted by mrgrimm at 3:07 PM on August 9, 2013


studying liberal arts as a developing young adult is a fantastic thing to do, for all the reasons the author mentions. it does not, however, have to involve a university. life is a liberal arts education, if one wants it to be. high school --> gap year --> trade school would provide a much better result than high school --> liberal arts degree. imagine a carefree 22 year old with an associates level training as a radiology tech, a steady and portable job, no crushing student loan debt, exchanging book recommendations with all the international friends they made while hostel-hopping after high school (this can be done even in the US). compare to the lib-arts-educated graduate working two jobs waiting tables because they have absolutely no marketable skills and are drowning in the debt from their romantic education. which of these two is actually free to ponder the course they want to take in life and make adjustments accordingly?
posted by moss free at 4:46 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


You’ll be the one who challenges your biology teacher about the intellectual conflict between evolution and creationist thinking.

I'd be pretty concerned about the lack of rigor in a college education too if I was in biology classes where creationism was mentioned.
posted by jacalata at 11:21 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Trinity College in Australia

FWIW, if an Australian told me they had been to college, I would assume they meant they had lived in the residential quarters attached to one of the 'sandstone' (older) universities, mostly populated by rural, international or rich kids. There are also a fair number of private schools named 'college' (eg Scotch College, Brisbane Boys College: both Prep-12) - I don't think it implies a pre-university thing at all.
posted by jacalata at 11:24 PM on August 9, 2013


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