Socialism -- ideas so good they must be made mandatory.
I had lunch recently with a young lawyer. When an undergrad he wrote a libertarian column for the student newspaper that took issue with the university's new policy of requiring students living in the dorms to buy a meal plan for the semester. He argued that it was not a good deal for students.
While on his way home a few days later he ran into the president of the university. "I didn't think much of your column. The meal plan is a bargain."
"Wouldn't students be able to figure out what's in their best interest?"
"UCLA and Berkeley require purchase of a meal plan."
"If it were a bargain, wouldn't the customers, the students realize that? You have a degree in political science. Don't you have any faith in markets?"
"If we are to rise to the ranks of the best state schools, a UCLA or Michigan, we have to be like them. They all require purchase of meal plans."
"Sir, I just took a class in philosophy at your university. We studied the confusion of correlation with causation. UCLA requires purchase of meal plans, UCLA is a top school; therefore, we will be a top school if we require purchase of meal plans."
"If we want to be a top-ranked school we have to act like one."
"Well, maybe our problem isn't meal plans but geography. Maybe we should move the campus to LA or Ann Arbor!"
The great man got in his car and drove off, scowling. But a few days later he sent my friend a note saying how much he had enjoyed their short colloquy.
I then told the young lawyer about a conversation I had recently had with a professor. I had seen an interview in the paper with a former president of the university, who was bemoaning the graduation rates in this country; everyone should graduate high school, everyone should graduate college, only through education can our children hope to live the American dream.
In meditating on these things during my morning walk I ran into one of the professors I often see. Curious, I thought I would get his insights on the subject. After all, he teaches intellectual history. Our dialogue went something like this:
"Did you see the president's interview in the paper?"
"No, we read The New York Times. What was it?"
"He was talking about the need for everyone to go to college."
"I was wondering, what would the slowest learners major in if everyone attended university?"
"Well, I think what they're worried about is countries like South Korea, where 65% of the population has a college degree."
"But do they separate students into academic and vocational tracks in middle school?"
"I don't know."
"Most of the world does that."
"Yes, I know."
"So which major would be suitable for a person with, say, SAT scores in the 400s?"
"The SAT does not predict success in college. It's very prejudicial."
"I thought it does." I did not say that The Bell Curve asserts that standardized test scores do correlate with college grades, but I knew those names would be radioactive to him.
"Well, if it does, it does not predict success in life."
"OK, let me rephrase the question. What would a person with an IQ of 80 major in?"
"IQ tests are not accurate either, you know. They're culturally bound, they discriminate against minorities and lower socioeconomic groups."
"I don't care if you call intelligence icing cakability, unless I misunderstand statistics completely, half of the population is below average in ability."
"Oh, well, yes, you're right."
"So what would be an appropriate major for someone who can barely dress, feed, and take care of him/herself unassisted?"
"I think business is a good major."
Such is the conclusion of a professor of intellectual history.
Then, a couple weeks ago, I got an email from a professor responding to Victor Davis Hanson's "The Outlaw Campus." The professor sneered at "the expectation that McDegrees in 'marketing', 'business' or whatever should automatically grant a person access to a high paying (valuable) job." Ironically, business majors are more in demand in the marketplace than, say, degrees in queer studies.
He then turned his contempt on the vast majority of his fellow citizens:
We have whole generations of people now, who think designing and writing code for video games, marketing sports enterprises, and creating viral Youtube videos are valuable 'commodities' that are staple [sic] of a robust economy. Talk about insane. Think about the money/time our society throws at entertainment (i.e., sports, movies, reality tv, et cetera) ... and then people turn around an [sic] bitch that people like me should innovate more and better health care, economically viable 'green' energy, et cetera so they can have more disposable income for more crap they don't need?
I too have no use for most of what people spend their money and time on, but defining "crap they don't need" in a modern, technological society is problematic. After food, raiment, and shelter are taken care of, what do "they" need? And how would our modern-day Plato, busy ordering the Republic, define the scope of each of those necessities? Should the first be restricted to beans and brown bread? Does the professor ever enjoy a grape or avocado in winter, brought to his dainty palate from Chile thanks to inordinate amounts of fossil fuels?
As for clothing, should footwear include a pair of Nike running shoes? Or must they be Champion brand from Target? Hiking boots? Would North Face be too expensive? How many shirts? I used to work with a man who grew up in Kentucky. In high school he had two shirts, but he felt rich compared to his friend, who possessed only one. Joe ended up graduating college, the first in his family to do so, and now he has quite a few shirts. Does he "need" them?
And shelter: how many square feet of living space should we allot the proletariat? Ted Kaczynski lived in a one-room hut in Montana. Is that all one "needs"? (Although the professor no doubt approves of Ted's rejection of consumerism, I would hope there are other aspects of the Unabomber's philosophy he finds repugnant.)
I wonder if the professor owns a MacBook Air. Is that something he "needs"? Maybe he makes do with a Lenovo laptop? Is that where we should draw the line, $500 tops for a computer? And then only if one can demonstrate a "need" for work or school? I assume he has some electronic goods, but are the Chinese workers who made them paid a living wage?
The professor complains that "with society driving our consumer economy as it does, it is no wonder that academia has its own related/convoluted set of issues." That seems to be the nub of it: we have "society driving our consumer economy." It's just the wrong party in the driver's seat. Wouldn't we have "a more just, verdant, and peaceful world" if the professoriate were driving?
Educators such as these never miss an opportunity to give the rest of us homilies about the need for the young to learn to think critically, to develop problem-solving skills, and to communicate effectively. How can these academics impart what they do not possess?
Henry Percy is the nom de guerre of a writer in Arizona. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.