How Much Would You Spend to Save Your Soul?
Of course, there was a time when the university was a physical necessity. When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton famously replied, "because that's where the money is." Likewise, people attended university because that was where the knowledge was.
But frankly, ever since the development of the printing press, this has gradually become an increasingly dubious proposition. Even before the liberating miracle of the internet, I used to say that a disciplined and self-motivated individual with a clear educational program in mind could profit more by spending four years systematically loitering at a Borders book store than at a typical elite university.
(Perhaps I should emphasize that I am talking about the humanities, not about things like medical school, where you actually do obtain useful knowledge that must be transmitted by an expert. Most knowledge is clearly not of this variety: history, english literature, political science, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, etc., not to mention entirely fraudulent fields such as gender studies, African American studies, queer theory, et al.)
Harrop notes that there is a company that sells "a virtual major in American history -- 84 lectures on 42 audiotapes -- at the bargain price of $109.95. It covers everything from 'before Columbus' to Bill Clinton, and the lecturers are top-drawer. Some of them teach at Columbia University, where a single history course runs you $3,207." She quotes Herman Melville, who said that "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard": "Melville didn't need college to write 'Moby Dick.' He needed to read and spend time in the world. Before sailing out on a whaler in 1841, he had already worked on his uncle's farm and as a cabin boy on a ship to England. Drucker urged high-school graduates to do likewise: Work for at least five years. If they went on to college, it would be as grown-ups."
The title of the book escapes me at the moment, but I remember a historian who argued that all societal instruments are eventually reduced to institutions. That is, cultures develop various instruments to cope with the needs of society--religion, a legal system, an educational system, military, etc. While they always start off doing their job, they eventually become mere institutions whose primary task is self-preservation.
In short, institutions no longer perform their instrumental tasks, or else perform them poorly. In the case of our contemporary universities, not only do our children fail to obtain a true education, but they are often taught pernicious nonsense by the likes of Juan Cole or Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. At most elite universities, over ninety percent of the liberal arts faculties are composed of such academic frauds and intellectual sociopaths. Imagine actually paying money to have your child exposed to the malignant thoughts of Ward Churchill?
First we must ask ourselves, what is the purpose of a liberal education? Clearly, it is to liberate the mind from its default parochial outlook and to provide a kind of universal knowledge that completes the self and makes us more thoroughly human. It is to become acquainted with the best that mankind has thought and written, in order to come through the other end with a "well furnished mind," a storehouse of ideas and concepts that allow us to think clearly, to exercise philosophical discrimination, to deepen the self, and to make choices that enhance the quality of life. But how many people actually attend college for these reasons, and how many colleges would be able to provide these things even if one were inclined to seek them?
Ironically, we have turned our universities into giant, thoroughly corrupt secular temples that have simply supplanted the religious authorities they were designed to replace. Some university presidents -- who are in competition for the most spineless and craven members of our society -- make over $1 million per year, not because of their ability to ensure educational excellence, but for their ability to fundraise and to appease various tribal interests within the faculty.
Imagine if the situation were reversed, and one could walk over to a local university on Sunday morning and hear Noam Chomsky speak for free, but have to spend $100,000 in order to obtain a truly comprehensive and fruitful religious education. Chomsky would be seen for what he is, which is not even worthless, which is to say harmful.
Many studies have demonstrated that human beings overvalue what is expensive and undervalue what is free. In my own case, I have a Ph.D. in psychology, but despite the expensive education, if I were limited only to what I had learned in my eleven or twelve years of college, I'd have a pretty impoverished intellect.
On the other hand, in the course of writing my book One Cosmos Under God, I feel that I obtained a kind of spiritual education that was truly priceless, and which I could never have obtained in the philosophy or theology department of any major university. Not only that, but in my ongoing self-education since completing my formal education in 1988, I have had to unlearn much of the nonsense I learned in college.
It is disheartening that my generation (the "baby boomers"), the most educated generation in history, should be the most willing to perpetuate the bogus mystique of an elite university education. Having had the experience, they should be the first ones to see through the scam.
Not so for my father, who had only eight years of formal education in England before immigrating to the US at the age of 21. He sent four sons to college, because to him college represented some kind of mysterious, olympian ideal. I'm sure he must have felt self-conscious about his lack of formal schooling, and yet, he had infinitely more wisdom than the average university professor or New York Times editorialist.
As for myself, I have a seven month old son and yes, my in-laws have started an educational fund that will probably assure that he will be able to attend any university he chooses, if he so desires. But I will not be emphasizing that with him. I personally do not care if he attends Harvard or a local community college, or no college at all, so long as he develops a love of truth and a love of learning, neither of which have any necessary relationship to college.
And along the way, I hope I will be able to provide him with a true education that will correct and compensate for the nonsense he picks up in his formal education. In particular, I hope I am able to help him ground knowledge in a much wider and deeper spiritual framework, so that his spirit isn't damaged by the corrupting influence of secular fundamentalism. But only if he's willing to sign over that educational trust fund to my name.