An Ode to Education: May She be Forgiven for Acting the Whore

28 Jan

ason Peters writes an ode to Education: may she be forgiven for playing the whore. If he exaggerates, he does so in stunning prose.

A billboard for Eastern Michigan University boasts of “Hire Education”—that is, “an education that will get you hired.”

This is more evidence, as if more evidence were needed, that the admen have won the day and that there is little more for a college or university to do than polish its brand. Education is over and done with. What colleges now officially offer is not an end but a means. Their enterprise is banausic, instrumental, and servile.

It is true that for many years Dame Education had been getting pawed at by the randy groping and the heavy petting of the market’s insidious unmagic hand, but up until the present moment, which historians will mark by the appearance of EMU’s billboard, she seemed able in spite of the assault to preserve something like a show of virtue, if not virtue itself. Now her drooping flower has been plucked. A keen and lusty economy has completed its conquest.

Of course the market wouldn’t have settled for anything less than consummation, and it never seemed to care about the where or how of its siege. That is a point worth noting. But there’s another one, and believe it or not it’s even less pleasant: tarted up as she was, education had it coming. If you’re pure as the driven snow and still arouse the desire of Comus, you certainly can’t gyrate in front of him and expect to be left alone.

But this is what the lady did. She could have been content to be the brainy girl in the all-covering sweater whom the captain of the football team never bothered to notice, whatever her assets. But no. Instead she threw off her glasses, eschewed her Homer, and for the sake of a little fleeting fun with the rebel crowd on Friday night she put on the short skirt of the cheerleader (and later the jacket of the sorority girl) and went in search of the music and the parties where it played. She tried to make herself appealing to the eye of a quarterback already good at recognizing weak defensive formations.

Education capitulated to an all-consuming and all-rapacious economy. What she lost was nothing less than her honor, and she lost it to a goat-like man who, being goat-like, never understood the first thing about honor.

“Higher” education, in the slow progress of her seduction, was duped into believing that she should reduce the mystery of her chaste being to the simplifying rhetoric of a chased being—to the rhetoric, that is, of her seducer. Like all institutions she sought to make herself desirable where meats and cheeses and gowns and gadgets are desirable: she sought to make herself desirable in Vanity Fair, where, predictably, she ceased to be fair and became vain.

But her opinion of herself was that Vanity Fair could not live without her fair vanity, which she made more fair by the vanity of human wishes, wishes for rock-climbing, unlimited choice in careers (not majors), and an All-U-Can-Eat Mongolian barbecue at the Center for Student Life, which quickly became a mortuary if ever there were one.

(Another billboard shows students rock-climbing and says “aspire to rise.” Perhaps the etymologists at this institution—if there are any etymologists—specialize in redundant and repetitive pleonasms. For certain there are brand managers there.)

Meantime, philosophy departments were shut down. Modern languages disappeared. The number of students reading Virgil and Milton, Plutarch and Jonson, dwindled to naught, all to the jeers of “you deserve to fail,” which the illiterate city fathers of Vanity Fair chanted in the only language they knew, and did so to the unopposed encouragement of their boards of directors, who for all their acclimation to adult life might as well have been wearing baseball caps backwards and pants around their kneecaps.

For the adults had disappeared and left the place to be run by children.

And civic life stumbled. Manners fled. Currencies tanked. Children utterly ignorant of history won elections to public office. Economists and lawyers and businessmen of narrow sensibilities—men and women who could scarcely wield their mother tongue—took charge of old and stately institutions once devoted to the study of ancient and modern tongues alike. Professors feigned outrage about atrocities occurring in places they’d never hauled buckets of water in, and students, ignorant of Moses and Ezekiel and St. Thomas Aquinas and therefore defenseless against sociologists, followed suit. The offices of internships, enlarged on lost tenure lines, assured students with the solemnity of predatory undertakers Sorry For Your Loss that the economy would repay their generosity to the general fund and the budget lines by which the rock-climbing walls and the work-out facilities were maintained. (Aspire to Rise. Get Pumped.) Students who could not write an English sentence graduated with distinction, because everyone was now distinguished.

All of this went on, and hardly anyone wondered why. Hardly anyone noticed that anything was amiss.

The reason is that higher education was for hire—and had been for a long time. And now everyone is after an education that can get you hired.

I understand the need for employment. I myself have the need. But education is not about employment. It is about being educated, which is an end in itself, not a means to an end. The instant you begin talking about jobs you have ceased talking about education, and no one incapable of distinguishing between means and ends should be entrusted with running a school.

Except of course it is that very inability–perhaps only that inability–that now qualifies you to run one.

Do I have a solution? I do, and here it is.

Everyone should go to Eastern Michigan. Eastern Michigan will, in turn, need to hire a lot of new faculty members. It is welcome to hire me. And I, gladly accepting my paycheck (padded a little to compensate for my successful recruiting strategies), will then introduce a Trojan Horse loaded with men and women whose main purpose will be to reclaim EMU for education properly conceived, understood, and undertaken.

But before the president and deans and provosts at EMU get too excited and offer me a job, I want to relay a little story. I once had a conversation with a college president. I said to her, Tell high school students and their parents not to worry about employment. Tell them to worry about being educated. Tell them if they do that, everything else will take care of itself. (The question of how many people should be admitted to college was not a part of our conversation, but you may assume that her view was “more” and mine was “fewer.”) And then, I said, Tell the kids that we will educate them. Let go of all this instrumental banausic talk. Let go of all this job-talk. Speak to them plainly about the intrinsic non-utilitarian value of a liberal arts education.

She said: first we have to get them here by talking about jobs. Then we can tell them that.

In other words, she said her job was to lie to them—in the hopes that her faculty could figure out a way to tell a bunch of knuckleheads the truth she herself was incapable of grasping, much less articulating.

And that leads me to an especially uncomfortable observation. What I’ve noticed over my “career” (which I don’t think of as a career) is that in the heightening fear that “higher” education isn’t worth the price–which, by the way, it isn’t—this president’s approach is manifestly not working. No president’s approach is working. Admissions offices can’t make their classes—or, if they do, they make them with students many of whom they know will not last a year, which is to say they’re willingly taking whatever money they can get, for however long they can take it, from people they know can’t make the grade. (The epithet in English for this kind of behavior is “immoral.”)

It’s hard to believe, given the prevailing cultural horniness, but the whorehouse is desperate. The prostitutes are lowering their prices. Not their sticker prices, mind you. That keeps going up. The real cost goes down, or is kept in check, because the discount rates are going up and up and up. And it’s the discount rate that tells you what kind of prostitute you’re getting. (To find out about her services go to http://www.randybilt.edu or write to her at prostitute@hire_ed.edu.)

But remember that chastity has always been preferable.

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