Obama the Pragmatist

by Patrick J. Deneen on December 1, 2009 · 4 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

From today’s edition of Inside Higher Education:

In remarks kicking off a White House forum on job creation and the economy, President Obama repeatedly stressed the role of higher education. “I want to hear about what unions and universities can do to better support and prepare our workers — not just for the jobs of today, but for the jobs five years from now and 10 years from now and 50 years from now,” he said. “We still have the best universities in the world. We’ve got some of the finest science and technology in the world, we’ve got the most entrepreneurial spirit in the world, and we’ve got some of the most productive workers in the world.” The Obama discussion of job creation continues today when the president will visit Lehigh Carbon Community College

The nation’s universities have already implicitly justified their existence – and expense – to a generation or more of students that the main reason for attending university is to attain the necessary credential for potential employers.  Universities uniformly have one devoted office or center that is dedicated to helping students make the transition into post-graduate life, namely and inevitably a “Career Services Center” (by contrast, there is no “Family Preparation” or “Transition to Being a Citizen and Neighbor” centers).   Understanding well this implicit promise, alumni have begun suing their alma maters when their post-graduate job search has proven unsuccessful, and many believe such lawsuits to be anything but unjustified or frivolous.

President Obama has taken seriously his responsibility to use the “bully pulpit” (indeed, he seems at times more prone to jawbone problems than take the lead in actually advancing real solutions).  Admirably, his wife has set a good example by growing an organic garden on the White House lawn – “the most significant small plot of land in America,” according to Wendell Berry in his recent interview with Diane Rehm (listen at about the 24th minute).  But the President is doing great damage in his constant reiteration of the view that our universities and colleges should be seen solely as places of job preparation.  This can only deepen the pervasive careerism that pervades our institutions of higher education.

Our universities and colleges were once devoted to the ideals of the “liberal arts.”  The liberal arts were oriented to teaching its students the art of being free, the art of attaining liberty.  That art is above all the art of self-government, the art of learning the bounds of what is appropriate for human beings.   Moreover, necessarily such an undertaking was an education in citizenship, the hallmark of the person educated for liberty (not bondage).  By necessity, such an education oriented its charges toward res publica, toward public dedications that transcended narrowly private interest.

The current emphasis on “career preparation” is a profound betrayal of this ideal of the liberal arts, and can only further damage the frayed and perhaps irreparably degraded moral fabric of the nation.  This emphasis elicits in two simultaneous dispositions among students:  a utilitarian worldview that views all aspects of education as means for one purpose – a job, or more narrowly, “money-making” – and the transformation of the object of education of one devoted to commonweal to narrowly private interest.

The President has spoken on occasion in tones of moral condemnation over the behavior that precipitated the economic crisis, yet out of the other side of his mouth further promotes the mindset – and an educational emphasis – that would only deepen the preconditions that led to the economic crisis.  A people formed with dedicated devotion to utilitarian and narrowly financial calculation, combined with extreme privatism of orientation, is the fertile ground from which just such financial chicanery and irresponsible indebtedness arises.  Does he not have a sensible and liberally educated advisor in his circle that help him come to this realization?  Given how many of his advisors come from our “elite” institutions – the Princetons, Harvards and Yales of the nation – and how deeply the orientation of these institutions has for a long time been precisely guided by such narrowly and perversely utilitarian aims, there can be little hope that he can be dissuaded from his mission of further destroying our institutions of higher learning.  Indeed, it could even be said that those people who once would have graduated from these institutions for jobs on Wall Street are now instead flooding the halls of our governmental buildings in Washington D.C.  What they have recently done for our financial system, surely they are aiming to advance through the public purse.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bruce Smith December 4, 2009 at 9:46 am

Patrick you may be nuanced but the Anglo-Saxon barbarians are not. Their idolatrous nature will not allow them to understand that the pursuit of riches doesn’t automatically equate to the common good.

avatar D.W. Sabin December 4, 2009 at 11:08 am

Tick Tock….we have been given one of the best Continuing Education Seminars in What Not To Do in history and still, the great movers and shakers of our Junior High on the Potomac continue to spout more banalities, more platitudes, more jaunty doggerel about the future and more resolute imperviousness to the Very Real Problems we confront.

I think the good Mr. Berry was being a little optimistic with his according of a charming little garden at the Imperial Seat as “the most significant small plot of land in America”. Obviously, there are two other plots of land that still take precedence. One is a couple blocks along Wall Street and the other is Afghanistan. May they enjoy choking on one another. That little White House Garden aint even in the top twenty most important small plots of land in America because we don’t reach the domestic sphere in our priorities until about number 33. Needless to say, the area within the Beltway then takes up the next 177 spaces but none of them involve the growing of anything. Nah, this nation’s priorities are all about the reverse of growing now. If farming…or gardening has an antipode, the United States of America is attempting to define it.

avatar Ryan Davidson December 8, 2009 at 9:47 am

I think there’s more to this story than this post would suggest. Take a look at these numbers, particularly the graphs on page two. In the 1940s, something like 5% of the population had a bachelor’s degree. In 2003 it was around 25%. That’s a 400% increase in five decades, which is anything but trivial.

Now I don’t have these numbers in front of me, but I’d be willing to be quite a bit that the percentage of graduates with a liberal arts degree in the 1940s was far, far higher than that same figure today, in no small part because many of the non-liberal arts degrees in today’s academic world simply did not exist. Business, as an academic discipline, didn’t really exist until the late 1950s. Nor did education. Neither of those disciplines constitute a real education in the classical sense, and they’re fairly openly looked down upon by more traditional disciplines. But take those two “disciplines” away and you’d eliminate half of the students at my small, private, Christian “liberal arts” alma mater, and the same is probably true of most other similarly situated schools. The case gets even worse if you throw out such “disciplines” as marketing, accounting, engineering, and obviously trivial ones like “youth ministry” and “outdoor leadership”. (Seriously. You can get a BA in that. Why not just call it Screwing Around Outside and have done with it? I’ll do that for way less than those mopes.)

So it would seem, to me anyways, that the vast majority of the increase in college degrees can be accounted for what amounts to people not actually getting an education, or at least getting a degree for which there was not even a remote analog in any university prior to the twentieth century. I’d be willing to bet that the percentage of people getting a true education, as opposed to mere skills training, hasn’t changed much in the last century. But as our society has professionalized, starting in the latter half of the nineteenth century, more and more jobs required something beyond high school. Given that there was no formal educational system beyond high school other than the universities–there were apprenticeships, but the apprentice system was always informal and hard to regulate–universities expanded to fill the gap.

I think that, on balance, this may not be a bad thing, particularly in the sciences. There’s simply so much more to know and to do in technical fields than there was a hundred years ago that some kind of regulation, yes, even monopolistic licensing, is probably appropriate. I know I sure as heckfire don’t want someone with only a high school diploma performing my surgery or designing my jet engines.

But at the same time–and I think this is what the author is getting at–we’ve conflated education and skills training, coming to believe that one is as good as the other. This, I would contend, is how and why our institutions of higher learning have become utilitarian. For most college students and graduates, what they are after is utilitarian, and this isn’t a bad thing, it’s merely a reflection that the university is the only place to get what they want. Many of the jobs which now require college degrees are just that–jobs. Most of them don’t require much in the way of creative, independent, well-rounded thought. Indeed, most of them aren’t intellectually that different from manufacturing widgets. If factory foremen don’t need a college degree–and I can’t see why they should–most white collar middle-managers don’t either. But by equating an essentially technical degree with philosophy, history, and literature, we wind up believing that 1) the liberal arts are merely another skill set rather than an expansion of the soul, and 2) skill sets are all we need for a well-ordered society.

So I guess I’d pull back slightly from the author’s conclusions. Our society really does need a lot of people with a post-secondary degree. But we need to impose some kind of distinction between educated people and skilled people.

I recognize that this doesn’t make me out to be terribly egalitarian or democratic. I’m okay with both of those things.

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