To all budding philanthropists in America:
If you are worried about things like a decline in reading, an inability to express oneself well verbally, a general lack of knowledge about the past or its significance, or the emergence of a thoughtless populist politics, then take note:
You can’t expect people to dedicate themselves fully to being rational if they have to work 2 jobs just to pay tuition and 2 more jobs after school to pay off the debt.
What’s frightening is the cost UD students pay for this sort of education. Yeah, they come out having covered at the least Plato’s Republic and Symposium, Aristotle’s Ethics, the Federalist, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, the Bible, Augustine’s Confessions, in addition to 2 semesters of American and 2 of World History. By way of comparison with Rutgers, where I went to undergrad: none of the above was required, except an American history requirement, and if any of the above were covered in any way, it was in a matter of days or a week or two (this was the case with the Republic. People here spend most of the semester on it).
But the cost isn’t just the immediate financial cost, which can be 6 figures over 4 years if no aid from the school is forthcoming (meeting someone in this situation yesterday pushed me to write this post). The cost is also that to study so intensely, one’s energies can’t really be devoted to anything else.
We have this ridiculous idea that if something is really worth a lot, we have to work independent of that thing for it. For example: if we really want to study Latin, what we have to do is work every other single job for years until we have a ton of cash, or take out massive loans which will require us to work the next 20 years of our lives to pay off, and then go study.
I can safely tell you that if you want to complain about why it looks like the world is getting dumber as we get more and more technology, look no further than the enormous incentives we place on practical learning. Mass media is a form of practical learning: as much as I love reading the paper and keeping up with the news, the idea that I can be an expert on a topic by keeping up with a news flow on it is pretty preposterous. Principles, methods of analysis and the ability to work with arguments need to be formed and experienced at a far deeper level: the news is only good if people know how to be informed.
What’s remarkable, of course, is that plenty of people do go to school, do take on these burdens, and do come out knowing more while having tons of debt. For all the complaining about how English majors know nothing or how philosophy is useless, there are plenty of people in schools all over the US who try, despite how problematic everything is. Some of those people, of course, are being forced to get a degree. They’re being told a degree of any sort is good by people that could probably use a formal education themselves.
Our modes of learning are utter chaos right now: we’re imposing on intellectual virtues what is left of the moral virtues (hard work and frugality aren’t strictly speaking virtues. Criminals can have both). Until this changes, we will continue to do a massive injustice to the life of the mind, our own heritage, and our future.