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Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Future of College

Future of College

Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Future of College

Amidst all of the existential questioning of the modern world that pervades the media (and our dinner parties) at the moment,...

6 Minutes Read

Amidst all of the existential questioning of the modern world that pervades the media (and our dinner parties) at the moment, one of the hottest topics is the role and future of higher education; put most simply, is college worth it? The question really sub-divides into two parts; in a world of arbitrage and automation what should junior study to give him/her the best shot in the future of work out there in the real world, and should we (the parents and/or junior) spend a medium-sized fortune on paying for it?

Though there are some influential folks questioning the very premise of college, most notably Peter Thiel, and though there are some MOOC fans, my sense is that the broad bourgeois consensus still leans in favor of junior going to a school like the ones we went to, in the way that we went; I think your friends and family would cock an eyebrow or two if they heard you were encouraging junior not to bother with college at all, or to stay in the basement and be a MOOCer.

Within that belief (or hope) the course to study debate has, it seems, become more partisan between those who favor the STEM end of the continuum and those who continue to be long on the humanities. Your humble correspondent can see the logic in both of these arguments; in a world growing more digital by the day it would be entirely sensible to arm yourself with as many tools as possible to leverage the incredible opportunities the new code rush will afford.  But a world exclusively populated by STEM graduates doesn’t bear thinking about!

The more I’ve thought about this – with the college countdown clock for Cost Centers One and Two ticking loudly – the more I’ve come to the following conclusion, that a) yes, absolutely, college is worth it, and b) it doesn’t matter what you study. But the conclusion comes with a caveat. A very big caveat, namely that universities need to remember and reassert the fundamental role they play in developing the ethical and aesthetical qualities of their students.

Every day we hear of a new scandal in the commanding heights of society; bribery, doping, cheating in major sports, leading politicians on sexual misconduct charges, corrupt drug companies, blue-chip banks paying huge fines for shady dealings. The list goes on and on. In recent weeks both the British Prime Minister and the Governor of the Bank of England have urged for an end to an “era of irresponsibility”.  Many of the people being caught up in these scandals have gone to the best schools in the world and have been amongst the elite at those schools.  Presumably whilst there they mastered Discounted Future Cash Flow, and C++, and how to create value through corporate restructuring, but I’d question whether they were taught how to be kind, how to put others first, how to decide between two equally unpleasant courses of action, how to value service over money.

Colleges might say that’s not their job, or that they do teach those qualities though indirectly, or that they’re not responsible for alum in later life going rouge. I guess those points would be fair enough.  But I can’t help thinking that the most valuable thing colleges can (and should) contribute to society, and which seems lower on the agenda right now, is a (heightened) focus on turning out ethical young people, rather than new ranks of kids armed with the latest “hot” (but perishable) skill that profit motivated employers want at that precise moment.

Similarly, higher education should be helping young people develop and strengthen an ability to differentiate between the beautiful and the ugly. The doyenne of Silicon Valley, Mary Meeker, says that we’re in an era where “we’re reimagining nearly everything … in the search for beauty”. It’s beauty that has made Apple the most successful company in the history of mankind, but yet, as anyone with an aesthetic eye can tell, beauty is very unevenly distributed. We live our lives in the midst of so much that is not beautiful and there is so much opportunity to create beauty in every aspect of our lives. It’s the beauty of the High Line that has revitalized Chelsea in New York. It’s the beauty of the Guggenheim that has revitalized Bilbao.

How much time and energy and focus is the college that your kid is at – or about to go to – spending on developing your kid’s ability to think critically about the difference between Jeff Koons and Banksy, between Jet Blue and American Airlines, about the Westin and the Hilton, about A versus B? Aesthetics, to some, is the preserve of the effete and the refuge of the non-commercial (in a highly commercial age) but, aesthetics is in reality about the ability to make decisions, which surely is the core principle of “economics”. And isn’t that something every kid should major in?

At 21 a person is still very, very young (though they of course themselves don’t think that!); really still a baby. And ahead are 40 or 50 years of work; within that span what they do, how they do it, the tools they’ll need, the skills they’ll need, are going to change time and time again.

In my very humble opinion colleges shouldn’t be worrying about minor detail x over minor detail y; they should be worrying about graduating people who will act well in the pursuit of beauty. That is what will serve them, and society, most beneficially during the unknowable years ahead.

The commercialization of college has led to a doubling down on the “resume virtues” – in David Brook’s parlance - instead of the “eulogy virtues. In an “era of behavior”, as Dov Seidman puts it higher education is in danger of making a big, big, mistake that you and I will have to pay for in the short run but which we all may have to pay for in the long run.  

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