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Living on Tulsa Time II: From Groves of Academe to Open Plain

A nearby colleague, Phil Cary of Eastern University, in a recruitment video for his institution, said something powerful about a liberal arts education. “Your exposure to the liberal arts and sciences is foundational to your education, a sine qua non (that means you aren’t really educated without it). It’s not that there are liberal arts and sciences as opposed to conservative ones. The “liberal” arts and sciences are all of them, from English, the arts and philosophy on the one hand, to physics, biology, psychology, and political science on the other. They’re called “liberal” because they have to do with liberty, with making you free. Merely practical education, when you just learn to do what you’re supposed to do, you can train a slave to do. Liberal education is what makes people free to think for themselves, to be leaders, free citizens, responsible members of a democratic society. To be such a free individual, you must have a mind of your own.” This is not just learning the content of a set of disciplines, not about transmitting information, not about what you can get with “distance learning.” The risk is in just floating on the surface, twittering away, when the current beneath you determines your direction, and even the weather, out of your ken, and out of your control.

Myth and story shape our lives, as a species, a culture, a nation, a people, as families, and over the course of our own lives. This is what these blogs are about, but it does require educated to step back, and even a little self-consciously see not only the stories other people use to make sense of, to justify their own lives, but our own. One of the lessons to learn about critical thinking is that it is not just about criticizing and finding fault with other people’s attempts at meaning-making, but our own. As Cromwell once said: “In the bowels of Christ, think it possible you might be mistaken.” When an enemy criticizes you, unless it is someone who has earned your respect, you tend to dismiss it, or at least be a bit defensive; it is our friends that cut through our defenses, who are in the best position to lovingly correct our errors, point out the flaws in our logic, and tell us when we are being bone-headed. At least good friends, when the love and trust between you is well earned, and therefore such criticism can be well-taken, and someone can justifiably say: “John, you are full of shit, and here’s why.” So it is also about relationships, built over time, with “knowing someone” which is far beyond just knowing a set of facts about someone, or having seen their Facebook profile. For how many of your real friends have you read their profiles, unless you helped write them?

One angry colleague once said, “If colleges collapse into nothing more than trade schools, education in any legitimate and transformative sense effectively comes to an end. Colleges are essential because they are not simply training programs. Education is about seeing the world differently, being able to engage everything more fully and more creatively by combining and contrasting many ways of understanding: historically, philosophically, sociologically, and any of several other disciplinary perspectives.”

My response was that I agree with and celebrate this ideal, but you can't do this without offending or making students uncomfortable. Read The Coddling of the American Mind. The sad truth is that too many colleges have become sites of ideological indoctrination, which may be transformative, but may defeat the purposes of education in a far more disturbing way. We also have a generation of students entering adulthood with crushing debt only justified by 300% increases in administrative personnel and administrative salaries. Our youth don't need four years in an ideological country club. The college I worked for hasn't "made class" in years, because it really isn’t worth the sticker price. At the question period following a set of alumni presentations about how their mentoring experiences from a decade or more ago had advanced their careers, I didn’t have the heart to ask how their levels of debt compared to more recent graduates.

I found it sheer hilarity when the college president, in a community-wide forum, announced that, in the name of “transparency,” given that the tuition sticker price was far above what students actually paid, factoring in their financial assistance, that tuition would forthwith be reduced. By the end of the forum it became obvious to anyone listening beyond the optimistic boilerplate and back-patting going around that, for most students, it would make absolutely no difference to what they themselves were paying, and that this was really a shell-game of labels. The hilarity is in the public relations fiasco produced when most of the students present had already texted their parents the happy news, only to find out that it was a con job. Then, some well-meaning donor gives them 5 million dollars, so they build a new field-house, er, Sports and Wellness Center. Faculty were opposed, alums were opposed, students and parents were opposed. Who decided? Administrators who are paid the salary of 5+ faculty. If these places crash and burn, they will be getting what they deserve. After Health Care, this is the next institutional leviathan that needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

If what you want is a job-ready training program, you belong in vocational school. If you have been misled into thinking that spending $40,000 a year or more on an education that will leave you with an albatross of debt around your neck as you struggle to find a, job that may barely make ends meets the illusion that you will find a fulfilling career that makes anything like full use of your book-learning will quickly be shattered. As it should be. Who foments these deceptions are colleges that no longer even sell an education, but the “college experience”? When my college was working on one of its “strategic plans” (wherein faculty spend hundreds of hours providing resources, used to justify but not actually otherwise have much influence on administrators decision-making), we were shown a pie-chart that showed each of the “stakeholders” that would play a role. If an expensive college education is really only justified by the learning that takes place, then why would highly educated faculty have no more of a “stake” than administrators, student service personnel, athletic coaches and trainers, and a range of other service workers in an institution whose raison d’etre is to educate, the only justification for the exorbitant cost?

One of my saddest moments was during the year I served as a department chair when we were directed to perform a time-intensive “load study” of faculty work. I wasn’t the only one to ask into what category work on the “load study” itself should be put, or how different departments’ definitions of teaching, research, scholarship, advising, or of what “institutional service” might actually be composed, or what its relationship with education might actually be. No, my moment of clarity was to ask what the motivation for the study was, and how the “data” might be used. My infamy (and secret admiration of a sizable contingent) was to refuse to participate in the study until such questions could be answered coherently. They never were. Some other eager chair, believing falsely that the study might somehow benefit his department, did it for me. My sadness was that I was the only one, despite support for my questions, who simply refused the directive. Where were the adults? I wasn’t unhappy to cease being chair.

I am also not unhappy to have retired at 63. It was the “right time.” With a doctorate at 26, having worked 50-60 hour weeks for over 40 years, including graduate training, I’ve paid my dues. I still have friends at the little college, and I am sad that their morale is even lower than when I left. I did have a month or so to clean out my office, leave a table full of free books in the hall, and several trash cans full of paper to recycle. Unlike corporate workers, or, apparently Tulsa University employees, I wasn’t escorted out of my office. I still have a formal letter that, when the time comes (should the institution still exist), my 3-year-old son will be eligible for a tuition waiver. I am not “emeritus,” an honor that I might well have refused given that even assistant coaches are made emeriti, as was a tenured assistant professor, only promoted to associate because a new president didn’t think there should be tenured assistant professors. I already had two senior merit awards under my belt, and several outside fellowships, including an international one entitling me to put letters after my name. But I was kicked off the college server after my retirement was official. A healthy purge. I also have other things to do with my life, and rarely even drive by its hallowed halls.

I don’t think my onetime employer, my overpriced little liberal arts college, will survive. We were always “employees,” whose offices weren’t heated over winter break, whose computers could be dismantled for refurbishing at the drop of a hat, and where the presumption was that we just “didn’t work” in the summer. It was only a decade or so ago that our identification started to include “faculty” when a junior colleague just hired from the University of Chicago, found he wasn’t given faculty privileges at a nearby university as his ID only said “employee.” With three girls for every guy, a lot of our married alumnae gave their charitable donations to a husband’s college, and, in any case, teachers, social workers, and even middle-management business majors really could afford no more than nominal donations. I also think a “sleep-away” system of higher education, available to large swaths of the population (at least enough to claim “some college” on the average) will come to be seen as an historical product of a baby boomer generation whose fathers were educated on the GI Bill. Many large and prestigious schools elsewhere in the world are either quite clearly reserved for the elite or enroll students who live as adult dependents while they are educated. Elite schools will survive, but it was my hope that large Universities would still provide educational opportunities at an affordable cost for those with the gumption and the ambitions for achievement, avoiding the “Gentleman’s Clubs” that colleges were in pre-war America.

So the consolidations and cuts turning the University of Tulsa into a “professional supercollege” scare me. A once proud university is being reduced to the “growth areas” of applied majors, with most of the liberal arts programs, including even graduate training in chemistry and physics to be “wound down.” Turning the Arts and Sciences into a “service college,” with divisions including “Humanities and Social Justice,” make the ideological purposes ever clearer. Announcing new administrative positions like a “vice-provost for research” as faculty loads are raised to that of junior colleges, looks like the standard administrative responses to difficulties even more obvious. Even at my little college, problems elsewhere on the ship were often addressed by “building new cabins on the bridge,” whose existence was often justified by overseeing faculty time, and expanding workloads, hard to do with heavy teaching loads, too often managed in turn by the indentured servitude of adjunct “Uber” faculty. One young colleague of mine currently teaches in the Boston area, which sounds cool, until you realize he teaches a dozen courses over the course of the year, and makes ends meet by driving for Uber.

As Jacob Howland made clear in “Storm Clouds over Tulsa,” the new “dynamic and proactive” ferment is bureaucratic, “ and what little bears on scholarship and teaching falls like bombs on a shell-shocked faculty,” who have become the Dilberts of middle management in an educational institution that has been remade and funded largely on a corporate model, its fealty to the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the Bank of Omaha. The 19th century Germanic model of universities as cultural institutions for the “preservation, cultivation, and transmission of knowledge” appear to be all too easy to co-opt, perhaps unsurprising when most boards of trustees are businessmen either ignorant or hostile to academic agendae. “Our infantilized and indoctrinated students will receive but a light wash of liberal arts before they are popped from the higher-education oven. They will perhaps be credentialed but they will not be educated.”

The real specter raised for me is from my friend Phil Cary’s “you can train slaves to do that.” “Liberal arts are called “liberal” because they have to do with liberty, with making you free. Merely practical education, when you just learn to do what you’re supposed to do, you can train a slave to do. Liberal education is what makes people free to think for themselves, to be leaders, free citizens, responsible members of a democratic society. To be such a free individual, you must have a mind of your own.” The specter I see is not merely that of slaves, but of a slave population governed by violent brownshirts.

In “After Academia,” published in Quillette suggests that “we need to stop wringing our hands over how to save academia and acknowledge that its disease is terminal.” But he believes the failure of modern education could lead to alternatives which would spare the lower and middle classes their “economic and social enslavement to the elite, leading not only to greater opportunity, equality, and worthwhile diversity, but frankly to greater happiness and fulfillment in life.” The way around the problem is really to, well, create ways around it! Things like MIT’sOpenCourseWare alone is a gold mine for autodidacts, for whom 20-30 degrees worth of classically defined education are openly available. It could become not “what degrees have you attained” or “where did you go to college?” but “what do you know?” and “can you use it?” That way the modern version of a higher education entitlement can quietly shrink, like a calving glacier.

Peter Thiel awards a $100K fellowship to the 20 most gifted students who propose to do things more constructive than modern higher education. Austin Allred’s Lambda School uses the Internet for a more classical educational system that routes around sleep-away school, the modern nursery for coddled minds (let’s not even talk about the fiasco at Evergreen College, or the embarrassment of Middlebury). So is the Khan Academy, Udemy, Coursera, and many others. Corporate employers are also likely to play a role, by funding academic research, as AT&T did at Bell Labs and Xerox at Xerox PARC, just to cite the facilities with the biggest role in the development of AI. Not requiring the pieces of paper by which a whole generation has enslaved itself to lifelong debt and providing part-time STEM education financed by employers, to say nothing of corporate training itself.

I once had a long discussion with a colleague in biology who had just inherited a lot of land in upstate New York. What about a stripped down University which only admitted students who had at least two years of real life experience beyond high school, were financially independent of their parents, and wanted an education rather than the college experience? We’d hire the best minds we could find, build the best facilities and quality labs, or partner with nearby corporate ones, set up a classroom facility which could be reached via public transportation, and drop athletics, student services, and the whole panoply of services at country club colleges, and give students a list of rooming houses or inexpensive apartments (or have student groups or nearby communities provide a rent-to-own system that gets passed down across generations of students). Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for us, I neither had the energy nor interest to devote my post-retirement years to the level of stress likely to get such an enterprise going. I have a toddler to raise and a wife’s career to support. The colleague moved to Canada.

So why not a system where corporate employers finance part-time education along with 3-4-year apprenticeships, where they could learn job-related skills along with liberal arts, help their families, and nurture the personal responsibility too often absent or discouraged by Higher Nursery School. For students who can get four years of parental funding to drink beer and play or spectate at the athletic or entertainments worlds, mazel tov, as the elite will nurture its own, despite the increasing risk of being bypassed by more autonomous and self-responsible learners, lacking the destructive ideological viruses which might otherwise cripple or at least delay their adaptation to a world, without the remedial work of classes in “adulting.” Maybe it will be the genuinely educated, rather than the merely credentialed, who are taking on, and maybe redesigning our symbioses with the civilized, as well as natural worlds.

So, the storm over Tulsa, and even the dying off of a world of overpriced liberal arts colleges is likely to be painful, certainly for those partaking of, and indebting themselves for their services, quite certainly for the Ponzi-schematic and metastasizing administrative bloat, and also sadly for the well-trained young scholars who didn’t know what indentured servitude they were getting themselves into, even before being relegated to the world of struggling gig-economy adjuncts. Sorry, kids, but everything is a hustle these days, as anyone in the world of year-round work, lacking not only summers but academic “breaks” and certainly paid sabbaticals.

The world of “schola” of free time to contemplate and be, rather than do, is also going to be lost. That makes me sad, but even the corporate world sees the value of “retreats” of various lengths and various purposes, and there will always be the well-funded think tanks that prove their ultimate worth, despite the inefficiencies of practices needed to open minds, expand consciousness, and innovate. I still remember a brilliant young alumna who landed herself a job where, as part of her training, she was reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Rumor also has it that micro-dosing LSD is increasingly common in Silicon Valley. If psychedelics are anything up to the promise of their new research renaissance, there may be some remarkable changes in Big Pharma, who have become the contemporary pushers of far more addiction, which mean the increasing tolerance and worsening withdrawal, to substances requiring a regular pattern of purchase which better fuels the pharmaceutical industry. But then, I am a believer in a version of original sin, in which characteristics of humans like simple greed are not likely to go away, however much self-interest, to say nothing of social responsibility, may mitigate them.

Outside the expensive groves of academe is a new Great Plains that is just being settled. Most of the rest of the civilized world understands that you cannot saddle a generation with a lifelong burden of debt and sustain a free society. Our real problem is the inertia of institutional models that have turned higher education from a purveyor of the knowledge that makes us free and gives us power, to a four-year sleep-away camp whose goals are no longer the questioning of ideologies but their hardening into orthodoxies violated only by heretics. There is hope in the Heterodox Academy, but one fears that administrative hierarchy and institutional economics are unlikely provide it much furtherance. Perhaps there is still a Great Plains where learning is not too great a burden for the mortal mind, but its settlement is likely to require a pioneering spirit not only absent, but even banned from the campuses of American colleges and universities.

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