San Jose State University is experimenting with a program where students pay a reduced fee for online courses run by the private firm Udacity. Teachers and their unions are in retreat across the nation. And groups like Uncollege insist that schools and universities are unnecessary. At a time when teachers are everywhere on the defensive, it is great to read this opening salvo from Leon Wieseltier:
When I look back at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.
I share Wieseltier’s reverence for educators. Eric Rothschild and Werner Feig lit fires in my brain while I was in high school. Austin Sarat taught me to teach myself in college. Laurent Mayali introduced me to the wonders of history. Marianne Constable pushed me to be a rigorous reader. Drucilla Cornell fired my idealism for justice. And Philippe Nonet showed me how much I still had to know and inspired me to read and think ruthlessly in graduate school. Like Wieseltier, I can trace my life’s path through the lens of my teachers.
The occasion for such a welcome love letter to teachers is Wieseltier’s rapacious rejection of homeschooling and unschooling, two movements that he argues denigrate teachers. As sympathetic as I am to his paean to pedagogues, Wieseltier’s rejection of all alternatives to conventional education today is overly defensive.
For all their many ills, homeschooling and unschooling are two movements that seek to personalize and intensify the often conventional and factory-like educational experience of our nation’s high schools and colleges. According to Wieseltier, these alternatives are possessed of the “demented idea that children can be competently taught by people whose only qualifications for teaching them are love and a desire to keep them from the world.” These movements believe that young people can “reject college and become “self-directed learners.”” For Wieseltier, the claim that people can teach themselves is both an “insult to the great profession of pedagogy” and a romantic over-estimation of “untutored ‘self’.”
The romance of the untutored self is strong, but hardly dangerous. While today educators like Will Richardson and entrepreneurs like Dale Stephens celebrate the abundance of the internet and argue that anyone can teach themselves with simply an internet connection, that dream has a history. Consider this endorsement of autodidactic learning from Ray Bradbury from long before the internet:
Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?
In this interview in the Paris Review, Bradbury not only celebrates the freedom of the untutored self, but also dismisses college along much the same lines as Dale Stephens of Uncollege does. Here is Bradbury again:
You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.
What the library and the internet offer is unfiltered information. For the autodidact, that is all that is needed. Education is a self-driven exploration of the database of the world.
Of course such arguments are elitist. Not everyone is a Ray Bradbury or a Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, who taught himself Latin in a few days. Hannah Arendt refused to go to her high school Greek class because it was offered at 8 am—too early an hour for her mind to wake up, she claimed. She learned Greek on her own. For such people self-learning is an option. But even Arendt needed teachers, which is why she went to Freiburg to study with Martin Heidegger. She had heard, she later wrote, that thinking was happening there. And she wanted to learn to think.
What is it that teachers teach when they are teaching? To answer “thinking” or “critical reasoning” or “self-reflection” is simply to open more questions. And yet these are the crucial questions we need to ask. At a period in time when education is increasingly confused with information delivery, we need to articulate and promote the dignity of teaching.
What is most provocative in Wieseltier’s essay is his civic argument for a liberal arts education. Education, he writes, is the salvation of both the person and the citizen. Indeed it is the bulwark of a democratic politics:
Surely the primary objectives of education are the formation of the self and the formation of the citizen. A political order based on the expression of opinion imposes an intellectual obligation upon the individual, who cannot acquit himself of his democratic duty without an ability to reason, a familiarity with argument, a historical memory. An ignorant citizen is a traitor to an open society. The demagoguery of the media, which is covertly structural when it is not overtly ideological, demands a countervailing force of knowledgeable reflection.
That education is the answer to our political ills is an argument heard widely. During the recent presidential election, the candidates frequently appealed to education as the panacea for everything from our flagging economy to our sclerotic political system. Wieseltier trades in a similar argument: A good liberal arts education will yield critical thinkers who will thus be able to parse the obfuscation inherent in the media and vote for responsible and excellent candidates.
I am skeptical of arguments that imagine education as a panacea for politics. Behind such arguments is usually the unspoken assumption: “If X were educated and knew what they were talking about, they would see the truth and agree with me.” There is a confidence here in a kind of rational speech situation (of the kind imagined by Jürgen Habermas) that holds that when the conditions are propitious, everyone will come to agree on a rational solution. But that is not the way human nature or politics works. Politics involves plurality and the amazing thing about human beings is that educated or not, we embrace an extraordinary variety of strongly held, intelligent, and conscientious opinions. I am a firm believer in education. But I hold out little hope that education will make people see eye to eye, end our political paralysis, or usher in a more rational polity.
What then is the value of education? And why is that we so deeply need great teachers? Hannah Arendt saw education as “the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." The educator must love the world and believe in it if he or she is to introduce young people to that world as something noble and worthy of respect. In this sense education is conservative, insofar as it conserves the world as it has been given. But education is also revolutionary, insofar as the teacher must realize that it is part of that world as it is that young people will change the world. Teachers simply teach what is, Arendt argued; they leave to the students the chance to transform it.
To teach the world as it is, one must love the world—what Arendt comes to call amor mundi. A teacher must not despise the world or see it as oppressive, evil, and deceitful. Yes, the teacher can recognize the limitations of the world and see its faults. But he or she must nevertheless love the world with its faults and thus lead the student into the world as something inspired and beautiful. To teach Plato, you must love Plato. To teach geology, you must love rocks. While critical thinking is an important skill, what teachers teach is rather enthusiasm and love of learning. The great teachers are the lovers of learning. What they teach, above all, is the experience of discovery. And they do so by learning themselves.
Education is to be distinguished from knowledge transmission. It must also be distinguished from credentialing. And finally, education is not the same as indoctrinating students with values or beliefs. Education is about opening students to the fact of what is. Teaching them about the world as it is. It is then up to the student, the young, to judge whether the world that they have inherited is loveable and worthy of retention, or whether it must be changed. The teacher is not responsible for changing the world; rather the teacher nurtures new citizens who are capable of judging the world on their own.
Arendt thus affirms Ralph Waldo Emerson's view that “He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society.” Emerson’s imperative, to take up the divine idea allotted to each one of us, resonates with Arendt’s Socratic imperative, to be true to oneself. Education, Arendt insists, must risk allowing people their unique and personal viewpoints, eschewing political education and seeking, simply, to nurture independent minds. Education prepares the youth for politics by bringing them into a common world as independent and unique individuals. From this perspective, the progeny of teachers is the educated citizen, someone one who is both self-reliant in an Emersonian sense and also part of a common world.
This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,” a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.
Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":
You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.
The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.
At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.
Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.
To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education.
The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.
The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.
Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.
Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.
What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!”
At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:
To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!
At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.
Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.
It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.
Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.
That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?
According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand. Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet. Build a personal website.”
None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.
What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.
Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.
We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.
One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.
I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,
The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.
I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.