The Attack on Higher Education

This post is a bit off topic, but I think people interested in higher education (which include many followers of SO) need to know that higher education is presently under strident, well-funded, ideological attack here in Texas. Be warned. If it succeeds here this campaign will be coming soon to a neighborhood near you:

Presently there are some who claim to value education, but think that public higher education needs drastic reform. These individuals think that the taxpayers would be getting a much better deal if higher education were reformed in terms of a “business” or “free market” model. According to this model, students are customers and higher education should be in the business of satisfying its customers. These “free-market” advocates think that professors do not teach enough. Instead, they charge, academics spend far too much time on research of dubious value. Research should be radically deemphasized, they hold, and professors should teach more and bigger classes. For instance, in a given term I will teach three classes that average out to 20-25 students per class. If, instead, I taught five classes of 30 -35 students, I could save the taxpayers a lot of money. If we greatly increase the teaching load of faculty, we would need a lot fewer of them, and could cut costs and tuition significantly if we had less than half the faculty we have now.

The people who make these criticisms are the kind of people that playwright and wit Oscar Wilde was talking about when he mentioned “those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Producing knowledge is not like producing widgets. Assembly-line methods work poorly at any level of education, but especially in higher education. Higher education, in particular, is more than pouring information into a passively receptive brain. Teaching is mostly about engaging minds, not stuffing them. Further, all education, and especially its upper levels, is ultimately self-education; all any teacher can do is to lead the proverbial horse to water. Students will only drink at the fountain of knowledge if they want to, and my job is to inspire, belabor, challenge, encourage, frustrate, or whatever it takes to do to motivate them to want to know. This is a process that is complex and nuanced; it requires give-and-take, flexibility, and improvisation. Learning is something you can only help to happen. It cannot be forced. You maybe can hammer a widget into shape, but not a mind. In short, teaching is a creative art, and it cannot be produced on an assembly line basis.

As for research, it is hard to escape the impression that the opposition of the “free market” zealots to academic research is at bottom ideological and not economic. The denizens of the far right do not like academic research because its results tend not to line up behind their favored dogmas. Academic research, for instance, supports evolution and human-caused global warming and tends to debunk “trickle-down” economic theories and abstinence-only sex education. Right-wing critics of higher education often promulgate a stereotype of the college professor as a tweedy elitist who does little work but spends his time sipping Chablis in the faculty club while making condescending remarks about God, patriotism, and NASCAR. Of course, all those who perpetuate such stereotypes thereby only succeed in revealing their own biases and ignorance.

Further, far from being detrimental to instruction, research and teaching go hand-in hand. Teaching at any level is enhanced if the instructor knows what the best and the brightest are doing in his or her field. Academic fields change constantly, and one who does no research can only teach a course that is frozen in time, static in ideas, and increasingly irrelevant. Also, advanced students are directly involved in research, and guiding such students—the researchers of tomorrow—is one of a professor’s most important teaching responsibilities.

The criticisms of the “free market” zealots are therefore specious, arising chiefly from ideologically motivated antipathy and baseless stereotypes. The recommendations of these critics would ravage higher education, driving good students and good professors elsewhere and would wind up giving the taxpayers a much worse deal than they have now.

But if higher education is not to be conducted on a “business” model, what is the model? What is higher education like if it is not like making widgets? A better model of the relationship between student and professor might be the relationship between patient and doctor, or, at least, the way that relationship has been portrayed since Hippocrates. The salesman gives his customer what the customer wants; the good doctor gives patients what they need. We often do not want what the doctor prescribes, e.g., to quit drinking or smoking or to lose weight and exercise more. Again, though, if the doctor is a doctor and not a quack, what the patient wants is not what matters, only what is good for the patient. Likewise I have to want what is good for my student even if that means giving them grades and feedback they do not want. Students generally want good grades with little work, but this is not good for them and it is my job not to let them have it.

Herding students en masse through a curriculum of large, impersonal surveys and online junk courses and then giving them a piece of paper at the end also is harming them and harming society, though it would certainly be cost efficient. So, sure, we could make education more cost efficient. The only downside is that we would no longer be educating but only manufacturing lots of dopes with diplomas. A high school diploma from many public school systems currently signifies little. Its possessor may not be able to read or write. With only a little effort we can make a college diploma equally meaningless. Will this be a good bargain for the taxpayers of Texas?

A concluding reflection: There was a time—n0t that long ago—indeed, within the living memory of many of us today, when everyone at all levels of society, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, agreed that there was more to value than a bottom line. Those days now seem as distant as a quasar. In the current zeitgeist the only recognized value is the kind with a dollar sign in front of it. If that is what we have become, then philosophy and the other humanities can have no value because our humanity has been lost. In that case, it is not education that has failed us; rather, we have become unworthy of it. However, I think that there is hope for us and we might still recover the great truth, known to sages, poets, philosophers, and great religious leaders throughout history, that value and price are two very different things. The true importance of the humanities is to remind us again and again and again that the true values are those of truth, beauty, and goodness—not acquisition and aggrandizement.

Critical Thinking is Bigotry
ISIS Violence IS Religious
Lessing’s Broad Ditch and Brad’s Lesser Ditch
Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
About Keith Parsons
  • Philip K

    Bravo, sir! Very well said.

  • Rick Warden

    "However, I think that there is hope for us and we might still recover the great truth, known to sages, poets, philosophers, and great religious leaders throughout history…"

    "THE great TRUTH" ??? You mean "A great truth value" Right? You may have forgotten, or perhaps there was a Freudian slip? As an atheist, you probably don't believe universal truth exists.

    I challenge anyone at this site to refute either of the following two articles:

    How Identity, Logic and Physics Prove God's Existence

    An Open Challenge to Bible Critics

    Good luck Y'all.


  • Philip K

    Rick Warden,

    Your open challenges to anyone who doesn’t think the Bible is divinely inspired are, among other things, for that critic to “Present one piece of archaeological evidence which disproves the history recorded in the Bible,” to “Present one prophecy in the Bible which has not come to pass as predicted,” and to “Present one papyrus or parchment ancient manuscript more reliable than those of the New Testament.”

    Read Bible Unearthed, by Silberman and Finklestein. But since on your webpage you cite alleged archeological evidence from the conman Ron Wyatt, you’ll first want to take a course somewhere on the rules of evidence and critical thinking. Only when you understand what science is and how it works will you be in a position to know when you’re confronted with compelling evidence in favour of an hypothesis.

    As for prophecies, I see on your website that you dance around the “context” of supposed biblical prophecies, to get around the meaning of the NT’s many predictions that Judgment Day would happen around 2000 years ago. When you can play with an ancient library like the Bible, you can make any sentence written in it mean anything you want, by interpreting that sentence in light of some other sentence in the presumed “context.” Which part of the Bible is context for which other part? The only limit to this sort of “interpretation” is the interpreter’s pride in his or her imagination.

    And thus we come to the crux, which is that the Christian is a full-fledged idolater relative to Judaism. You don’t worship a God in any monotheistic sense. You worship the so-called Word of God in the forms of the Bible and in Jesus, the supposed Son of God. Like the ancient Romans, you think God has a divine family, such as a Son “begotten” with help from a human mother. That’s classic polytheism, which Jews call idolatry. Here’s the problem with idolatry, from a Jewish perspective: once you divide up the divine, you’ll find divinity everywhere and thus nowhere. You’ll wind up with pantheism, worshipping human dictators, like the Roman Caesars or the Egyptian Pharaohs who claim to be God’s avatars.

    And eventually, you’ll worship yourself, delighting, for example, in your ability to make sense of the Bible by marshalling some arbitrary “context.” If the Bible is God’s Word, and Christians alone can properly interpret that Word, Christians must be superhuman. And if this is because Christians alone are born-again, with a spiritual nature replacing the old sinful nature, as Paul said, once again Christians must be superhuman. With those distinctions in place, the Christian can feel a polytheist’s pride, seeing God’s divine image just by looking in the mirror, while of course pretending to be the most humble person on Earth.

    I recommend that if the Christian wishes to claim theological continuity between Judaism and Christianity, that is, between a much purer monotheism and a work of blatant polytheism, the Christian should sell her exegetical machinations as stand-up comedy acts. There’s money to be made in Christianity, by treating that religion as comedy. Of course, there’s money to be made from that religion also by treating it as deadly serious, as Catholics and Protestants can equally well attest, but I’m speaking of an untapped market: Christians can make money even from non-Christians, by selling their theology as an act of comedy. I’m being serious here. I’d buy a book of systematic Christian theology if that book were written in the tradition of Dadaesque absurdity.

    As for more reliable ancient texts than the NT, check out all the ancient texts that support Eastern religions.

  • Philip K

    Rick Warden,

    Regarding your presuppositionalist argument about logic, you say “From the beginning, it was noted that universal truth and validity must exist in order for formal logic to work.” You add, “formal logic is based on the presupposition that universal and absolute truth exist,” and that logic “consists mainly of objective laws and principles.” You claim also that the Sophists (relativists, subjectivists, etc) reject these claims.

    Relativists and postmodernists don’t argue so much about the presuppositions of formal logic; instead, they contend that formal logic is often irrelevant to how humans actually behave. So Sophism/ postmodernism is a red herring with respect to your argument. As for the argument itself, you equivocate on what you say are the preconditions of logic, conflating “universal,” “absolute, “and “objective.” And in your response to Keith Parsons’ post, you add “great” to the mix, as if these adjectives all have the same meaning. Why can’t atheists believe there are great truths, or universal, objective, or even absolute ones? Only when you conflate these kinds of truth to create in your imagination super-duper divinely revealed truth, do you have something the atheist can’t subscribe to.

  • Rick Warden


    You associated "the rules of evidence and critical thinking" with science: "Only when you understand what science is…" You are entertaining your own false presuppositions.

    Critical thinking is not based on methodological naturalism, as science unfortunately is today. True critical thinking is based on objectively testing every possible hypothesis, even the possibility of God's existence.

    Phil, as much as I appreciate your comments, it seems it would be more effective if a higher authority, the operator of this blog, took up my formal challenge to refute my article.

    I ask that the operator identify himself or herself and come to my blog to refute the following premise:

    How Identity, Logic and Physics Prove God's Existence

    I would appreciate a photo of this blog operator also to use in conjunction with the response to my challenge. If my challenge is unheeded and no photo is offered, I'll choose an image at my own discretion to represent this blog and the response to my challenge.



  • Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    So, sure, we could make education more cost efficient. The only downside is that we would no longer be educating but only manufacturing lots of dopes with diplomas. A high school diploma from many public school systems currently signifies little. Its possessor may not be able to read or write. With only a little effort we can make a college diploma equally meaningless.

    The possessor of a High School diploma should "be able to read…[and] write." Furthermore, taxpayers should be shown somehow (standardized tests?) that this objective of High School education is being met, or that it is not currently being met and that actions are being taken to determine what the obstacles are to meeting this objective.

    The possessor of a college diploma should be able to think (and write) critically about what they read, especially concerning political, moral, and religious ideas.

    Furthermore, taxpayers should be shown somehow (standardized tests?) that this objective of college education is being met, or that it is not being met and that actions are being taken to determine what the obstacles are to meeting the objective.

    Actually, many Americans are opposed to critical thinking whether in high school or college, but that is a social and political battle that needs to be fought now, so we might as well get to it.

  • Philip K

    Wow, Rick Warden, I didn’t expect you’d be such a jackass. Do you even know where you are and what you’re doing? You’ve offered a challenge on a topic that has nothing at all to do with Keith Parsons' post on higher education, and you’ve demanded that he alone be the one to take up your challenge. That’s just absurd. And did you forget when in your previous post you said, “I challenge anyone at this site to refute either of the following two articles”? Don’t I qualify as “anyone at this site”? I suppose, though, you took one look at my response and said to yourself, “Well now, what a pitiful debater this fellow is. Not worth my time!” That’s amusing, because I had the same reaction when I looked over your articles. LOL.

    And what to make of your bizarre comment that it would be more “effective” if a higher authority than me take up your challenge, like Keith Parsons, the author of the blog post that has nothing to do with theism? Do you think Parsons has some needed authority here? Virtually any atheist out there has the tools to dismantle your article on logic, near death experiences, etc. I promise you that if you and I discussed the matter at length, there would be nothing left on your side. But if for some reason you assume that only someone with higher authority can be more effective at taking up your challenge, and that the writer of a post on higher education possesses that authority, good luck to you. You’ve made me laugh, at least, and that’s the important thing.

  • Philip K

    Rick Warden,

    I note, for example, that Dalillama has just taken up your challenge at your blog, in the responses section to your article on logic, and has pretty-much eviscerated your article. Perhaps, though, the Dalillama lacks the authority to merit your attention. Again, LOL!

  • Keith Parsons

    Philip K,

    I hope you will not mind some unsolicited advice. My qualifications for giving it are that I learned a lesson slowly and painfully, and maybe I can spare you the discomfort. The lesson is this: Do not waste your very considerable intellect and excellent education responding to characters like Rick Warden. If you do you will find yourself involved in an endless loop. You will offer cogent arguments and careful reasoning, and the reply will be a tsunami of sophomoric polemic and invective. A few years back I wasted my breath responding to types like Patrick Holding and Steve Hays. This Warden guy is clearly cut from the same cloth–full of self-importance in his zeal to smite the atheist and suffering from deep delusions of adequacy. Really, to reply to Warden and his ilk at the appropriate intellectual level would require a gesture with the middle finger, not the big guns of philosophical argument. Just ignore him. He will go away. He may hang around a while spewing self-righteousness and diatribes. When he realizes that his fulminations are just amusing us he will just go away (I love it when these types get abusive. Makes my day).

  • Philip K

    Keith Parsons,

    Thanks for the compliments, and I take your points. I too used to debate Christians at length on the internet, and I learned firsthand the difference between those who understand and respect the nature of a rational discussion and those who don’t. As you said, little if any time should be wasted on the latter, and I guess I’ve already given Rick Warden too much credit.

    Still, Patrick Holding seems to be in a special category. He’s got a crazy Christian worldview and the character defects that many atheists know about, but he’s also an obsessive, skilled writer and debater who gives the appearance, at least, of walloping hapless critics of Christianity. You have to be an expert on ancient history to see how he twists things around. The point is that some internet Christian debaters present special challenges, and I wouldn’t necessarily lump him in the same category as Rick Warden.

    Anyway, again I really enjoyed your post on higher education.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    As it happens I taught for a few years at a university, so I had the opportunity to think about higher education from the inside. In short here are my thoughts:

    1. Universities are not there to serve the interests of their professors and administrators. There are not there to serve the interests of their students even. Rather, universities are there to serve the interests of the people, of society as a whole. How to define what the interests of society in relation to higher education actually are is a separate issue, but I would say there is broad agreement that the universities are there to educate young people to become useful members of society and build a better future for all.

    2. Universities are not research institutions, or at least not mainly research institutions. Research should be done at universities within the context of their primary mission which is education. Actually, a relevant and much disregarded kind of research is about how to improve education itself. The way students are educated at universities has basically not changed for centuries and is in my view way behind the times – more about this bellow. On the other hand some research programs are needed for postgraduate students, and also for keeping professors up to date. In any case, professors' academic careers should mainly advance on the quality of the education they provide to their students, instead of on their achievements in research and papers published.

    3. The most important thing a university can give its students is inspiration and love for learning. There is an eminently practical dimension to this, as nowadays few people will remain useful without keeping educating themselves after they leave the formal educational environment. In my judgment the traditional class setting where the professor drones on and here and there writes something on the blackboard in front of a mostly passive group of students is an affront, indeed an injury, to their intelligence and creativity. University students should learn by themselves using books and the web, making exercises and developing projects, organizing discussions among themselves etc, and in general learning the way they will have to keep learning after the leave the university. The professor’s job, it seems to me, is to motivate, structure, and administer this *active* and student-centric process of learning. It is not the professor’s job to transmit knowledge to the student; rather it is the student’s job to acquire knowledge. The professor’s job is to teach and train the student on the means and ways for acquiring knowledge.

    4. Finally, in the times we live, I think a major task of higher education is to produce students not only with the knowledge they will need in their jobs, but also with knowledge about how they should use that knowledge. In short I think all students should learn about ethics and about critical thinking. Therefore I think that an important part of all higher education curricula should be about philosophy. Giving graduates the power of knowledge without giving them the wisdom about how to use that power well, does not serve the society’s needs, and may indeed be self-destructive.

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