Status, Value and the University

pug mortar boardThe late Victor Borge, musician, entertainer and comic genius, died in the year 2000.  He was ninety one years old.  Among his many creations was an account of a domestic situation in which he “inflated” each mention of a number so that “once” became “twice” and so on.  Here is an excerpt:

Twice upon a time there lived in sunny Califivenia a young man named Bob. He was a third lieutelevenant in the U.S. Air Fiveces. Bob had been fond of Anna, his one and a half sister ever since she saw the light of day five the second time. And they were both proud of the fact that two of his fivefathers had been among the creninetors of the U.S. Constithreetion.

I sometimes think that the Danes gave us the irrepressible, inflationary Victor Borge to make up for having earlier given us the melancholic, deflationary Søren Kierkegaard.  It’s just a theory!

I was reminded of Borge’s account just a couple of days ago when an ambulance went past our door, siren screeching and lights flashing.  On the side was written the word “Paramedic”.  Here, I reflected, is inflationary language of another sort.  People who operated ambulances were once called ambulance drivers or ambulance officers.  Now they are paramedics. It sounds so much more technical and important.  Likewise, there are no farmers these days, only people in agribusiness or agrotechnologists (like that marvellous Peter Simple character, Seth Roentgen). There are no septic tank de-sludgers only businesses in environmental services, no knackeries only organic recyclers, and no pawnshops only cash converters.  Hack writers like me are no doubt called “freelance literary practitioners” or some such. Actually, I am a retired rabbit poisoner, so my correct modern title is probably animal damage control operator.  And, of course, I didn’t kill things – I “managed populations”.

While this trend is a general one, it is most noticeable in the education industry. There are very few schools left nowadays.  They have all been converted to colleges and their physical locations, once simply called “grounds” are now “campuses”.  This means, of course, that those institutions that were once colleges have found it necessary to move up in the pecking order so as to avoid being identified with their lowlier cousins.  They become “senior secondary colleges”. Meanwhile, the old trade schools have become institutes and the institutes have become universities.  Even the kindergartens are involved in this inflationary language stuff.  A while back, our local rag carried a story of a “graduation ceremony” from a local kindergarten (now called “pre-school centres” of course).  The tiny tots were all decked out in gowns and mortar boards and each received that all important roll of paper.

But, of course, this trend is not an open-ended business – you cannot inflate to infinity. The buck has to stop somewhere. In the education industry, the endpoint is reached with the universities. They have nowhere higher to go. The inevitable consequence is a sort of vocational traffic jam with a huge range of human activities all mixed up at the end of the road and milling about with nowhere to go.  Thus courses in medicine or in agriculture will be jostling against courses in podiatry, outdoor education (this is not a “hedge school”), and business studies.

At this stage, certain enraged readers will have already picked up their pens to protest, in the strongest possible terms, against my obvious showing of elitism, chauvinism, etc. etc.  Let me ease their troubled minds.  I am not suggesting that a PhD in say, podiatry, is less worthy than a PhD in nuclear physics.  I have no way of measuring such worth. That’s part of the problem. What I am suggesting is that the term “university degree” has now changed so utterly as to be devoid of virtually any meaning at all. If we can have degrees in nature tourism, podiatry, and nursing, why not in plumbing, cabinet-making, taxidermy, and home birthing?  Do the nature tourists and nurses consider themselves a cut above the plumbers?  I hope not, because if so, I will be picking up my pen to protest against their elitism.  Do they want to tell me that the business of nature tourism, for instance, is far more intellectually demanding than that of plumbing?  If so, they might like to come and talk to my plumber mates, who are trying to keep up with the latest building code regulations, instruction sheets for solar-assisted hot water units, etc. Getting approval for a new septic tank system is now of the same order of difficulty as writing a treatise upon, say, the doctrine of the Trinity, or the half-life of  quarks.

The whole thing has reached the point of madness.  Unless we can agree on some set of criteria for the demarcation of educational responsibilities, the farce can only get more pronounced.  One possible solution is for those areas of study traditionally associated with universities for the last 500 years or more to demote themselves and form separate institutions called “schools”.  Their staff would, of course, have to accept lower wages, lower general status, and the loss of brightly coloured academic dress (gowns, mortarboards, and associated paraphernalia). They would also have to attract full fee-paying students because, initially at any rate, no government would touch them with a twenty-foot pole. In other words, this might not be a goer, to put it rather mildly.  And yet, some move will be necessary if we are to avoid a situation where every human occupation requires a university degree.  Of course, it might be possible to get the current holders of the title “university” to move up to “duoversity” (páce Victor Borge) so as to free-up the old name. “Diversity” has already been spoken for, unfortunately. Indeed, there’s probably a uni course with that name.

There are many, detailed, structural, and procedural matters which impinge upon the proper functioning of an education system and I am not qualified to suggest improvements in these areas. Come to think of it, as a retired rabbit poisoner, I am not qualified to give opinions on any matter outside the dietary preferences of Oryctolagus cuniculus and its tolerance to certain substances!  But I want to suggest that, in the matter of education and its role in society, there are certain commonsense principles and certain observations which require no great scholarly learning and no more than a very general understanding of the human past.

In fact, what fuels the current silliness is well known and it has been written about in this online site and elsewhere ad nauseam. It is a preoccupation with a sort of frenzied democratisation of all aspects of human endeavour. The people involved are the modern “Levellers”. The old “Levellers” were a Puritan sect in England during the period of the Civil War.  Cromwell suppressed them rather vigorously, but I doubt that he could even dream of the possibility of a secular version turning up a few hundred years later.   The mere suggestion that some young people may be capable of higher intellectual achievements than others sends them into fits of apoplectic rage and they reach for their tomes on equal opportunity legislation. Mind you, they are not always consistent in this respect. “Your levellers”, said Dr. Johnson, “wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves”.

The curious thing is that tradespeople and other degree-deprived workers have absolutely no thoughts along these lines.  On the contrary, they consider themselves immensely superior to the “eggheads” or “nerds” in every way.  They point to the fact that such people are often completely impractical and wholly reliant on others to look after them.  Why, some tradespeople will even tell you that boffins need assistance with the very simplest practical actions of human hygiene. Of course, the “tradies” describe the shortcomings in more direct terms than I have been able to do here.

To my mind, the supposed need for fully democratised learning across the board and dramatic changes to some existing or earlier system of education arises, in part, from a total misunderstanding (or ignorance) of the traditional systems involved in the organisation of human work and of the way in which the natural subordination of human activities was understood in earlier times. It arises, too, from the very nature of secular democracy itself. We hear calls to “correct the injustices of the past”. But our past was not always unjust in the matter of education and careers.  What characterised this earlier organisation, right from medieval times, was a system of what I will call parallelism.  Questions of superiority or inferiority simply did not arise in the way that they do today.  If we take the trades, for instance, the guild system of masters, journeymen, and apprentices afforded a career path which “paralleled” the university system. Indeed, in some cases, the master craftsman was deemed to have a much higher status than that of university teachers. For instance, in the massive, four volume, History of the University in Europe (ed. Walter Rüegg), the example is given of master-builders in university towns. Their responsibilities afforded them a status in society which could call forth the envy of university teachers. I wonder how many people today have reflected upon the origin of the word masterpiece.

In the modern era, of course, all that changed. We may want to say that education and employment opportunities have changed for the better but I think it at least possible to argue that job satisfaction for many people today is hardly a matter upon which we should be congratulating ourselves. It is easy enough to see just how the changes came about. For instance, the loss of the old trade schools and the radical alteration of the traditional apprenticeship system partly accounts for the push towards some alternative system of acquiring status. Not all that long ago, a person could take great pride in belonging to a particular trade because terms like “Master Builder” or “Master Butcher” really did carry weight in the community.  The trade was a vocation for which one trained long and hard under the guidance of a master.  Leaving aside the obvious impact of industrial age and the factory system, part of the blame for the destruction of this system rests with the evolution of the do-it-yourself handyperson and the supply of ever more idiot-proof or pre-fabricated products.  The expert is no longer needed. A Master Builder now spends most of his or her time on the telephone arranging for the “subbies” to put all the prefabricated bits together with their pneumatic nail guns and fast-grip glue.  Let me recount a true story in order to highlight just how much our general attitudes have changed in this regard over the last sixty years.

Many years ago, one of my work colleagues was a man who had been trained as a cabinet maker in Europe. Why he became a rabbit poisoner is another story.  He underwent a very long and difficult apprenticeship under a very stern and exacting master.  For the first year of his apprenticeship he was not allowed to use any wood working tools and was given the most menial of tasks.  Eventually, he was shown all the secrets of the trade and was allowed to build pieces of furniture on his own.  This man told me that, in his little village, the simplest little home repair job was always left to a qualified tradesperson.  No-one would think of fixing his or her own door handle for instance.  This principle of action extended right down to the provision of coffins for the dead.  It was inconceivable that the undertaker should screw down the coffin lid.  This had to be done by the person who had made the coffin.  As you might have guessed, this happened to be one of the first major responsibilities given to my cabinet-maker colleague.  The corpse in question belonged to a village dignitary who happened to be fairly rotund and my friend had underestimated in regard to height of the coffin.  When it came to screwing down the lid, he found that he had to sit on top of it and apply his screws against considerable pressure.  Being a small village, it was customary for everyone to attend the funeral.  The coffin-maker was required to walk behind the coffin during its procession from the church to the cemetery. My friend then recounted the circumstances in this fashion (I will not attempt the accent): “All of the others were praying for the man’s soul, but I was praying for the screws to hold”.

Our dilemma today is not just in working out just how the education of our young should be organised to maximise the potential in each and every student.  It is also how human endeavour and human achievement should be valued. The question of who should be allowed to enter a university and what should be taught at such a place is obviously not a new one.  It must have arisen at the very same time as the emergence of the universities themselves. Why were the four typical faculties of the medieval university the artes, medicine, law, and theology?  Why not the technological sciences, the artes mechanicae?  As Walter Rüegg points out, neither the demands of society, the subject itself, nor the classification of the sciences in general, can explain the persistence of the patterns of four faculties of the medieval university into the nineteenth century.  Rather, the adherence to this particular schema seems to be the result of what might be called “natural selection”.  As Rüegg says, “faculties emerged only where there were previously schools which transmitted knowledge as a public good and where attendance was basically open to everyone capable of performing at the required intellectual standard”. What gave meaning to the system was the fundamental significance of the amor sciendi – the concept of intellectual integrity, broad learning, and conceptual clarity. These qualities, rather than perceived social needs determined the structure of the university. The university was the institutional form of the amor sciendi.  The standards set themselves, as it were.

The idea of knowledge as a good in itself has, for the universities, been almost entirely obliterated.  Knowledge is good only insofar as it can contribute to the Gross National Product.  That is to say, “good” is merely a contingent value, not an absolute one. This is another reason why teaching in all sorts of human occupations has gravitated towards the universities.  If the universities can make a quid out of it, or demonstrate to government that the nation will make a quid out of it, then it is “good” and will be taught without any reference to its suitability as a university course.  Contrariwise, it is not very difficult to understand why the traditional subjects of the artes liberales are under the hammer today.  They do not perform well under the strict economic system of cost-benefit analysis.

It is in the word value, I think, that we come to the nub of the problem.  The push for “equality of outcomes” (that weasel phrase) and university degrees for all is merely the symptom of something much deeper – the loss of meaning and of objective value. Most modern conservatives/liberal democrats (the two terms are virtually interchangeable today) say all sorts of nice things about the “Western Tradition”, the positive value of religious belief, the existence of Truth, and so on.  But, because they are pluralists you cannot run them to ground on these issues. If you did run them to ground, they would no longer be pluralists. Thus, religion is good while it stays private and Truth is something of a homeless creature whom you greet fondly but at a distance, lest you are forced to declare your colours and invite it indoors. For some form of Truth standing beyond the human order, there is no room at the inn. It is no longer even a possibility because it would entail some limits to pluralism and to the autonomy of the individual.

There is, in human affairs, a great battle of ideas. A major role of the university is to “adjudicate” in this debate, as it were. That, at any rate was how the matter was seen in the West for something like two millennia.  And I place some value on the weight of history.  Indeed, that is precisely what the word “conservative” stood for until the modern liberals took it over.

Now you can see why I was a rabbit poisoner.

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