Our master threader Pseudoplotinus introudced for our consideration the mostly effusive and certainly softball WSJ interview with Ben Nelson, who “founds and runs the Minerva Project.” His new university will, he claims, be America’s most elite institution of higher education, displacing Harvard as the one with the best “brand.” Here are some tentative and incomplete comments of mine:
Listening to our educational administrators these days, it is impossible to miss a telling contradiction. There’s anxiety about each college having a distinctive mission that easily morphs into a “brand.” Liberal arts colleges have to explain why they’re different from and even better than their rivals in order to flourish in the increasingly competitive educational marketplace. They have to justify the rapidly rising cost of the residential private college “experience,” which includes inducing a good number of students to borrow big bucks for the credential they could, in Georgia, actually get for free at the state school down the road.
To their credit, our administrators at Berry College might be clearer than most that it would be best if what the college actually accomplishes corresponds to its branding about what it is. The danger is that the “substance” might be transformed with the brand in mind. The even greater danger is that the quest for distinctive or even extraordinarily excellent substance will be deemed futile. Many colleges have reached that conclusion that they must sell themselves mainly with the amenities that grace their residential experience, and there’s nothing more shameful and silly in American education today than the resulting amenities arms race. Berry, I hasten to add, is about a lot more than amenities, although they have approved markedly in recent years.
Even the desire for “substantial” distinctiveness (that drives St. John’s in Annapolis/Santa Fe or Thomas Aquinas in California or Morehouse in Georgia)—which can be at the service of the genuine diversity that’s the best point of American higher education—is mitigated by the desire to correspond to “best practices” as articulated by accrediting associations, foundations, and government bureaucracies. And best practices are, these days, pretty much about attending to method or form at the expense of content or substance. What we need are “measurable student outcomes” that are abstracted from disciplinary content.
You can’t say these days that every student needs to study this or that period of history or body of literature. That would undermine student choice and privilege mere information over marketable skills. Our allegedly disruptive thought that learning only occurs if it is a measurable competency points to the standardization of education everywhere. The universal goal is the acquisition of the skills and competencies required for our the 21st century global competitive marketplace. Education that’s method abstracted from content knows no standard higher than productivity or power.
The democratic, technocratic slogan is we don’t want to teach you “what to think,” but “how to think.” And there are easier ways, surely, of becoming a methodical critical thinker than messing with history made by or literature written by dead white males who had lots of personal “issues” that often prevented them from living productive and responsible lives. So at Nelson’s school, students won’t read “great books.” Instead they will learn debating skills, practical writing, formal logic, and behavioral economics straight on.
Now it’s true that guys like me hate Nelson for working so hard to replace the liberal-arts college with the bookless and placeless (the students will change their location often so as not to get tied down or be less than cosmopolitan) training of a merely cognitive elite—specialists without spirit or heart, as someone said. But it’s also true that Nelson understands that if the study of history is for “critical thinking,” then educational efficiency means dispensing with tedious content and getting right to the thinking. History, after all, is merely information that can be Googled when you need it.
And true philosophy is nothing but analytical philosophy, a method for thinking clearly or logically. The content “Plato” is perfectly dispensable, and certainly not worth obsessing about. That’s why rigorously analytical programs think of “history of philosophy” in the same way physics programs think of “history of physics”—a somewhat instructive record of errors that occur when you haven’t quite figured out how to think or the proper method for inquiry. That’s why analytical graduate programs have sometimes followed physics graduate programs in no longer requiring the study of foreign languages. Everything you really need to know was written recently and is available in English. And, of course, an upside of writing following the logical rigor of mathematics is that there’s little danger of something really fundamental getting lost in translation.
But Nelson’s university—with its training in “debating skills” and “behavioral economics”—isn’t really about the production of analytical philosophers or theoretical physicists. THE BIG BANG THEORY’s Sheldon Cooper would be laughed out of the seminar room as the socially clueless nerd that he is. This university—which aims to replace Harvard as America’s top educational “brand”—means to produce sophists. Now Plato gave the sophist an undeservedly bad brand. Socrates says that sophist—unlike poets, politicians, and perhaps even parasitic philosophers such as imself—use what can be learned from natural science to solve problems people really have. They are paid in money and sometimes power for helping others maximize their productivity.
Sophists are technicians or experts or consultants. Because, Socrates added, their knowledge is scientific, it’s valid everywhere; they can get and really do deserve the big bucks wherever they go. The reason Nelson will have his students change location so often is so that they will understand themselves as rootless cosmopolitans—or freed from the prejudice that some local belief or concern trumps wealth and power in determining what needs to be done. So they will always give sensible advice when it comes to “calculating probabilities” about how to sustain oneself or one’s institution in a fundamentally hostile environment.
MORE TO COME