I welcome Arieh Smith’s article against the value of expensive private colleges. (Online here and a reply.) The education is incredibly expensive, and grows more so every year, especially compared to the real value of most families’ incomes. What justifies such high costs is an important topic of discussion, one that I think most universities prefer to ignore behind the excuse of “our budgets are too complicated to represent for the public how their money contributes to their education.” Also, I embrace skepticism of easy promises from those who ask for a lot of money and make vague claims about the future dependent on your own achievement.
However, I am concerned at the bitter anger below the surface of Smith’s argument. It seems to me he has written in order to attack instead of critically examine, and this has weakened his argument. The primary concern of his article is a dominant interest in economic value or usefulness, embodied in issues of education’s return on investment, the value of social prestige, and the merit of being useful to society. A secondary concern, it seems, is whether high-minded universities such as Chicago contribute to the political stability of our nation. Since these two arguments are essentially separate, I will treat them in order.
Smith’s primary concern about the price of education is whether it reflects the true value of the good being purchased: he wants the universities to justify themselves. I would agree with him on this point, although for reasons that have little to do with the exchange value of an education, which in fact constitute the primary flaw of his argument. The only people who would be convinced the education isn’t worth it are those who would only bother to become more educated because it earns them more money. Suffice it to say that for many people, the meaning of an education exceeds the means-end calculations of wealth. The opportunity to learn and reflect supports a happier life, the ability to help others, and the achievement of excellence in the arts or politics. While these goals can certainly be hampered or helped by money, they are not defined in terms of it.
This brings me to Smith’s second argument about the democratic importance of universities. He claims first that the beliefs of academics about the meaning of their work is a self-deception because it is self-justifying, and second that since most people have not had a higher education, it is not necessary for democracy. The first is unconvincing because justifying oneself should do nothing other than bring in line the benefits of one’s work with its necessary resources — as such, it undermines nothing. The second depends both on the historical elitism of education as well as its claimed brevity of influence over time. The elitism argument fails historically (as another has commented online) because the institution of constitional democracies and republics depended heavily on the wisdom and human knowledge found in philosophy (e.g. Locke and Cato for the American Revolution). The brevity argument also fails because it misses the historical continuity of Greek and Roman influence. Take Galen, for example, the 2nd century A.D. Roman doctor and anatomist whose influence continued into the 19th century and who was guided formatively by Aristotle’s philosophy of causes and the study of animals. In other words, the Romans read the Greeks, the early Christians were Romans, and the modern era began as a reaction to Catholic scholasticism (especially of Aristotle).
In sum, we can see that it is not necessary to “study something useful or at least interesting” at a public or private school. One need not put the meaning of life into the language of utility and monetary value, even understanding that any such other goals require some kind of wage for survival. And simply because most people have never understood nor cared to understand ancient philosophy does not mean it has made no difference: its place in history is secured by all the pivotal figures whose actions depended on their reflections about the traditions they had inherited. Neither of these facts rule out living one’s life for monetary gain or for more worldly ends; instead, they point to a basic pluralism where one answer to life cannot truly exclude the others.