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Marco Rubio vs. Aristotle?

Aristotle, unfortunately, won’t be on the ballot.

Marco Rubio’s form of dissing liberal education is probably more ridiculous than the more insistent and policy-driven efforts of Scott Walker, although Rubio, just as obviously, is much smarter than Walker. It’s reasonable to believe that Rubio and his supporters can be educated concerning how his ill-considered rhetoric aids and abets the more deeply misguided attack on liberal education.

Walker thinks the real problem with higher education is that there are too many tenured professors who aren’t teaching enough. And the way to counter their self-indulgence is both to make them teach more and to belittle the self-indulgence of much of what they teach. The goal of higher education can’t be truth for its own sake; that apparently noble goal becomes the justification for funding research into trivial topics that have no market value. Nobody would pay to read that jargon-laden drivel, and the students forced to read it don’t become better in any measurable way.

So higher education reform means ending tenure, increasing teaching loads, and developing more cost-effective and technologically enhanced methods of instructional delivery. The locus of institutional decision-making needs to shift from “faculty governance” to administrators. And then the administrators need to be held responsible for preparing students for productive careers in the most cost-efficient way.

There’s no denying that Walker taps into real parental concerns about schools charging more and more for increasingly shoddy products, for degrees that don’t really pay off. Yet the reforms he’s endorsing are already being implemented by administrators in higher education. They see that the percentage of credit hours being generated by tenured and tenure-track faculty members is dropping rapidly while the percentage generated by temporary and adjunct faculty is soaring. As a result, the administrators—acting, for example, through the accreditation process driven by their interests as a class—are moving toward Walker-style rules. They are demanding from all faculty that all courses be justified by techno-competencies detached from academic disciplines and purposeful human content. Their goal is the standardization of instructional delivery that comes with defining thinking and communications as “methods” that can be applied to all contexts. That’s why administrators are also demanding ridiculously detailed and metric-ridden syllabi, and scrupulous adherence to “best practices” generated by experts.

And one reason for the techno-enthusiasm that is pushing so much educational delivery online is that everyone admits that faculty surrender much of their personal freedom when choosing course content that is to be delivered via the screen. Faculty members become much easier to control in the service of eliminating unproductive and inefficient personal quirkiness and maximizing consumer satisfaction. Roughly the same techniques used so well in the Amazon warehouse can be applied to online courses (and eventually to all courses).

Walker may actually believe that his populism is a “conservative agenda.” His appeal to the people is to purge our campuses of the radicals who don’t share the ordinary guy’s values. But his agenda is actually a crude version of that of educational experts in general, most of whom are Democrats. This is a new kind of “Democratic establishment,” typified best by Silicon Valley. It isn’t full of socialists anymore, and it’s not concerned with building solidarity forever or rousing up the proletariat against its Amazon or Google or Koch brother overlords. Its kind of political correctness flows not from professors but from administrators and hyper-sensitive students demanding that their self-esteem (as pampered consumers) be protected from even the most micro of micro-aggressions.

There is some evidence that our increasingly proletarianized professoriate wants to challenge the competency-obsessed administrators and experts, but that’s a new movement under the sun, one perhaps not predicted by Marx. And, strangely, it includes both old-fashioned socialists and “great books” conservatives. It has intriguingly little to do with conventional partisan political divisions.

That leads us to Rubio. His example of what’s wrong with higher education today is “borrowing $50,000 to major in Greek philosophy.” Everyone knows that “the market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for 2,000 years.” This is a misfire if he wants the allegiance of conservatives. Typically, conservatives attack the undisciplined anger of the various studies majors—such as women’s studies. In such programs, the allegation is that students are exposed neither to the wisdom that permeates our great tradition nor to ways of acquiring marketable skills and competencies. Students who are being made worse in every respect—why should the taxpayers underwrite this? It won’t liberate women; more liberating would be to get women focused on computer science. And then conservatives, such as Bill Bennett (who has a Ph.D in philosophy), sometimes add that philosophy is no different these days—but that’s because it’s become prey to the laxness characteristic of the humanities as a whole. The major in philosophy is too risky a business given market forces, college costs, and tenured radicals.

But Greek philosophy? All conservatives in the know love Greek philosophy. They’re all about classical schools, classical curricula, and classical this and that, and there’s a growing conservative market for schools at all levels that take the books of the Greeks seriously as “instructional delivery systems.” Why? Because in our decadent society, we’ve lost our way, we have no idea who we are and what we’re supposed to do. So we look to Plato and Aristotle for moral guidance, for remembering the truth about courage, generosity, magnanimity, and all the other virtues indispensable for human flourishing.

Not only that, you can’t study Greek philosophy without the discipline of actually learning Greek. And those who know Greek and Latin have a tremendous practical advantage over the rest of us.  They actually know much more about the real meaning of the quasi-technical neologisms we so often cluelessly use. They can deploy those words ironically or to their own advantage. The somewhat neglected (by the experts) but genuinely foundational skills for success in our world are the precise use of words and a huge active vocabulary. The young should gain these skills, to be sure, just for the joy of genuinely understanding the people and world around them. But more than that, they are indispensable for any form of leadership. The pols and aspiring pols who are weak on that “skill set” are instantly identifiable, and instantly mockable. People can just as readily spot those who are elevated by a touch or more of Greek philosophy. That this is a political advantage is obvious, as we know from Mr. Jefferson, who gave us many of the beautiful yet deeply realistic words that shape the best forms of our political discourse.

Moreover, the most penetrating book ever written on America and on democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (and lots of conservatives love Tocqueville), wrote of how exceedingly useful for those destined for a literary career in a democracy to read the Greek and Roman authors in their original languages. Why? In a modern techno-democracy, metaphysics and theology lose ground. The space they occupied is filled by vague technocratic language that inadequately corresponds to truthful human distinctions. “Opinion,” for example, is replaced by “input,” something characteristic of an impersonal system. In other words, close to the opposite of a genuinely personal quality.

It’s not that the Greek and Roman authors were right about everything. When it comes to justice and science, we might well know more. But they were strong where we are weak: in describing what it is to be the creature born to know, love, and die. Studying those authors puts one at a critical distance from the dominant prejudices of our time, whether conservative or liberal, and from the diversions of “the screen.” And the latter is the main impediment right now to young people coming to terms with who they are, to the ability to be alone in their rooms with their authentic thoughts. What competency is more important for living well today than using the screen ironically, for genuinely countercultural purposes?

Tocqueville emphasizes that the study of the Greeks and Romans might not benefit most people in a modern democracy. It would awaken longings that can’t be satisfied in an ordinary bourgeois life, and some people might even become self-destructively discontented. But for the few who are going to write for a living, that study provides the wherewithal to elevate democratic language, for the benefit of us all. The writer has become a remarkably broad category today, taking in everyone from those who blog for money and those who write scripts for marketing.

So I’m not saying everyone should major in Greek philosophy. But hardly anyone who writes for a living these days is doing so, despite its obvious utility. Nor are the overwhelming majority of our future leaders, at considerable cost to their “critical thinking” and “effective communications” skills.

Professors of philosophy have been right to point out, contra Rubio, that philosophy majors of all kinds are flourishing in our marketplace. They get high scores on the GRE and LSAT, and they are superbly prepared for getting advanced law and business degrees. Economists seem to agree that philosophy, far more than business, is a strong foundation for being ready for the rigors of our best MBA programs. And even at Google, Facebook, and so forth, there’s a growing market for humanities majors, who provide the words and images that “humanize” the various innovative and disruptive products constantly being invented.

So Rubio is clearly wrong that the outrage is that some poor, first-generation college kid borrowed big to learn Greek philosophy. That person is going to turn out well, having received all kinds of “value added” in college in the service of becoming a productive and admirable person. The outrage might be that kid’s borrowing big for some techno-light major whose name ends in the word “management.” The studies show that his or her literacy will not be enhanced much by the college experience, especially if the college has a somewhat emptied out, competency-based general education program. The major competency he or she does acquire is pretty darn narrow, one likely to lose its marketable relevance in the increasingly dynamic commercial world. The philosophy major, as Socrates first told us, has so much more of the flexibility required to flourish in a cosmopolitan or globalizing environment.

Let’s close with the two most important takeaways: Few educational reforms would be more useful to our country than significantly increasing the number of young people who really know Greek philosophy, and even really know Greek and Latin. Conservatives especially should realize this.

And, as James Schall observes, our institutions of higher education pride themselves on preparing young people to “go forth and improve the world.” Here’s the problem: “We have no idea what this ‘improvement’ means except, perhaps, longer life, no sickness, no death, everyone ‘taken care of.’” That means “Our politics . . . are a form of eschatology, not ethics.” What we’re futilely trying to do is “solve by science and politics issues that can only be solved by the enterprise Socrates initiated.”

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