Why College is A Waste of Time (and The New University of Austin)

Pano Kanelos announced on Barry Weiss’ Substack that they were helping cofound the University in Austin that would be devoted to “truth” and “freedom.” There are good and bad things about this so let’s look at both.

Higher education has been a dumpster fire for a while. This has been more true in the humanities than the natural sciences and while you might think that that’s better its actually the worse scenario. The humanities are by their nature disciplines that are closer to human nature and therefore more important. Better to have vitiated physics than ethics. This is a whole other video that’s coming but the importance of science to our life is far overblown. If we were to do a crass calculation and look at all of your actions that you take during the day, very few of them are significantly affected by science, most of them are the issuances of character, that is humane actions.

Let me put a footnote in here. By humanities being dumpster fires I mean departments as a whole. There are many wonderful professors in humanities departments but very few departments as a whole that are of a reliable high-quality.

Ok, so first the good things about the University of Austin.

Good - Finances

UATX, the abbreviation of the university, is going to have a “new financial model” that completely rethinks “how a university operates by developing a novel financial model. We will lower tuition by avoiding costly administrative excess and overreach. We will focus our resources intensively on academics, rather than amenities. We will align institutional incentives with student outcomes.” And that’s great.

College is perhaps the most inflated product in US history. The cost has gone up and its value has gone down.

I know these are well worn paths, but the data is staggering. And it’s not just the cost that’s bad. Check this out.

And why is this? Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland explain on Marginal Revolution that “The explanation [for the astronomical increase in college costs] turns out to be simple: we are paying teachers [and staff] (and faculty) more in real terms and we have hired more of them.”

But it gets worse. It's not just that college has gotten more expensive, the financing has fundamentally changed. Marketwatch noted that 

“A student making a part-time, minimum-wage salary could pay for 106.5% of University of Central Florida's cost in 1987, while an equivalent job would cover 68.2% in 2016.” And that’s for a public institution.

If you take a standard income distribution, college costs have risen so high that they’ve moved out from the center of the distribution, that is where most peoples’ income is, and into the tails. And this would be fine if fewer people were going to college, but unfortunately the number of people attending college has steadily increased from around 5% of the population in 1940 to around 37% in 2019 (https://www.statista.com/statistics/184272/educational-attainment-of-college-diploma-or-higher-by-gender/).

So if college costs are astronomically high but people can’t afford it then how is it being finance? Well, debt.

And it gets worse. There are scary similarities to the housing bubble but this debt is in certain ways worse than the housing debt. If the housing loans were subprime, student loans are super subprime because with student loans you need no collateral, no job, and you cannot declare bankruptcy on them. A Both housing and education are propped up on easy to get government loans.

Okay, but just because you spend more money on something even if you’re borrowing money, that doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing provided that thing you're spending money on is getting better.

And once again, it gets worse.

Now I know that income is not the only marker or even the most important marker for the value of education but it is an important one, and we’ll get to the other markers.

In short, the market value of a college degree has plummeted. Over the past couple of years, some of the most successful companies have removed a college degree for employment. This list includes: Apple, Google, IBM, Costco, Penguin Randomhouse, Whole Foods, Hilton, and Starbucks. That is, the market no longer believes a college degree is valuable preparation for employment.

And not only are the job procurement prospects bad but the earnings are poor. The average adjusted starting salary for a college graduate in 1963 was more than the average starting salary in 2015 (link).

Ergo, dumpster fire. So it’s wonderful that UATX recognizes this problem and is adopting measures to combat it.

Okay, but all you good liberal arts enthusiasts, of which I count myself a member, are probably thinking, “yeah, income has little to do with the value of education, a liberal education is about forming you into a free person, teaching you how to think and that’s valuable in every vocation.”

Which brings me to the second good feature of the new University of Austin: Objectivity

Good - Objectivity

When I was in higher education a decade ago, soft relativism was well on its way to consuming colleges. This slowly but steadily morphed into the hideous creature that haunts the halls of higher education now. What started as inclusion of diverse voices has developed into a dogmatic ontology wherein all of reality is filtered through groups with differing levels of power and wielding it as oppression. And these groups are identified with scholastic certainty and deterministic structure as race, sex, and class.

The great and mournful error in this is the separation of the student from the object of inquiry. That is, because every poem and play, every law of logic and law of the state must be mashed through the sieve of power class struggles, the nature of the poem, it’s points and premises, its particular concerns are ignored at best or transmogrified into a foreign and ugly object at worst. And ironically, while the proponents of this kind of education would claim to be on the side of diversity, it is they who flatten and force the object through their image of reality.

The original task of education was to unfold the truth, beauty and goodness, the nature of the object of inquiry: the tempest, a painting of turner or a mathematical theorem. And the substance of that education is whatever the object has for us.

John Ellis in his book Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities describes this disease as follows:

“In this grim view of humanity, one central factor displaces and undermines the multiplicity of other motivations that we used to think so important: love, loyalty, fulfillment, ambition, achievement, friendship, intellectual curiosity, and so on.”

But the current crop of educational denizens require that Pythagoras and Protagoras have at least an implicit view of race or sex. It is inconceivable to these intellectuals that one might just be interested in math. And it is at this point that the women is probably protesting too much methinks. Let the mathematician gush over Godel and Godel alone. The world is a multiplicity of things and she must speak in her own tongue and time and timbre.

The truth of the object, of the world, is the object of education. And it is the truth of the object that is lost in higher education. Which is why it is wonderful to read on the front page of the UATX website: WE’RE BUILDING A UNIVERSITY DEDICATED TO THE FEARLESS PURSUIT OF TRUTH. And in their principles they say “Universities devoted to the unfettered pursuit of truth are the cornerstone of a free and flourishing democratic society.” This is wonderful and true.

But now for the bad.

Bad - Incomplete View of Freedom

One of the most repeated themes of the University of Austin is its commitment to freedom. But it’s clear that what they mean by freedom is a negative freedom, that is freedom from something, lack of constraints. And this is a good thing or more properly it’s half a good thing.

The traditional understanding of freedom is that it is both negative and positive, freedom from certain things and freedom for other things. And both are equally important.

This twofold nature of freedom can be traced back to Augustine, and I think, of course, that it can be traced back to Genesis. But it finds modern expression in Kant and Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty.

And what’s wrong with simply a negative view of freedom is it has disastrous consequences and it’s self referential contradicting.

First the consequences. David Bentley Hart tells the story of when he was teaching at University of Virginia and a student committed suicide. It was then discovered that his friends knew that the young man was going to commit suicide and did nothing about it because

Locating negative freedom as the highest value results in things that strike us not just wrong but in some way not free. Simple unconstrained choice is just as much an enslavement as shackles.

This is a perpetual problem of conservatives. Everytime someone is canceled, the complaint is based on freedom. But what happens when the conservative wants to cancel someone, say an ISIS jihadist or the pederast. No one believes in absolute freedom and everyone believes that some people should be canceled. The argument is not between the freedom and non-freedom but between worldviews, what should and should not be canceled and why.

But not only does this view of freedom produce horrendous consequences when taken to its logical ends, but no one actually believes it. And we know this because there are internal contradictions with the contents of the theory and the actions of those who purport to hold it.

You see, every action you take is a constraint. The website that the university created chose a set of typefaces which constrained how the visitors to the website must see it. They will choose the courses, and the professors, and the books. But if the entirety of freedom is defined negatively then all of these decisions are problematic because in the very quest to create an institution to inculcate freedom, freedom is limited.

But freedom is not simply lack of constraint, but a lack of certain types of constraint coupled with positive freedom.

Let’s take architecture as an example. When you are designing a building, you first talk to the owner and determine the purpose, the teleology of the building. Then you design the building to maximally meet that end, that purpose.

But notice, one's physical and social freedom is not necessarily hindered by walls and rooms, nay, when done properly it is enhanced. Designing space for fortuitous fellowship, lighting to illumine faces, wayfinding peacefully move you through the building are constraints, but liberal constraints, constraints that free and aid in perfecting the nature of the occupants.

Bad - Thin Worldview

When you peruse the University of Austin website, there is not much that they intend to teach. They intend to “pursue truth” but what truth? They are committed to “freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse” but those are preliminaries, what’s the pie?

At this point you’re probably mumbling that overwrought aphorism that education is not about teaching you what to think but how to think. Obviously it's both and everyone believes that. 

No professor of this dictum would be happy if his student left his university saying, “they really taught me how to think...and I’m still a racist.” Yes, I’m sure the detractor would say that there must be an error in his logic, but it seems at least as plausible to me that there is an error in his knowledge: like all men are created equal or better yet “In the image of God he created them.” What about primitive propositions like that your memory is not an illusion or the external world is real or force equal mass times acceleration.

Furthermore, the distinction between content and method is not as obvious as it may seem. Is the law of the excluded middle a fact or method? Well, it’s both.

This idea also wreaks of a scientism that supposes that the proper method will certainly secure truth without a commitment or disposition of the will, without the second-nature habituation of the soul in virtue or the skillful crafting of attention.

The university was the production of the medieval church, designed to teach both the true account of the world and the means to continue that quest. The universities’ website declares their “Pursuit of truth” but it is lacking its acquisition of it.

Education is the handing on of the faith once delivered to the saints, a determinate but ever growing deposit.

In conclusion, you can analyze everything from a de facto and a de jure perspective. From the former, I am happy that the University of Austin exists. It is certainly an improvement on many if not most universities.

De jure wise, it is lacking the animating principle of the university at its origin: God creating, man falling, and Christ redeeming. 

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