Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ivy League Schools and Progressivism

William Deresiewicz critiques the performance of Ivy League colleges in The New Republic.   Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, and Walter Lippmann founded The New Republic as a cornerstone of the early twentieth century's Progressive movement, and it has long advocated policies that impose hierarchy, expand government, and gut the economy on behalf of economic elites. The policies include the higher education system. Unsurprisingly, Deresiewicz's critique of the higher education system retains Progressive assumptions and ultimately serves to reinforce them.

Progressive policies have included the monopolization of credit by large, money center banks through their banking cartel, the Federal Reserve Bank; the income tax, which inhibits saving that facilitates capital formation among blue collar and lower-income workers; the inheritance tax, which by depriving later generations of capital forces them to seek corporate jobs that depend on the banking cartel; and a wide range of economic regulations that deter entrepreneurship and self-actualization.  Regulation disadvantages entrepreneurial, smaller firms by raising costs per unit and increasing economies of scale.

In the controlled, hierarchical, high-income inequality, militaristic, and centralized American economy that Progressivism has created, higher education plays an important part.  Deresiewicz makes valid criticisms.  At the same time, his criticisms are couched in his assumption that higher education is an independent variable, capable of manipulation, and that the forces that deter broad education are merely limited to universities.

Deresiewicz, who was on the admissions board at Yale and is a leading academic, notes that Ivy League schools manufacture students who have little intellectual curiosity, lack passion about ideas, avoid risk, and have not been taught to think.  Such students are conformist and concerned with fitting into the highest rungs of American society.  The great advances in America's economy have never come from its elite, though. America's elite has always concentrated on banking, law, and power. The great American inventions such as the assembly line, scientific management,  and AC electricity had little do with such elites.

Colleges cannot teach one how to think. They can demand that one thinks; provide material about what to think; and offer models, heuristics, algorithms, and solutions that illustrate thinking processes.  Thinking, though, is a natural reflex that a person must cultivate on his own.  The best thinkers, such as Einstein, Tesla, and Gauss, and the best leaders, such as Jefferson and Lincoln, received minimal schooling, most of which was unrelated to their intellectual achievements.  Wikipedia quotes Des Cartes, who had attended a Jesuit school through his ninth grade:

I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth traveling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it. 

Deresiewicz is surrounded by the hierachical, suppressive cult of Ivy League universities, and his solution to the poor quality of education is to attend universities lower in the cult's assigned hierarchical ranking. It doesn't occur to him that the lower-ranked schools and professors are also cult members.

The solution is not to partake of lower-ranked participants in the same failed cult but to reinvent it.  There is no need for undergraduates to attend research universities, and there is no reason for science, the main achievement of the Progressive university, to be done in undergraduate institutions. It can be better done in research institutes that serve graduate but not undergraduate students, a claim that Robert Maynard Hutchins cogently made 70 years ago.  Too many students attend college, employers place too much emphasis on college attendance, and Americans take college degrees too seriously.   Americans did not make the latter mistake before The New Republic was founded.

As well,  American society can be transformed so that widespread wealth can be accumulated and so that independent thinkers don't need to depend on the corporate hierarchy for which places like Yale and Princeton as well as Minnesota and LA City College,  prepare their students.


JKB said...

The best description I've found for the benefit of the university was in an old Schribner's Magazine essay by Prof, Percy Marks, who went on to pen the novel that became the 'Animal House' movie of the 1920/30s, 'The Plastic Age'. Amusingly, given how some alumni of the Ivy League use the town rather than the school name when asked where they went to school, The Plastic Age was banned in Boston.

The idea is, of course, that men are successful because they have gone to college. No idea was ever more absurd. No man is successful because he has managed to pass a certain number of courses and has received a sheepskin which tells the world in Latin, that neither the world nor the graduate can read, that he has successfully completed the work required. If the man is successful, it is because he has the qualities for success in him; the college "education" has merely, speaking in terms' of horticulture, forced those qualities and given him certain intellectual tools with which to work-tools which he could have got without going to college, but not nearly so quickly. So far as anything practical is concerned, a college is simply an intellectual hothouse. For four years the mind of the undergraduate is put "under glass," and a very warm and constant sunshine is poured down upon it. The result is, of course, that his mind blooms earlier than it would in the much cooler intellectual atmosphere of the business world.

A man learns more about business in the first six months after his graduation than he does in his whole four years of college. But-and here is the "practical" result of his college work-he learns far more in those six months than if he had not gone to college. He has been trained to learn, and that, to all intents and purposes, is all the training he has received. To say that he has been trained to think is to say essentially that he has been trained to learn, but remember that it is impossible to teach a man to think. The power to think must be inherently his. All that the teacher can do is help him learn to order his thoughts-such as they are.

Marks, Percy, "Under Glass", Scribner's Magazine Vol 73, 1923, p 47

If you read these old essays, even some from the 1880s, you find that in regards to education and universities, nothing really has changed in over 100 years. The complaints are eerily similar.

Mitchell Langbert said...

ll check it out. You remind me of film version of the Wizard of Oz. Recall that the Scarecrow lacked a brain, and the Wizard gave him a diploma, which solved the problem. Americans increasingly believe that.