Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guilt by association

The sentiments I recently expressed regarding the question of whether higher education is worth its skyrocketing costs might sound like arguments for scrapping public education funding ("after all, what's the point?"), arguments put forward by a side on the class war with whom I have no sympathy. I do sometimes wonder if, as Peter Thiel opines, higher education is a "bubble," but this can mean more than one thing: say (to put it in almost stupidly simply terms), that the costs of higher education are too high, or that the benefits are too low. In fact, even these low benefits are far from negligible. A college degree still correlates with higher income, for instance; and in particular for children of the working class, the university is still a way to ascend a social ladder. Whether that's the best way to do it, or indeed the best goal; whether this has much, or anything at all, to do with education; these are further questions, and I don't think I am asking them in the same way that those who'd like to gut education funding.

I don't know whether Thiel thinks we should fund public education, though I suppose his libertarianism rejects it in principle. I too have a certain interest in libertarianism, and a fierce critique of public education as well, but I suspect our motives are different. If Thiel awarded two million dollars to some non-Ivy League students, or even to neophyte literary critics or philosophers instead of to aspiring venture capitalists and inventors, I'd be more interested in what he was up to. (Till then, we have the Ammonius Foundation.) Then again, I do share Thiel's esteem for René Girard. (N.b., Thiel's awardees are all remarkable and no doubt deserving, and it seems quite plausible that Thiel's investment in them will bear fruit. Let's just not pretend that, had they not won, their lot would have been lives of abject struggle in a philistine world indifferent to genius and unrewarding of hard work. I don't begrudge them their awards; I'd just like to see someone with Thiel's rhetoric and means reach out to people who might be far more hard-pressed to make it in the absence of his largesse.)

The more proximate, occasional, point here is that I should not wish to be thought an ally of the right-wing assault upon public higher education (and not just higher), even though I sometimes voice, if it were possible, even more strident criticisms of academe and of public education in general.

The more fundamental point, of which this is only an illustration, is that surface agreements in terms of policy or in terms of inspiration are not indices of some deeper alliance. One would think this were obvious, but it's amazing to me how often one sees an argument with the shape somewhat like: "you draw on Heidegger for your ecological thinking; but Heidegger's thought is inherently fascistic; therefore your own position is either that of a willful reactionary or a useful idiot." (Another example: "You say X. You know who else said X? The goddam Inquisition! And no oh-but-that-wasn't-real-Christianity cheating, either!") I am not saying that these objections are inadmissible from the get-go; I just refuse to grant them the status of knock-down arguments. It's amazing to me how often they are presented in that spirit. Guilt by association (an idea with which I probably have more sympathy than most--remember, on most days I believe in original sin) is alive and well.

(Reflections occasioned by some recent conversations--not all with the same people--mainly off-blog. I apologize if my exposition leaves some of the context unclear.)

1 comment:

  1. I am sure you would agree that these public education funding issues are not best addressed with an "all-or-nothing" mindset.
    I am curious what your stand on raising the bar on admission and performance standards in public education is. What role does academic merit or desert play in your approach?