Does a Technology-Driven Civilization Need Liberal Arts Learning?

To say higher education in the U.S. is in poor shape may be the understatement of the century. Whether it is due to outrageous and still-rising tuition payments now made by undergraduates and students in professional programs who will graduate with five and sometimes six figures of student loan debt; whether it is the fact, which we know from data-based evidence, that they are not learning anything of significance (Arum & Roksa 2011); whether it is the bloated administrations whose priorities often leave much to be desired; whether we look at the politically correct faculty and now student groups chasing windmills of “white privilege” and the widely-publicized disruptions of appearances by conservative speakers now led by students themselves (as if during intermissions on their way to indentured servitude); can the fact that major institutions are in trouble be any more evident?

Their troubles are made worse by the fact that spokespeople for the entire system of higher education seem to want to conceal from themselves how much trouble the entire enterprise is in. American colleges and universities are supposed to be the best in the world, and students still come from overseas to study in them based on reputations established decades past. Many of us are predicting this will soon change. Why has all this happened? I was recently asked this by a friend, to whom I responded that if I attempted a full explanation with all the right references, I’d be working on it for the rest of the decade. What matters is that the problems are likely to get worse before they have any chance of getting better. Administrators are comfortable as their salaries push seven figures; many if not most tenured faculty are just as comfortable as if unaware of their dwindling numbers amidst the “adjunctification” of academia. The comfortable usually don’t budge unless fires, figuratively speaking, are built under them.

The liberal arts and humanities in particular are in trouble. Many highly visible programs in major universities have gained reputations as repositories of ideology-driven “studies” of various sorts, launching pads giving expression to identity politics. What has to be noted about identity politics is that it is very much out of accord with principles recognized not just in the U.S. Constitution but (as I’ve noted before, and elsewhere) in the bulk of the Western Enlightenment tradition itself (at least, as it existed prior to Hegel and his stepchildren). Justifiable efforts to equalize opportunities for all long ago, beginning in earnest in the 1960s, had morphed into preferential programs of various sorts by the 1980s, with the mindset of political correctness evolving to protect those programs from sustained intellectual evaluation and criticism (Yates 1994).

Today the situation is vastly worse! To even attempt to criticize an identity politics that applies to everyone except straight white Christian men is to be not just a “racist” (a word losing its sting from overuse) but a “white supremacist,” a “misogynist,” a “fascist,” or a “neo-Nazi.” Much of this, I submit, is desperate but determined pushback against an essentially traditionally-minded population of mostly white people who found a way to resist these tendencies by voting for Donald Trump last year (whether he best represents any viable resistance is another matter entirely). This resistance is just one aspect of a larger rebellion against the globalist mindset of elite cosmopolitans of the big cities, the “blue culture” I discussed in a couple of previous posts, and its professions of “expertise”: often just the dominance of the opinions of those with the most resources to promote them and the will to confuse their opinions with proven fact.

But this misses the point about higher education and liberal arts programs that have been hijacked by identity-politics.

Do we even need the liberal arts anymore? Have they been superseded by science and technology?

This is, after all, a technology-driven society. Technology companies and other businesses want employees who can code, design, etc., or sell products or otherwise just get things done. What does liberal arts learning contribute to this? Among those who have piled on, with well-publicized statements that “humanities” subjects are worse than useless and ought to simply be defunded, are self-described conservative Republicans. The Scott Walkers of the political world wouldn’t mind, I don’t think, if entire colleges that stress liberal arts simply closed down, once legislative axes have been taken to their funding and if they were unable to find private support on their own (or survive massive tuition hikes).

We have, moreover, entered an era when, given the expense and employers’ frequent complaints that they cannot find qualified employees for what job openings exist, that the value of a college or university degree itself is starting to be called into question.

While perhaps understandable — after all, employers have no interest in pandering to university graduates demanding “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” — this is sadly short-sighted. Let’s see if we can put our fingers on why.

Consider first this piece bemoaning how some in the corporate world question the value of a college degree. A close reading reveals a false dichotomy that cries out for exposure and sound analysis. The dichotomy: students’ only viable choices are between the politicized “zombie studies” degrees to be found in liberal arts hijacked by identity politics (the phrase is used in the article), and vocationalism of various levels (at the top for the very smart, STEM subjects, and for those with less mathematical acuity, welding and other hands-on programs at technical colleges). The first renders a person unemployable outside of academia, which in today’s landscape means the poverty of precarious, part-time teaching (“adjunctification”). With the latter, one is employable if one has the skills that fit the fickle demands of the marketplace. While there is, of course, room for these, I believe we need more.

The third alternative not mentioned is the article linked to above is real education. What do I mean, real education? Admitted, my use of real in this context is rhetorical, but appropriate to our times, in which we have a media-saturated mainstream drowning in the misdirected, the fake, the artificial, the simplistic, and the evasive. Real education is not simply about earning a living. It is about how to live in society: how to gain and use solid critical thinking skills to evaluate the claims that come one’s way via media (including, obviously, social media) for their truth-content; how to judge the performance of our so-called leaders relative to our founding principles or principles that have been regarded as central in our civilization; and equally important, how to recognize abuse of language, words and phrases used as clubs to beat people into submission (such some of those listed above), and hidden premises, perhaps ideas broad and sweeping but left unstated and therefore assumed, not argued for, with the hope that no one will notice.

Real education thus includes philosophy and religion, critical thinking and logic, history (both American and world), literature and art, foreign languages, and so on. It will not exclude the study of non-Western cultures when these cultures have something important to teach us, as they sometimes do (cf., e.g., Norberg-Hodge 1991 & 2009). Such education will provide students with a basis for participating in the many ongoing conversations, especially about culture and values: including whether there are transcendent values on which to base a moral point of view that offers diagnoses of Western civilization’s most pressing problems and points to constructive solutions.

This alternative is now almost completely overlooked in the shouting matches over such things as free speech on campus (!). Such values as that one need to have been planted in the student’s mind before they leave high school. No, free speech is not an absolute. It was never intended to protect calls for deadly force and violence, for example. But it does protect informed dissent from dominant points of view, and intellectual space for alternatives to exist. This requires something many of today’s college and university students clearly lack: the ability to appreciate opinions other than their own, and to distinguish disagreement from “hate” or invocations of “violence.” 

Everything I have said so far is, I believe, consistent with a conservative intellectual point of view, which at one time would have been regarded as common-sensical. This article documents informally that this point of view has basically disappeared from the campus environment. Its few remaining defenders are in their 70s or older, and are dying off rapidly. I can count the number of academic philosophers who espouse some kind of conservatism on the fingers of one hand; there may, of course, be more, even in the under-70 generations, but if they exist they’ve kept their heads down as a survival strategy (especially, as is likely the case these days, they don’t have tenure).

If conservative speakers have to be brought in by college Republican groups (yes, believe it or not, these still exist) from off campus, the reason is that there are practically no conservatives on campus who can speak to students with authority. There are possibly no faculty members willing or able to represent conservatism however understood.

We see the results, which can only be described as repression and censorship. If there is justice in the world, colleges and universities will rue the day they decided en masse to write conservatives out of academic disciplines, marginalize them and their works, kick them off campus or refuse to hire them in the first place, and are now able to demonize them as “fascists” (a word that used to mean something), or libel them as “white supremacists,” “haters,” etc. ad nauseam: these terms listed again in the wake of my above remark about the use of language as equivalent to club-swinging.

For one thing, conservatives out in the real world vote. Hillary Clinton may have learned this the hard way, that it might be a bad idea to denounce a sizable fraction of the electorate, those pushing back against the globalism of the elites and the identity politics of academics, as a “basket of deplorables”! Some conservatives have money, moreover. They may have earned it doing something useful to society, as opposed to writing unreadable tomes of “gender studies” while living at the expense of taxpayers. Some conservatives run for public office, thinking or hoping they can make a difference. Some are in positions of influence now, where they can wield the axes I mentioned, reducing taxpayer funding for colleges and universities under the (possibly reasonable) assumption that this is the only language the latter understand in what are perceived (again reasonably) as ideological echo chambers and playgrounds for the identity politics of the week.

For these institutions are literally stealing from students via tuition that climbs to ever more outrageous levels nearly every year, while preparing them for little more than debt-driven indentured servitude. Students themselves have every reason to question this system, and one wishes more of them would do it. These days, though, that will mean escaping mass brainwashing by identity politics clearly going well back into public high school and possibly even grade school: that somehow, by some magical means, the straight white Christian male as some kind of abstract entity is responsible for all of Western capitalist civilization’s ills.

Our initial question was: does technology-driven society need the liberal arts? I think we’ve answered that question with a firm and resounding Yes! This article by John Naughton goes a long way to explain why, drawing on the concrete situation the technology world behind social media finds itself in. Naughton begins by noting the dismay of the techies that platforms such as Facebook have been misused, being used to create the echo chambers that have spilled out into the real world and contributed massively to our increasingly polarized society.

The architects of social media all studied STEM subjects (or, like Zuckerberg, were studying them before they dropped out of school). Their educations feature very little liberal arts. Doubtless these are smart people, good at what they do, but they do not understand either human nature or politics. Naturally they are blindsided by the idea that not just advertisers but those with political agendas could use their platforms to target people with ideologically-polarizing messages.

Two crucial paragraphs of Naughton’s article state this case better than I ever could on my own, and are worth reproducing in full:

“Now mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines – intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history – or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.

“We are now beginning to see the consequences of the dominance of this half-educated elite. As one perceptive observer Bob O’Donnell puts it, ‘a liberal arts major familiar with works like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, or even the work of ancient Greek historians, might have been able to recognise much sooner the potential for the ‘tyranny of the majority’ or other disconcerting sociological phenomena that are embedded into the very nature of today’s social media platforms.’ While seemingly democratic at a superficial level, a system in which the lack of structure means that all voices carry equal weight, and yet popularity, not experience or intelligence, actually drives influence, is clearly in need of more refinement and thought than it was first given.”

In other words, social media architects lack real education as I outlined it above, as probably do most of their employees who also have great technology skills but no understanding of the issues raised by all the “fake news” allegations, or those about “conspiracy theories,” and so on.

Getting rid of liberal arts learning altogether, as some Republicans promote, would not merely make matters worse. We would go from the frying pan into the fire, as it were. It may be the case that liberal arts and humanities disciplines have been hijacked and mostly destroyed by identity politics. The response, though, is to recreate these disciplines, having extracted the destructive elements from them.

Now comes the hard part. How do we accomplish such a thing?

The idea of creating alternative educational institutions and networks is tempting. Such efforts exist already (I once attended one myself to see what insights I could glean from the experience). They market to people who look at higher education as it presently exists and do not like what they see.

They can offer programs that are vastly less expensive because they operate without layers upon layers of bureaucracy. They are, therefore, mobile, flexible and adaptive, and more attuned to problem solving even in the vocational arena: as vocationalists would say, in the real world. They have the potential to pick up the ball mainstream brick-and-mortar institutions have dropped. Given the ready availability of the technology, many operate entirely or almost entirely online instead of in physical settings. Instead of pushing ideology, they promote skills and continuous learning as well as networking and community.

Some writers predict the demise of the mainstream brick-and-mortar institutions except, perhaps, for the most famous with the largest endowments (Carey 2015).

There are problems, however. The first obvious problem is that most employers still look for standard university credentials on that resume, as opposed to whatever certificates of mastery are achieved from accomplishing projects at an alternative institution the employer has never heard of. Those founding the new institutions could reply that in an era in which employment opportunities are likely to diminish because of advancing robotics, automation, etc., their goal is to produce entrepreneurs, not employees: people with “anti-fragility” in Nassim Taleb’s sense (Taleb 2012). Yet not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, and for those who are so suited, markets for almost any product eventually get saturated. As the “niches” get smaller and more specialized, the demands on even highly mobile and adaptive entrepreneurs climb ever higher. An entrepreneurial system, not unlike standard corporate capitalism, requires economic space for potentially infinite growth in a finite world. So I am unsure that trying to turn everyone into an entrepreneur is the answer.

There are other problems. My experience (which is, of course, just one person’s) is that the user-interfaces are often unnecessarily complicated, resulting in websites that are difficult to navigate. In another case, just the opposite is the problem: there is little on the homepage except for an APPLY NOW button and a start date for the next session. With no information about what one is applying for except some very generalized and inspirational slogans, how many people are going to apply even if the cost is a fraction of what they would pay at a four-year university? Matters are made worse when specific website features such as links do not work properly or conveniently, or annoying pop-ups appear that cannot be closed without closing the page. One other recent experience of mine exploring an education-for-entrepreneurship site that looked otherwise interesting had all these technical issues, plus one more: a chat operator to whom I could not reply because while there was a reply window there was no SEND option! As I wanted to reply, I copied and pasted my reply into a Word file, and when I attempted to upload the file, received: FILE TYPE NOT SUPPORTED. What? They do not support Word files???

That was when I lost interest.

Technical issues aside, nearly all these endeavors appear to be glorified technology and start-up business incubators. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with establishing such endeavors. But if we are going to replace the absurdly expensive and culturally self-destructive brick-and-mortar institutions with something that will do good in civilization, we need to build into the new ones a renewed commitment to liberal arts learning as it began at the start of the Enlightenment, and for the reasons noted above. There must be a place in any sound educational endeavor for critical thinking and its logical foundations, for historical case studies of the various attempts we have made to organize socially and economically in various ways, and to what extent these have worked or failed to work and why — and above all, have a conversation on what worldviews are and what role they play in civilization.

Conservatives might find a home in such endeavors, where they can raise fundamental questions about whether sound morality must have a transcendent source (such as the Christian God) or whether describing it as a cultural artifact will suffice, and whether social change and experimentation are desirable as ends in themselves or simply distracting or damaging to those involved and those affected. They might well note that from a logical point of view, if morality is nothing but a cultural artifact, so that right and wrong are determined by cultural authority and enforced via political authority and economic structures, then those societies that practice slavery are not subject to the criticism we might think, as slavery is nothing more than a practice their society has chosen to use even it it is one ours has rejected. If any leftists read this, they will doubtless have a blast quoting that out of context. But they cannot have their cake and eat it, too. They cannot both reject slavery and declare racism to be abhorrent while also maintaining that all moral judgment is bound by time, place, culture, and context. It is a sign of today’s limited learning that such logic escapes them.

I do not know if such education will be “marketable” in today’s environment. Mainstream education, down to the primary level, has gotten so appallingly bad that the questions we’re trying to raise in the minds of those on the verge of adulthood are barely understood, much less tolerated. It concerns me that in the present environment an independent online institute emphasizing liberal arts learning might draw the interest of no one except those for whom money is not a concern, i.e., children of wealthy elites or at least the comfortable, the result being no “skin in the game” but rather a sense of this being an intellectual game.

But then again: do we simply want to assume, with Libertarians more than conservatives, that a market-based economy is sufficient to solve the problem we are addressing here: sustaining liberal arts learning in civilization, under the idea that sustained liberal arts learning is a civilizational need, independently of whether it is a (marketable) want. Neither Libertarians nor conservatives seem to want to face this question.

To put it still more basically: what if the Non-Aggression Principle is not marketable?! (By that I mean: what if it is marketable to such a small segment of the population as to have no demonstrable effect on the body politic as a whole?)

Bottom line: a technology-driven society, to be sustainable, needs liberal arts learning as traditionally understood. It needs to allow space for posing the Big Questions about life, morality and its foundations, the role of faith communities, and the best ways of organizing ourselves in a finite world of competing interests. When liberal arts programs are hijacked by those whose motives are questionable because intellectual curiosity and the desire for a better world for all is not what drives them (identity-politics), or deemed expendable (any number of outspoken Republicans), we get the kind of situation we have now and find ourselves looking at a downward spiral.

I am confident that we will not find solutions if we do not look for them, and I also think we Westerners are rapidly running out of time.

REFERENCES

Arum, Richard, & Roksa, Josipa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Carey, Kevin. The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.

Norberg-Hodge. Ancient Futures: Lessons From Ladakh for a Globalizing World. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991, 2009.

Yates, Steven. Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action. San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
This entry was posted in Academia, Culture, Higher Education Generally, Philosophy, Political Economy, Where is Civilization Going? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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