Wednesday, August 29, 2012

News Update: Louisiana Congressman Demands that Universities Stop Being Universities

I just finished co-authoring an essay (for an anthology) in which my co-authors and I argue that teaching the humanistic disciplines, and more broadly ensuring that higher education isn’t all about “getting a good job,” is critical for a society that hopes to escape what Max Weber called “the Iron Cage.”

And then, today, I read this: a congressman from Louisiana, Jeff Landry, opposes a new LGBT studies program at the University of Louisiana atLafayette (ULL) because the program "offers nothing for direct employment prospects" and the university ought to “allocate its resources on programs that will help college students increase their hiring viability and earning capacity.”

Not only does this statement betray a dangerously reductionist view of higher education, but it applies this reductionist view in a very selective way, specifically singling out one of the few remaining social groups (the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community) that it is still legitimate in some circles to target for discrimination and social marginalization. In short, Landry invokes a bad argument rooted in a destructive view of higher education in order to play into and reinforce the homophobic prejudices of his constituency.

Since I’ve said plenty on this blog about discrimination against sexual minorities, I don’t want to dwell on that dimension of Landry’s remarks here. Rather, I want to dwell on why it is so dangerous to reduce higher education to “hiring viability and earning capacity.”

Now let me say that these goals—being employable at a decent wage—should be part of what higher education offers. But the university loses a crucial element of what higher education is about if these vocational goals become such a priority that they claim the lion’s share of the university’s resources, eviscerating programs which expand the horizons of students, which challenge their prejudices, which inspire reflection on the values of society and lead them to think deeply about what is really important to them in their own lives.

This is where Max Weber’s metaphor of “the Iron Cage” comes into play. Weber worried that in the modern world, our exponential increase in technological skill (and the justifiable admiration of it) leads to a kind of artificial and dangerous elevation of one sort of rationality—means-end rationality or instrumental rationality—over other sorts.

Most significantly, we lose sight of the importance of deliberating thoughtfully, both as communities and as individuals, over which ends we should be pursuing. The ability to determine how to most efficiently achieve our ends is very important. But this ability can be invoked by a genocidal ruler to more effectively exterminate an undesired population. Or it can be invoked to direct human resources and human lives to the production of widgets whose main value is their usefulness in producing widgets.

Something like the latter is what Weber takes to be the Iron Cage that threatens to trap modern people. There is a real danger in the modern world of “efficiency”—cleverness in promoting effective means to achieved one’s ends—taking on such a life of its own that it becomes the ultimate end and aim of society. People spend their lives navigating institutions and bureaucracies whose rules are all about efficiency. But efficiency towards achieving what? The answer, sadly, is often nothing beyond efficiency itself. A is valued because it's useful for achieving B, whose value lies in its usefulness in achieving C, whose value lies in its usefulness for achieving D, which is valuable because of how useful it is for achieving A through C.

Efficiency is about reasoning well about the best means of attaining one’s ends. If it becomes the end in its own right, then it’s a hollow end.

There are different ways such hollowness can manifest. Money, of course, is valuable—but only as a means to an end. It’s what you can buy with money that makes money valuable, and so you need to think about what life goals really matter to you, and how much money you need to achieve those goals (and how much time spent making money would be a distraction from achieving those goals).

For some people, however, making money becomes their end. They just focus on making more and more money as if that is what life were about--hiring viability and earning capacity. But money doesn’t fulfill us. It can’t, because its value is wholly parasitic on the value of the ends that money can help us achieve. As an end in its own right, then, it is utterly hollow.

But as society becomes more and more caught up in efficiency, institutions start treating efficiency as the end and goal of life. Rules are established to maximize efficiency. People focus on navigating the rules. We are directed towards organizing our lives around achieving the means to attain our goals, but have no goal beyond achieving these means—or at least have given up on critically reflecting on our goals and values. The aim is to get a good job that pays well, regardless of whether the work is intrinsically satisfying, and regardless of whether the time and resources required to earn a living eat up so much of one’s life that one has nothing left for actually living.

Our spare time is taken up with surrogates for meaningful life projects--watching TV shows and movies about people pursuing meaningful life projects, or playing video games in which you are challenged to achieve artificial goals that have no reality outside the game. And so the question of which goals will really satisfy, really enrich us individually and collectively, is forever put off or ignored. The time we're not spending being useful at work--vacations and weekends--becomes seen as a way to "recharge our batteries" so that we can return to being useful. But useful for what? Instead of offering an answer, we are encouraged to consume commercial good, filling our closets with more clothes than we can wear, since this is useful in stimulating the economy so that there will be more jobs, so that we will be able to make enough money to buy more stuff.

In short, we become trapped in a system of efficiency run amok, and have lost the ability to sit down and think about what really matters to us and why—and which ultimate goals society as a whole should be pursuing and why.

Universities have always been as much about these deeper questions. Yes, we need to develop our capacity for instrumental thinking—for technical and practical know-how that will help us to better realize our ends. But such technical know-how, without critical reflection and deliberation about the goals or ends we should pursue, becomes like an engine detached from any steering mechanism. Universities have always been about both improving our “engines” and about giving us the resources to steer wisely towards a meaningful goal.

In the modern era, we are not in danger of losing sight of the importance of efficiency, of technical know-how, of the ability to reason out the best means for achieving a goal. What we are in danger of losing sight of is the crucial importance of reflecting and deliberating wisely about where we should be heading, both in our own lives and collectively.

If we don’t develop the latter, we will just blindly live out goals and values that have been handed to us uncritically, more often than not by the mechanistic demands of a society focused on efficiency.

Landry’s words are operating here (at least in part) as a gear in the efficiency machine, demanding more efficiency from ULL in the attainment of the goal of college graduates able to efficiently navigate the business world, with the ultimate social goal of a nation that can efficiently achieve efficiency.

Were the University of Louisiana-Lafayette to bow to Rep. Landry’s scathing critique of their priorities, they would be abdicating the priorities that can help our nation realize wisdom rather than mere efficiency. In short, they would be abdicating their purpose as an institution of higher education.


  1. I agree that universities offer and should offer much more than vocational training- humanist engagement. But one can also ask two more questions. First is whether they really have been doing such a great job of delving into the value questions- what is their quality of thought? Does the faculty selection, motivation, and tenure system really serve students optimally in offering rigorous and diverse thinking about values and all the other humanist questions?

    Our current political moment does not inspire confidence that the educational system, on the whole, has been doing a bang-up job (economics education comes to mind, but other fields as well). I am not sure to what degree universities are responsible. Their products tend to be more liberal, which is certainly good (to my eyes). But why does this influence not extend further? Why do political attacks on elites (code words for non-values-sharing university graduates) succede so well? My own take is that the rigor of university humanities education leaves something to be desired, leaving many students with a bitter taste of being exposed to ideology and lazy agendas rather than top-notch, well-thought out analyses / views of their various fields and our common humanity. Of course far more influential is the counter-training offered by every church in the land, especially the fundamentalist ones, who throw rigor to the winds of emotion, tradition, and tribalism.

    Secondly, insofar as the university is part of the society, and indeed may be publicly funded by taxes, how much duty does it have to reinforce ambient societal values, rather than tearing them down in favor of other ones? While it can hardly be effective in questioning and evaluating ambient values without some diversity (indeed perversity!) of approach, can it go too far in becoming a nest of opposition, even ideological treason?

    In some oppressed societies, universities have adopted just such roles, at least the students have, like in Iran. And oppressive governments are particularly wary of university freedoms and intellectual adventurism. Yet even here at home things can go a bit far, with whole departments of marxist theory and the like. I am divided on the question, but if universities become ghettos of esoteric and oppositional/subversive thought, by virtue of their faculty's insulation from society rather than engagement with society, that also impairs the ultimate role of the university. Or perhaps being a reliquary of obsolete ideas and discarded values is something to be proud of. They have a way of coming back into play- see Ayn Rand!

  2. Burk

    I wonder how one might go about measuring the degree of exposure to 'ideology and lazy agendas'. It's an easy accusation to make, and mud has a way of sticking, which further serves those who would wish to limit the potential of universities to engage in critical thinking.

    I would suggest healthy intellectual engagement will have certain hallmarks. We should expect to see a diversity of approaches, and adherents to particular schools forming self-reinforcing clusters, because that's the way the strongest form of the idea is going to be developed in a hostile envirnoment. We should then see serious levels of engagement, testing and challenging between the schools and, critically, this should lead models adapting to these pressures. There should be delineation between mainstream and fringe, I think. It's proper that the credibility bar is set high. But there should be active support of the fringes, because sometimes they'll provide the next breakthrough.

    You mention economics, but I'm not sure it's in the parlous state you imply. We see a high level of debate, and major shools adapting (neo-keynesians are necessarily different beasts than their sixties counterparts, rational expectations has lost its profile on the right). Information technology has radically altered the role of both modelling and data analysis. New constraints (environmental pressures for example) have led to a great change in the way market economics is taught (expternalities are now front and centre, where once they were an afterthought), behavioural psychology is finally being attended to (witness the Nobel prizes in this field) and fringe schools, be they marxist or MMT, are hardly being barred from making their case.

    I'm not saying it's perfect, far from it. But if I try to think what the world of economic theory would look like without the sort of university independence Eric is championing, I figure that's when we'd really need to worry.


  3. The post reminds me of Habermas' work in The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1. Still probably the most difficult book I have ever read in my life. I think you are right in analyzing this idea from a means-end rationality perspective. The odd thing is, in organizational theory, for at least the past 20 years, modern Western organizations have been moving away from the hyper-rational, bureaucratic forms of organization that Weber analyzed. They are still "efficient," in that they are effective means of organizing, but they do not function in the hyper-rational, bureaucratic mold. So, it's obvious that instrumental rationality still is an available resource for making a plausible argument, but I wonder if its time is waning as a dominant feature of the modern era.

  4. Bernard-

    I should say that I am really very happy with the academy on the whole in the US and in some ways amazed that it maintains the standards it does. I was offering a devil's advocate position to some of Eric's points. For instance, the governance of academic departments is nothing if not crony-ism and self-selection. Yet somehow humanities departments manage to teach the basic corpus, challenge students, and bring in new blood and new thinking every so often.

    You mention "serious levels of engagement, testing, and challenging between schools". Well, in science that is a given, arranged around empirical demonstration. But in humanities, I think it has demonstrably gone more astray in recent times. Witness the Sokal hoax, showing the vacuousness of esoteric postmodernism. This fad at any rate had to descend to astonishing depths of incoherence before its nakedness was called out and appreciated. I would include theology in that category, naturally.

    For economics, I generally agree with your take. But why did rational expectations and micro-foundationalism ever succeed on Keynesianism, when the macro system was already understood to have its own unique dynamics? My problem here is that for all the writing down and the textbooks, etc., there is a great deal of forgetting going on- a mania for new fashions and fads, perhaps an envy of the continuous progress in physical sciences, some gullibility and susceptibility to charismatic, absolutist leaders (Friedman comes to mind, as does the Chicago school generally). In fairness, the structure and tendencies of academia (independence, tenure) tend to make it less fad-driven and more diversity-preserving than other places, and that is all to the good.

    But what more can be done? That was basically my point.. how can the academic system be further strengthened in light of its weaknesses, preserving diversity that is not just fringe, but optimally rigorous with ongoing critiques of fellow schools and fads, new and old? Obviously, having the Louisiana legislature turn you into a vocational institution is not the way to do this. Perhaps the remaining weaknesses are fundamentally not fixable, being problems of human nature.

    I think this blog that Eric has embarked on is one method, widening the scope of input and critique from the usual suspects in one's own field out to the wider cultural audience. If the problem of "stars" in academia is an issue, as I note above, it is far from confined to academia, as they distort our thinking in business, media, and other fields. I follow my own set of stars (Krugman, Mitchell, etc.) so I can't say that human nature itself is all-bad in this respect. But the critique of what they say perhaps should be more systematic, looking back over time to keep a record of right, wrong, badly supported, poorly argued, etc statements. That is one more way the blogosphere has been helpful, and academia would benefit from adopting such fact-checking as an ongoing element of how it evaluates faculty. Publishing alone is too low a bar, perhaps, and the metric of "reputation" could be bolstered by more systematic analysis.

    For humanities more generally, such a program is overly objective, but what else can be done? Take the plight of poetry, for instance. The current state I find quite unreadable. Perhaps that is a natural cultural evolution in the arts. But perhaps it has something to do with the creative writing industry and its specialization in academia. Rap seems OK- vibrant, if crude. Perhaps the concept of academic poetry is an oxymoron, and academia should restrict itself to reading, analysis and, if they must, deconstruction.