The author of the best book ever written on America, and the best book ever written on democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, claimed to see almost no higher education in America. I think Tocqueville exaggerated a bit in his day, and he would also be exaggerating in ours.
You might object that, unlike in Tocqueville’s time, the median nineteen-year-old in our country today is in some college or university somewhere. He or she is surely pursuing a higher education—see The Chronicle of Higher Education! But as I tell my students, if it’s all about textbooks, PowerPoint, standardized tests, and group projects, that’s not higher education in Tocqueville’s sense.
Higher education is about studying the best that has been thought and said in the languages in which it has been written, theoretical more than experimental physics (and the other natural sciences), and the art and music that graces what has been called high culture. There is still some of that going on. But it’s also true that many of liberal arts general education programs are being emptied out. Many of our colleges that retain the liberal brand are surrendering the traditional substance of higher education, and the percentage of student majoring in history, physics, philosophy, literature, and such is on the decline.
Let me explain why there’s little more countercultural in our middle-class democracy than genuinely higher education.
With some conspicuous exceptions, Tocqueville saw all Americans as middle class. Being middle class has little to do with how much money and stuff you have right now, and a middle-class country has huge and often rapidly shifting inequalities in the wealth of its citizens.
To be middle class is simply to understand yourself—and everybody else—as a free being who works. A middle-class society, in that sense, is a classless society. And middle-class morality aspires to be universal.
From Tocqueville’s view, being middle class is finding yourself somewhere between aristocrats and slaves or servants of old. The good news is you’re free like an aristocrat. The bad news is you have to work like a slave.
But a second piece of good news is that you get to keep what you earn or make. You work for yourself and your own, even when you’re employed by someone else. I work for you, and you give me money. The way we both stay free is by not making the mistake that there’s more to our relationship than there really is. A middle-class democracy is very short on paternalism; even your actual father and mother have very little authority over you once you grow up, unless they have money enough to reliably control your behavior with, say, the prospect of a generous inheritance.
So in a middle-class country everyone needs and loves money. Aristocrats at least faked not caring about money; their story was that they’re better than that, and they stuck with it. Slaves or servants didn’t care much about money, because they didn’t think they would have much, because there was so little mobility among classes. To be in the middle is to be loud and proud about loving your money—and being on the make to get some more.
There’s a lot good about the universal love of money. One thing, of course, is unprecedented productivity and prosperity—the result of everyone having and wanting to work hard. Another is the justice of equality of opportunity and a meritocracy largely based on productivity. People tend to get what they deserve, which is this or that amount of money. Even Karl Marx thought that capitalists under capitalism got nothing more than they deserved. When it comes to prosperity, technology, and a kind of individualistic justice you can’t beat middle-class democracy.
Still, one problem is that middle-class democracy, Tocqueville observes, is really bad for free thought. Tocqueville noticed that Americans all have basically the same opinions about religion, politics, morality, the point of work, and so on and so forth. The trouble with the universality of middle-class thought and behavior is that it’s almost impossible to find a point of view from which to dissent, to be genuinely countercultural. It’s impossible to discover for oneself the limits—the merely partial truth—of the dominant view of the world. In that respect, middle-class democracy, more, in Tocqueville’s telling, than the aristocracies of old, discourages genuinely critical or deeply radical thinking. There’s an unprecedented political correctness, as we say, in the thought that we live in a universally middle-class, that is, a basically classless, society. If a thought isn’t useful for a free being who works, then it couldn’t possibly be true. That’s one reason, Tocqueville, explains why language and democratic times tend to become techno-standarized or flat and ironic; metaphysics and theology in particular lose ground.
Americans, for example, are way too judgmental about work. People who don’t work are lazy, and there’s no excuse for their unproductive behavior. Americans don’t buy the baloney that leisure is the basis of culture, partly because they see culture as one industry among many. What you do with your free time is up to you, and you can use your money to gratify your preferences, whatever they may be.
So the key middle-class distinction is not between work and leisure, where the point of work is to support a vision of human excellence or greatness that has nothing to do with money. It’s between work and recreation, and those in the service industry are about giving those with money what amenities they want, in return for some of their money.
Consider, if just for a moment, how amenity-laden even our so-called institutions of higher learning have become. Education has become pretty much the same everywhere—all about the learning outcomes of competency and diversity—and so the discerning educational consumer chooses for a health-club gym, hotel style dorms, gourmet food in the cafeteria, luxurious study-abroad opportunities, student affairs concierges that save students from the dread disease of boredom, wellness centers that alert you of risk factors that might otherwise elude your attention, and D-3 athletics programs that feature lots of participation that doesn’t depend on exceptional athletic prowess. College has become really expensive—although thinking, books, and philosophy professors remain really cheap—as a burgeoning part of the service industry.
Well, it’s at least an instructive exaggeration to say that college is becoming about the same everywhere—being nudged along by the standardizing pressures of the market, government bureaucracies, Silicon Valley-funded foundations driven by the principle that education can be delivered in roughly the same way as electricity, and the administrative class of higher education itself that dominates the increasingly intrusive accrediting associations.
And all these basically middle-class or techno-vocational standardizing pressures have a big negative effective on genuine diversity—moral, religious, and intellectual diversity—on our campuses. The pressure here, I want to emphasize, doesn’t come from old-fashioned, tenured radicals. For one thing, the percentage of tenured faculty is dropping like a rock. Nor does it come all that much from the most recent wave of campus protestors. It comes from the corporate and administrative agenda that’s about purging all that is not middle class or all that is incompatible with the dynamism of the twenty-first century’s global competitive marketplace. We see better than ever the threat the universality of middle-class thinking has on freedom of thought.
Although I am a scandal to the fashionable conformism of higher education because I typically vote Republican and am not in the closet about it, I admit the imposition of the middle-class or techno-vocational, techno-enthusiastic tyranny on higher education has been a theme less of Democratic than of Republican politicians, such as Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. Senator Rubio’s theme, that we need more welders and fewer philosophers, was an assault on free thought. It might be good for welders to know some philosophy just to live in the light of the truth. And one American ideal should be the philosopher-welder, given that we have no work at all for philosopher-kings.
I will even add that Republican and especially libertarian proponents of the so-called creative disruption of the whole of American higher education are overhyping the destructive effects of the often rather moronic demands of the campus protestors of our time. Those Republican innovators even seem to hope that the displacement of liberal education by diversity requirements will make it clear to all that there’s no need to bemoan the disappearance of the humanities and all that. They’ve committed suicide! They’ve morphed into nothing more than a fashionably dogmatic form of whining. Who needs that?
I’m happy to agree that the replacement of liberal education with diversity requirements grounded in programs ending in “studies” really does undermine higher education in America. It’s not that sensitivity to diversity or being animated by social justice aren’t admirable, it’s just those outcomes have always been served best by the liberal education which is the proper antidote to our country’s understandable and beneficial techno-enthusiasm. I’ve already explained how hostile middle-class democracy is to genuine “viewpoint diversity,” just as I’ve explained that Democrats so often make the educational error of believing that justice and technology are pretty much everything.
I actually have more sympathy for Bernie Sanders’s call for free higher education for everyone. Bernie is thinking about the old City College of New York in the 1950s, staffed by mostly leftist emigres who taught the great books as if they really mattered to New Yorkers of all races, classes, and religions. In Bernie’s imagination, we should be perfectly free to be either philosopher or welder or some combination of both just as we have a mind.
It’s true that Senator Sanders’s solution wouldn’t work today, mainly because all public higher education is marked by so much less freedom than it was in the 1950s. And the effectual truth of his solution would starve what moral and intellectual diversity we have left in mostly private colleges.
Still, I hope the appeal of Bernie to the young is all about his calling out the corporate technocratic elitism that dominates both parties. I hope he’s the kind of radical that’s about defending intellectual freedom against the middle-class tendency to sacrifice controversy to public relations, which is the same as the libertarian economist’s tendency to script speech with the imperatives of productivity in mind. Don’t worry, I would never vote for Bernie, although I might vote for the old socialists Irving Howe and Michael Harrington for college president over most of the professors and especially administrators we have in the social sciences and the humanities today.
It’s true, the libertarian responds and Tocqueville observed, that, in a free country, an individual is officially free to do and think what he pleases. But Tocqueville adds that typically he doesn’t really have the choice not to work, for reasons of both bodily subsistence and personal dignity. As middle-class democracy progresses, we can see now, there’s less and less room for the virtues that are the source of voluntary caregiving.
The individual finds himself too isolated and disoriented to really think for himself. Middle-class thought may begin with the proud realization that “nobody is better than me.” But then comes the humbling awareness that “I’m not better than anyone else.” So, by right, can I exempt my puny self from the sea of public opinion that surrounds me? And submitting to public opinion—which comes from no one in particular—is not obviously undemocratic or inegalitarian. We can all submit together to a force beyond our control and comprehension.
So it’s true that we keep telling students: Think critically! Think for yourself! Be creative and innovative! But our students should whine in response: But with what? They usually don’t know enough even to know they should whine. That’s because too many professors lead them to confuse being critical with clutching to the latest version of sophisticated common sense that’s allegedly on the right side of history. Those filled with the irrational animosity that obstinately keeps them on history’s wrong or reactionary side, students are taught—well, they just don’t have reasons we need to think about anymore.
What about all the technological creativity we see around us? In my college, for instance, we have a new major in “creative technologies,” and those students are making some cool stuff that I, for one, have never seen before. Tocqueville explains that one democratic dogma among many is to reduce science to technology, and so to divert creativity in the direction of producing labor-saving, comfort-producing, life-extending, and war-winning—not to mention game-playing and porn-viewing—machines and devices.
So all in all we tend to view real creative freedom—as opposed to the fashionable conformism that we call “the humanities”—as in the service of technological progress. Who can deny that the most brilliantly creative Americans now reside in Silicon Valley, and that we receive their powerfully dazzling techno-creativity as magic?
Tocqueville doesn’t deny the reality of or the beneficial significance of technological creativity. His only objection is to the middle- class tendency to reduce all education to technology—to techno-vocationalism. It amazed him to see, in America, an unprecedented universal literacy. You have to be able to read and write—and have solid computational skills—to be able to work for yourself. He was just as amazed to see almost no higher education—no education tied to the thought that work is for leisure, the body is for the soul, that technology serves distinctively human purposes, that the world is the home of the human mind, that there is no reliable route to feeling good except being good, and that seeking and searching—wandering and wondering—should, in principle, occupy all of our lives.
Americans, Tocqueville noticed, are always in a hurry, constantly restless in the midst of their prosperity. Therefore, they’re happy enough with generalizations that work well enough, whether or not they’re actually true, and they don’t take the time to linger over strange and wonderful particular details. Nature and even other people are only real to the extent that can be exploited—or readily comprehended and controlled.
We democrats skim rather than really read, and we’re full of the ADHD which fuels productivity. Our seemingly indefinite capacity to multitask with multiple screens keeps us from seeing the real people (and, for that matter, real or great books) right in front of us. That means, for one thing, we’re better at obsessing over the future or being sentimental about the past than being in love in the present. We spend more and more time, as Sherry Turkle says, “alone together,” while, at the same time, being more unable than ever to experience the pleasure described by Brian Wilson of being all alone in “my room.” So here’s one piece of advice I have to anyone engaged in higher education: Leave those screens alone! There’s little more countercultural these days than that.
So it seems to me that the real division in American higher education is not between liberals and conservatives or the scientist and the humanists, but between the quick and the slow. The quick are all about easily-measurable, achievable learning outcomes, competence (as good enough) rather than excellence, and privilege sensitivity to diversity (that facilitates consumer satisfaction by stifling genuinely critical thought) over the joyful sharing of the truth.
For the quick, preparing students for lifelong learning means fitting them to be abstracted role players with flexible skills that can be constantly adjusted to the changing demands of the global competitive marketplace. For the slow, preparing students for lifelong learning means giving them the taste for books and questions and longings that demand lifelong attention. There’s always more to see and more to know, but there’s also the kind of confidence that’s not complacency which comes when we see more clearly who we are and what we’re supposed to do, when each of us finds the cure for being abstracted by discovering our place in the world with others.
Higher education, Tocqueville says, is countercultural in a democracy because it’s basically aristocratic, and all aristocratic means in this context is having a high opinion of yourself as more than a free being who works. Higher education privileges the truth about the human soul, and the cosmos over the kind of utility that chains philosophy and science to economics, politics, and medicine. Higher education, from a democratic view, can be regarded as inconsiderate and sterile. Nothing ever gets done! The time for talk is over, and the time for action is now, says both the social-justice warriors and the disruptive innovators.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “what time do we have for philosophy and theory when we have to be able to fend off the asteroids threatening to pulverize our planet?” And then there’s the darn climate that’s always threatening to change enough to make human flourishing, or even human life, impossible to sustain on our planet.
There’s no time to raise the merely theoretical question of the meaning of climate change. Or to wonder whether there’s a lot more than we often realize to our sometimes-paranoid preoccupation with the extinction of life or of our species. And there are our transhumanists who spend much time and treasure trying to deploy technology to fend off their own personal extinctions. One’s own biological death, they think, is no longer a reality that we accept in order to live well and be happy; death has become a problem to be solved. Each of them believes that if “I” am extinguished, then being itself is extinguished, and so the real point of all human effort should be to keep “me” around.
From the point of view of higher education, the dominant view of the great books across the ages is that philosophy is learning how to die, to get over obsessing about your personal significance. Being itself is not in our hands, and it’s the fate of persons to be extinguished, unless there’s a personal and loving God willing to save us. Some raging against the dying of the light is to be expected and can even be the source of great words and deeds that stand the test of time. But don’t forget that the light is being extinguished, no matter what you may do.
The dissident philosopher-novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the most courageous persons of the twentieth century, says that what’s wrong with the Americans is their lack of a clear and calm attitude towards death, and that’s one reason he hears beneath the surface of our happy talk of pragmatism the howl of existentialism.
The middle-class response is that’s what’s right about the Americans: they’re all about being agents of change, about bringing the future under our rational control. But if the point of life is to extend one’s own being through rational control, then there’s very little place for real higher education. That might be the main reason that what remains of liberal education in our country is under siege.
And liberal education isn’t only coming to terms with death. It’s all about birth too, about the irreducible significance of each particular person. It’s about keeping the person—the particular being with a singular destiny—from being dissolved by all the forces that surround him or her. As Tocqueville says, liberal education is also about learning how to rule ourselves and others, to discover both the privileges we’ve been given and the corresponding responsibilities. In this sense, higher education is about the greatness of human individuality, and especially about all that we really can do that can stand the test of time.
So higher education, in our time, is understanding the gift of technology as an intricate trial of our free will. Our challenge is to resist being the distracted playthings of technological manipulation, but to deploy technological progress in the service of what Solzhenitsyn rightly calls the one true progress, which is the progress toward wisdom and virtue over a particular life: the life of a being born to know, love, and die, a personal being who has more than a merely biological destiny shared with the other mammals.
The countercultural mission of higher education in America, Tocqueville reminds us, has the indispensable resource of religion, and it’s our Biblical religion which is the source of the view that some higher education is for everyone. There were, Tocqueville observes, two sources of the American dedication to education for everyone. The first was middle-class techno-vocationalism. The second was the Puritan determination that every creature be able to read the Bible, both a great and a good book, for himself or herself.
St. Augustine says that some lives are mainly devoted to contemplation, others mainly to action. But none of us is too good to work, too good to perform loving acts of charity. And none of us should be so enslaved to work as to have no time to contemplate who he or she is and what he or she is supposed to do as a creature of God. The Biblical Sabbath, from the beginning, is less a day of rest than a day of reflection for those made in the image and likeness of God.
What was wrong with Socrates, from this view, is he thought he was too good to work. And we middle-class Americans are right to criticize him for confusing work with leisure. But what’s wrong with middle-class Americans who are untouched by religion, philosophy, or poetry is that they think they aren’t good enough for contemplation.
One of the most countercultural moments in American educational history, our neo-Puritanical Marilynne Robinson reminds us, was the antebellum, Calvinist, sort-of-neo-Puritanical Oberlin College, where everyone, including the professors, worked; and everyone, including women and blacks, received a liberal education, which included the Bible, but was about so much more. We have a variant of that moment in our great tradition of Catholic parochial schools, which extended to nonselective colleges requiring multiple classes in theology and philosophy for everyone.
So it’s true that our colleges and universities should be about preparing people for worthwhile work well done, but they should also have plenty of safe spaces for countercultural thought, for higher education. There is, in fact, no other point for the residential college these days, except to open students to thoughts and experiences they wouldn’t pick up on our middle-class streets.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on August 5, 2016.