A question is raised, and answered (sort of).

Amid some musings on the fallout from the Big Bailout, Connor raises some interesting points over at The Desert Lamp, linking to this essay by Charles Murray, best known as the author of The Bell Curve. Murray makes two arguments, one of which I find rather disturbing and the other of which I more or less agree with.

The first argument advanced by Murray — and very well, I have to admit — is that college simply isn’t necessary for everyone. Not everyone needs a liberal arts education, Murray argues. Not everyone needs to read, say, Mill’s On Liberty. Why would someone who wanted to “write computer code” for a living give a damn about John Stuart Mill? Why would someone who wants “a job in television” spend four years doing things like writing term papers on Paradise Lost? Leave those things — which Murray regards as just things people “are really good at, in the same way that other people are really good at cooking or making pottery” — to people who really care about them.

From a purely pragmatic, materialistic perspective, Murray’s argument is difficult to refute:

For the student who wants to become a good hotel manager, software designer, accountant, hospital administrator, farmer, high-school teacher, social worker, journalist, optometrist, interior designer, or football coach, four years of class work is ridiculous.

But from the argument that college isn’t for everyone, Murray goes on to suggest a future where it isn’t really for anyone. He virtually declares the university obsolete for all but the eccentric, backward few:

A brick-and-mortar campus is increasingly obsolete. . . . The rationale for a physical library is within a few years of extinction. Even now, the Internet provides access, for a price, to all the world’s significant technical journals. . . . Some people like being around other people during the workday and prefer face-to-face conversations to emails. For those who don’t, the value of being on a college campus instead of on a mountaintop in Montana is nil. . . . As personal computers acquired the processing power to show high-definition video and the storage capacity to handle big video files, the possibilities for distance learning expanded by orders of magnitude. We are now watching the early expression of those possibilities: podcasts and streaming videos in real time of professors’ lectures, online discussions among students scattered around the country, online interaction between students and professors, online exams, and tutorials augmented by computer-aided instruction software.

Like Thomas Friedman’s sermons about the world-flattening magic of globalization, Murray’s vision of a democratic college-free world is at once deeply appealing and strangely frightening. Curiously, though Friedman and Murray are both conservatives, their arguments aren’t conservative at all; they’re radical visions of what society ought to be like. That’s not a commentary on the value of their visions, just an observation. An educational system that has been purged of educational institutions — of tradition, of hierarchy, of standards — is like no educational system the world has ever seen. The fact that Murray disguises his radicalism behind old-fashioned American-style trumpeting of technological advancement as an end in itself shouldn’t make its newness, and scariness, any less clear.

There’s a lot of merit in Murray’s first argument, that a bachelor’s degree isn’t for everyone. A good college education is demanding and it ought to be. It’s ridiculous that most employers refuse to even consider hiring someone without a bachelor’s degree.

Now, what interests me is why Murray chose, of all things, On Liberty as an example of something that most people wouldn’t have any interest in. He could have chosen practically anything else from the standard philosophical canon — Being and Time, Either/Or, Being and Nothingness — and gotten a nod from me, but as it happens, On Liberty is one philosophical text that has everyday relevance to all of us. It makes a very simple point that is, in fact, very relevant to the experience of any American for the simple reason that it comes up all the time: We shouldn’t seek to censor any views. You might argue that this opinion is obvious, but it isn’t. Mill doesn’t argue that all viewpoints are valid, or anything like that. He argues that we should all be free to choose the best view, and that the best ones will almost always win out in the end. It’s almost an intellectual version of the free-market doctrine.

Should someone who just wants to repair cars for a living be forced to read On Liberty? Murray makes two assumptions here. The first is that the text is too challenging for most people. I suppose it’s reasonably challenging (though I first read it on a noisy six-hour flight and didn’t have any trouble), but anyone capable of doing his own income taxes every year is certainly smart enough to plow through it, even if they choke on some of the more old-fashioned bits. Murray’s second assumption is that a mere car mechanic wouldn’t give a damn about liberty — or anything above their station in life. Leave it to the professionals.

Elsewhere, Murray seems to be calling for the American education system to remodel itself after the German system: several years of all-purpose education, then you’re shuttled off in different directions, depending on your personal ambition in life. The ambitious students can have their Harvards and their Yales, and the slackers can have their vocational training. Murray sees the current craze for encouraging everyone to get a college education as the inadvertently destructive efforts of a bunch of well-meaning schmucks.

Fair enough — but hold on. Murray’s already conceded that he thinks everyone should have a public education, since that’s where you learn stuff “everyone should know.” The “core knowledge,” the basic details about everything they’re likely to need to know to answer questions on “Jeopardy!”, that sort of thing. But since he’s already applied a completely utilitarian standard to higher education, this part of the essay rings rather hollow. Does a car technician really need to know about Charlemagne or even the Pilgrims?

As Connor notes, “many public schools are already tilted towards vocational training and away from the life of the mind.” This is certainly true. Only a couple of years ago, Arizona Democrats pushed an initiative that installed more job-training in high schools, on the grounds that it would provide more experienced workers for “the job market.” There’s probably no politician left in the country who hasn’t alleged that “we need to be producing more engineers.” And the whole point of No Child Left Behind is to bring American children up to the level of the Japanese, or something like that. We Are All Friedmanites Now. (Thomas, not Milton.)

Such high-falutin’ rhetoric is merely the hard casing that surrounds a soft, mendacious core. What is mendacious about the presence of job-training in schools is simply that it provides schools with an instrument for directing some students toward certain careers — in short, certain types of lives — and some toward others. To be blunt, it allows schools to play a major role in deciding who gets to be a member of the “smart society” — Murray’s ambitious, Milton-reading go-getters — and who can be presumed to be content working at AMPM. It gives to a state-sponsored institution an astonishing power over the lives of the citizenry. In brief, the real question is not whether too many people are going to college, but who we should try to discourage from going there.

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One Response to “A question is raised, and answered (sort of).”

  1. The Desert Lamp » Campus » More on Murray Says:

    […] one more opinion on the universal university worth consideration: Justyn Dillingham has a smart post up over at The Civic Spirit. Share […]

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