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A Meditation on Man’s Transcendent Dignity

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Pope Francis

On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.

What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning even if we cannot at present say exactly what it is.

Here I would simply like to offer an example — a thought experiment, perhaps we could call it — that helps establish that human beings do have what can be properly called transcendent dignity.

Suppose, then, that some form of cosmic radiation were to kill all human beings on earth except one, but leaving all buildings, machines, plants and animals, etc., intact. Although this person would suffer aloneness, he or she would also be able to go anywhere and do anything. He or she could read every great book, see every magnificent building, painting, or sculpture, listen to every work of classical music ever recorded; visit every corner of the globe, see every magnificent spectacle of nature, learn about every animal and plant.   Let us add the further premise that this person could by some form of in vitro fertilization or cloning and advanced technology produce exactly one other human being to carry on after he or she died — so that the planet would always have one human being alive, and living the same kind of life.

What I propose is that the world would be a completely different and better place because of this one person. This single person would supply a depth and dignity to the world — a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual meaning — that would be absent otherwise.  Without this person the world might exist materially, but it would be spiritually and morally lifeless. In short, this example implies that the transcendent dignity of man is so great that a single human being is enough to supply moral, intellectual, and spiritual meaning to the entire universe!

The example also implies a moral mandate to give human beings the time, freedom, and opportunity to cultivate their higher nature. The hungry must be fed. But man does not live by bread alone. The European Parliament must also promote policies that allow man to nourish his soul.

A Transcendental Humanism

Plato-Aristotle-by-RaphaelSchool of Athens (detail)

school-of-athensSchool of Athens

I will also add that Pope Francis’ remarks about Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ were quite interesting.  They are worth quoting in full:

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens.” Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.

The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul.

What the Pope is suggesting is a form transcendental humanism which integrates the spiritual and the material dimensions of man’s nature.  This philosophical view has a long history, and a name:  Idealism, or Platonic Idealism.   It also corresponds to the Integral or Idealistic cultural mentality described by Pitirim Sorokin.

It also needs to be clearly stated that modern humanism — which views man only in material and biological terms — does not affirm man’s dignity, but arguably reduces it.

Philosophers today, in Europe and elsewhere,  need to direct their attention to these issues.   As always, we must begin with a careful consideration of terms and definitions.   Conventionally a distinction has been made between a religious or spiritually based humanism on the one hand, and what is called secular humanism on the other.  This terminology immediately paints us into a corner, because it supposes that secular culture and institutions must exclude anything having to do with religion and spirituality.  But secular doesn’t actually mean non-spiritual — it only means, in this context, that which pertains to institutions that are public, universal, and not affiliated with particular religious institutions.  In other words, it is perfectly feasible to envisage a humanism that recognizes dimensions of human experience beyond the material, but which is public, universal, and suitable for incorporation into our civil and government institutions.  The actual contrast, then, is between a purely materialistic humanism — which defines man only in terms of biology and physical needs — and one that allows for elements of man’s nature which go beyond the merely material.

We can, in other words, have a humanism that is both secular and transcendent.  To articulate and develop such an integral humanism should be our goal.  The Dalai Lama of Tibet has made repeated pleas for a universal secular humanism based on such principles as compassion and social justice.  But this suggestion is not, at least as it has been generally interpreted, sufficiently distinct from a merely materialistic humanism: after all, other animals also have compassion for each other; there is nothing unique to man’s dignity in that he cares about the hunger and suffering of other members of his species.

Distinctly European is the Renaissance heritage of a humanism that is truly secular and transcendent.  This development came to a halt when Enlightenment rationalism pushed it aside.  Now that the perils of unbridled rationalism are evident, we must again seek the more balanced and integral view of man.  We can do this by re-examining Renaissance philosophy, and even more so the classical philosophical underpinnings of the Renaissance, especially Platonism.

Also noteworthy is that the theme of individual responsibility, which is easily undermined by state nannyism, has been repeatedly emphasized by papal communications.  For example, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio, states the following:

15. … Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped, and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever be the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself.

In 1987, marking the 20th anniversary of Populorum progression, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.  The encyclical was critical of the so-called liberation theology which seeks to improperly prioritize man’s material advancement ahead of his moral and spiritual advancement:

Development which is merely economic is incapable of setting man free, on the contrary, it will end by enslaving him further. Development that does not include the cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man and society, to the extent that it does not recognize the existence of such dimensions and does not endeavor to direct its goals and priorities toward the same, is even less conducive to authentic liberation. Human beings are totally free only when they are completely themselves, in the fullness of their rights and duties.




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.

Revisioning the University, Part 2: Extra-Educational Motives for College Attendance

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The first post in this series argued that the brick-and-mortar university is obsolete in its current form, because modern technology makes it unnecessary.  Free, or nominally priced distance-learning courses are an alternative.  As proof of concept, a later post constructed a sample liberal arts curriculum using existing high-quality video courses, with an estimated cost of $400/year.

Given that viable alternatives exist, why do young people still feel compelled to attend status quo corporate-style universities, even if that means paying insane tuition? It seems we must look to motivations beyond the simple wish to gain an education, i.e., to explanations in terms of emotional, social, and ‘intangible’ factors.  Let’s consider a few of these.

Rite of Passage

Every young person instinctively seeks to gain social recognition – i.e., some form of achievement such that society will say, “you have arrived at adulthood.”  This seems a basic requirement for self-esteem, at least in our society.  Graduation from a college or university can meet this need for achievement.  That is reasonable in itself.  But the question must be asked:  should we really subject students to massive debt merely for this purpose?  Other ways to meet the need are possible (climbing Mt. Everest, hiking the Appalachian Trail, going on a mission, starting a business, completing a Great Books list, etc.)

We should add that there is both a good and a bad form of this.  The good form supplies ways that young people can derive *genuine* self-esteem by accomplishing something beneficial to others.  The bad form is elitism, whereby a person does something for the sake of gaining status.  Modern universities appeal to this elitism.

Socialization and Partying

Clearly many students see college largely as an opportunity for socialization and partying.  The former is arguably productive, or at least benign:  young people make friends, join clubs, participate in intra-mural sports, etc.  However this often degenerates into a partying lifestyle.  Not only does that serve no productive purpose, it means that, in the case of public universities, taxpayers are required to subsidize this kind of atmosphere.  This is also unfair to those students who approach college more seriously.

Delay of Entry to Workforce

If there are no jobs, society must have some way to handle the surplus labor.  Colleges can be misused for this purpose.


Today’s public elementary and secondary school education, combined with the dumbing-down forces of modern culture generally, have potentially left young people today less emotionally and intellectual mature than in previous generations.  Not really knowing who they are or what they want, students attend college for indefinite periods, hoping to eventually ‘find themselves’. However, all too often what happens instead is that they acquire the habit of laziness and lack of focus.

Transition from Parental Household

A seemingly minor point, but actually fairly important.  If young people didn’t have some convenient and non-threatening way to move out of the parental household, they might stay there indefinitely.  So young people and parents alike have this tacit incentive for  the former to move off to college.

Having noted a few of these secondary motives for attending college, we can ask:  is there some alternative way to address these without making young people pay enormous college tuition?

Of course there are, and if society tried, it could come up with better solutions.  One simple example would be a program of nature camps, whereby young people (e.g. ages 18-20) spend a year or two living and working, say, in the mountains somewhere.  Nominally, they’d do things like building trails or planting trees, maybe train in athletics.  Informally, they could socialize, party, become more mature, etc.  At least in the past, this paradigm was followed in certain Scandinavian countries.

Another alternative would be to encourage a wanderjahr abroad – informal traveling, perhaps organized around some theme of interest, like historical sites, national capitals, or museums.

Once they’ve sown their wild oats and gained maturity, young people could return at age 20 or 21 to begin their college education in earnest.  When I taught I was strongly impressed by how much this age difference helped in terms of student focus.  For example, students who started college after military service just breezed through courses; it made teaching much easier.

The bottom line is that we can separate the educational purpose from certain unnecessary social functions of the modern college.  By addressing the latter in other ways, we should be able to make the educational function of colleges much more efficient, and can reduce tuition accordingly.

Five Innovative Things the University of California Can Do to Slash Tuition

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Image via

California Speaker Pérez’ plan  for reducing public university tuition is a welcome sign, but doesn’t go nearly far enough.  Sacramento should consider more sweeping changes:

1. Expand advanced placement testing

Let students ‘test out’ of any course, or even get a diploma that way.

2. Integrate third-party courses into curricula

For example, video lectures by The Great Courses are better than most brick-and-mortar college courses.  A campus library can buy these and students (registered or unregistered) may watch them for free.  Testing and grading could be done by local instructors.

3. Institute a Great Books program

Let students get from 1 to 2 years course credit by reading classics.

4. Eliminate or scale down college accreditation

Accreditation for undergrad studies is unnecessary; it’s merely a means by which existing universities and colleges monopolize the market.  Remove the costly barrier of accreditation, and communities, churches, etc., can found inexpensive local colleges suitable for many students’ needs.  This competition will drive down the tuitions of existing colleges.

5. Limit or eliminate student loans for undergraduates.

This will also force colleges to lower tuition and motivate cost-cutting.

See also:

Hyperinflation of Tuition and Fees in the California State University System

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An earlier post demonstrated how badly students at the University of California are being taken advantage of with exorbitant tuition and fees.  The results there showed that, even after adjusting for inflation, UC students today pay more than four times as much in tuition and fees as their parents’ did.  Here we examine the second tier of California’s public higher education system, the California State Universities (CSU), and find that the situation is even worse.  See the figure below.

The red line shows the actual average undergraduate (resident) tuition + fees across CSU campuses, from 1975/76 to 2011/12.

The blue line shows what tuition + fees would be if they increased only because of inflation.  These numbers are calculated based on historical Consumer Price Index data (specifically, the CPI-U, which applies to urban consumers). 1975 is used as the base year.

The ratio of the height of the two lines gives the rip-off index — or how much tuition and fees have hyperinflated relative to general cost of living — for a given year.

For 2011/12, the ripoff index is obtained by dividing actual tuition + fees ($6,519) by what would be expected by inflation alone ($810), giving 8.04.

Interpretation:  after adjusting for inflation, the financial burden on students and their families to pay tuition and fees at CSU today is 8 times greater than in 1975!  Moreover, by this standard, CSU students are being ripped off twice as badly as UC students.

In addition we should note that, unlike their parents, students today may find that their degree has no value in securing a good job.

Some might reply that $6,519 per year isn’t terriby expensive.  To that the response is two-fold.

First, this means that the four-year bill for a CSU diploma is presently over $26,000, which is a hefty amount.

Second, the fact is that, a generation ago, the people of California chose to create a second university system that placed virtually no financial burden on students.  Little by little the commitment to suppy a higher education to every eligible and motivated student eroded.

We need to reassert and live up to the original vision of the California Master Plan for Higher Education:  that some form of higher education ought to be available to all regardless of their economic means, and that academic progress should be limited only by individual proficiency.


  • CSU Budget Office

A spreadsheet (.xls) with all data and calculations is available on request.

See also:

College Tuition: Inflation or Hyperinflation?