Sophiology vs. the Zombie University
Anybody involved in its various manifestations and permutations knows that higher education in the United States is on life-support if not already dead. There are many, many reasons for this, but the most significant are the changing demographics of available college-age students and the burden of outrageous debt students carry with them following graduation. This dynamic results in a catch-22: recruiters increasingly try to corral students who are not necessarily “college ready” in order to fill seats in lecture halls, and to do so some compromise is in order. One way colleges and universities compromise is by offering scholarship for more and more arcane “sports,” such as “e-sports” (better known as video gaming) or fishing or bowling or other non-traditional activities. Another way is by lowering admissions standards. As a result, many students come into college with limited academic abilities (often through no fault of their own and due to a horrid K-12 education) and, therefore, need remedial courses. In my twenty-years of teaching college, I have had a shameful number of students who were barely literate—but they were literate enough to sign a promissory note. When I taught at Marygrove College in Detroit prior to its closing (it’s a long story) I would often ask my colleagues at faculty meetings if they, too, felt complicit in a system that was graduating students with limited skills and a mountain of debt. Though some also wondered how much blood we had on our hands, the question was ignored. I’m sure Marygrove was (and is) not exceptional in this regard.
I’ve been teaching at a number of local colleges part-time since then (I am too old to move out of state and don’t want to abandon either my farm or my older children) and I see those schools also struggling with these problems to greater or lesser degrees. One response is “dual-enrollment,” wherein colleges admit high school students who can start working on their college degrees. Actually, the high school students I’ve taught—including my unfortunate middle child—have been outstanding students for the most part. But, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not teaching college. And it’s not too difficult to see why administrators think enrolling these young people is a good idea.
I wrote a little about these problems in my book, Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything:
“A tremendous hindrance to forging any kind of change in education, however, lies in the existence of accrediting bodies and governmental regulations to which most existing educational institutions are enslaved (and this touches K–12 as well as higher education). This enslavement, as in chattel slavery, is all about economics. Governmental funding is tied to schools acquiring the appropriate accreditation, which more and more looks like bad MBA philosophy applied to pedagogy. Private and parochial schools, though typically free of the burden of government funding and at least some of the regulations that accompany it (at least in the United States), have nevertheless been infected by the accreditation bug, yet another indication of the insidious omnipresence of secular education’s superego. Teachers and professors, feeling powerless to do anything to fight against this culture of byzantine bureaucratic absurdity, have more or less adopted a “go along to get along” ethos regarding this problem, though it compromises their integrity and agency by a thousand tiny papercuts (almost literally!). They shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes—and then obediently add another “core component” or “institutional learning outcome” to a syllabus that is already twenty-five pages long.
“But the existence of this kind of funding (especially through subsidized loans in higher education in the United States) has artificially inflated the cost of education, and not just tuition. Because funding is assured, and because students need textbooks, the publishers of academic textbooks have exorbitantly inflated the prices of their products (and usually give the authors only a 1–3 percent royalty). Ivan Illich was onto this ruse in 1971:
‘School programs hunger for progressive intake of instruction, but even if the hunger leads to steady absorption, it never yields the joy of knowing something to one’s satisfaction. Each subject comes packaged with the instruction to go on consuming one “offering” after another, and last year’s wrapping is always obsolete for this year’s consumer. The textbook racket builds on this demand. Educational reformers promise each new generation the latest and the best, and the public is schooled into demanding what they offer.’1
“Since then, the game has been refined to the point where students are turned into ATMs for the system (let’s call it “Edu, Inc.”), and they are then stuck with a degree that is nearly worthless in many cases owing to educational inflation and are simultaneously saddled with unbelievable debt. But, because of a demographic shift that finds fewer available students, schools compete for enrollment—replete with marketing campaigns and communications directors—such that administrators and enrollment coordinators enlist students less and less prepared for college. But, prepared or not, the loans are still assured—so why not! All this while administrators and university presidents receive increasingly generous salaries and instruction is more and more farmed out to part-time adjuncts, turning the teaching profession into a service industry more or less on par with working the deep fryer in the fast food business. Can a person of integrity participate in such a system with a clear conscience? I think not. But if the institutional educational system cannot be changed (and I don’t see how it can), it can at least be subverted or short-circuited.”
College and university faculty, for the most part, play the “go-along-to-get-along” game. No one wants to be voted off the island. But, as Rod Dreher recently reported, this climate easily slips into a Soviet-style atmosphere of “hypernormalization,” an environment in which everyone knows what’s going on is absurd and bullshit, but no one wants to make waves or challenge the status quo. (You can read it here.)
Coupled with the social and economic tragedy now playing in higher education is the explosion of the myth that college is a place of free inquiry and challenging assumptions. It’s not. And everybody knows it’s not. “Institutional learning outcomes” that uphold “critical thinking” as an objective notwithstanding, college is less and less a place to find anyone challenging the shibboleths of our times unless they're willing to suffer the consequences.
Despite the best efforts of recruiters and the success of e-sports programs (I. Can’t. Even) it is pretty much universally agreed that small liberal arts colleges are on the endangered species list and extinction is anticipated to be swift and soon. Think of it as a cultural asteroid hit. With the disappearance of smaller colleges, the need for doctorates, especially in the humanities, will all but vanish. I imagine STEM disciplines will remain “relevant” (in a chilling mimesis of Huxley’s Brave New World), but the humanities, as they say, are toast. But that could be a good thing.
In Transfiguration, I entertain the idea of a “Postmodern Sophiological Hedge School,” and I like to imagine that such a thing might also apply to a higher education pedagogy. It could be something like Plato’s Academy, or the school Thoreau founded and ran for a short time in heyday of American Transcendentalism. It could also bear a resemblance to an ashram, even a folk school. My project is, after all, concerned with reimagination. As I write in the book,
“The recalibration of the human ego to participation in the Real is fundamental to my conception of the postmodern sophiological hedge school. There could be many varieties of hedge school, but without participation in the Real, they would only be adaptations of the educational superego that permeates the culture. My claim is that a way of learning imbued with the arts and engaged with practical activities combined with a contemplative ethos provides a corrective for the human soul seriously damaged by a culture characterized by the technology, isolation, and synthetic media that insulate human persons from nature, the cosmos, and, ultimately, from God.”
The university is dead. Long live the hedge school.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.
Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 61.