What Ails Higher Education (and Everything)

Here’s a link to a lovely, lucid, literate, pointedly accurate and, ultimately, sadly introspective essay by William Major about what ails higher education (in fact, what ails society at large):

A quote to lead you in:
“Our investment bankers and their ilk will have to take the fall because, well, they should have known better. If only because, at bottom, they are responsible — with their easy cash and credit, their drive-through mortgages, and, worst of all, their betting against the very system they knew was hopelessly constructed. And they were trained at our universities, many of them, probably at our best universities, the Harvards and Princetons and Dartmouths, where — it is increasingly apparent — the brightest students go to learn how to destroy the world (emphasis added).

I am not arguing that students shouldn’t take classes in accounting, marketing, and economics. An understanding of these subjects holds value. They are honorable subjects often horribly applied. In the wrong hands they become tools less of enlightenment and liberation than ruthless self-interest.
And when you have groups of like-minded economic pirates banding together in the name of self-interest, they form a corporation, that is, a person. That person, it is now apparent, cannot be relied upon to do the right thing; that person cannot be held accountable.

It’s not as if this is news. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens saw this problem, and he wrote A Christmas Carol to address it. The hero of Dickens’s novella is Jacob Marley, who returns from the grave to warn his tightfisted partner Ebenezer Scrooge that he might want to change his ways. When Scrooge tells Marley that he was always a “good man of business,” Marley brings down the thunder: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

In closing the business schools, may the former professors of finance bring to the market a more human side (or, apropos of Dickens, a more ghostly side). Whether or not they do, though, closing the business schools is a necessary first step in righting the social and economic injustices perpetuated not by capitalism but by those who have used it to rend the very social fabric that nourishes them. By planting the seeds of corporate and financial tyranny, our business schools, operating as so many of them do in collusion with a too-big-to-fail mentality, have become the enemy of democracy. They must be closed, since, as Jacob Marley reminds us, we all live in the business world.”

Much about Major’s essay reminds me of David Orr’s 1990 paper “What is Education For?” (http://www.context.org/iclib/ic27/orr/) in which he observes:
“It is worth noting that [the destruction of the earth] is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs. Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow last winter when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans were the best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education? In Wiesel’s words: “It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience.”

What really strikes me on assimilating these essays is the persistence of the prevailing mechanistic dehumanizing worldview over the past century and a half, despite periods of strident resistance. Just think of the success of the political right since the 1970s in beating back emergent alternative visions and entrenching the current incarnation of lifelessness into our political consciousness. Corporate/capitalist values now permeate virtually all domains of human interest beyond business including politics, mainstream media, and, of course, higher education.

Perhaps most alarming is the malleability of human social consciousness this process reveals. We have all been (mostly unconscious) witness to the deliberate, global-scale “social construction of reality” (or, more accurately,’the social construction of shared illusions’) to reflect the interests of just one cultural sub-group, our monied/ruling elites). The result is both the acceleration of ecological degradation and the rapid widening of the socially-destabilizing income gap. Such maleability, once highly adaptive in promoting tribal identity and group cohesion has thus become a weighty liability in today’s world, one capable of sinking the increasingly frail vessel on which we are all passengers.