Derb, Michael, and Mark, the uselessness of an American liberal arts education is a dominant theme in David Mamet’s mostly very good book The Secret Knowledge, which I reviewed in the last issue. While Mamet definitely scores a number of direct hits on our higher education system, I think his attack is too broad. Here’s a bit from the (paywalled) review:
But in other areas Mamet’s insights are subtler and more edifying. His critique of the arrested development of the perpetual student, and of an American liberal-arts curriculum that produces graduates who are literally good for nothing, is a salutary revisiting, a generation later, of turf covered by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (though neither book nor author, curiously, appears in Mamet’s index). As with Bloom, in Mamet we have the aesthete and master critic applying his instrument not to an individual piece of culture but to the culture at large. But unlike Bloom, who understood that a truly liberal education consists in enlarging the youth’s understanding of his own tradition, and that a problem arises only when that tradition itself becomes unworthy of study, Mamet has little time for a formal education that goes beyond the Three Rs or instruction in a skilled trade.
Indeed, I think of Mamet’s position on higher-ed as fundamentally Rousseauian. Mamet seems to hold with Rousseau that societies previously content to merely practice virtue run into trouble the moment they begin to study it. Compare Rosseau’s First Discourse—
“Rome filled up with Philosophers and Orators; military discipline came to be neglected, agriculture despised; Sects joined, and the Fatherland forgotten. The sacred names of liberty, disinterestedness, obedience to the Laws, were replaced by the names of Epicurus, Zeno, Arcesilaus. Ever since the Learned have begun to appear among us, so their own Philosophers themselves said, good Men have been in eclipse.”
“Scrooge asked, “Are there no Prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?” and I might ask the same of the Trade School, the ROTC, the Military, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Synagogues and Churches which have, traditionally, functioned to aid the youth toward a matriculation into society, and so to an actual sense of self-worth. But the sloganeering of the Liberal Arts school teaches the young not self-worth, but arrogance, and much of the rage and rancor these sloganeers project against the supposed unenlightened oppressors is uncathected rage against the adult generation which has abandoned them to the rowdy inappropriate disruptiveness of their own devices.”
I think Mamet is right that, rather than helping youth matriculate into society, liberal arts colleges today imbue the student “drugged with self-indulgence” only with “the privilege to indict.” That is, to soberly inform his cohort when their behavior betrays a racial or gender insensitivity; to laugh at all the right parts of The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher; to wag his finger at excessive Wall Street pay. Unable to create or produce anything but reiterations of leftist doctrine, Mamet argues, the liberal arts graduate may have been able to hide his uselessness in times of plenty, but the Great Recession has revealed him to be, at age thirty—at age forty—still “finding himself”, and qualified to do little more than bag groceries, or to stay, forever, within the fold of the liberal academy and its adjuncts in the “real world” and instruct prospective members in the ways of the herd. From the book:
“If [a student] is rewarded by pleasing the teacher, that is, by repeating an endorsed behavior, he like any other animal, is going to take his learning out into the world. “George Washington, Father of our country—have a pellet of food. . . Thomas Jefferson, third President, but owned slaves and kept a mistress—have an appointment as a graduate instructor. . . .” This is fine for the rat, for the rat lives in the lab. In the wider world, however, the path to food is more demanding and its signals cannot be learned inside the lab. . . . Obvious answer—never leave the lab.”
That’s all true so far as it goes. It’s also true that too many people go to college, that they do it too young, and often for the wrong reasons. But I’m not prepared to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I’d still hold with Bloom, and contra Mamet and Rousseau, that, as I put it, “a truly liberal education consists in enlarging the youth’s understanding of his own tradition, and that a problem arises only when that tradition itself becomes unworthy of study.” That is, a culture gets the Academy it deserves, and vice versa.
Our (Oxonian) intern Charlie Cooke put the problem to me succinctly the other day. Loosely paraphrased here: It used to be that we conservatives complained that the Academy had been overrun by liberals and then argued that we needed to take it back. Now we complain that the Academy has been overrun by liberals and say to hell with the whole thing. And further (Charlie e-mails me), “some conclude, therefore, that academia is somehow an inherently leftist or un-American pursuit, rather than a valuable pursuit which has been overrun.” That’s dangerous. If we want to save our culture we had better save our Academy.