I’m fed up with Megan McArdle’s condescending rants about the academy, even though the picture she paints has a lot of truth

McArdle has another rant about universities and grad school. I don’t feel like saying anything that hasn’t already been said. To sum up previous commentary: I do know academia is in dire need of reform, but I don’t know how much McArdle is helping that cause. See “In Defense of the Liberal Arts” for the more thorough critique.

I’m actually sick of her at this point. There’s no subtlety to what she says, just fire-breathing. There’s the comments, where she matches the tone of her worst commentators (one example of the latter). A few of the commentators (there are many, many noble ones who wonder how college does and doesn’t work) have this “I have a job and I think I’m employable and I think I learned something from working therefore I am a paragon of virtue” complex, the same sort of complex that makes certain people think that people fighting and dying for political liberties all over the Arab world are inferior to Americans who think they’re better because they’re already free. The smugness would be intolerable if not parodied beautifully in Vonnegut’s Player Piano. The people who really care for science and progress and doing something practical for humanity typically have a deep love for arts, letters, culture, the past. They don’t just rant, ala McArdle, about how useless their English degree was.

There’s something in the comments I think needs immediate critique. McArdle wants to throw away people going to college because she thinks she can teach ethics and hard work through making people get a job. Here’s her fuller explanation of why she thinks people should take a year off and work before college:

The whole point is to do something that is limited and boring. The difference between my college classmates and my graduate school classmates (and my own attitude) was stark: college students were trying to get as little as possible for their money, while the MBAs had learned how much better school was than working . . .

The assumption is that hard work is always good and building your mind is optional. After all, building your mind is only appreciated when you’ve found how hard the rest of the world is. I’m not saying I’m against working, not at all. I wish I were teaching right now. But the idea that “I’m working, therefore I’m progressing and can appreciate other things” is painfully shallow. All of us know that there are a ton of people who if you said “read a book, I’ll pay you $5 more an hour for the rest of your life,” won’t do it. (In fact, it seems to me like they’ll go post comments all day about how people who do read books know nothing and shouldn’t be employed.) There are lots of guys I know who take jobs only to stop other people from nagging them. When I argue that communication skills and knowledge of the past are necessary, I do this not because I think everyone is going to learn what I know about why life in this country is good. It’s more because we as a society have to say “hey, these sorts of things matter – jury trials didn’t pop out of the ground; your rights didn’t materialize out of thin air.”

I don’t think I can teach ethics. I think I, at best, can point at something higher, maybe somethings worth fighting for. As someone who wants to be professional and objective, I don’t do this by saying “here’s what’s higher.” Rather, the goal is to try to understand what other people thought and let students figure out for themselves what’s valuable. That’s why we teach the history of thought, why we encourage people to read literature. We need to see other perspectives and be challenged, not just write blog posts about how we’re right about everything and academia is in disrepair so we’re still right about everything.

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