Published on: September 26, 2014
the poverty of techno-utopianism
Higher Ed, Hollowed Out

Overweening devotion to ideals of technological and scientific progress has many universities churning out a utilitarian kind of education, one more suited to machines than human beings.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College.
show comments
  • mgoodfel

    If your degree costs $20,000, it can be ennobling and develop your character and insight. When your degree costs $200,000, it damn well better pay for itself.

    Universities have no one else to blame for the situation they find themselves in.

  • Rita, Canberra

    The adjective ‘overweening’ is so pertinent. We are gifted with intellect and free will but excessive pride in ever more ‘sophisticated’ technology reduces us to foolish creatures obsessively focused on the material.

  • GS

    Birch is the Tree of Knowledge. And as for reading Aristotle, … why, “Committing sexual excess is beneficial against the diseases caused by phlegm” [Problemata, I, 50] comes to mind. By the way, it is true: it is beneficial.

    • Tom

      Okay, so his biology was lousy.
      So? He understood how people’s minds work way better than most of our current intelligentsia.

      • GS

        His biology, at least on that particular occasion, was not lousy in the least – his advice actually works, for heaven’s sake! What is most needed from him, though, is his logic and his sociology, aka politics, not his ethics or his biology.

  • Counsellor

    Is the point here that all the major efforts are directed toward learning how to select means; how to evaluate means; how to “create” means – without any complementary (or even supplementary) efforts at learning about and examining ends? R Richard Schweitzer

  • Anthony

    “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 can stand the test of time or not be overwhelmed or rendered obsolete by technology.”

    Technology (applied science utilized as means to facilitate both human sustenance and comfort) and contemplation (study, critical thinking, attention) are important components of not only college/university experience but also, as numerously intimated by author, essential to “the way to be”. Both can and ought to be integral pillars to sound collegiate instruction – elite or otherwise. That is, instruction to both profit and live by.

  • Curious Mayhem

    As a scientist and dabbler in the humanities, watching this development for more than three decades, I can confidently say what the problem is: the humanities, as practiced in academia today, turned into a politicized swamp, then ate themselves. The sciences have nothing to do with it; they’re merely a convenient scapegoat.

    Being exposed to humanistic study of an older type at a young age, I’ve never lost my love of their core disciplines: arts, music, history, literature, languages, and more. But their academic epigones have permanently alienated all but the PC and jargon-addicted, driving away the few who might have made their careers there and the much larger educated populace who will never become professional humanists, but who could benefit immensely from a humanistic education.

    But humanism doesn’t mean what it once did; it destroyed its essential alliance with the culture of the Enlightenment, taking the latter as nothing but a bunch of dead white males. People turn to the sciences as they carry on that culture, with demonstrable success, well after the humanists turned their backs on it.

    • mikeyj

      You beat me to it and said it better. The indignant demand that ordinary taxpayers subsidize the intellectual mire occupied by much of the culture of today’s humanities departments is so self unaware that it mocks itself.

      • Curious Mayhem

        Thanks, and thanks to everyone who upvoted my post. I think I wrote that in a moment of inspiration at 1 AM or something.

    • GS

      Excellently put. My hat’s off to you.

  • GS

    The purpose of education, from the postdoctoral studies at one end and to the kindergarten at the other, with all kinds of apprenticeships and internships in between, is to train the workforce of tomorrow. Nothing more, and nothing less. The extras are just that – extras.

  • qet

    I’m qet, and I approve this statement.

    In the humanities and social ‘sciences’, it is not science that is the problem but scientism, which also goes by the name productivity. Every aspiring tenure-seeker in sociology and history departments, just to name two, are expected to do a lot of producing–a lot of “original research,” employment of quantitative methods, and frequent publication. These are career-sustaining necessities and eclipse any other mission and value of the humanities and social ‘sciences.’ In the natural sciences, publication even of nonsense or trivial results can still be useful, can still be added to the mass of “science” and increase its forward momentum, however slightly. But this model applied to the humanities and social ‘sciences’ has ruined those fields completely.

  • mrdon

    It is nice to contemplate times past when more emphasis was placed on the value of humanities in education. It is worth remembering that far, far fewer people were the beneficiaries of that thoughtful process — and that far, far more people lived brutish lives supporting those who enjoyed the luxury of having the time and means to “think”.

    It would be truly sad if humanities education went away. But it is also sad to see individuals invest their time and money in a humanities education and come away with thought processes so poorly formed that they cannot understand why the proles who studied STEM disciplines are reluctant to work and pay the humanitarians for their “thoughts”.

    It would be useful for those who pursue humanities educations to apply their “contemplation skills” to the proposition that “thinking” baristas and waitresses may not be paid well, but they nonetheless serve the necessary interests of humanity.

    • 7shine

      Well-stated. This is a routine case of aristocrats whining of their increasing irrelevance. Boo hoo.

  • rlhailssrpe

    On the first day of the first of three consecutive mandatory three credit courses in engineering, our professor defined his performance criteria . You will get 3-4 hours of written homework every day; it is due at the beginning of the next class. If it is 5 minutes late, you flunk the course. You will get 7 eight hour exams in this course, plus a mid term and final. Cut your other classes, or flunk the course. You will get a final exam on the day you return from the summer break; it will be graded on the last day of the spring semester. If you flunk it, you will repeat the program.

    I know of no liberal arts course, or major, with this degree of disciplined rigor. A large majority of college grads today are mush heads; they have never disciplined their thinking. They do not even accept that there is right and wrong in life, or are able to discern lies from truth. Hence they are incapable of contributing. Higher education is not homogeneous in quality, even within the same university. A degree, in any discipline, means little today. Technology is not the problem, arrogance and ignorance, within academia, is the problem. “Those who can, do; those who can not, teach.”

    • PalLaw

      Well, that’s nuts, though.

  • 7shine

    Heh, only the scientifically illiterate (such as the author) think science is utilitarian or vocational while the humanities are ‘deep’. On a practical level, getting a humanities degree largely consist of mildly altered regurgitation (to suit the professor’s worldview) while it’s impossible to bullshit your way to a physics or engineering degree. Employers and graduate schools know this so students have tuned in. The only ones still in the dark non-STEM are academics, who blabber on breathlessly about how deep their fields are. The judgement of the market is cold.

    • Fred

      And only the generally illiterate, over-specialized philistine (such as yourself) thinks science is the be-all and end-all of human existence. Science can never tell us what we should do or be. It can help us achieve the good life once we decide what that is, but it is worse than useless in helping us make that decision. Worse than useless because its very success in advancing technology and knowledge of the physical universe misleads us into ascribing to it powers it simply does not have. Who we are, what we’re for, and how we should live are questions for philosophy, history, the arts, and religion.

      • 7shine

        And here they predictably appear, trying harder and harder to sound profound. It’s embarrassing to watch.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service