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The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

What is American Transcendentalism?

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EmersonThoreau2

Bottom line. The core tenets of American Transcendentalism: (1) human beings have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) all people have common, innate Ideals (what things are True, Beautiful, Just, and Good?) and this is of vast importance for society; (3) life has definite moral meaning; (4) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (5) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason, inspiration, and creative imagination.  Transcendentalism is a development of the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.), and places considerable emphasis on intellectual and moral self-culture.  (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!)  Transcendentalism per se is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.

I’ve written this because I take pity on the many college students who struggle each year with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism.  I’m also motivated by the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready for the challenge, it will find in Transcendentalist writings a well-developed ideology for changing the corporatist/globalist/materialistic status quo.

Transcendentalism might seem virtually incomprehensible, but it’s actually very common-sense.  The difficulty is precisely that it conflicts with the received opinions and disordered thought patterns of modern culture.  In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism, as taught and written about today in the modern academic establishment, is presented through the lens of the very materialistic values it opposed!  The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, revisionist, and confused picture. The aim here is so supply a more accurate portrayal.

1. Transcendentalism was an explicit reaction against the modern rationalism of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The effect of these rationalist philosophies was to deny that human beings had innate knowledge and Higher Reason (or Conscience), and that people were divine — made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism and loss of higher values.

2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. By claiming that man is merely a material creature (i.e., a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of a radically commercial society. The social problems of modernity we see today actually began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.

3. American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and the Greek tradition generally (Emerson tutored in Greek; Thoreau translated Aeschylus!)  Modern scholars have strangely lost sight of this. Instead, it became trendy in the 20th century to see Eastern (Indian and Persian) religions as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religions had a little effect, but nowhere near as much as Platonism. In short: Transcendentalism is a continuation and extension of a long-standing Western tradition in philosophy and religion.

One important part of this is the Platonic notion of innate ideas.  Locke denied that human beings have innate ideas (tabula rasa), and his view dominated Enlightenment-era thinking.  Kant, however, disproved Locke: he showed that our minds are so constructed as to see reality only in terms of pre-existing categories, rules, principles, and relationships.  For example, we automatically see the world in moral terms, e.g., constantly evaluating ourselves, other people, and events as good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.  It’s innate, part of our nature.

Kant’s rejection of Locke’s rationalism generated considerable excitement in Europe and America.  American Transcendentalism took this new enthusiasm for Kant, and blended it with earlier, traditional Platonist and Neoplatonist concepts.  Plato, of course, is most famous for his Theory of Forms (Forms = Ideals).  For example, he postulated that all human beings have common, innate Ideals concerning the nature of the True, the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good.

From this it’s just a short step to Emerson’s concept of genius and art (see Emerson’s essays, ‘Self-Reliance‘, ‘Plato‘, and ‘Shakespeare‘): Each of us has the full repertoire of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic abilities characteristic of our species.  For example, each person can look at a great work of art or wonder of nature and experience a sense of profound beauty or awe.  We are all, in short, geniuses by nature.  It’s just a question of accessing our latent abilities.  Any thought or insight that any great person has ever had, you can have too!  You have all the innate equipment necessary.  What makes great creative geniuses different is only that they are better able to access and communicate these innate ideas.

This is an immensely important concept, and it leads to an new vision of what human society can and should be:  a community of divine individuals (“gods in ruins”, as Emerson put it), who are helping each other towards self-realization. Sometimes, because of Thoreau’s reclusive reputation and Emerson’s essay, ‘Self Reliance’ (or, rather, its title), people get the impression that Transcendentalism was only about individualism, and that it denigrated society.  But, as explained there, that isn’t so.  Note that Transcendentalism itself only developed within a community of like-minded individuals.

It also means that, despite the incessant, distorting propaganda of governments and the materialistic status quo, we all have an innate idea (or Ideal) of what a true, just, beautiful, and good society should and can be.  If we trusted our natural inclinations, and, trusted that everybody else has these same natural inclinations, we might produce a more natural, harmonious society.

4. An example of the Platonist roots of American Transcendentalism is in the constant emphasis of the latter on self-development. The ancient principle, ‘know thyself’, is strongly emphasized. One implication of self-reliance is that you must take the initiative in developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke.  Modern self-help/pop-psychology literature, lacking a moral focus, is greatly inferior to Transcendentalist writings on self-culture.

5. Another major root of American Transcendentalism was New England Unitarianism. The wellspring of this influence was William Ellery Channing, a mentor of Emerson, and prominent teacher, minister, and lecturer at the time. Two of Channing’s more famous essays/speeches are Likeness to God and Self-Culture.

6. Another way of looking at American Transcendentalism is that it expresses what has been called the perennial philosophy — a set of core religious and philosophical ideas that crop up again and again across cultures and throughout history. These core principles include:

  1. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
  2. Immortality of the human soul
  3. Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
  4. Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
  5. Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
  6. Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
  7. And from moral development (virtue ethics)
  8. All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
  9. Everything that does happen, happens for a reason. Life is a continuing moral lesson.

This perennial philosophy recurs throughout the history of Western civilization as an antagonist to materialism. In modern times Locke and Hobbes express the materialist philosophy. In ancient times the Epicureans similarly advanced a materialist philosophy in contrast with the transcendent philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism.

So there is a kind of Hegelian dialectic (i.e., thesisantithesissynthesis process) in history between materialism and transcendentalism. For this reason, the principles of American Transcendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.

Emerson and Thoreau are literally our ‘tribal’ ancestors, speaking to us with inspired wisdom for the preservation, advancement, and evolution of our culture.

7. American Transcendentalism anticipated 20th century humanistic psychology (e.g., the theories of Abraham Maslow) and modern positive psychology.  However it is more inclusive than either of these two in its recognition of man’s higher, transcendental nature: man’s spiritual, moral, philosophical, intellectual, and creative elements.  The paradox (and failure) of modern positive psychology is precisely that it cannot extricate itself from its underpinnings in materialist/rationalist philosophy.

8. With these great ideas, why didn’t Transcendentalism continue as a major cultural force?  Partly the answer has to do with the dialectical process referred to above.  In the struggle between materialism and transcendentalism, things go back and forth, hopefully always working towards an improved synthesis (i.e., not so much a circular but a spiral process).

In addition, two specific factors contributed to a receding of American Transcendentalism.  One was Darwinism, which dealt a tremendous blow to religious thought in the 19th century.  Religious thinkers at that time simply weren’t able to understand that science and religion are compatible. People began to doubt the validity of religion and to resign themselves to the unappealing possibility that we are nothing but intelligent apes.  The second blow, perhaps much greater, was the American Civil War.  Besides disrupting American society and culture generally, the Civil War represented a triumph of a newly emerging materialistic progressivism over the more spiritual and refined Transcendentalism (which sought progress by reforming man’s soul, not civil institutions).  The high ideals of the Transcendental movement were co-opted by militant reformers, and this problem is still with us.  Modern progressives see themselves as the inheritors of Transcendentalist Idealism, but are in reality radically materialistic in values and methods!

9. A frequent criticism of American Transcendentalism is that it lacks a theory of evil: a nice philosophy for sunny days, not much help with life’s crosses and tempests.

10. Emerson resigned his post as a Christian minister over doctrinal issues, but arguably remained what might be called culturally Christian.  There were many Christian transcendentalists (e.g., Theodore Parker, Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry). Orestes Brownson (and some others) eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.

11. This brings us to what transcendental means. In fact, it has a whole range of meanings — it’s something of an umbrella term. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).

Technically, there is an important distinction between the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendent’ (although in practice they are sometimes used interchangeably).  ‘Transcendent’ is a broad term that can mean almost anything higher or above (e.g., God, spirituality, etc.).  ‘Transcendental’ refers to the fact that, when we, say, look out and perceive the world, our actual mental experience is being filtered or conditioned.  By analogy, if we watch television, all we see are the images on the screen — not the inner circuitry of the television set that produces the images.  The part of ourselves that filters, conditions, and produces of our mental experience is, arguably, more our ‘real self’ than our experience itself — this could be called our transcendental nature or transcendental apparatus.  What it actually is, however, is a mystery, since we don’t experience it directly.  Emerson was content to simply accept our transcendental nature as part of Nature, generally.

On the other hand, ‘transcendental’ could also be understood merely as an adjectival form of the word ‘transcendent’.  Thus to some extent the two terms are hopelessly confounded and we cannot insist too strongly on a definite or consistent definition.

12. Historically, the term was borrowed from the transcendental philosophy of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant developed his philosophy in opposition to the British empiricists (Locke, Hume).  Kant’s philosophy generated a great deal excitement, first in Europe. In particular, two new transcendentalist movements — one in France (Victor Cousin) and one in England (Coleridge and Wordsworth) — emerged.   These movements were broadly aligned with the spirit of Kant (e.g.,. rejection of Locke), but were distinct in their ideas. English transcendentalism was (1) more Platonic (see below), and (2) more Romantic.

American Transcendentalism was aware of Kant, but it was much more closely aligned with some of Kant’s German followers (e.g., Schelling), and English transcendentalism (e.g., Coleridge).

An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876).   I also recommend the chapter by Howe (2009) shown in the references below.

Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.

Transcendentalist Works

Websites

Books/Chapters/Papers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hamlet’s Soliloquy in Modern Vernacular (Humor)

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hip_hamlet

Oxbridge University Press is pleased to announce our new Shakespeare Today® series. Our aim is to eliminate all the awkward and pretentious Elizabethan English that makes the bard virtually impossible for modern college students, especially those who’ve been educated in American secondary schools, to read. After all, did Shakespeare’s original groundling Globe Theater hoi polloi audience  London’s fishmongers, shop-keepers, and chimney-sweeps  need dictionaries to look up all those weird words? Did they have to ponder over the complicated sentence constructions? No, it was ordinary language to them. We think it’s in the true spirit of Shakespeare to translate his works into a modern vernacular that today’s semi-literate readers can relate to.

Please enjoy the following sample from our edition of Hamlet, which shows Shakespeare’s original wording followed by our clear, modernized version:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Should I just stick my head in an oven?

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind

I mean, is it better, brainwise,

to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

to put up with the bullets and missiles of a hypothetical personified power that unpredictably determines events,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?

Or instead to get a bunch of weapons and fight back like Rambo?

To die: to sleep; no more;

Death is sleep.

And, by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache

A sleep where we end acute symptoms of coronary artery disease,

and the thousand natural shocks

and the large number — probably not less than 800 (or else we’d say ‘hundreds’), or more than 1999 (i.e., ‘thousands’), and not astronomical (e.g., ‘millions)’ — of annoyances

that flesh is heir to,

that our bodies are genetically programmed for.

’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

Cool!

To die, to sleep;

Recap: death is sleep.

 To sleep: perchance to dream:

Wait a second — when you sleep, you dream.

 Ay, there’s the rub;

Shit!

 For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

Who knows what lousy dreams there are

 when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

once we’ve wriggled out of our skin like a snake or frog?

 Must give us pause.

Better slow down, dude.

 There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life;

That’s why we take all this bullsh*t.

 For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

For who’d put up with letting time first spank and then look down its nose at us,

the oppressor’s wrong,

or bosses,

the proud man’s contumely.

being harangued by a**holes,

the pangs of dispriz’d love,

feeling crappy because your girlfriend or boyfriend dumps you,

the insolence of office,

diplomats who double-park but don’t get tickets,

the law’s delay,

cops never being there when you need them,

and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes,

and bad people pushing you around, no matter how many patience points you’ve earned,

When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?

when he could make it all go away with an awl, or a stiletto-shaped steel hairpin, or, by extension, any dagger or dagger-like object?

Who would fardels bear,

Who’d carry piles of sticks around on their backs,

 To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

To perspire and make pig-like noises when really tired?

But that the dread of something after death,

If we didn’t get nauseous thinking how it could actually be worse

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns,

beyond the boundaries of that place for which Travelocity only sells one-way tickets?

puzzles the will,

It makes us give up and look for the answers at the bottom of the page,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?

And ask like “Why fly to Rio, only to get kidnapped there or worse?”

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

Thus, either (1) a socially-conditioned mental function that inhibits expression of natural instincts, or (2) an innate moral faculty which some associate with the ‘image and likeness’ of God, makes us all chicken.

And thus the native hue of resolution

And the red face we get, like an indigenous person, when we’re fired up and rarin’ to go

is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

is plastered over the sick look of someone who thinks too much.

shakespeare for dummies

Written by John Uebersax

October 4, 2014 at 8:46 pm

On the AAAS Report on the Humanities and Social Sciences, ‘The Heart of the Matter’

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A few months ago, in June 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report ‘The Heart of the Matter‘ addressing the state of the humanities and social sciences in the United States today.  Its conclusions were expressed as three main goals: (1) to “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy;” (2) to “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong;” and (3) to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”

The first recommendation made in connection with Goal 1 was to support “full literacy,” meaning by that an advancement of not just reading ability, but also of the critical thinking and communication skills required of citizens in a thriving democracy.  That this is an excellent suggestion no one would dispute.  The first recommendation associated with Goal 3 was to promote foreign language education, to enable Americans to enlarge their cultural perspective.  Again this is an excellent and welcome suggestion.

But here we have exhausted the list of the high points. The remainder of the report is filled with such dubious assumptions and faulty reasoning that even the hungriest humanities teacher, clutching at the report as a sign of hope against the increasingly narrow emphasis on science and technology in our education system, ought to be circumspect in heralding it as a great stride forward.

The Cart Before the Horse

The fundamental problem with the report, as I see it, is that it has reversed the traditional ends and means of the humanities (and, by extension, of the social sciences, to the extent that both have similar goals; I shall herein, however, mainly address myself to the humanities).  The principle feature of the humanities is, almost by definition (that is, to the extent that ‘humanities’ mean the same thing as ‘Humanism’), that, in the best meaning of the phrase, the proper concern of man is man: that what we are really aiming at is human happiness and self-actualization; to empower man, to achieve the telos latent in his potentialities; to obtain what the ancients simply called the good life or beata vita.  Now as to what constitutes this good life, of course, there is some disagreement; but there is also considerable agreement: we seek a life where human beings are healthy, have ample leisure time, opportunities for education, where they enjoy the arts, study and practice philosophy, and so on.

In the modern era it has become an unquestioned assumption that we should also advance technology at a brisk pace, and, partly as a means of doing this, that our commercial economies should be robust and growing as well.  I tend to agree with this view, personally.  Yet where I evidently part company with the authors of the AAAS report is that I see the latter of these two goals – technological and economic advancement – as subordinate to the primary goal of obtaining ‘the good life’.  That is, to the extent that technological and economic growth gives us anti-malaria vaccines, freedom from hunger, computers, solar energy, digital classical music, open access online libraries, and so on, it is good. But when it means pollution, constant stress and anxiety, urban sprawl, perpetual war, corporation-run government, and a long commute to and from a mindless job pushing papers in a cubicle all day long merely to earn enough money to continue on the treadmill, then I think we have ample grounds for doubt, and to consider forging for ourselves a new vision of society.  May we put wage slavery and mass consumerism on the table as negotiable, and consider organizing our society for the 21st century and beyond in some more favorable way?

The gaping hole in the report’s logic is that it presents, apparently without the authors’ having any cognizance of its absurdity, if not outright danger, that we should improve the humanities in order to improve our economies, when it ought to be the other way around.  We are told that we should increase spending on the humanities and social sciences so that we may have “an adaptable and creative workforce”, and that, presumably to counter the economic threat posed by China or other developing nations, we need “a new ‘National Competitiveness Act'”, which is somehow supposed to be “like the original National Defense Education Act.”

That the authors would so deftly and unhesitatingly leap from “competitiveness” to “national defense” – and all in a report addressing the humanities and social sciences – ought by itself to alert us that something is not quite right.  But lest there be any doubt, we need only consult the flag-draped cover to learn that we need the humanities and social sciences “for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” [underscore added] There you have it: we need the humanities and social sciences for national security.  Do your duty:  Uncle Sam wants you to read Shakespeare!  How else can we defeat the infidel third-world hordes greedily eyeing our huge piece of the global economic pie?  The world economy belongs to America, and our ticket to continued hegemony is the Humanities!

On page 59 we are treated to a photo of a US soldier in full combat gear who looks like he might be instructing his comrades in the finer nuances of Afghan culture and how to persuade the locals to rat-out the Taliban. Yes, definitely expand our Mid-Asian Studies programs, so that our future military occupations might be more effective than they have been of late.  Or maybe the idea is that by studying foreign cultures better, we’ll have more success in instigating, funding, and arming  rebel insurgencies to displace regimes antithetical to our economic interests.

Materialism vs. Idealism

The tragedy of the report is that it seeks to promote the humanities without the vaguest idea of what Humanism is, or even an awareness that this is something people have made some serious effort to define over previous decades, centuries, and millennia.  Now, to my mind  – and I’m scarcely alone in this opinion – Humanism of necessity implies some sort of transcendent orientation.  What makes human beings distinct and unique in the order of creation is that they are not only material, biological organisms, but contain something divine.  This is the classical, the Renaissance, and the religious basis of Humanism.  Not all humanists would agree, and I respect that.  But at least could we agree to acknowledge that the effort to define Humanism is something that ought to occupy our attention?  Is it asking too much to cite at least a single book, report, or article on the topic in a report that presents itself to be expert and authoritative?  I would rather see Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, or Plato in the bibliography than Emmy-Lou Harris, George Lucas, and John Lithgow in the panel of experts whom the report consulted.

We are told, for example, nothing of the 1984 National Endowment for the Humanities report (‘To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education’) authored by William J. Bennett.  That report, while not as lavishly produced as the present one, nonetheless had a little more intellectual heft, at least insofar as it connected itself with traditional principles of Humanism, classics, and liberal education.  A natural question to ask is whether the effort to renew the humanities initiated by the 1984 report worked.  Apparently not too well, or we wouldn’t need a new initiative.  But unless we look at that earlier report and examine what happened since, how can we understand what went wrong (or right), or know whether the present plan will fare better?

Despite a bit of lip service paid to ethics and morals, the values of the report are materialistic and mercenary.  Small wonder, then, that the solution proposed is to throw more money at the problem. We’ll buy back the heart and soul of America.  But did it ever occur to the authors that we already have the raw materials for a new cultural renaissance, and that what is wrong is not lack of money but wrong values?  Instead of throwing money at the problem, couldn’t we simply persuade people to start reading Great Books?  And without a prior shift in fundamental values, how can simply funding interdisciplinary research centers or developing a “Culture Corps” (yes, they seriously proposed that) accomplish anything?

A more minor point, but one nevertheless worth making, is how suavely the report dismisses the tuition and student loan crisis in the country today.  Not a crisis, we’re informed; more like an inconvenience.  The point the authors miss is the effect that placing college students deeply in debt has on their educational goals.   One’s not likely to pay off a $75,000 student loan any time soon by majoring in American literature or ancient history.  And the debt-burdened graduate isn’t likely to wander around Europe or Asia for the sheer pleasure of broadening ones cultural horizons.  Better to major in accounting and hope to land a job with Bank of America.

Ironically, the report succeeds, after a fashion, in its failure.  Its deficiencies themselves speak volumes about the decline of the humanities in the American university system.  The report is the product of a higher education industry that has systemically neglected liberal education for at least 100 years. That we need to address this problem is abundantly clear.  But to give more money to an education system not wise enough to understand what the humanities are and mean scarcely seems like the answer.

The report is all window dressing and the only real message is “give us money.” But the heart is not bought.

Written by John Uebersax

November 5, 2013 at 12:08 am

End Diploma Discrimination!

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Wherever I go in California these days I meet young people who either can’t afford to attend college, so they don’t, or else are going to college and taking out huge student loans. (I don’t know which group I feel more sorry for, though I think the first group are smarter.)

The thing is, none of this is necessary. The problem, of course, is the unrealistic and outrageously high tuitions at colleges and universities today. And while I’m scarcely a knee-jerk ‘free market solves all’ libertarian, in this case I think the principle applies. The reason tuitions are so high is because we have a closed system, a monopoly of players in collusion who control higher education. The racket works like this:

  1. Universities convince people that they need a diploma to get a job.
  2. Employers collude with universities, so that they do in fact require diplomas.
  3. Further add the requirement that the diploma must be granted by an accredited university.
  4. Control which colleges and universities get accredited and which don’t, thereby limiting competition. In particular, make the accreditation process so expensive that small independent colleges are excluded.

The net result is that the service (education) becomes virtually mandatory, but only members of the monopoly can supply the service. Consequently the members of the monopoly can charge (or extort) unrealistically high tuitions and get away with it.

So there are two related problems that go into making higher education a monopoly: accreditation, and the use of diplomas. My proposal is that we should seriously consider eliminating both. By eliminating accreditation we would open the marketplace to free competition, the result being lower prices. By eliminating diplomas, at least at the undergraduate level, we would teach people because they want to learn, not because they want a piece of paper.

What is the rational basis for accreditation? One can see why, perhaps, we should require physicians to be licensed — we don’t want quacks endangering the lives of unsuspecting patients. But do students need to be protected from ‘incompetent’ colleges? Can’t we let students themselves decide which colleges are supplying adequate service?

Consider the power of consumer choice in other areas. Does a hamburger chain need to be accredited, or can it just sell hamburgers, competing with other chains, succeeding if it satisfies customers and failing if it doesn’t? Do you check to see where your car mechanic is trained before doing business? Or do you choose based on demonstrated skill and reasonable price? If you can make your own choice of mechanics, restaurants, and movies, why are you deemed incapable of discriminating between excellent and lousy colleges? Why do you need an accreditation organization to do this for you?

Let’s look at another reason people claim to need accreditation: to control admission to professional and graduate schools. So accredited doctoral programs require bachelor’s or master’s degrees from accredited universities so they can turn out PhD’s qualified to teach at accredited universities. It is egregiously self-serving.

I hate to disappoint my fellow academicians, but I have a little confession to make. I went through a fully accredited PhD program. But the truth is that I learned almost nothing in my classes. There were a few good professors, but more often than not they were pompous bores. What I did learn I mainly learned by checking statistics books out of the library and reading in my own time. I taught myself Fortran, developed skill as a programmer, and wrote statistics and simulation programs. That was how I got my education. And I could have done just as well at an unaccredited university — or for that matter, if supplied only with a library pass and computer account.

It surprises me that people aren’t challenging employer diploma discrimination in court. It is a flagrant injustice, if not a clear-cut abuse of civil rights. Take two identical twins. Send one to an accredited university for four years, give the other a computer and internet access. Let them both read the same books and articles. Let one attend in-person lectures, let the other buy lectures from The Teaching Company. After four years you will likely find two equally well educated people. Then have them both send job applications to the same company. The non-degreed twin won’t even be granted an interview; his or her resume won’t be read or sent out of the HR department. Does anybody seriously believe that is legal?

It amazes me that so much interest and energy gather around an issue like gay marriage equity, while everybody sits silently and tolerates diploma discrimination, which is arguably much more serious, because it amounts to rich vs. poor discrimination, unmitigated elitism, and exploitation.

White Paper: Materialism, Idealism, and Higher Education in California

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UC seal 200x200

I’ve just completed a new White Paper on public higher education policy in California.  Here is an abstract:

For the last 50 years, a belief that building a robust and competitive state economy should predominate California’s public higher education goals has become increasingly prevalent, and today it is taken as an unchallenged assumption. This White Paper emphatically rejects that assumption, and argues that broader cultural and social goals are of equal, if not greater importance for Californians’ well-being than purely economic ones; and that to achieve these broader social goals we must place more emphasis on humanities and the classical model of liberal education.

A more detailed Executive Summary is included with the paper.   You can download a copy to read here, at the Californians for Higher Education Reform website.

Fiat Lucrum: Berkeley Faculty vs. California Citizens on Online Courses

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Let There Be Loot!

Fiat Lucrum

California State Senator Darrell Steinberg is co-sponsoring SB 520, titled “California Virtual Campus.” The Senate Bill would potentially enable California students to receive credit at public universities and colleges (UCs, CSUs, and CCCs) for courses taken online from any source.  This would presumably stimulate competition, lower course costs, and make higher education available to more Californians.

Predictably, there is resistance from faculty associations.  The Berkeley Faculty Association, for example, is circulating a petition to oppose SB 520.  The petition states that SB 520 “will lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socio-economic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education.”

This, of course, is all nonsense.  Nearer the truth is that the Berkeley Faculty Association wants to protect faculty jobs. It is sad indeed when they place their own job security ahead of sensible efforts to make higher education affordable and accessible to more Californians.

That said, anything the State Government touches will be tainted by money.  No doubt many private online universities (e.g., Univer$ity of Phoenix) will jump at the new chance to make money.  Whether online universities are actively lobbying State Senators is anybody’s guess (but what do you think?).

What we ought to do is to simply eliminate expensive and needless accreditation requirements for undergraduate colleges, whether brick-and-mortar or virtual.  Consumers and market competition would then assure the highest quality courses for the lowest price.  We should similarly eliminate four-year degrees, which are meaningless.  People should take classes for the purpose of learning, not to get a degree.  If undergraduate education were completely de-regulated, everybody – minorities included – would follow their natural inclinations to educate themselves, and select high-quality vendors.  A world-class college lecture series would cost no more than to rent a Blu-Ray movie.