Education, recent

My University’s Plan for a Brave New World

As the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported, the University of Tulsa has been bitterly divided by True Commitment, an academic restructuring that guts the liberal arts and eliminates departments in favor of divisions. The blueprint for the restructuring was laid out in a strategic plan formulated by President Gerard Clancy after he took office in 2016. Trustees and administrators claim the plan’s narrow emphasis on technical and vocational training—a strategy other institutions are adopting as the higher education bubble deflates—will allow TU, until 2016 a top-100 national research university, to remain relevant in the 21st century. Faculty believe the plan’s impoverished view of the human person and historical and cultural obliviousness show that liberal education is indispensable if freedom and human dignity are to survive.

The plan’s introduction, “Jobs as Central to Life,” starts by praising the liberal arts. But like Hamlet’s insincere Player Queen, it doth protest too much. A “point of pride,” the plan declares, is that TU professors teach students “how to solve complex problems,” and thus “move well past teaching a student what to think.” This fundamentally misrepresents what a university does. Teaching students what to think is indoctrination, not education. The Latin educere means “to lead out”—in Plato’s image, out of the cave of unexamined life, where ignorance enslaves human beings to conventional prejudices and manipulative opinion-makers, and into the daylight of truth. Problem-solving capability is furthermore entirely compatible with indoctrination, which is itself a kind of technical expertise. The only proven defense against mental and spiritual tyranny is liberal education, which looks to the whole and cultivates one’s capacity to form, as John Henry Newman put it in The Idea of a University, an “instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us.”

The liberal arts make one more appearance on the following page:

As we look to the future of The University of Tulsa and our new Strategic Plan, among our many duties will be a commitment to prepare our staff, faculty and graduates for high-quality jobs and in doing so help them write great stores [sic] of their lives. These stories will inevitably entail jobs that serve the rapidly growing technology and knowledge economy.… As we transform our curriculum, our co-curriculum and our entire university for this future workplace, we are pleased to note that the most technology-oriented CEOs are recognizing what we have known for quite some time—the central importance of the liberal arts in their new hires.

Setting aside its slapdash composition (will the university really prepare staff and faculty for high-quality jobs?), this passage makes it clear that the new curriculum will be determined by the supposed demands of the “future workplace.” Within this framework, the liberal arts—the precious repository of the depth and breadth of human culture—have value just insofar as they make graduates more appealing to “technology-oriented CEOs.”

“A great university,” the plan continues, “must be able to provide great value to its graduates.” This means preparing them for the “4th Industrial Revolution” where “the lines are blurred between the physical, digital and biological sciences and artificial intelligence, big data prediction, [and] precision medicine.” This undeniable blurring of lines is worth pondering. What are the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence and gene editing? What are the political implications of “big data prediction” and new surveillance technologies? The plan does not ask such questions, perhaps because they arise only within the framework of the liberal arts; and while the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Bible warn against hubris (technological or otherwise), True Commitment eliminated Greek, Latin, and undergraduate majors in philosophy and religion. Instead, it celebrates the new line-blurring: “It is all very exciting, for this revolution promises the opportunity for a more tailored, longer and safer life,” not to mention “even more personal choice in entertainment and shopping.”

These thoughts, too, give one pause. Is a “more tailored” life desirable? Tailored by whom? By the State, which Nietzsche called “the coldest of all cold monsters”? By corporations that harvest data about everything but our innermost thoughts? And is a human life really something cut to order? Isn’t there a difference between stitching a life out of prefabricated pieces and learning to live as an individual human being, capable of wholeness and flourishing? Computer coding, “an increasingly necessary basic skill and language for future employment,” cannot answer these questions. Nor can “design thinking, economics and financing of new initiatives, programming and coding for these new initiatives, engineering the build and maintenance of new modalities, gaming simulation scenarios and defending these new modalities and initiatives with advanced cybersecurity,” all of which are “skills … [that] need to be provided at this top-tier university.” But what of Aristotle, whose distinction between praxis and poiesis, humanly meaningful action and technical production, has never been more relevant?

In the new curriculum, emotions trump thought. The plan asks “How do we want TU students to feel?” The answer lies in the TU Commitment:

Accepted: Physically, emotionally and spiritually safe, valued for who you are and your potential now and forever.

Engaged: An active participant in your own learning to develop unique gifts and talents, not talked down to, you have a voice and a desire to be heard.

Empowered: So that your unique gifts and talents can be further developed for your personal growth, collaborative potential and the opportunity to bring value to others.

Self-discovery: Cultivate your intellectual curiosity and inquisitiveness.

Lost in this word jumble (self-discovery is not a feeling!) is the indisputable fact that the tastes, sentiments, and passions of undergraduates need to be disciplined and refined by knowledge, especially the sort taught in humanities and social science courses. Otherwise they are likely to remain emotionally as well as intellectually immature.

But the clearest evidence of the plan’s inadequacy is furnished by its praise, echoed elsewhere by President Clancy, of a city that has come to exemplify colonial occupation, ideological indoctrination, and ethnic cleansing. “In energy-rich far west China, the new city of Karamay has 350,000 people and few buildings less than 10 years old. This model city for the future, built from the ground up in the past decade, has the ability to plan in [the] absence of tradition.”

Karamay, which Clancy visited in 2016, is in Xinjiang, a region where the plurality of residents are Uighurs. A 2014 New York Times article reported that profits from energy extraction in Karamay flow “mainly to the state-owned oil companies in Beijing and to the Communist Party, dominated by ethnic Han,” leaving “increasingly marginalized” Uighurs to contend with water shortages and severe pollution from coal gasification and coal-to-petrol projects. In 2014, the city banned people “with Islamic dress and long beards” from using buses and taxis. Today, Karamay and Xinjiang are home to detention camps where up to 1.8 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been imprisoned for “reeducation”—“probably the largest internment of an ethnic or religious minority since the Holocaust,” according to one expert.

TU’s strategic plan serves as a warning to other universities about what not to do as they prepare for the future. A curriculum that trades the liberal arts for technical training robs students of an education and helps to pave the way to a dark, denuded, and thoroughly artificial world.

 

Jacob Howland is McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa. His latest book is Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato‘s Republic.

Comments

  1. Well. Higher education just can’t win, can it. If it continues attracting majors in English and Art History, it’s accused of taking advantage and granting degrees of no real worth in the real world and saddling students with a gazillion dollars of student debt. If it makes quality jobs for its graduates a priority (which means, whether you like it or not, emphasizing medicine/healthcare, law, business, and STEM) it’s accused of abandoning the “precious repository of the depth and breadth of human culture” - at least insofar as that is of no value to CEOs.

    For the rest, the essay is just plain stupid. For instance,

    A “point of pride,” the plan declares, is that TU professors teach students “how to solve complex problems,” and thus “move well past teaching a student what to think.” This fundamentally misrepresents what a university does. Teaching students *what* to think is indoctrination, not education.

    Which is why TU professors are proud that they are educating, not indoctrinating.

  2. What is this even doing on Quillette? This is just an angry rant by a bitter prof who is afraid of the future. His university is getting the same kind of restructuring that the rest of America went through in the 90s/2000s, the kind that his class enthusiastically supported as painful but very necessary for us. Now that the axe has come for him and his department, suddenly restructuring is such an obvious evil that it must be not just halted but reversed immediately.

    Look, not all people in this world are good at written communication. I’m one of them. Ridiculing people’s composition is emotionally fulfilling, I’m sure. But does it really deserve a place in something written by someone as distinguished as a professor of philosophy? Supposedly the highly educated are sophisticated and cosmopolitan, and this puts them above such petty emotional outbursts. Or so the highly educated told us.

    The curse of the modern age, isn’t it? Again, again, again, again, and again we see the ugliness of the class that tells us how to live. When it’s time for them to show us how it’s done, they wallow in the same hatreds they accuse us of having.

    Bad form with the Xinjiang reference. The US government wants to use the Uighurs to forment trouble inside China, the same as they meddled with the Hong Kong protests. All of our information about the situation there comes from suspect sources. The New York Times is no exception, serving the interests of power as it does. If there was actually a problem there with oppressed Muslims, the Umma would be on the job. After all, they responded to oppression in the Western world with two decades of enthusiastic war. Je suis China Daily?

    Moreover, I just don’t see the outrage in a bunch of backwards religious hillbillies being forced to go to school and learn a trade by a government made up of highly educated atheists. On one side, religious; the other, atheist. On one side, morons; the other, educated. On one side, moribund tradition; the other, confident progress. I just don’t get how people choose the first side.

    That the Han are showing them with books and schoolrooms just how silly and self-contradictory their holy book is? I thought we needed a good dose of this in America? Including the compulsory classrooms? What gives?

  3. A curriculum that trades the liberal arts for technical training robs students of an education and helps to pave the way to a dark, denuded, and thoroughly artificial world.

    It’s fair to invert the question and ask about a curriculum that trades technical training for liberal arts, paving the way to a warm, fuzzy and thoroughly artificial world.

    Can we not have a university that offers degrees in both technical training and liberal arts and simply let the students choose which one they would like to spend their borrowed dollars on?

    Instead of artificially inflating the number of required credit hours to get any degree in the ruthless pursuit of income?

  4. This article might have had some relevance 50 years ago when there was such a thing as the great Liberal education where one was taught the Great Books of Western Civilization and how to think rather than what to think. Today one goes to college to learn the latest leftist mind-trapping ideology, and if savvy, some marketable skills, all at an exorbitant cost. This prof’s university is making the only practical choice to stay relevant - they will only teach marketable skills. Of course, there actually is another alternative and that is to go back to teaching Western Civ enlightenment values as Hillsdale does. But such a notion has been banished from thought by this prof’s fellow academics.

  5. This is one of the least articulate and substantive articles I’ve seen here in some time. All I see is whining and denial about the real world finally reminding the ivory tower that they can’t endlessly raise the price of something that, at best, is a stepping stool to a much more expensive and demanding education.

    The liberal arts lost their moral authority when they became the catch-all for people who couldn’t do the math or chemistry to get an education that comes with a career.

  6. I don’t think I would want to go to a school where the president could put out the following in a formal publication:

    “In energy-rich far west China, the new city of Karamay has 350,000 people and few buildings less than 10 years old. This model city for the future, built from the ground up in the past decade, has the ability to plan in [the] absence of tradition.”

    After all, if most of the city was built from the ground up in the last decade, then almost all of its buildings would be less than ten years old.

    (And yes, it’s actually on the TU website, under the “Retail” section.)

  7. Yes , I agree that the official University statement is vapid, poorly written and could do without the reference to the barbaric ChiComms. But parsing the statement is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    The simple reality is that many schools are going to have to pivot their offerings to meet the needs of their “consumers”. (Read Inside Higher Education for really great reporting on these issues). I know it’s blasphemy to call a student a consumer but we can’t escape that they are purchasing a product. And remember that due to lowered birth rates, the overall pool of prospective “consumers” is rapidly shrinking. (See The Atlantic for recent reporting on cratering birth rates, especially among the middle and upper middle classes)

    I hate to sound flippant but there are a couple thousand 4-year colleges in this country and students are free to choose one to their liking. Those interested in Great Books will always have Hillsdale, Ave Maria, St. John’s and others.

    Sounds like Tulsa is more interested in long-term survival and is willing to make hard choices

  8. I’ve never had problems with reading comprehension but I think I missed something here. At first the author seems to be complaining about the university going tech/vocational at the expense of liberal arts.

    Then he mentions that until 2016 it was a top research university. When I think research, I don’t think liberal arts. So have hard sciences been cut as well?

    Then he goes on to gripe (justifiably I expect) about the university’s new over focus on feelz, which seems to contradict the transition to tech/vocation (jobs jobs jobs). Or is the university doing some tech/woke hybrid thing?

    As for the China admiration, is it possible the university is going the Confucius institute route? A follow the money situation? Or is the new(ish) pres a Tom Friedman fan? (The old Tom that is, not the new one that doesn’t think Trump totally wrong on trade negotiations)

    Too many questions here. I think the author shot this out without sleeping on it and/or without seeking a much needed second opinion.

  9. I’m grateful that universities can give people like J.R.R Tolkien the opportunity to study old Anglo-Saxon and Norse languages, and thus allow him to write cultural gems such as the Lord of the Rings. So yes, I’m comfortable with the premise that universities should have some classics, humanities, and so on. But there’s also a clear need to provide large amounts of vocational training, which has suffered in recent decades.

    But what is this article? What is it even about? What is the context behind this?

    It looks like this is more on the level of a local union tract, and assumes us outsiders have any knowledge of Tulsa. Never heard of this place before. So please forgive me but there’s not much substance to discuss here.

    I’m taking a guess, but this looks to me like some minor internal spat, where Tulsa’s administration is realistic about money and about the quality of the students it can attract.

  10. I think the “feelings” stuff was the university tap dancing around the elephant in the room. No administrator would be caught dead coming out and flatly declaring: “the vast majority of students want to have fun, graduate with the least possible effort and get JOBS. So we have to be responsive to those desires”

  11. This is one of the few comments on here that makes sense. It is shocking what’s happening at UT. But the liberal arts departments spent the last 30+ years making themselves an irrelevant laughingstock. If they were doing what they even did in the 1980s or what Hillsdale does, they wouldn’t have made themselves irrelevant.

    The reference to western China is profoundly disturbing.

  12. In UT as in most universities, the perspective is that of post-modernism, which is a view that there is no truth, that all knowledge is a social construct, that everything is malleable. The transgender delusion is the final fruit of post-modernism - that we can be whatever we want, and we can decide ourselves what we are.

    This is of course absolute crap.

    Philosophy, literature (both English and other), history (1619 project), sociology, and even psychology have been sucked into this wrecking ball of relativism.

    What it means is that there is no corpus of knowledge which these disciplines have to communicate. As a result, they are being eliminated. The post-modernist concept is that “there is no truth”.

    In the STEM disciplines, there is truth.

    So, what we have is the contest between something and nothing. Something is winning.

  13. I don’t mean to pick on the University of Tulsa, but somewhere there’s a 70th-percentile high school senior who just got talked into a $100K+ non-dischargeable loan to enroll in a third-tier college to study English or art history or something. It’s criminal and it needs to stop.

  14. I live in Baltimore and the Bethlehem Steel plant here got dismantled and sold for scrap about the same time as I recall. Don’t really know why except maybe our steel simply cost too much to make, those jobs were kind of multi-generational locally, and they made decent money.
    The high schools around here taught skills for the local industries. I took classes in arc welding, foundry, machine shop, materials of industry, as well as physics, math, and english. Maybe nostalgia makes those days seem better than they really were in some ways, but as far as making an honest living and raising a family, much easier time of it.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

39 more replies

Participants