Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
23Sep/131

The False Culture of Utility

Arendtquote

“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”

--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”

Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute  our common world.  A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political.  It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.

culture

The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects.  The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself.  The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need.  The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.

Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process.  She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form.  Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.

However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food.  We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.

The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise.  They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution.  And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.

We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us.  Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks.  Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.”  The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.”  Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:

In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.

The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience.  Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry.  Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.

In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.

When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together.  The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out.  The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude.  Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.

“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name.  The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality.  This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues.  It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image:  Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix.  “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”

tech

For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments.  Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics.  In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.”  Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.”  Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared.  She writes:

Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.

That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals.  The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out.  In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.

-Jennifer Hudson

23Jan/130

The Higher Education Bubble? Not So Fast.

We have a higher education bubble. The combination of unsustainable debt loads on young people and the advent of technological alternatives is clearly set to upend the staid and often sclerotic world of higher education.

In this month’s The American Interest, Nathan Hardin—the author of Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad (St. Martin’s, 2012) and editor of The College Fix—tries to quantify the destructive changes coming to higher education. Here is his opening paragraph:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

Step back a second. Beware of all prognostications of this sort. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow let alone 50 years from now. Even today the NY Times reports that the University of Cincinnati and the University of Arizona are turning to online courses as a way of increasing enrollment at their residential campuses. Whether this will work and how this will transform the very idea of a residential college are not yet clear. But the kinds of predictions Hardin makes can be provocative, thus inducing of thought. But they are rarely accurate and too often are simply irresponsible.

Beyond the hyperbole, here is something true. Colleges will exist so long as they can convince students and their parents that the value of education is worth the cost. One reason some colleges are suffering today is clearly the cost. But another reason is the declining perception of value.  We should also remember that many colleges—especially the best and most expensive ones—are seeing record demand. If and when the college bubble bursts, not all colleges will be hit equally. Some will thrive and others will likely disappear. Still others will adapt. We should be wary of collapsing all colleges into a single narrative or thinking we can see the future.

Part of the problem is that colleges offer education, something inherently difficult to put a value on. For a long time, the “value” of higher education was intangible. It was the marker of elite status to be a Harvard man or some such thing. One learned Latin and Greek and studied poetry and genetics. But what really was being offered was sophistication, character, erudition, culture, and status, not to mention connections and access.

More recently, college is “sold” in a very different way. It promises earning power. This has brought a whole new generation and many new classes into university education as they seek the magic ticket granting access to an upper middle class lifestyle. As the percentage of college graduates increases, the distinction and thus market value of college education decreases. The problem colleges have is that in their rush to open the doors to all paying customers, they have devalued the product they are offering. The real reason colleges are threatened now—if they indeed are threatened—is less financial than it is intellectual and moral. Quite simply, many of our colleges have progressively abandoned their intangible mission to educate students and embraced the market-driven task of credentialing students for employment. When for-profit or internet-based colleges can do this more cheaply and more efficiently, it is only logical that they will succeed.

For many professors and graduate students, the predicted demise of the residential college will be a hard shock. Professors who thought they had earned lifetime security with tenure will be fired as their departments are shuttered or their entire universities closed down. Just as reporters, book sellers, and now lawyers around the country have seen their jobs evaporate by the disruption of the internet, so too will professors be replaced by technological efficiencies. And this may well happen fast.

Gregory Ferenstein, who describes himself as a writer and educator and writes for Techcrunch and the Huffington Post,  has gone so far to offer a proposed timeline of the disappearance of most colleges as we know them. Here is his outline, which begins with the recently announced pilot program that will see basic courses at San Jose State University replaced by online courses administered by the private company Udacity:

  1. [The] Pilot [program in which Udacity is offering online courses for the largest university system in the world, the California State University System] succeeds, expands to more universities and classes
  2. Part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?)
  3. Graduate programs dry up, once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes
  4. Competency-based measures begin to find the online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses
  5. A few Ivy League universities begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates
  6. In the near future, learning on a college campus returns to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty

I put little faith in things working out exactly as Ferenstein predicts, and yet I can’t imagine he is that far off the mark. As long as colleges see themselves in the knowledge-production business and the earnings-power business, they will be vulnerable to cheaper alternatives. Such quantifiable ends can be done more cheaply and sometimes better using technology and distance learning. Only education—the leading of students into a common world of tradition, values, and common sense—depends on the residential model of one-to-one in-person learning associated with the liberal arts college. The large university lecture course is clearly an endangered species.

Which is why it is so surprising to read a nearly diametrically opposed position suggesting that we are about to enter a golden age for untenured and adjunct faculty. This it the opinion of Michael Bérubé, the President of the Modern Language Association. Bérubé gave the Presidential Address at the 2013 MLA meetings in Boston earlier this month.

It is helpful and instructive to compare Hardin’s technophilic optimism with Bérubé’s recent remarks . He dedicated much of his speech to a very different optimism, namely that contingent and adjunct faculty would finally get the increased salaries and respect that they deserved. According to Bérubé:

[F]or the first time, MLA recommendations for faculty working conditions [are] being aggressively promoted by way of social media…. After this, I think, it really will be impossible for people to treat contingent faculty as an invisible labor force. What will come of this development I do not know, but I can say that I am ending the year with more optimism for contingent faculty members than I had when I began the year, and that’s certainly not something I thought I would be able to say tonight.

Bérubé’s talk is above all a defense of professionalization in the humanities. He defends graduate training in theory as a way to approach literary texts. He extols the virtues of specialized academic research over and above teaching. He embraces and justifies “careers of study in the humanities” over and against the humanities themselves. Above all, he argues that there are good reasons to “bother with advanced study in the humanities?” In short, Bérubé defends not the humanities, but the specialized study of the humanities by a small group of graduate students and professors.

I understand what Bérubé means. There is a joy in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge even if he eschews the idea of joy wanting instead to identify his pursuit work and professionalized labor. But to think that there is an optimistic future for the thousands of young graduate students and contingent faculty who are currently hoping to make professional careers in the advanced study of the humanities is lunacy. Yes advanced study of the humanities is joyful for some? But why should it be a paying job? There is a real blindness not only to the technological and economic imperatives of the moment in Bérubé’s speech, but also to the idea of the humanities.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. What we need is not professional humanities scholars so much as educated and curious thinkers and readers.

As I have written before:

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. 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.

If humanities programs and liberal arts colleges go the way of the duck-billed platypus, it will only partly be because of new technologies and rising debt. It will also be because the over-professionalization of the humanities has led—in some but not all colleges—to a course of study that simply is not seen as valuable by many young people. The changes that Hardin and Ferenstein see coming will certainly shake up the all-too-comfortable world of professional higher education. That is not bad at all. The question is whether educators can adapt and begin to offer courses and learning that is valuable. But that will only happen if we abandon the hyper-professionalized self-image defended by scholars like Michael Bérubé. One model for such a change is, of course, the public intellectual writing and thinking of Hannah Arendt.

-RB