The Humanities are Useless

Something is amiss when we automatically evaluate the value of higher education (or, really, education in general) for the kind of economic impact it will have on one’s life. Think about it — how much of the discourse surrounding whether college education is valuable right now revolves around return on investment, likelihood of increased personal wealth over the long term, and steady job prospects? As soon as higher education becomes involved in the game of job training, we necessarily start to place the filter of “useful” or “pragmatic” on why one ought to pursue higher education. And thus, we start to shift resources for academic programs away from the humanities and towards more practical pursuits — business, engineering, the sciences.

Of course, that’s not to say those questions about individual economic impact are bad — only, really, that we perhaps need to make a distinction between higher education for the sole purpose of education, and job training as such. The problem is that capitalism demands that our life choices be affected first by whether this choice will produce wealth, either in our individual lives or the surrounding society. Production (wealth and labor) as the measure of individual value makes the pursuit of education in art, history, philosophy, theology, and so on useless — and, in fact, in a society where the growth of capital is the ultimate goal (our telos, if you will) the humanities are useless.

My guess is that, until we stop valuing higher education only for how much wealth one might produce or obtain, interest in the humanities will continue to decline. We will become a society of producers, laborers, and managers — not one in which we are concerned with meaning, virtue, and justice.

Syllabus Selections

I just finished up my syllabus for the philosophy class I’ll be teaching (starting Monday!). A couple of excerpts —

On Biblical Integration:

Students will examine the Western philosophical tradition in the light of Christian belief, along with the various proofs of God’s existence and their historical relationship to Christian thought. They will also have practice in handling and presenting a Christian response to the issues which could be brought before them in a college philosophy class. We will follow the Apostle Peter as a model for engaging with current philosophical thought: “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Some of our “Classroom Rules”:

1. Students will engage with each other respectfully, even (and especially) in disagreement. Disagreement is encouraged! Disrespect – not so much.

2. Students will actively engage with both the content of the course and with each other during class discussions. This course will only be valuable if we actively dialogue with one another.

3. Students will be brave. This class is an open environment, meant to facilitate the discussion of difficult and challenging ideas. Sometimes this can make us nervous or frustrated. Bravery in such contexts is key!

I stole that last bit from Alan Jacobs in How to Think. Hopefully we will see some engagement and students find the class meaningful. It’s either going to be incredible, or I’ll go down in flames!

Teaching Philosophy

I’ve been spending a ton of time organizing curriculum and a semester-long schedule for a high school (senior-level) philosophy course that I am teaching this fall. It starts in two weeks, and I’m pretty excited to get a crack at teaching in a subject I find both meaningful and necessary.

In the first section of the course, assuming all goes to plan, we’ll be discussing what philosophy is, why it’s important, and how to determine whether we are thinking critically or not. I’ll be using several different resources and articles to make the point, but one of the main things I hope to use is Alan Jacobs’s How to Think — especially “The Thinking Person’s Checklist,” which he placed at the end of his book, but which summarizes his thoughts throughout the book nicely. Here are a few of my favorites on the list:

2. Value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory.’

6. Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuie cmmunity and can handle disagreement with equanimity.

7. Seek out the best and fairest minded people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.

11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.

12. Be brave.

Those last two, in particular are extremely important. One of the values I hope to instill over the course of the beginning section of the course is having no fear when engaging in thought and conversation about a topic that might otherwise make us anxious, afraid, or angry. Not only do those emotional responses hamper good quality discourse, they prevent us from stepping away from ourselves and our biases and incapable of even remotely rational thought. The truth (whatever it might be) ought to make us excited, not scared. And an opinion that is contrary to ours (even if the conclusion fundamentally affects the way we currently view the world) is worth engaging with — otherwise, we are not honestly interested in the truth at all.

We haven’t touched necessarily on what philosophy is (my usual number one question when thinking about a subject), but we are a little closer, by following the rules above, to answering the question, “What is philosophy for?”

Who Cares about Accreditation?

Roger Olson on accreditation and private, religious universities:

My firsthand experience with accrediting agencies, societies and associations is that they seek to hold out accreditation or renewal of accreditation as the proverbial carrot on a stick to manipulate institutions of higher education to embrace their values.

What do I mean by ‘values?’ One clear, undeniable example is ‘measurable outcomes.’ To put it colloquially, the bean counter mentality has taken over. Every program, every course is now supposed to have measurable outcomes for students. This has created havoc, of course, with the liberal arts and is one reason, I believe, for the struggles colleges and universities in the U.S. are having over sustaining liberal arts education. How, for example, does one measure wisdom, maturity, acumen, insight, and appreciation of beauty (broadly defined) numerically? The value here is instrumentalism—the belief that education is primarily about functionality, skill, productivity, problem solving.

This discussion will continue to be one of importance for private universities in the next few years. In recent decades (perhaps since the GI Bill was created?), Americans have viewed higher education as a means to wealth and higher levels of production and societal status. This has further led us to shift our focus from liberal arts and humanities to degrees that bestow and signify technical skill (computer science, business, education, etc.).

That’s not to say I don’t believe that those areas of education are useless or need not be pursued. The question, really, is what is the purpose of higher education in the first place? Is it to create better workers in a society, to produce more wealth, to move up the chain just a little bit? Or is it to build wisdom and character and virtue? I addressed this a little bit in “The Non-Pragmatic Private University.”

Olson is right to be concerned that accreditation agencies have moved from simply making sure colleges do what they say they do to imposing values (curiously, American “pragmatic” values) upon colleges. Forcing colleges that attempt to teach philosophy (the love of wisdom), theology (the study of God), and the like, while also producing “measurable outcomes” in students necessarily changes both the subject matter and focus of the education in question. How do we confirm that students have gained a “love of wisdom” in a philosophy course? The answer, of course, is that we can’t. All those courses can do is attempt to create an atmosphere that encourages critical thought and engagement in students.

At their best, philosophy courses and degrees cannot give an account of a measurable outcome, and further cannot prove to society that they are somehow “useful” or “pragmatic.” They aren’t meant to be useful or pragmatic. They’re meant to change how people live and think and act. They’re meant to make us ask the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Unfortunately, that doesn’t neatly into the American dream of health, wealth, and prosperity. But it just might help create a more just and beautiful society.

The Non-Pragmatic Private University

Professors, and the colleges and universities they inhabit, are no longer gatekeepers of knowledge. Information can now be tapped by nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime, at a low cost…

But what if a university is not an information-based organization? What if schools did something more than inform and credential? What if they were constituted by a complex web of practices transcending the exchange of information? Indeed, what if they were animated by an entirely different conception of reality altogether?

These questions invite us to more carefully consider the identity of, and practice within, the faith-based college and university.

“Christian Higher Education in an Exponential Age” – Kevin Brown and Stephen Clements

Working in private, Christian higher education in the contemporary moment provides a unique vantage point from which to assess the necessity, practicality, and inherent ills of the strange endeavor of building and maintaining a university. We live in the kind of moment where universities (and especially education in the realm of the humanities) are being routinely questioned as regards their usefulness. (Remember Rubio’s [in]famous statement on the fact that we should have less philosophers and more welders during the 2016 primary debates? He has since recanted, but the sentiment remains within the GOP.)

When higher education in general is commodified and reduced to the dissemination of information, and its value is judged based on its ability to “contribute to society,” (read: place adults in the workforce) we have reached the point when capitalism as an ideology has subsumed higher education as a common good. What of the university, then? Especially the small, private, Christian university, which has the primary stated purpose of training ministers and preparing people theologically and spiritually. Such a university holds no inherent value for that kind of society. These questions are not lost on those who work in higher education, especially private higher education. I frequently converse with staff at my own university that are concerned about the future of, not only our university, but Christian universities in general. From my perspective, we currently find ourselves at a crossroads — do we double down on our original mission of training ministers and missionaries, with a secondary focus on marketable degrees, or do we brave the path already forged by others, allowing our distinctively Christian purpose to fade into the background?

But what if, as the quote mentions above, the university’s purpose was redefined? What if neither of these two options are appropriate? If we live in an age where information dissemination is no longer necessary because of technological disruption, perhaps the university can regain its purpose as a shaper of individuals, communities, and society. James K.A. Smith spends time writing on this in Desiring the Kingdom:

I’m suggesting that Christian education has, for too long, been concerned with information rather than formation; thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they see themselves as fostering individual ‘minds in the making.’ (219)

Instead of talking about ‘Christian college’ — which makes it easier to traffic in the abstraction of ‘Christianity’ as an intellectual system — perhaps we should instead speak of ‘ecclesial’ college and ‘ecclesial’ universities. If Christian faith cannot be adequately distilled into the formulas of a Christian worldview, but rather is a social imaginary that is carried in the distinct practices of Christian worship, then any institution that would be meaningfully ‘christian would need to be a liturgical institutions of sorts, animated by the specificity of Christian liturgical practices. If education is always a matter of formation, and the most profound formation happens in various liturgies, then a Christian education must draw deeply from the well of Christian liturgy. (221)

The reality is, many public universities have already accepted Smith’s understanding of what the university is meant to accomplish. Without getting into the dumpster fire that is the liberal-conservative debate, it’s clear that most public universities are havens for left-leaning political ideologies, and they do so not by just information dissemination, but by character formation. Christian universities would do well to follow the lead of other universities. The purpose of the Christian university ought to be character and reason formation first. Information, which is so easily attainable now, ought to only be distributed in classrooms at the service of the task of formation.