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After Academia

We need to stop wringing our hands over how to save academia and acknowledge that its disease is terminal. This need not be cause for solemnity; it can inspire celebration.

· 10 min read
After Academia

I keep being invited to talk about free speech on college campuses and every time I’m invited I make the same point: that this isn’t about free speech and this is only tangentially about college campuses. This is about a breakdown in the basic logic of civilisation, and it’s spreading. College campuses may be the first dramatic battle but of course this is going to find its way into the courts; it’s already found its way into the tech sector. It’s going to find its way to the highest level of governance if we aren’t careful, and it actually does jeopardise the ability of civilisation to continue to function.
Bret Weinstein

Mike Nayna’s documentary on the Evergreen State College Affair, from which I transcribed the above quote from Bret Weinstein, is a riveting watch. No matter how closely you followed the debacle at the time, there is really no substitute for this fascinating glimpse behind the scenes. Evergreen academics can be seen meekly and repeatedly submitting to ideological manipulation, and on a number of occasions terrified senior faculty offer transparently insincere professions of faith in the hope of evading the vengeful fury of their mindlessly sloganeering student tormentors. The barely contained thirst for violence as the means to an end is palpable. It is sobering to imagine oneself confronted with such an uprising, and if Weinstein is right, then this alarming phenomenon may be about to spill out of the university campuses to which it has hitherto been largely confined.

This problem has already taken root within academia in the UK. Quillette editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann recently wrote about the un-personing of Noah Carl, whose crime was proposing that controversial research should not be suppressed, even though he had not engaged in any himself. “Imagine what would happen,” Lehmann invites us to wonder, “if the behaviour of St Edmund’s College become a new norm.” It is now creeping into corporate and government life too.

Premchand Brian, a friend of mine from Singapore, was until recently studying for a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. By his own account, he joined the UoE’s Black and Minority Ethnic Liberation Group but was ejected within a couple of months for wrongthink. “I said that ‘cultural appropriation’ is an invalid concept,” he told me, “because 1) nobody can own a culture, 2) even if ‘stolen’ the original owners still have it, and 3) cultural exchange was historically important in human progress and still helps combat bigotry. I was told my ideas were ‘triggering,’ ‘offensive,’ and ‘making people of colour feel ‘unsafe,’ so I was told to retract them. I refused and got kicked out.”

I asked him if there was a meaningful distinction to be made between the Students’ Union and the university’s academics. “No,” he replied. “Anyway, I’ve given up and returned to the East where at least politics mostly revolves around national identity rather than endless purity tests, progressive stacks, and false accusations from ‘marginalised’ people.” About the Students’ Union, he added, “for the sake of rational dialogue, you should investigate their claims too before making a judgment. But you can’t because they are racially segregated and do not allow white people to attend their meetings.” This appears to be illegal, but nobody seems to care.

My Bulgarian girlfriend passed behind me while I was watching the Evergreen documentary and glimpsed a representative scene featuring students being loud, obnoxious, and ignorant. “See?” she remarked sardonically. “This is what happens when Western parents don’t teach their kids to respect authority.” Bulgarians, and most Eastern Europeans for that matter, are good value on this sort of thing because they have a culturally ingrained hypersensitivity to anything that smells remotely like communism. Critics will object that modern social justice politics are not real communism—the doctrinal chain from Marxism-Leninism to today’s intersectional activists was corrupted by French postmodernists (who rejected the meta-narratives of Adorno and Marcuse), and subsequently infused with an American emphasis on race, sex, and sexual identity as determinants of marginalisation at the expense of class.

The beauty of my friend’s situation, and that of the unfortunate souls who appear in Nayna’s documentary, is that marginalised status doesn’t actually seem to matter at all; “marginalisation” tumbles out as part of a cacophony of jargon intended to intimidate, at first intellectually, and then, physically, if required. This is exactly the kind of ideological coercion for which Bulgarians have no tolerance: the chain of citations is immaterial if the behaviour is identical. Their society was destroyed by totalitarian tendencies, albeit dressed in different academese. And this isn’t an academic panel discussion; at Evergreen, gangs of thugs prowled the campus with baseball bats in search of thought criminals.

These radical ideologies are empowering, but not in the inspiring way that this term is usually used. This power corrupts and, more importantly, it attracts the easily corrupted. Concurrently, a similar corrupting process seems to have occurred in academia, which has ballooned into an administrative morass, the primary purpose of which is to accrue rent-seeking profit, as predicted by Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law holds that a task will take as long as the time allotted to complete it. It seems to be a kind of social equilibrium theorem applicable to any complex organisation. Normally such organisations would simply collapse under the weight of their own bureaucratic inefficiency, but academia is different. It will never be allowed to collapse because education is a right. And what kind of monster could possibly be against education? And so the administrative bloat continues, unabated. If we are to address this problem and rescue education, we first need to distinguish between what I will call the classical and modern variants. Classical education involves the acquisition of culturally and scientifically useful knowledge, and fostering an ability to think critically to further understanding. Modern education, on the other hand, is accreditation by an officially sanctioned seminary.

Exactly the Education I Needed
In praise of combative and cantankerous instruction.

Defenders of “education,” who more often than not have a stake in the present racket prescribed by the modern definition, like to pretend that they are part of a system upholding the classical definition. At Evergreen, this was obviously false—critical thinking was subordinate to dogma and Bret Weinstein was hounded from his job for having the temerity to defend it. The university was conceived to provide scholars with a secure redoubt in which to conduct their studies, which would be partly funded by letting willing students pick up a thing or two by being in close proximity. This was a very sensible proposition in the 1300s, but is looking like a fantasy today. There are no safe spaces for scholars, and students can mimic proximity to scholars for the cost of an Internet connection. Willing students can get 20 or 30 separate undergraduate degrees’ worth of (classically defined) education from MIT OpenCourseWare alone. But many just want a piece of paper that says they are an adequately socialised member of society, approved of by the cultural elite.

Peter Thiel has given a uniquely scathing critique of the insanity of this system. He questions whether higher education, as an economic exchange, represents much of an investment anymore—the student defers gratification to reap higher rewards in the future, or the student enjoys a four-year party as a consumption good. Thiel says he originally thought of higher education as consumption masquerading as investment, but now thinks of it as an even crazier combination of concepts: as insurance against failure in life in general, and as a kind of Veblen good that is priced uncompetitively so as to confer status on those who can afford it. This produces a ridiculous situation in which insurance is desirable, not because something disastrous is prudently insured against, but because the disaster would be the ignominy of failing to purchase insurance in the first place. It is effectively a Ponzi scheme. No wonder Thiel calls college administrators subprime mortgage brokers. They get a cut on selling pieces of paper that are only as valuable as we all pretend they are.

This bizarre economic dynamic, coupled with Parkinson’s Law, coupled again with a slow motion ideological coup, has landed us with the following picture of higher education: students are required to enslave themselves economically to the cultural elite as a toll to gain admittance. The vulnerability in the interim is then exploited to manipulate social signalling and behaviour: if you don’t play along, your life will be ruined. But since academia is considered a bottleneck for success, those who don’t enter the raffle forfeit this leverage and are rewarded with dismal prospects.

The only people really immune from all this are the actual elites, whose children are predominantly upper-class liberal whites. They receive all the same social assurances without giving up any leverage, and price out any remotely similar opportunity for the less fortunate to whom they ceaselessly and guiltily pledge their ostentatious support and solidarity. Higher education has become a transfer of wealth from the future earnings of the aspirational lower and middle classes to a metastasising administrative parasite, which funds the permanence of the cultural elite by wielding its leverage over anybody foolish enough to dissent.

We need to stop wringing our hands over how to save academia and acknowledge that its disease is terminal. This need not be cause for solemnity; it can inspire celebration. It would allow us to shift our energies away from the abject failure of modern education and to refocus on breathing new life into the classical alternative. The social implications could be enormous—the lower and middle classes could be spared economic and cultural enslavement to the elite, leading not only to greater opportunity, equality, and worthwhile diversity, but frankly to greater happiness and fulfilment in life.

So, how do we do this? It is very early days, but the key is to avoid the impression of attacking education itself. To employ some Thielian technobabble, we need to de-bottleneck the vertical; that is, recreate institutions that route around the modern variant of education so that it can expire peacefully—or, at least, shrink enormously—without dragging us all down with it. Aside from perhaps doctors and engineers, we need to stop pretending that the pieces of paper on which degrees are printed have value so that nobody can be tricked into buying them in the first place. Initiatives like the Thiel fellowship, which awards $100k each to 20 of the most gifted pupils to do something more constructive than higher education, are a good start, but by design will not scale. Austen Allred’s Lambda School is a promising next step, and I encourage all readers to acquaint themselves with it. The arXiv is a premier effort to use the power of the Internet to maintain a classical system of education while routing around academia, as is Khan Academy, Udemy, Coursera and many more. But we needn’t empty all our hope into a techno-utopianism. The most important change will likely come from corporate employers, who can have an enormous impact in two ways.

Firstly, they can channel more funding into academic research. This might first need to be passed off as “profit-enhancing” to adjacent disciplines or justified with other weasel-wording to satisfy the predominant school of free market absolutism. But in the longer run, there are real opportunities to encourage such commitments on the basis of Corporate Social Responsibility, or even corporate prestige. It is not a mystery that some of the greatest scientific work of the twentieth century was funded by AT&T at Bell Labs, and Xerox at Xerox PARC. There were no administrators forcing them to write twenty-page reports explaining why Unix would advance social justice. The mystery is rather why this stopped, and the answer is, more or less, “shareholder value-ism,” which was entirely an invention of academia and entirely in service to the cultural elite.

Secondly, they can end the demand for useless pieces of paper, in the pursuit of which aspirational lower- and middle-class kids economically enslave themselves. There are very early signs of this catching on: in 2015, Ernst & Young announced that it will no longer consider degrees or even high school level certification when considering applications. Good for them. Alternatively, corporate employers could offer to give students from low income families a salary right out of high school—enough to materially assist them, but lower than a regular entry-level white-collar salary because it would be conditional on the student completing part-time STEM education financed by the employer. The educational course may be of the student’s choosing and need not be directly related to the job. But they will nonetheless receive an accredited educational certificate upon completion, as well as three to four years of apprenticeship in which they will learn skills valuable to the corporate world, and help their families. A scheme like this would also help to nurture a modicum of personal responsibility and respect that are mostly absent from, if not discouraged by, the college alternative. Equally, the employer will be presented with a candidate for full time employment who is far more qualified than any college graduate and almost certainly will not introduce any destructive ideological viruses into the workplace.

These few thoughts are my own. But I am encouraged to see similar ideas sprouting across different domains. Whether preventing a breakdown in the basic logic of civilization, or giving underprivileged kids a better chance in life, or promoting the availability of education as it was classically understood, we need to start preparing for life after academia.


Allen Farrington lives in Edinburgh. He studied math and philosophy at the University of St. Andrews. He also writes at AreoMerion West, and Medium. You can follow him on Twitter @allenf32

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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