Higher Education as an American Counterculture

Peter Augustine Lawler

To be a countercultural professor today is to believe that teaching should be all about core texts and that at least a portion of higher education in America should really be higher education.

In Democracy in America (1838), the best book ever written on America, and the best book ever written on democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville claimed to see almost no higher education in this country. I think he exaggerated a bit in his day, and he still would be exaggerating—but only exaggerating—in ours.

Unlike in Tocqueville’s time, today’s average nineteen-year-old in America is likely enrolled in college or university somewhere, pursuing a higher education, right? But as I tell my students, if it’s all about textbooks, PowerPoint presentations, standardized tests, and group projects, that’s not higher education in Tocqueville’s sense.

Higher education involves studying the best that has been thought and said, the natural sciences, theoretical more than experimental physics, and the art and music that graces what’s been called high culture. There is still some of that going on. But many liberal arts general education programs are being emptied out; many colleges that retain the liberal “brand” are surrendering the traditional substance of higher education, and the percentage of students majoring in history, physics, philosophy, literature, etc., is declining.

With some conspicuous exceptions, Tocqueville saw all Americans as middle class. Being middle class has little to do with how much money and things one has right now, and a middle-class country has huge, often rapidly shifting inequalities in the wealth of its citizens. To be middle class is simply to understand yourself—and everybody else—as basically a free being who works. A middle-class society, in that sense, is a classless society. And middle-class morality aspires to be universal. From Tocqueville’s view, being middle class means finding yourself somewhere between aristocrat and slave, or servant of old. The good news is you’re free like an aristocrat. The bad news is you have to work like a slave.

But a second piece of good news is that you get to keep what you earn or make. You work for yourself and your own, even when you’re employed by someone else. I work for you, and you give me money; the way we both stay free is by not making the mistake that there’s more to our relationship than there really is. A middle-class democracy is very short on paternalism—even your actual father and mother have very little authority over you once you grow up, unless they have money enough to control your behavior with, say, the prospect of a generous inheritance.

So in a middle-class country everyone needs and loves money. Aristocrats at least faked not caring about money; their story was that they’re better than that, and they stuck with it. Slaves or servants didn’t care much about money, because they didn’t think they would have much, because there was so little mobility among classes. To be in the middle is to be loud and proud about loving your money—and being on the make to get more.

There’s a lot of good about the universal love of money. One thing, of course, is unprecedented productivity and prosperity—the result of everyone having and wanting to work hard. Another is the justice of equality of opportunity and a meritocracy largely based on productivity. People tend to get what they deserve, which is this or that amount of money. Even Karl Marx thought that capitalists under capitalism got nothing more or less than they deserved. When it comes to prosperity, technology, and a kind of individualistic justice you can’t beat middle-class democracy.

And yet, Tocqueville observes, middle-class democracy is bad for free thought. Tocqueville noticed that Americans all have basically the same opinions about religion, politics, morality, the purpose and function of work, and so on. The trouble with the universality of middle-class thought and behavior is that it’s nearly impossible to find a basis for dissent, to be genuinely countercultural. It’s impossible to discover for oneself the limits—the merely partial truth—of the dominant view of the world. In this respect, middle-class democracy, more, in Tocqueville’s telling, than the aristocracies of old, discourages genuinely critical or deeply radical thinking. There’s an unprecedented political correctness, as we say, in the belief that we live in a universally middle-class, that is, a basically classless, society. If a thought isn’t useful for a free being who works, then it couldn’t possibly be true. Language tends to become flat and standardized; metaphysics and theology in particular lose ground.

Americans, for example, are far too judgmental about work. People who don’t work are regarded as lazy, and we allow no excuses for unproductive behavior. Americans don’t buy the view that leisure is the basis of culture, partly because they see culture as one industry among many. Working in the service industry involves giving those with money the amenities they want, in return for some of their money.

Consider how amenity-laden our institutions of higher learning have become. Education today is pretty much the same everywhere—focused on the learning outcomes of competency and diversity—so the discerning education consumer chooses a school for its health club gym, hotel-style dorms, gourmet cafeterias, luxurious study abroad opportunities, student affairs concierges to ward off the dread disease of boredom, wellness centers to alert students to risk factors that might otherwise elude their attention, and D-III athletics programs featuring lots of participation that doesn’t depend on athletic prowess. College has become terribly expensive—although thinking, books, and philosophy professors remain cheap—as a burgeoning part of the service industry.

Well, it’s an instructive exaggeration to say that college is becoming the same everywhere—nudged along by the standardizing pressures of the market, government bureaucracies, Silicon Valley-funded foundations driven by the principle that education can be delivered in roughly the same way as electricity, and the administrative class of higher education that dominates the increasingly intrusive accrediting associations. For all these basically middle-class or techno-vocational standardizing pressures have a big negative effect on genuine diversity—moral, religious, and intellectual diversity—on our campuses.

These pressures, however, don’t mainly come from old-fashioned tenured radicals. For one thing, the percentage of tenured faculty is dropping like a rock.1 Nor do they come much from the most recent wave of campus protestors. Instead, they come from the corporate and administrative agenda that involves purging everything not middle class, not compatible with the dynamism of the twenty-first-century global competitive marketplace. We see, better than ever, how the universality of middle-class thinking threatens freedom of thought.

Although I am a scandal to the fashionable conformism of higher education because I typically vote Republican and am open about it, I admit that the imposition of middle-class or techno-vocational/techno-enthusiastic tyranny on higher education has been an issue less among Democratic than Republican politicians such as Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. Rubio’s theme—that we need more welders and fewer philosophers—is an assault on free thought. It might be good for welders to know some philosophy just to live in the light of the truth.

Genuine moral and intellectual diversity, as well as concern for justice, have always been best served by the liberal education that is the proper antidote to our country’s understandable and beneficial techno-enthusiasm.

I actually have more sympathy for Bernie Sanders’s call for free higher education for everyone. Sanders is thinking about the old City College of New York in the 1950s, staffed by mostly leftist émigrés who often taught the Great Books and other parts of the traditional curriculum as if they really mattered to New Yorkers of all races, classes, and religions. In Sanders’s imagination, we should be perfectly free to be either philosopher or welder or some preferred combination of both.

It’s true that Sanders’s solution wouldn’t work today, mainly because all public higher education is marked by so much less freedom than it was in the 1950s. And the effectual truth of his solution would starve what moral and intellectual diversity we have left in mostly private colleges. Any even remotely Marxist defense of liberal education is typically confused: The thought is that overcoming scarcity—by creating a world with plenty of everything with very little work—will free us to devote ourselves to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and so forth, for their own sakes. The truth, however, is that liberal education would merely become a whimsical hobby like any other.

The error of the socialist/Marxist dream is that it involves a world without the privileges and responsibilities that come with relational love and meaningful work. In that respect, the Marxist dream is not so different from the Singularity—or the techno-overcoming of personal death—imagined by some libertarians. In both cases, technology frees us from necessity only for the purpose of maximizing our preferences in a world without guidance.

Still, I hope the appeal of Bernie Sanders to the young stems from his calling out the corporate technocratic elitism that dominates both parties. I hope he’s the kind of radical who defends intellectual freedom against the middle-class tendency to sacrifice controversy to public relations, which is the same as the libertarian economist’s tendency to script speech, all with the imperatives of productivity in mind. I would never vote for Bernie, although I might vote for the old socialists Irving Howe and Michael Harrington for college president over most current social science and humanities professors and especially administrators.

It’s true, the libertarian responds, and Tocqueville observes, that in a free country an individual is officially free to do and think what he pleases. But Tocqueville adds that this individual typically doesn’t have the choice not to work, for reasons of bodily subsistence and personal dignity.

The individual finds himself too isolated and disoriented to think much for himself. Middle-class thought may begin with the proud recognition, “Nobody is better than me”—but then comes the humbling awareness, “I’m not better than anyone else.” So by right can I exempt my puny thought from the sea of public opinion that surrounds me?

It’s true that we keep telling students, Think critically! Think for yourself! Be creative and innovative! Our students should whine in response: With what? They usually don’t know enough even to know they should whine. That’s because too many professors lead students to confuse being critical with grabbing onto the latest version of progressive sophistry that’s allegedly on the right side of history. Those filled with the irrational animosity that obstinately keeps them on history’s wrong or reactionary side, students are taught, just don’t have reasons we need to think about anymore.

And what about all the technological creativity we see around us? In my college, for instance, we have a new major in “creative technologies” whose students are making interesting devices that I, for one, have never seen. Tocqueville explains that one democratic dogma among many is to reduce science to technology, and so to divert creativity toward producing labor-saving, comfort-producing, life-extending, war-winning, as well as game-playing and pornography-viewing, machines and devices. So we tend to view real creative freedom—as opposed to the fashionable conformism that has infected “the humanities” today—as existing in the service of technological progress. Who can deny that the most brilliantly creative Americans now reside in Silicon Valley, and even that we receive their powerfully dazzling techno-creativity as magic? We owe more and more and understand less and less about the wizards behind what we see on our sundry screens.

Tocqueville doesn’t deny the reality of or the beneficial significance of technological creativity. He objects to the middle-class tendency to reduce all education to technology—to techno-vocationalism. It amazed him to see in America an unprecedented universal literacy. (One must be able to read and write—and have solid computational skills—to work for oneself.) Tocqueville was just as amazed to find almost no higher education—no education tied to the belief that work is for leisure, that the body serves the soul, that technology serves distinctively human purposes, that the world is the home of the human mind, that no reliable route to feeling good exists except being good, and that seeking and searching (wandering and wondering) should, in principle, occupy all of our lives.

Americans, Tocqueville noticed, are always in a hurry, constantly restless in the midst of their prosperity. We’re happy with generalizations that work well enough, whether or not they’re true. And we don’t linger over strange and wonderful details; nature and even other people are only real to us to the extent that can be exploited—or readily comprehended and controlled.

We democrats skim rather than read, and we’re brimming with the hyperactivity that fuels productivity. Our seemingly indefinite capacity to multitask with multiple screens keeps us from seeing the real people (and, for that matter, real or great books) right in front of us. Which means we’re better at obsessing over the future or being sentimental about the past than being in love in the present. We spend more and more time, as Sherry Turkle says, “alone together,”2 while simultaneously being more unable than ever to experience the pleasure described by Brian Wilson of being all alone in “my room.” So here’s a piece of advice to anyone engaged in higher education: “Teachers! Leave those screens alone.” There’s little more countercultural than that.

For Tocqueville, higher learning was mainly for the elite. But that simply does not suffice nowadays. Consider the great leveler that is the computer screen. Virtually all Americans have access to the wisdom of the world, and all Americans—billionaires and the chronically unemployed—play the same games and view the same porn. And all Americans are subject to the same manipulation by the big data generated by Google. We need to be equipped to deploy the screen ironically and selectively to avoid losing ourselves in unworthy diversions or becoming subject to technocratic manipulation. More than ever, liberal education is indispensable to being a free, active citizen and responsible parent concerned about the formation of the souls of the children in our charge. Think about how many of our young men—even those with productive jobs—are lost souls inhabiting the virtual worlds of games and porn.

The real division in American higher education lies not between liberals and conservatives, or scientists and the humanists, but between the quick and the slow. The quick are all about easily measurable achievable learning outcomes, competence (meaning “good enough”) rather than excellence; they privilege sensitivity to diversity (which facilitates consumer satisfaction by stifling genuinely critical thought) over the joyful sharing of the truth.

For the quick, preparing students for lifelong learning means fitting them to be abstracted role players with flexible skills that can be constantly adjusted to the changing demands of the global competitive marketplace. For the slow, preparing students for lifelong learning means giving them the taste for books and questions and longings that demand lifelong attention. There’s always more to see and more to know, but there’s also the kind of confidence, never complacent, that comes when we see who we are and what we’re supposed to do, when each of us finds the cure for being abstracted by discovering our place in the wider world.

Higher education, Tocqueville says, is countercultural in a democracy because it’s basically aristocratic, and all aristocratic means, in this context, is having a high opinion of oneself as more than a free being who works. Higher education privileges the truth about the human soul, and the cosmos over the kind of utility that chains philosophy and science to economics, politics, and medicine. Higher education, from a democratic view, can be regarded as inconsiderate and sterile. Nothing ever gets done! The time for talk is over, and the time for action is now, say both the social justice warrior and the disruptive innovator.

One’s own biological death, they think, is no longer a reality that we accept in order to live well and be happy; death has become a problem to be solved. Each of them believes that if “I” am extinguished, then being itself is extinguished. And so the real point of all human effort should be to keep “me” around.

From the point of view of higher education, the dominant view of the great books across the ages is that philosophy is learning how to die, to get over obsessing about your personal significance. Being itself is not in our hands, and it’s the fate of persons to be extinguished, unless there’s a personal and loving God willing to save us. Some raging against the dying of the light is to be expected and can even be the source of great words and deeds that stand the test of time. But don’t forget that the light is being extinguished, no matter what you may do.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the most courageous people of the twentieth century, writes that what’s wrong with Americans is our lack of a clear and calm attitude toward death—one reason he hears beneath the surface of our happy-talk pragmatism the howl of existentialism.

Liberal education involves more than coming to terms with death, however. It concerns birth, and the irreducible significance of each particular person. It concerns keeping the person—the particular being with a singular destiny—from being dissolved by all surrounding forces. As Tocqueville says, liberal education involves learning how to rule ourselves and others, to discover the privileges we’ve been given and the corresponding responsibilities. In this sense, higher education is about the greatness of human individuality, especially what we can do that will stand the test of time.

So higher education, in our time, is understanding the gift of technology as an intricate trial of our free will. Our challenge is to resist becoming the distracted playthings of technological manipulation while we deploy technological progress in the service of what Solzhenitsyn rightly calls “the one true progress” toward wisdom and virtue in a particular life—the life of a being born to know, love, and die, a personal being who has more than a merely biological destiny shared with the other mammals.

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