America’s higher education system tends to justify its rising, often scandalous costs by boasting the great practical and personal benefits it bestows on its graduates. At the risk of acquiring some university presidents and admissions officers as enemies, I’d say our colleges and universities produce great benefit to society—at the expense of particular students. Let me begin by observing that this is a modern issue. Beginning with the Enlightenment, we Westerners—especially Americans—have focused higher education on the study and advancement of technology. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed nearly 200 years ago, we criticize the contemplative, ancient science of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle for being sterile, for producing nothing objectively valuable. Leisurely contemplation is a waste of valuable time. It isn’t “making a difference,” to echo the common commencement-day exhortation. It isn’t really “getting us anywhere.” It’s simply rehearsing age-old arguments over allegedly fundamental questions that can never be answered.
So it is distinctively modern to identify, as most of our research institutions tend to do, scientific inquiry with technology. Theory is still around, of course, but we only take it seriously to the extent that it yields technological benefits. American taxpayers generally are happy to subsidize the National Science Foundation because science can contribute to national security and to the health and safety of individual lives. Because technology promises such widespread benefits, we prize STEM graduates over those who frittered their time away in philosophy or art history or women’s studies.
When popularizing scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson “diss” the study of philosophy, we object for a moment to their vulgarity (people generally concede that Socrates and his ilk make for classy cocktail party references), but then nod in agreement. Tyson sensibly, if smugly, says that being preoccupied with “asking deep questions” mainly produces a “pointless delay in your progress” in tackling “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” It is self-indulgent to obsess over lofty, ultimately silly questions when we know for certain that only technological progress can save us from the menacing asteroids, pandemics, natural disasters, and climate change that threaten our extinction.
When it comes to the science of sizing up the risk factors that imperil personal survival and success, from cholesterol to carcinogens to excessive screen time, Americans are more vigilant than ever. Thanks to scientific progress, we’re aware of more and more of those factors, and thanks to various forms of technological progress, we can do more to combat them. Many men, women, and children alike enjoy greater security and health as a result of this (“nudged” along by the government technocrats). At the same time, however, collective anxiety rises because we experience these benefits as contingent; we’re all too aware of how much more we might do to bring any threats under our rational control as technology promises even greater progress. Sophisticated Americans, at least, continue to become more prohibitionist, paranoid, and puritanical when it comes to health and safety.
A few decades ago, the popular refrain was “only the good die young.” That’s because they put heroism or adventure or love over mere survival. Now we say that only the stupid, reckless, and self-indulgent die young. People with brains use them to do what they can to stay around. Well, they might be risk-takers in the business world, but there’s a big difference between flirting with bankruptcy and an authentically dangerous liaison. We can’t help but notice that legendary Silicon Valley billionaire entrepreneurs, such as Peter Thiel, are also transhumanists, promoting the unfettered progress of technology as the ultimate form of personal hope. They take care of themselves now in anticipation of the coming of the Singularity, that moment in the not-too-distant future when personal consciousness can be downloaded into a machine infinitely more secure than one’s ephemeral, biological body. Thiel’s Zero to One, a witty and engaging account of the redemptive power of the startup founders to impose technological “intelligent design” upon all of nature, speaks like the only kind of prophet our sophisticates can believe in.
That hope of security in the future, however, can infinitely enhance the paranoid perception of contingency in the now. From a technological view, nothing could more tragic than dying the day before the Singularity, especially if one’s demise can be attributed to ignorance or carelessness when it comes to a risk factor revealed by the progress of science. That’s why Thiel suggests that we turn our attention away from physics and toward nutrition. He observes that “we know more about the physics of faraway stars than we know about human nutrition,” and it’s the latter science’s success in forcing nature to yield its secrets that might well be the key to keeping us around until we can dispose of our bodies for something infinitely more durable. “Nutrition matters for everyone,” and so he wonders why “you can’t major in it at Harvard.”
It’s quite understandable and in many ways beneficial that we’ve reconfigured so much of higher education around the progress of technology and the science that serves it. Consider, for example, all the enthusiasm around “undergraduate research.” My objection has always been: Undergraduates shouldn’t be doing original research; they don’t know anything yet. That objection, however, makes little sense from the techno-progressive scientific view. We’re always living on the cutting edge of knowledge, and our job is to make a small contribution to its indefinite advance. The “history” or past of science is a series of outmoded errors; there’s no need to think about the origin of what is known now to move ahead. The focus is on innovation.
That experimental approach that rightly dominates inquiry in chemistry and physics has expanded into the techno-lite fields like communications, marketing, economics, and most of the social sciences. It has also moved into history and literature, with the “digital humanities” movement. Even the text is no longer understood primarily as a source of enduring personal wisdom, but something to be accounted for and manipulated by understanding its genealogy. The point of the digital humanities movement is to deconstruct “the myth of genius” by understanding even literature and poetry as collaborative technological productions. Something similar could be said about emerging fields such as neurotheology, which understand even our seeming openness to God as something to be explained and manipulated according to the experimental method of the natural sciences.
From one point of view, the technological model of progress is very personal, insofar as it is oriented around the security and autonomy of particular persons, but that personal progress is achieved by surrendering the personal dimension in understanding and research. We see that in our colleges “general education” is shrinking and becoming more optional, in part to allow promising students get right down to specialized research. The principle of specialization, of course, is becoming a cog in a machine, making a small contribution to a whole process beyond one’s own comprehension and control. So often the choice of “research questions” doesn’t flow from one’s own informed curiosity and about nature and human nature, but from what scientific and technological progress seems to require at the moment. The important thing is to make some contribution.
We also see an increasing emphasis, even at the early stages of undergraduate education, on collaboration. Articles in experimental science and technology often have more authors than they do pages. The premise is that the objectivity of science overwhelms personal differences in perspective, and so no contribution can be understood to have been made by anyone in particular. In the digital humanities, they even explain that the plays of Shakespeare weren’t really written by that particular bard, but were the collaborative effort of theater workers in his time and place. The skill of collaboration is “teamwork,” becoming a part of a whole greater than oneself. An advantage of collaboration might be that nobody has to take personal responsibility.
I’m not taking a stand here against the progress of science or technology or what’s required to achieve it, but every benefit has its cost. The progress of technology is, in some measure, achieved at the cost of personal virtue and self-understanding. The great dissident thinker Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that our techno-ideology of progress obscures, for us, the only true progress: The “spiritual progress of individuals,” meaning “the degree of self-perfection in the course of their lives.” True social or political progress, Solzhenitsyn adds, is mothing more or less that “the sum total” of the progress of particular persons toward wisdom and virtue. Tocqueville, in his formidable Democracy in America, warns us that we may become so enamored with controlling and improving everything around us that we actually lose our most “sublime faculties,” those that give us a taste for the infinite, a love of greatness, and ways to understand ourselves as more than material beings. It’s thinking of ourselves as more than material or technological beings that gives us the confidence that we can make genuinely enduring contributions—those that won’t be overwhelmed or rendered obsolete by technology.
I could go on to cite astute thinker after thinker who says something like this: obsession with material progress, with technological control, comes at the expense of the soul. By “soul” I mean nothing more than what animates beings with the particular destiny of being born to know, love, and die. The soul endures, though, even in the most arid of environments, and without some account of our “soulful” experiences, our lives easily become miserable mixture of techno-obsessions and personal emptiness. That’s why Solzhenitsyn said he heard just beneath the surface of our happy-talk pragmatism the howl of existentialism.
William Dereisiwicz, in his provocative and popular book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, echoes Solzhenitysn, to a point, saying that our elite universities’ unwillingness to assist students in finding purpose and “constructing” their souls is perhaps the big reason for the anxious emptiness that lurks beneath the calculated careerism of our best and brightest. Harvard’s outstanding evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker, has reasonably responded that his university (like almost all the others) hires professors for their promise and accomplishments in advancing the frontier of some form of specialized knowledge. Nobody asks them what they can contribute to the students’ search for personal and spiritual meaning. And Pinker is right to say that Dereisiwicz speaks nobly about college as time for students to contemplate, without explaining what contemplation is or why it is actually a form of knowledge. According to Pinker, the point of college is to advance the critical thinking and scientific knowledge base of rational people. They can, if they find the need, work on their souls on their own time.
Neither Pinker nor Dereisiwicz, truth to tell, can speak with confidence about higher education as the education of the soul. Each in his own way, lacks what’s required to teach young men and women about who they are and what they’re supposed to do as rational and moral persons. They have no confidence, for example, that Aristotle might right about the proud and truthful virtues of generosity, magnanimity, and justice. And certainly neither is open to considering Thomas Aquinas’s insistence on the virtue of humility in mind. Dereisiwicz’s most insightful moment might have been when he pointed to brilliant professors at relatively obscure religious colleges as being singularly able to confidently teach about what animates beings born to know, love, and die. Pinker, by contrast, quickly dismisses their distinctive contributions as the inculcation of discredited superstition.
The danger of our time, as the philosopher Heidegger said, lies in the reduction of everything, including our fellow human beings, to resources to be manipulated and exploited. The danger, in other words, is that we understand everything in terms of technology. Our specialized, collaborative, “undergraduate research” modes of education really do have the strong tendency to think of particular students as resources to be deployed in the service of technological progress. We sometimes even think that the whole point of higher education is to prepare students to take their place in our meritocracy based on productivity, but each of them, in truth, is much more than a productivity machine. That means that in some measure our educational goal is to leave each of them worse—hollowed out, less than they really are—in order to make society, or particular persons in our society, more comfortable and secure.
Yet we really do believe, when we take time to reflect, that each particular person is a unique and irreplaceable whole. We believe in what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the irreducible fact of “natality,” that each human life is a new beginning. For “whole being” with an irreducible personal and relational identity, education must always begin at the beginning, taking on the fundamental questions about moral and intellectual virtue—and about faith and reason, utility and nobility—beyond which it is impossible to progress. For example, those who have read Aristotle, St. Augustine, and Moses Maimonides know that anyone who puts his personal hopes in the Singularity is worse than a fool. Among the more pernicious effects of our overbearing pride in technological progress is that we think we know more or better than Aristotle in every respect.
While acknowledging that most education these days will be technological and utilitarian, let me lobby strongly for more “general education”: education designed for the irreducible whole that is a particular human person. After all, that the technological approach to the conquest of nature presupposes the singular value of the particular person. Nature, the thought is, must be configured to suit me—my freedom and security. The most urgent question remains: What am I for? What am I supposed to do as a free and relational person in search of truth? The “non-technological” thinkers and teachers have always put those questions first. And no technology can invalidate the philosophical, theological, poetic, and “existential” answers they have given us for consideration.
That means that we can’t be so busy that we identify higher education with becoming a useful part of some project. It’s in the West, after all, that we’ve come to understand particular human beings as having irreducible personal identities. Even in our “spiritual” moments, we don’t lose ourselves in some whole. Even our experience of the Creator is of the person who made each of us created persons in particular. So much of “general education” should be teaching the so-called “great books” holistically, and as if they speak to each individual with the truth in mind.
That means we should cut back, at least, on developing the competency of collaboration and encourage the discipline that comes with really taking yourself seriously, really wondering about who you are and what you’re called to do. There is, in truth, nothing more strange and wonderful than what animates the human soul. Physics, even string theory, is relatively boring. After all, we are, by our natures, the only alien beings in the cosmos, and it’s relatively easy for us to know everything about it but ourselves—the knowers. And there’s nothing we need more than self-knowledge to live well. The truth is that we’re not conscious machines destined for immortality through our own techo-creative efforts. Neither a pure mind nor a pure machine nor some mixture of mind and machine knows anything about what means to be in love or to be responsible for others. The more we think truthfully about ourselves as whole, free and relational beings, the more we can put technology in its proper place.