Commencement 2016

To all of my students and colleagues, past and present, at Truckee Meadows CC, Barrett Honors College at ASU, the University of Kentucky, and elsewhere now flung far around the globe…


It is another season where many of us teachers look fondly back at our students’ achievements and forward to the fruits of their education blossoming in due course. It is also a season of platitudes and well-intentioned lies woven by commencement speakers paid to give you one last blast of praise before you leave the paternalistic confines of your schooling. I can tell you, my dear students, that every one of us faculty have sat through a two-hour-plus commencement ceremony and thought to ourselves, “Wow. I could give a much better talk and I’d do it for free.” Okay, not that part about for free, but definitely the better speech part. I have decided this year to not wait for an invitation to address you. I am writing it down here, and if Fate or luck brings it to your attention, then I hope you will find some nugget or two worth remembering.

If you’ve been in one of my philosophy courses or Honors seminars, you’ve heard me prattle on about “the human predicament.” (I prefer ‘predicament’ to the noncommittal ‘condition’ or ‘situation’, which seem to me embarrassed euphemisms for the Real Thing.) If you are blissfully unaware of the human predicament’s existential grip on you, then what follows may sound like the ravings of an extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, I have about a half century of life behind me and have felt its ever-tightening and omnipresent hold on me and on all those whom I love and know. So if you are a student, I can think of no better way to encourage you on your way beyond these first few years of your adulthood to those that follow than to describe this predicament as I have experienced it and give you what paltry advice I possess to help you navigate it. Because what I would never say in class I say now: the human predicament is very real, and at times very painful, but with some perspective such as that offered by the great wisdom traditions, it isn’t to be taken too seriously.

My philosopher friend Bill Vallicella wrote a short post in 2009 on his blog that perfectly captures my own difficult experience coming to terms with this. It is the heart of this post—I quote it below in full. It is my favorite thing that he has written and I hope you will find it, as I have, as honest, enlightening, and encouraging as it is challenging. It is a great Mirror. mirror-lakeIt can show you your own heart, that seat of will and desire, as well as the hearts of others. This Mirror will show you the truth about yourself. It is therefore no easy matter to stand before it and take in its revelations without the cover of our well-worn robes of self-delusion and bad faith. It will confirm the presence of real wounds you have suffered, those scars you carry, even from youngest childhood, while those fabrications of your own design dissolve. It will reveal to you, like Nietzsche’s greatest weight, in “your loneliest loneliness,” that which we take extraordinary pains almost every hour of every day to conceal about ourselves from ourselves and others. Bill’s text is quoted in blue; my edits and commentary are in black:


I’ve been loved, hated, honored, loathed, respected, scorned, justly penalized, unjustly maligned, praised for what I should not have been praised for, lionized, demonized, put on a pedestal, dragged through the mud, understood, misunderstood, ill-understood, well-understood, ignored, admired, envied, tolerated, and found intolerable. And the same most likely goes for you.


Can you control what others say and think about you? Nope, not one bit. Reputation is a fickle and cruel master. And the gossip train is always on time (gossip is the currency of the small-souled, bitter, and envious—for your own sake renounce it and all of its ways). Far better than managing your reputation (what a depressing phrase!) is the life’s work of developing your character. John Wooden, the great basketball coach, said it well: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” And if you really are, on balance, a decent character, this, like truth, will out in the end. But how do you know if you really possess good character? You can know by the quality of your friends—what does the Mirror reveal about them? The true friend, like my dearest friend Jack, knows your character. He will celebrate with you your joys and praise your victories—but not overmuch!—and will not forsake you when you do wrong because he knows doing wrong is not in character for you. The true friend always accepts you but doesn’t always approve—and because he’s a friend he will tell you when he doesn’t approve. You can endure and overcome any abuses to your reputation with such friends. Dare to be transparent and vulnerable to them.


I’ve been the object of Schadenfreude, of glacial indifference, of jealousy. I’ve been the object of every emotional attitude by someone or other, at some time or other, for some reason or other, or for no reason at all. I’ve been loved and then hated by the same person, and the other way around. I’ve been liked by people who do not now love me, and loved by people who do not now like me. I attract and I repel, sometimes different people, sometimes the same people at different times. I have been different people to different people and different people to myself. And the same most likely goes for you.


That first sentence is ordinary professional life in a nutshell! The rewards of most of the work available to professionals of all kinds in these days, in tandem with the penalties, are delivered by aggressive forces of dehumanization. We easily become its agents and inevitably suffer as its patients. Your well-being will oscillate, sometimes wildly, under the force of these vicissitudes if your own sense of worth and importance is attached to the judgment and approval of those around you.

Institutions exist in part to evaluate individuals because people love to evaluate each other. It is up to you how much stock you will place in their measures, both favorable and unfavorable. I have been the recipient of many gifts, honors, and kindnesses, the genuine outweighing the treacherous many, many times over. These validate the good and true things I know about my work as a teacher and scholar. Even as they fill me with gratitude, I release them and their hold on my ego, just as I brush away arrows of spite and malice intended to poison me. If you were a student of mine, I probably had you read a Stoic–Seneca, Cicero, or Epictetus–and probably Boethius. Their works can be of consolation to you as your years accumulate and you endure the progress of Rota Fortunae. It’s good soil and the harvest will sustain you.

What is there of value to glean from these musings? I have added some of my own thoughts in the commentary above, some of which coincides with the points distilled by Bill in his post:


The human heart is fickle, and there is no call to care too much about what anyone thinks of you, whether good or bad — even yourself.


Easy to believe, hard to practice. Which reminds me of a related point that my friend George taught me a few years ago. Moral rules, guidelines, and policies have no power to guard or change your behavior.

Just above, I told you “Don’t be a gossip!” What good is that command if you haven’t the power to prevent yourself from gossiping? The answer to that question is the real purpose of such rules: to judge and condemn. That is their real power. And we humans love to exercise that power. And to turn the screw another perverse notch, we can condemn you for lacking the power to obey the rule.

But why isn’t knowledge of the rule enough? Why can’t you “just do it” (or don’t do it)? Often, the rule, or the fear of failing to do it, or the fear of breaking it, is enough to goad or restrain you. But sometimes behavior originates from our wounds. And wounded people wound others. Wounds—those of the heart as well as the body—have to be tended to and healed. Can you heal yourself? Maybe. But many of us need assistance outside of ourselves. The great wisdom traditions speak to this need for transformation. A good counselor or therapist can be a lifesaver. Don’t spurn these aids. That pretty much includes all of us.

wreckage-fuselageHave you broken a moral or institutional rule and been subsequently judged or condemned for doing so? Then you have learned the point of such rules the hard way. Now comes the test: you have the option to own it or evade it. I recommend owning it, and let others think what they will of you. It may chasten you when you are tempted to stand as judge over a fellow rulebreaker. Such are the tests of character that actually count when owning your failures, mistakes, or transgressions: remorse and empathy. All of your deeds, good and bad, are part of your story, for better and for worse. And the same goes for all of us.


Human reality is an ever-shifting play of perspectives and evaluations and, insofar forth, bare of ultimate reality and so not to be taken with utmost seriousness. All of the great wisdom traditions teach the need of detachment or non-attachment. You are grasping at straws and chasing after shadows if you seek your worth or ultimate reality in the broken mirrors of others’ subjectivity. My mirror and your mirror are broken, too.


In the clear Mirror of Bill’s wisdom, a wisdom that springs from the likes of the Stoics, Boethius, and the teachers, ascetics, and monastics of the great religions of the world, the deformities and blemishes of our own hearts are laid bare. You may thunder “I!” as loud and as long as you please. Duly consider all that your hands have done and the toil you have spent in doing it. Is it worth anything? Of course! Is it where your worth is to be found? You might as well chase after the wind. Fix your gaze above the vanities, schemes, and petty vengeances in which your ego longs to embroil you, and with which others would brutalize you.


If you have been done wrong, think of the times you have done others wrong. If on occasion you have not gotten what you deserve, recall the times when you got more than you deserved — and perhaps at the expense of the more deserving. If you judge that you have been unfairly treated, bear in mind that it is just someone’s judgment that you have been unfairly treated, and that the mere fact that this someone is you is not all that significant.


“I have been done wrong!” I have shouted, mostly to myself. And it was true. But that first sentence of Bill’s does not let me play the victim. Self-righteous indignation is not an option on the table because I have done others wrong, too. Will you be treated unfairly tomorrow? Almost certainly. And who judges this treatment unfair? You? That’s just another human judgment, yes? So don’t make too much of this shadow play of fairness while we tarry in the Cave.

You are not alone in the barbed net of the human predicament. Share in each others’ trials and joys as fellow sojourners through the heights and depths of this too transient life. You will know your true friends and you will be known by them. I am grateful always to those who have seen me in the Mirror and not turned away: Jack and Jack, Jack, Jeff, and Chris, and my family. My fondest wish for all of you is not that you will live a morally spotless life, or that you will know only pleasure and happiness and never pain, or that you will achieve an unbroken string of worldly success unblemished by failure. No, none of these patronizing fictions will do for this event. I give you instead this Mirror and trust that you will dust it off from time to time, heed its lessons, and persevere in the hard work of building your character and your life.

Neoliberal by degrees: The repackaging of an American college education

Fog-Stair-676pxWilliam Deresiewicz is interviewed on This is Hell about his Harper’s article, “The Neoliberal Arts.”

Some of the issues Deresiewicz highlights, like the shift in costs from the public treasury to individual families, are indeed problems. But his claim that the consumer culture fostered by a neoliberal ideology has all but eliminated the liberal arts curriculum, or “real” education, I argue, is specious. My two responses:

Upon Further Review

Honors Education: A Parallel College?

Honors Education: A Parallel College?

In my response to “The Neoliberal Arts” by William Dereciewicz last week, I took issue with his characterization of “real” education as it applies to the experience of first-generation college students.

The Neoliberal arts by William DeresiewiczAmong the disputed points, Dereciewicz argues that the development of a “parallel curriculum” and “parallel college” is symptomatic of higher education’s abandoning its traditional mission to develop in its students “the ability to think and live” for both personal and public enrichment, and instead reorganizing the function of education around neoliberal aims and purposes. I described in my earlier post why I think this analysis is flawed. In this addendum, I will focus on one example of why we should be hopeful rather than alarmed about some of these “parallel” initiatives: the growth in numbers of and accessibility to public Honors programs and colleges.

Honors programs arose in the 1920s and 30s as “Great Books” programs in private colleges. These programs were developed by a group of academics who sought to (re)introduce the liberal arts tradition as the center of American higher education, thus broadening what they viewed as a too-narrow specialization that had emerged in response to the growing economy and culture of industrial scale manufacturing in the late nineteenth century. The growth of the early Honors programs stalled during World War II, the immediate post-war period, and during the Korean War. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union spurred unprecedented federal investment in higher education and reinvigorated the growth of Honors programs.

Honors colleges are an even more recent phenomenon. According to the NCHC, a survey of their member institutions showed that of those responding, 60 percent of Honors colleges had been established since 1994. And 80 percent of those had evolved from an earlier Honors program. As of May 2015, there were nearly 200 Honors programs and colleges in the U.S. (NCHC guide). The period of this historical development coincides with the very period Deresiewicz claims that neoliberal values appear triumphant. If he were right that higher education has been debased to a mere instrumental good since the 1960s, the rise and growth of these humanistic, interdisciplinary, “Great Ideas” and “Great Books” programs should not have occurred over that same period. Honors programs and colleges express their mission in the very terms that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared in the age of Reagan, Walker, “Third Way” DLC Democrats, and Obama: learning how to think critically and independently, developing an individual’s personal and intellectual welfare, and creating self-governing citizens with a sense of social responsibility, capable of pursuing the common good and sustaining a democratic society.

Thriving Honors education at public institutions all over the country – Macaulay at City University of New York, Western Kentucky University, the University of Alabama, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, the University of Cincinnati, UCLA, the University of Arizona to name just a few – constitutes a substantial counterexample to Deresiewicz’s dire view of the current and future states of liberal arts education.

The largest residential Honors college in the U.S. is Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University – as of 2014, Barrett had over 5,400 students enrolled. Barrett developed from an earlier Honors program under the direction of its founding Dean, Ted Humphrey. He wrote a contribution to The Honors College Phenomenon (2008, ed. Peter C. Sederberg) called “The Genesis of an Idea,” (pdf) that describes the background to Barrett’s founding and his reflection on its mission. After reviewing the history of the “Great Books” movement that drove the early Honors programs and finding “Great Books,” understood as a classical curriculum oriented around a Western canon, inadequate for the task of a public Honors college, he asks what honors education is if it is not a distinct subject matter.

For a number of complex reasons, I came to think of it in terms of the habits of mind we were engendering by emphasizing the importance of the Great Books tradition. This perspective makes the reason for focusing on the Great Books the development of specific intellectual dispositions, most importantly, the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly. Further, the Great Books are models of good and effective writing. Although the Great Books provide invaluable insight into human nature and values, into the reasons for and goals of social existence, they are yet more valuable as examples of those habits of mind that give rise to humanity’s self-understanding and attempts to progress to a more fulfilled state. Thus, it seems to me, honors education is better served by taking the Great Books as paradigms of certain habits of mind than as the particular repositories of human wisdom that all must master.

If a public institution of higher education is committed to serving highly qualified students able to undertake rigorous course work, then the challenge becomes organizing the college under an inclusive conception of honors education.

This task consists of three parts: first, to attract and bring together identifiable cohorts of able and ambitious students who commit themselves to the project of becoming educated members of a democratic society; second, to help them understand that they are pursuing an education for life, citizenship, and career, in that order; and third, to create a set of curricular and co-curricular opportunities that can provide such an education, that is, to organize the resources of the university for those students’ benefit. In sum, the honors dean’s job is to provide the campus with cohorts of superb students and to make sure the campus opens its resources to them.

Given that this precise effort has been duplicated in dozens and now hundreds of public colleges and universities, a handful of which I listed above, we may well ask how Deresiewicz overlooked the phenomenon of Honors education in his article. For it seems to embody the very values he applauds as a “real” education, a vanguard against neoliberal values and ideology. Perhaps Honors education is insufficiently committed to inclusiveness or egalitarian values insofar as it is confined to a particular population in the university, and for whom the university establishes a “parallel college.” Is Honors education elitist?

The answer is, “Could be.” Honors programs and colleges are, by their very nature, selective. They exist in part to enable academically bright young adults to flourish in a curriculum that often includes Socratic seminars, enrichment opportunities in their disciplinary courses, and access to independent study and projects with faculty eager to engage in “the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds.” My experience has been that many Honors students “will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way” and “care deeply about thinking and learning,” just like their most dedicated faculty.

Does the selective admissions process for Honors programs and colleges institutionalize systemic elitism? Do such programs create an academic upper class, diverting resources and opportunities away from the lower tier underclass, a 99% left outside the gates of the Honors community? This is a serious concern, especially for public institutions of higher education, who are commissioned to serve all of the citizens of a state and contribute to the commonweal. Can the danger of elitism and exclusivity be avoided or overcome? Let’s consider this objection.

An elite enjoys privileges difficult or impossible to obtain by the general population. Having different access to advantages and resources than the masses, elites live and work on an uneven playing field. At a public college or university, if funding and resources are unequally transferred to special cohorts or schools, that appears to be fundamentally at odds with the mission of public institution that exists to serve the public good rather than the private good of particular individuals. The benefits of an education underwritten by the citizens of a state are not (or should not be) prioritized by the good that is served to individuals, but to the common good. Since Honors education is organized in such a way as seems to benefit a small percentage of the student population, it seems to follow that such programs are illegitimate and inconsistent with public supported higher education.

This objection demands an answer. Is it legitimate to divert revenue obtained from the whole population of students to benefit a smaller group of students? Yes, sometimes this disproportionate allocation is a legitimate response to serve the overall public good. Funding diversions are recognized and routinely practiced for students with documented disabilities and students for whom English is not their first language. Disability resource centers and intensive English language programs exist to make a college education attainable for all citizens, including those with special needs. Additional services, such as tutoring and accommodations for attending and participating in amateur sports, are provided for athletes. If institutions of public education are obligated to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential, then differential support from the public treasury is necessary. Are Honors students one of those populations with special needs? Yes, I believe so, and for two reasons.

Honors students are comparable to athletes. Competitive amateur sports in college have been recognized for over one hundred years as a means for enabling able and ambitious students to pursue their physical development, which, unless we take a disembodied view of the student, is a legitimate component of their full potential. Students admitted into Honors programs are the academic athletes of the college or university. If sport athletes are a population of students who require support to meet their special needs, then Honors students are as well. It is clearly a legitimate special allocation of resources to develop “appropriately conceived and rigorous course work for able and ambitious students.” If the analogy with athletes holds, then able and ambitious students are one of the university’s diverse, special needs populations.

The second reason Honors students are a group with special needs in a public institution of higher education is related to the first. The reason institutions of public education are obligated by charter or institutional values to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential is bound up with the point of education itself. Education refines the individual, nurtures creativity, and contributes to the overall commonweal of the state by the general effect of conviviality encouraged within the institution’s society. By these means public education equips students to contribute more fully and richly to the economic and cultural welfare of civil society. If Honors students are not provided with an appropriate level of course work and academic challenge, the public would be impeding its own economic and cultural development by handicapping some of its brightest citizens from achieving their full potential. Of course private benefits accrue to students provided with accommodations – the student with a documented disability, the athlete, and the Honors student among many others – but states have long recognized the legitimate justification for reallocating resources to meet these students’ special needs is the important contribution they make to the public good.

Contrary to Deresiewicz’s claim, public Honors education is not a parallel curriculum developed by students for careerist aims or institutions for neoliberal aims. The values underpinning Honors programs are not “encased in neoliberal assumptions,” based on meritocracy, or “generating a caste system.” On the contrary, my own experience, and the experience of thousands of faculty members who teach Honors students speak to the very principle that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared: the “counterbalancing institutions” that advance a set of values in deep tension with, and at important points in opposition to, neoliberalism. He asks “What is to be done?” For starters:

  1. Develop and encourage Honors education at all public colleges and universities, including community colleges.
  2. Establish broad-based faculty support for Honors education, particularly in institutions with strong professional and technical colleges.
  3. Ensure equal access to Honors education by not levying fees or required student expenses over and above those already assessed by the broader institution.

Deresiewicz says that the fundamental problem with efforts to push back against neoliberal education “is that we no longer believe in public solutions.” He says “[w]e only believe in market solutions, or at least private-sector solutions.” I do not know who this “we” is, because when I consider the growing movement of public Honors education, I see a strong commitment to a public solution. It may not solve the problems in private higher education, but the residential Honors college developed in public universities has been exported and adapted to some of the most prestigious of private institutions as well. “Real” education, contrary to Deresiesicz’s false alarm, is readily available to all students in this country, in spite of social and political forces that may wish to suppress it.

Upon Further Review…

William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, wrote a blistering essay in Harper’s last week, The Neoliberal Arts. Many of his points resonate with my own observations as a college instructor for 15 years, albeit at non-“elite” institutions. In this post I want to amplify some of those points, but also challenge other claims in his article, and why, despite my initial enthusiasm for this contribution to the discussion about the state of higher education in the United States, I do not think his argument withstands critical scrutiny.

This is an unusual post for my site. For over a year, the vast majority of my material has been practical, emphasizing the attitudes, tools, and techniques that will help students succeed in their most challenging academic courses. And you don’t have to read very far into my work before you discover a celebration of many of the very traits, values, and aims that I think Deresiewicz and I agree on. But before I perform the autopsy on his article, let me back up about 40 years and set the stage with a biographical perspective.

The First Generation College Student

My Dad, Thaddeus Clifford Hunter, 1910 - 1975

My brother and I are first generation college students. My father, a World War II veteran, but who did not serve overseas for medical reasons, was neither a white nor blue collar worker. Our family inhabited some vague zone between working class and underclass. My mother did not work. When my father died, aged 59, he left no estate, no pension. Nothing but a $60 per month Social Security death benefit. My mom, who as far as I know had never held a job, was left with task of raising me on her own for over 8 years, until I reached the age of 18 and would – hopefully – have a chance at a college education somehow. My brother was 18 and already the hardest worker I knew – he was in his first year of college and figuring out how to pay his own way. He’s still the hardest worker I’ve ever known.

CHS-crestBeing a first generation college student meant that I had no idea what I was doing in those important high school years leading up to college. Last year’s Atlantic article by Liz Riggs is spot on about the difficulties faced by this group of students. I remember an aptitude test that was supposed to give you some guidance about careers that suited you. My two highest scores were florist and aeronautical engineer. In hindsight, I probably would have been perfectly happy had I pursued the first one.

But my brother-in-law was at Georgia Tech, studying electrical engineering, and what the heck, I thought, I’m pretty good at math and science. I could move out of state and go to a great school (out-of-state tuition and fees then was $1,264 per quarter) where I knew somebody and who could show me the ropes. That really was the extent of my decision-making process. Now I had done well enough academically in high school that I received some attention for my good standardized test scores and class rank. Colleges and universities various and sundry seemed to be courting me. At least one service academy – West Point – invited me and other Merit Scholars to a nice event where they made their pitch. But it was Tech that I had set my sights on, even though I really didn’t understand what an engineer did once out of school. The prestige and academic strength of the school was a fringe benefit, not a desideratum. I only remember applying to one school. I don’t know if my experience preparing for and selecting a college is typical among first generation college students, but I suspect it isn’t too far off.

I completed my course of studies in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech without distinction. I like to say I obtained my degree because they were sick of seeing me rather than for my academic performance. I moved back home and looked for a job in my field. I came up empty for a few months (this was during the initial 1989-90 contraction of the job market in the military-industrial complex, whose members were the largest employers of electrical engineers), but through the recommendation of one of my college roommates and friend, obtained a position with an environmental consulting firm. And 17 years later, I became an academic with a PhD in philosophy, teaching undergraduates, wherever they may be, the rigors and joys of tackling philosophical questions and problems.

I could regale you with a similar tale of cluelessness when it came to bumbling into graduate school, but that can be a story for another day. Instead, I want to challenge some of the premises of Deresiewicz’s article, because when I apply it to my own experience and that of my first generation cohort, I find that even though he is sometimes speaking in the tongues of angels, his analysis is a noisy gong and clanging cymbal.

It Ain’t Necessarily So

First, however, let’s look at what I think Deresiewicz gets right. His opening section laments the semantic evolution of college mission statements from the age of complete and conceptually rich sentences to buzzwords and slogans. He concludes that “[t]his is education in the age of neoliberalism.” I think he’s right about that, or rather, that managerial buzzwords are the preferred vocabulary in institutions of higher education at a time when neoliberalism is the reigning ideology of the technocratic imperium.

However, I can easily cite counter-examples, even from institutions that one would presume are the thralls of their neoliberal masters. Consider this vision statement:

To establish ASU as the model for the New American University, measured not by who we exclude, but rather by who we include; pursuing research and discovery that benefits the public good; assuming major responsibility for the economic, social and cultural vitality and health and well-being of the community.

This, I submit, has more than a passing similarity to the mission statement from the 1920s that Deresiewicz quotes favorably. True, four of its words are highlighted in the design of the statement: include, research, responsibility, and community. So while they are “four words – four slogans,” they are not “floating in space, unconnected to one another,” nor are their “meaning and function left undefined.” They are integrated in a complete, “highly wrought,” sentence fragment. It isn’t a sentence, and it doesn’t sound very pretty, but it does, indirectly, recognize the university’s “obligation to its students.”Tech-Tower

My alma mater, Georgia Tech, an institution explicitly dedicated to technological research and entrepreneurship, recognizes the centrality of teaching and “real” education in their mission statement: “The Georgia Tech community—students, staff, faculty, and alumni—will realize our motto of “Progress and Service” through effectiveness and innovation in teaching and learning….”

So as compelling as Deresiewicz’s opening illustration is, the conceit of an antithesis between higher education’s understanding of its mission 100 years ago and now doesn’t hold up once you look at a representative selection. Nevertheless, I agree with his observation that the raison d’être for institutions of higher education has significantly shifted, particularly in its previous focus on student formation and learning to…something else. An older aim, the moral education of college students, is, at most colleges and universities, absent, or at best, muted.

Deresiewicz thinks this is because there is no room in a neoliberal society to encourage the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues. “The purpose of education in a neoliberal age is to produce producers.” Before the triumph of neoliberalism, we are left to infer, the purpose of education was “one that addresses [students] as complete human beings rather than future specialists – that enables them, as I put it, to build a self or (following Keats) to become a soul.” He is dismayed that his readers have not understood or appreciated that the latter is essential to what he calls a “real” education. Those who don’t get it include some high-powered faculty, college presidents, Republican governors, President Obama, and everyone who snarks at art history majors with “So you decided to go for the big bucks, eh?” and “What are you going to do with that?”

Now I have more patience than some, maybe many, when it comes to thinking about the legitimacy of the moral dimension of education. I happen to think that it is an ineradicable feature of education, whether or not it is explicitly encoded in the policies of the institution or recognized within the system as a value. If Deresiewicz is correct that “only the commercial purpose [of college education] now survives as a recognized value,” then that is what is guiding and shaping the moral formation of all who participate in the institution. The moral criterion might be expressed this way: “Activity A is only worth doing if one is paid to do it.” Under this criterion, one’s pilgrimmage through college or university is merely an instrumental good, a means to this more important end of the best job and salary one deems desirable. Deresiewicz et al are at war with such philistines who would reduce the traditional idea of the university to training for commercial enterprises, and with politicians like Scott Walker who want to revise the mission of a state’s public education system to one whose chief aim is to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” And the Goliath of these people, their champion, is the abstraction Neoliberalism. What Neoliberalism demands, Neoliberalism gets.

Frankly, I think all the attention in the last ten years that has been given to the shrinking of the humanities in higher education is evidence that many people in our society, not least faculties, parents of students, educational researchers, and book publishers, care deeply about it. But perhaps the shift in where and how one obtains “learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake,” or where one might “prepare you for life by inciting contemplation and reflection,” or “build a self” or “become a soul,” or even for that matter, where and how one might obtain a “real” education, is not evidence of the hidden, omnipotent hand of neoliberalism, but of the unsuitability of mass higher education to perform that service under any socio-political regime, of wicking the masses up into an elite liberal curriculum.

The Underclass and Others Without Souls

If I suspend for a moment the personal importance of my vocation in the insular halls of higher education, and recall all of the people in my family and its extensions into the communities and regions where they have lived, Deresiewicz’s complaint completely unravels. For I know directly that my rural, poorly educated, impoverished grandmother most certainly engaged in “contemplation and reflection,” had “a self,” and yes, even managed to “build a soul,” but without access to or under the tutelage of formal education. She obtained it through virtuous action: working and managing her farm, reading her Bible, and at 70 and 80 years of age, raising grandchildren and great-children as their primary caregiver. I think of the character of my father, my grandmother, and so many others in our extended family and their communities, and I have to laugh to keep from crying, or getting angry, at Deresiewicz’s article. For what he assumes is that the institution of formal higher education is  the privileged vehicle of developing in students “the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.” Respondeo: T’isn’t.

My father completed high school in the rural parts of Forsyth County, North Carolina. He was a teenager and young adult during the Depression. He farmed, raised chickens, and worked on cars. He had a knack for classification and organization. He loved flowering shrubs and they responded to and rewarded his diligent care for them. He enlisted and did what he was assigned to do while stationed in Newport News (Fort Eustis, I believe) for his part in the war. He also wrote well-reasoned letters to local newspapers (expressed always in his gentle way), kept a journal of his reflections and movie reviews (one of my most treasured possessions), worked at what he knew and did best to support his family, built the family’s first house, taught his youngest son how to fish and to bowl, encouraged his eldest son to develop his mechanical talents, sang the songs of his youth and favorite hymns in his sonorous tenor voice, and with his wife collected what books pleased them for our little bookcase. In short, he did all the things that one might designate as the properties and activities of an ensouled being. It may not have been the type of soul that Deresiewicz would have for him–that I do not doubt. But I have the benefit of the first generation college perspective, one foot in proud poverty and the other in academe, and would wish no other on him and all of my people. My dad would be unmoved by the values of neoliberalism, bored by the fads and clichés of TED, and suspicious of elite educational institutions who believe that their students must lead “a new organization of society.”


Setting aside the lordly, benevolently patronizing attitude Deresiewicz displays toward, well, everyone, there’s a question about whose perspective matters in the choice to pursue the liberal arts, “those fields in which knowledge is pursued for its own sake.” Students and their parents, eyewitnesses to the realities of the neoliberal economy, and the skyrocketing costs of higher education even at public universities, cannot be blamed for asserting their right to obtain an education that will enable them to survive, if not thrive, in this society. That doesn’t make them sheep. It makes them sensible.

I do not share Deresiewicz’s pessimism about the soullessness of higher education today because the students I have met and had the pleasure of teaching — engineers, artists, accountants, pre-med, pre-law, and yes, English, history, philosophy, and classics majors — have souls, every last one of ’em, and in many cases more developed souls than their elders running the asylum. One reason for this is what Deresiewicz describes as the parallel curriculum and parallel college. Students pursue internships, network in student organizations, and participate in a dizzying variety of extracurriculars. Deresiewicz thinks students are “deserting the classroom” for these opportunities. He should be pleased. It’s a feature, not a bug. Because it is in that parallel curriculum that students are more likely to develop their character and moral compass than in their formal studies. Why? My hypothesis is constructed from the history Deresiewicz weaves, telling us how mass higher education was poised for an egalitarian transfer of the liberal curriculum of the “WASP aristocracy’s” prep school system to public higher education:

The heyday of public higher ed, the 1960s, was the heyday of the liberal arts. If those middle-and working-class kids were going to college just to get a better job, why did so many of them major in English? Because they also wanted to learn, think, reflect, and grow. They wanted what the WASP aristocrats had, and the country was wise enough, or generous enough, or egalitarian enough, to let them have it.

One reason a higher percentage of students majored in English and the liberal arts in the 1960s is because there were far fewer options for a four-year degree. In 1963-5, for example, ASU offered about 50 undergraduate majors distributed among four colleges and a school of nursing. About half of those majors were in the College of Liberal Arts. In 2015, ASU offers over 300 undergraduate programs and majors across 13 colleges and schools. I suspect most colleges and universities have similarly multiplied their offerings over the last 50 years. Part of this diversification is wholly American – we don’t just want coffee, we want to be able to choose from 100 combinations of coffee beverages. Part of it reflects the increasing diversity of civil society, and the complexity of social structures and problems.

But another factor is in play here: the proliferation and expansion of graduate schools to accommodate all of those liberally educated young people of the 1960s. I happen to agree with Camille Paglia‘s analysis of this development: when asked how we might mount a defense of the humanities in the academy today, she replies: “It’s hopeless. The humanities have destroyed themselves [by] veering toward postmodernism and poststructuralism. It’s over.” She argues that as parents rebel by refusing to pay the exorbitant costs of undergraduate education, the universities will have to respond by “paring down this ridiculously overinflated curriculum.” Parenthetically, I would modify her claim about the ideological causes of the humanities’ self-immolation to a Malthusian cause: the irrational exuberance for graduate education by those newly minted liberal arts majors of the 60s. Graduate schools ballooned post-1960s to accommodate the glut of humanities undergraduates seeking a professional life within the academy. As a result, perhaps the intellectual standards that Deresiewicz assumes are representative of the humanities departments aren’t what they were in the 60s and earlier.

A student’s education is more comprehensive that schooling. Deresiewicz places too much stock in formal education as the best or only vehicle for “developing the ability to make autonomous choices – to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society.” Sometimes moral education occurs through the intentional effort of educational institutions. Probably most of the time it occurs in spite of those efforts. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The parallel curricula college students pursue seems more likely to be an organic response to the commodification of their formal schooling. I’ve seen more evidence of this than Deresiewicz’s cynical view that these efforts are little more than résumé padding “oriented toward future employment.”

I think Deresiewicz is aiming at the wrong target, though he briefly gets a more important one in his sights. The kind of education that he values is best delivered to younger students. The implementation of NCLB has been an utter disaster. Most entering college freshmen are woefully unprepared for the rigors of a liberal arts education and lack the cognitive skills they deserve to have had the opportunity to obtain in high school. But such skills are not easily measured, and certainly not by standardized tests. There are public K-12 schools that implement the kind of curriculum Deresiewicz would applaud, but so far they are rare and too inaccessible to poorer districts.

And Yet…

There has always been a strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in America. I sympathize with Deresiewicz’s drive to push back against this, and his advocacy for cultivating the life of the mind, and enacting policies to make its pursuit accessible to all. But like it or not, public higher education inevitably must account for its offerings in terms of some set of instrumental goods. The liberal arts will always be at a disadvantage when these justifications are demanded by administrations, who are answerable to boards of regents, state legislatures and governors, and ultimately, the voters. Deresiewicz makes clear in his article the reasons for this: the true value of the study of one of the fields in the liberal arts cannot ultimately be justified in terms of some goal external to it. These fields are ends in themselves. In the strictest sense, they are not good for something else. They are good in themselves. Verum, bonum, pulchrum. Do external goods come by way of them? Of course. Improved critical thinking, weighing evidence, informed citizenship, skills to help one in professions that demand one “to think as hard as possible.” But these are the byproducts of humanistic education, not the goals. Why study English? Certainly not for the sake of improving one’s diction, preparing for journalism school, or entertaining at cocktail parties. Is the quiet contemplation of great works of visual art, listening to Coltrane or Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, or singing a Bach Cantata or a Beethoven Mass, good for something? Of course not, unless one is an elitist, who enjoys them from vanity.

In the economies of higher education and employment, it is perfectly reasonable to ask how you will bake your bread. If you can entertain that question as well as stick to your guns that not everything should be pursued as a means to something else, that there are more things worth doing than what one is paid to do, then you are not acquiescing to anti-intellectualism or neoliberalism. But one does not need access to an elite formal education to live well and justly, to care for the land and water and living things more than the amount of one’s salary, to practice hospitality, and to encourage young people to develop practical arts alongside their intellectual, artistic, and athletics pursuits. I know because I was a first generation college student who got that education from my family and community.