Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
5Dec/120

The “E” Word

The New York Times tells the story of Benjamin Goering. Goering is 22. Until recently he studied computer science and philosophy at the University of Kansas. He felt “frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.” So Goering dropped out of college and went to San Francisco, where he got a job as a software engineer.

I applaud Goering for making a risky decision. College was not for him. This does not mean he wasn’t smart or couldn’t cut it. He clearly has talent and it was being wasted in courses he was not interested in that were costing him and his family many tens of thousands of dollars every year. In leaving, Goering made the right decision for him. Indeed, many more college students should make the same decision he did. There are huge numbers of talented people who are simply not intellectuals and don’t enjoy or get much out of college. This is not destiny. A great or good teacher might perk them up. But largely it is a waste of their time and money for them to struggle through (or sleep through) classes that bore them. If anything, the forced march through Shakespeare and Plato make these students less engaged, cynical, and self-centered as they turn from common sense to the internal pursuit of self interest in partying and life in private.

The story should raise the big question that everyone tiptoes around in this current debate about college: Who should go to college?

The obvious answer is those who want to and those who care about ideas. Those who see that in thinking and reading and talking about justice, democracy, the scientific method, and perspective, we are talking about what it means to live in a large, democratic, bureaucratic country at a time of transition from an industrial to a information-age economy. College, in other words, is for those people who want to think about their world. It is for people who are willing and eager to turn to the great thinkers who came before them and, also, the innovative scientists and artists who have revealed hidden secrets about the natural and the human worlds. It is, in other words, for intellectuals. And this of course raises the “E” question: the question of elitism.

It is folly to think that everyone is or should be interested in such an endeavor. In no society in history have intellectuals been anything but a small minority of the population. This is not a question of privilege. There is no reason to think that those who love ideas are better or more qualified than those who work the earth, build machines, or engineer websites. It may very well be otherwise.

Hannah Arendt was clear that intellectuals had no privileged position in politics. On the contrary, she worried that the rise of intellectuals in politics was specifically dangerous. Intellectuals, insofar as they could get lost in and captivated by ideas, are prone to lose sight of reality in the pursuit of grand schemes. And intellectuals, captivated by the power of reason, are susceptible to rationalizations that excuse wrongs like torture or suicide bombing as means necessary for greater goods. The increasing dominance of intellectuals in politics, Arendt argued, is one of the great dangers facing modern society. She thus welcomed the grand tradition of the American yeoman farmer and affirmed that there is no need to go to college to be an engaged citizen or a profound thinker. The last of our Presidents who did not attend college was Abraham Lincoln. He did just fine. It is simply ridiculous to argue that college is a necessary credential for statesmanship.

While intellectuals have no special claim to leadership or prominence, they are nevertheless important. Intellectuals—those who think— are those people in society who stand apart from the mainstream pressures of economy and influence and outside the political movements of advocacy and propaganda. In the Arendtian tradition, intellectuals are or can be conscious pariahs, those who look at their societies from the outside and thus gain a perspective from distance that allows them to understand and comprehend the society in ways that people deeply embedded within it cannot. Those who stand apart from society and think are important, first because they preserve and deepen the stories and tales we as a society tell about ourselves. In writing poetry, making art, building monuments, writing books, and giving speeches, intellectuals help lend meaning and gravity to the common sense we have of ourselves as a people.

One problem we have in the current debate is that College has morphed into an institution designed to do many (too many) things. On the one hand, college has historically been the place for the education of and formation of intellectuals. But for many decades if not many centuries, that focus has shifted. Today College is still a place for the life of the mind. But it is also a ticket into the middle or upper-middles classes and it is equally a job-training and job-certification program. Of course, it is also a consumer good that brands young people with a certain mystique and identity. For many localities colleges are, themselves, job creation machines, bringing with them all sorts of new businesses and throwing off patents and graduating students that reinvigorate local communities. The university is now a multiversity, to invoke Clark Kerr’s famous term. When we talk about college today, the debate is complicated by these multiple roles.

It is difficult to raise such issues today because they smack of elitism. Since college-educated people think they are superior to those without a fancy diploma, their egalitarianism then insists that everyone should have the same experience. We are not supposed to entertain the idea that some people may not want to go to college. Instead, we are told that if they had a better education, if they knew better, if they just were taught to understand, they would all want to sit in classrooms and read great books or do exciting experiments.

We are stuck today with what Hannah Arendt called, in a related context, the “democratic mentality of an egalitarian society that tends to deny the obvious inability and conspicuous lack of interest of large parts of the population in political matters as such.” In politics, Arendt argued that what was needed were public spaces from which a self-chose “élite could be selected, or rather, where it could select itself.” Similarly, in education today, colleges should be the spaces where those who want to select themselves as an educated élite might lose themselves in books and experiments and amongst paintings and symphonies. There is simply no reason to assume that most people in society need to or should be interested in such an endeavor.

One reason the question of elitism is so present in debates about college is the disgusting and degenerate state of American public high schools. If high schools provided a serious and meaningful civic education, if they taught not simply reading and writing and arithmetic, but history and art—and taught these well—we would not need to send students to remedial education in college where they could be taught these subjects a second time. While many academics wring their hands about making college available to all, they might do much better if they focused on high schools and grammar schools around the country. If we were to redistribute the billions of dollars we spend on remedial college education to serious reform efforts in high schools, that money would be very well spent.

To raise the question of elitism means neither that college should be open only to the rich and connected (on the contrary, it should be open to all who want it), nor that the educated elite is to be segregated from society and kept apart in an ivory tower. When one reads Shakespeare, studies DNA, or dances with Bill T. Jones, one is not simply learning for learning's sake. Few understood this better than John Finley, Greek Professor at Harvard, who wrote General Education in a Free Society in 1945. Finley had this to say about the purposes of a college education:

The heart of the problem of a general education is the continuance of the liberal and humane tradition. Neither the mere acquisition of information nor the development of special skills and talents can give the broad basis of understanding which is essential if our civilization is to be preserved…. Unless the educational process includes at each level of maturity some continuing contact with those fields in which value judgments are of prime importance, it must fall short of the ideal.

What college should offer—as should all education at every level except for the most specialized graduate schools—is the experience of thinking and coming to engage with the world in which one lives. College is, at its best, an eye opening experience, an opportunity for young people to learn the foundational texts and also be exposed to new cultures, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. The ideas of justice, truth, and beauty one learns are not valuable in themselves; they are meaningful only insofar as they impact and inform our daily lives. To read Plato’s Republic is to ask: what are the value of the ideas of good and the just? It is also to meditate on the role of music and art in society. And at the same time, it is to familiarize oneself with characters like Socrates and Plato who, in the world we share, epitomize the qualities of morality, heroism, and the pursuit of the truth wherever it might lead. This can also be done in high schools. And it should be.

It is simply wrong to think such inquiries are unworldly or overly intellectual. Good teachers teach great texts not simply because the books are old, but because they are meaningful. And young students return to these books generation after generation because they find in them stories, examples, and ideas that inspire them to live their lives better and more fully.

As Leon Botstein, President of Bard College where the Hannah Arendt Center is located, writes in his book Jefferson’s Children,

No matter how rigorous the curriculum, no matter how stringent the requirements, if what goes on in the classroom does not leave its mark in the way young adults voluntarily act in private and in public while they are in college, much less in the years after, then the college is not doing what it is supposed to do.

The basic question being asked today is: Is college worthwhile? It is a good question.  Too many colleges have lost their way. They no longer even understand what they are here to offer. Faculty frequently put research above teaching. Administration is the fastest growing segment of university education, which is evidence if anything is that universities simply do not know what their mission is anymore. It is no wonder, then, that many of our brightest young people will begin to shy away from the thoughtless expectation that one must attend college.

All around us, people are opting out of college. The mania for online education is at least in part fueled by the hunger for knowledge from students and others who do not want or need to attend college. The Times highlights Uncollege and other organizations that advocate “hacking” your education. Recall that Lincoln was better schooled in the classics of poetry and politics than most every college educated President who followed him. At a time when many colleges are so confused and trying to do so many things, they often do none well. It may be the case today that we need to evolve new networks and new organizations where intellectualism can flourish. And it may be small liberal arts colleges that are more flexible and more able to make that transition than large, bureaucratic research institutions.

The real question this debate needs to raise, but avoids, is: Who should get a college education? The answer, “not everyone,” is one few want to hear. And yet it might be the beginning of a real conversation about what a college education is for and why we are today so often failing to provide it to our students.

-RB