Earlier this month I’ve discussed the effects of economic shifts and crises on public policies and education with prof. César Correa Arias from Universidad de Guadalajara in Mexico City. This very discussion has been a firebrand which led me to once again rethink the usefulness of higher education and its prerequisites. Immediately I contemplated the eccentric Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen who in his treaty The Higher Learning in America (1919) first criticised the homo oeconomicus approach in academia in American universities. Veblen argued that applying business standards to the operations of universities and measurements of the success of academic enquiry was smothering higher education and turning universities into mere advanced technical schools. This problem, it seems to me, has not been remedied, and has instead spread from the United States into the academic life in most countries.
Thorstein Veblen was best known for another of his works, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), however. And it is the theories laid in this treaty that render the conclusions of his enquiry into the conduct of the academia particularly pressing and dangerous today. His insight into sociology and economics made him argue that society is split into two classes: the industry which creates wealth through innovation and performing work, and the leisure class who earn their share of wealth through exploitation of the industry. What was true in 1920s has only increased in scale ever since. The continued disconnection between the real economy and financial markets which started in with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the rise of the debt economy (also known as the perpetual money machine) has sharpened the split between those two classes and, for the most part, removed any remnants of the middle class. This disconnection allows the leisure class to not only own a large share of the current wealth without introducing any work into the economy, but also to own a large share of the future wealth through rampant public and private debt. The fetishisation of money has also reached the academia, worsening the problem first described by Veblen in 1919.
This leaves us with two important issues for the higher education. The first one is that people increasingly expect universities to provide the students with jobs instead of knowledge and idle curiosity, especially in times and countries where there is a crisis and high unemployment among the young people. And many universities, together with their students, agree with this and try to promote or demand courses where practical skills are taught (and preferably no theory is introduced, so as not to satisfy the idle curiosity), indeed turning the universities into glorified technical schools. The problem is in that things which do not appear immediately useful or profitable often have tremendous effects in the long run. The ubiquitous mockery of the humanities and social sciences happening today worldwide is very dangerous. It is the literature which (mostly through novel becoming a popular form) pushed the Zeitgeist forward, showing people empathy (before the novel became popular people would have very few ways to think about other people’s experiences in such comprehensive manner). And it is philosophy which constantly allows us to rethink the normative side of our existence, where only the positive side is touched upon by hard sciences. Then if we leave the humanities out of the picture completely how will we quantify the loss in culture and understanding of the subtle, immeasurable human condition?
The second problem is more tangible, but on some level perhaps less dangerous. If we treat science as a vehicle for the creation of wealth then we will need to gradually cut funding for the branches of science which don’t immediately appear useful, even among the hard sciences. And if we look at the history of science the breakthroughs have rarely appeared useful beforehand. Indeed one could argue that the things which we anticipate are not the real breakthroughs. The very frontiers of science often are hazy, and do not attract private funds. Just looking at the Large Hadron Collider shows how utterly uncertain and seemingly pointless from business point of view scientific research can be. And yet it is those very breakthroughs which push the civilisation forward and allow us to understand the world and create our own destinies.
Higher education and scientific enquiry are the institutions behind the massive change in Zeitgeist and the conditions of life, which in the modern form have pushed the civilisation from largely disconnected enclaves of agricultural labour camps into an interconnected, technological global village; and in the earlier sense have pushed the human kind from a handful of terrified, sickly creatures into a thriving global collective in no time (speaking on the grand, evolutionary scale). Recent disconnection between money and the real world makes the prospect of monetising academic institutions both more probable and more dangerous. The enquiry, and free enquiry, has to be defended at all costs, as without it there is no future, for the oppressed and the oppressing too.