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October 22, 2009

Something Rotten

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Today's guest blogger is "Zdeno" which, translated, means "like Michael Blowhard, this writer needs cover for job-related reasons."

Here is his report:

* * * * *

For almost half a decade, my life was a Johnny Cash song. I would drink to the point of blacking out four nights a week, sleep past noon every day, and devote most of my waking hours to chasing loose women and an altered state of mind. I exaggerate only slightly when I say that I accomplished, learned and produced nothing of value throughout this entire dark age of my life.

Was I a bum? A liquor-soaked storefront panhandler? A toothless vagrant, shuffling up and down the streets of Baltimore, peddling handjobs for crack-cocaine?

Not quite. I was a student at one of our continent’s better Universities. And my experience was hardly unique. If I learned one thing over those years, it’s that the modern University is anything but an institution of higher learning, and trust me: Unless you are still inside the beast, or so fresh from the rear of her digestive system that the smell still lingers, you do not fully understand how completely and utterly ridiculous the contemporary higher-education system has become.

Let’s think about this from the perspective of a historian from the distant future, parsing through the delicate, yellowing, primary sources of 2009: What will he make of the present situation? How will he explain North American Universities to his colleagues and students?

He’ll start with the positive, I’m sure, as a matter of courtesy. So what positive traits do our Universities exhibit?

First, Universities are filled with the best and the brightest in our society. Exceptions exist, but the general principle is: If an eighteen year old in 2009 is smart and ambitious, he goes to University. If he is really smart and ambitious, he stays there for a second and maybe even a third degree. As a result of this pattern, Universities are overflowing with intelligent and driven people.

Also, Going to University is generally a good idea. The vast majority of good jobs that are not called “starting a successful business” require some sort of accreditation. In addition to the direct benefits to students’ careers, Universities also serve as an ideal opportunity for the future leaders of society to form exclusive social and professional networks, and perhaps track down a high-status, high-earning spouse. As a friend of mine puts it, half the girls in her Med program are just there for their M.R.S. degree.

Perhaps most importantly, going to University is fun. The vast majority of University alumni look back on their University days fondly, and an entire sub-genre of films aimed at young adults is based on idealization of the college years. I certainly had a blast, and my impression is that I wasn’t unique in this regard.

As a result of these qualities, everyone in 2009 agrees with the vague notion that University is a good thing. What parent doesn’t dream of sending their child to University? Only a select few, and they probably live on heavily armed militia compounds in rural Montana. Our imaginary historian however, considers them harmful.

The first oddity he notices is the abysmal course content. While pockets of practical, truth-seeking scholarship still remain – engineering, the hard sciences, perhaps a few nooks and crannies in business and economics – the majority of students are studying the 21st century equivalents of Chrysopoeia , Alectormancy and Theodicy. Some of the system’s worst excesses have been culled in the past decade or two, as truth has a way of seeping in the cracks of even the most impressive edifices of falsity, but new methods of waging war against truth and clear thinking are being dreamed up every day. You’ll notice, for example, that no one actually lost their job over the Sokal Affair.

Not only are the Arts and Humanities generally devoid of worth – in many cases, their study is actively harmful to students, and the world they are poised to seize control of. Far be it from this article to catalogue the horrors loosed upon the world by the ideologies of Marxism, Post-colonialism, and Radical Feminism, but suffice it to say that extreme leftism has tended to emanate rather pungently from Universities.

Fortunately, our hypothetical historian would say, at least the students spent much more time in self-induced alcoholic comas than actually reading the tripe assigned to them. Tragic as it is, watching students frivolously squander what should be the most productive years of their lives, there are worse fates.

But, our historian would say, how much had the world lost by confining so many to a childhood that lasts ten years longer than it should? What novels, businesses, screenplays, skyscrapers and families would have been created, if not for this redundant institution, the University? How much had this society spent, under the dubious banner of “the public good”, in support of these monstrous shrines to perpetual adolescence?

Too much, he would say. And I would have to agree.

Having just finished five years and two degrees, both at mid-sized Canadian Universities, and having visited many other schools across the continent, I can confidently say: Our system of post-secondary education is completely and irreparably flawed. The academic content, outside of engineering and science, ranges from the mendaciously political (The Arts) to the mind-numbingly vapid (Commerce). Alcohol and drug consumption that would make Hunter S. Thompson blush is the norm. I would estimate the average hourly workload of a reasonably bright student is in the 10-20 hour per week range. Testing is a system to be gamed. Cheating is rampant. Professors and teaching assistants have literally no incentive to provide a satisfactory, let alone excellent product.

In short, the entire system is rotten to the core. Incremental reforms are unrealistic, given the entrenched interests involved. Consider the plight of Lawrence Summers . If the president of Harvard can be defrocked for stating an utterly banal scientific fact, provided it happens to contradict the system’s theology, we know these people are not going to relinquish power voluntarily. Our only option is discontinuous change: Destruction, redesign, and rebirth. Liquidate the Universities. Eliminate all public funding of post-secondary education institutions. Pass an amendment (or your local equivalent) prohibiting the government from making attainment of an accredited degree a condition of employment.

The result: Complete chaos, plummeting IQs and your meth-addicted uncle Tyrell opening an Oil Change/triple-bypass Heart Surgery/Hot Dog stand. Then again, maybe not. Tune in next week for Part 2: Imagining a world without government-certified education.

* * * * *

I agree that there's a need to replace/work-around our higher education system and await Zdeno's email and its attachment containing the sequel to this post.



posted by Donald at October 22, 2009


Well, I hate to disagree with Mr. M. Blowhard on this one, because I respect the guy. But count me as a dissenting voice.

We all have our individual experiences and think on some level they all have some universaility. But I find the generalizations in above assessment of the college experience far too over-reaching. And not reflective of my college years at all.

Speaking for myself, some of us come from ethnic families that were blue collar (or worse) a generation before. For me, college was a way to find a world beyond the insular, Italian-American culture in which I was raised. Did college for me include partying and biased profs? You bet. But there were even more smart kids from whom I learned A LOT and brilliant professors who encouraged me (and continue to do so to this day).

Furthermore, my peers and profs inspired me to do something everyone should do: use the campus library. There, I found a wealth of knowledge I could never have otherwise known about. Why? Well, because the house in which I grew up which had (ready for this?) NO BOOKS. NO! BOOKS! Aside: I once got in trouble from my dad for buying a book, which he considered "a waste of money.")

Then there were the other arts. I met people who opened my mind to all sorts of music and visual arts. I'd already had some inkling that this was my interest, but this helped solidify my resolve to make this my career. I certainly didn't get any support in this area from my parents who could not conceive of a job outside working for the gov't.

I don't want to try and mind-read, but my guess here is Michael Blowhard is like a lot of Ivy League kids: he worked his butt off in high school to get into a top university and then used college as a way to make up for lost time socializing and partying. I can understand this, but it's not my experience. Nor is it the experience of my old college crowd (many of whom are my Facebook friends) which include doctors, editors, top Microsoft execs and even lawayers. Well, nobody's perfect.

Posted by: Tony S on October 22, 2009 12:46 PM

Why dismiss the engineering/science students with a wave of the hand? Most of them are getting value out of their educations.

Posted by: Peter on October 22, 2009 1:28 PM

Zdeno is right. Burn down about half of America's "institutions of higher learning", then send those kids to vocational schools/re-education camps. Let's get started.

Posted by: Bob Grier on October 22, 2009 1:29 PM

Just a note to point out that the post wasn't written by me, Michael Blowhard, it was written by Zdeno ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2009 1:46 PM

I agree with Zdeno. We should burn down half the "institutions of higher learning" and send those kids off to vocational schools. When do we get started?

Posted by: Bob Grier on October 22, 2009 3:33 PM

"What novels, businesses, screenplays, skyscrapers and families would have been created, if not for this redundant institution, the University?"

Little of worth, if any. Conceding your premise, for the sake of argument, that universities teach little of value, there's no evidence that they impede the student's post-graduate creation of any of the things you listed.

Most 18-22 year olds, with or without college, won't create much of anything worthwhile anyway - it's not in them to do so. And I wouldn't want anyone without some rigorous technical instruction to design and build a skyscraper or an airplane.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on October 22, 2009 4:02 PM

First, I think it's Zdeno, not Michael who wrote this piece.

Second, I'm not certain how Zdeno managed 4 years. At the University of Toronto, 20-25% of the people who enter first year don't make it to second. Generally if you don't manage a half-decent mark, you get a warning and then the boot with a second bad semester. Obviously he's was a smart drunk :-).

Now it's been a few years since I was in those hallowed halls, but nothing I have seen recently has suggested a sudden lurch downward in standards.

It's pretty much always been the case that university is where you finally have the freedom to self-destruct, if so inclined. I don't think we as a whole would benefit if that freedom were pushed even farther back.

Freedom means allowing adults to make bad choices.

And yes, those bad choices may include indulging in nothing but basket weaving courses. But if the only way to avoid over-indulgence is to not allow any academic indulgence at all, then I'd go with allowing a few students to academically waste their time at university in order allow the majority students to take a few courses that satisfy intellectual curiousity more than helping them find their next job.

Posted by: Tom West on October 22, 2009 5:49 PM

Thanks for the forum Donald! Finally, I can start telling girls in bars that I'm Internet Famous.


First, thanks very much for mistaking my post for one of Michael's - mighty high praise, in my books.

As for your arguments, I agree that my post generalizes very liberally, and that not all University students have the experience I described. Certainly most of my friends in science and engineering learned a lot, worked their asses off, and grew as people during their four + years.

I also exaggerate the scope of my decadence in the original post. I actually learned quite a bit during my undergrad, by making liberal use of the campus library and the intelligent, articulate friends and professors I surrounded myself with. What's more, I agree completely that University is a useful opportunity for lower and middle class students to meet people with different (better?) values than what they were exposed to previously. This was my experience, and my background is (from what I can tell) quite similar to yours.

Not insignificantly, I'm the first to admit I was having a blast for every second of the half-decade shit-show. Most students do, and this is a big point in the “pro” column. I mean, sure, Universities are giant playgrounds for adults. So what? Playgrounds are fun.

But when I look back at all the positive aspects of my 19-23 years, they are only coincidental to my University enrolment. Did I learn a lot and have a good time? Yes. But my alma mater was, if anything, an impediment to the experience.

I don't doubt that you, me, and many others feel good when they look back on their undergrad years. But doesn't it strike you as odd that in your post cataloguing all the great things about University, not once did you mention any of the classes you took, or what you studied? Everything you say you did, you could have done with a library card and an apartment in the student ghetto.

To me, this suggests the need for radical reform.

Thanks a lot for your thoughtful reply,

- Zdeno

Posted by: Zdeno on October 22, 2009 5:59 PM

I was spending time in Paris earlier in the year and hooked up with a few agreeable, mostly American, expats, nearly all of whom were tertiary educated and of the left. The skills and raw brain-power of a number of them would certainly surpass my own.

One of them remarked to me that she found Australia, The Movie, fascinating because of its portrayal of aboriginal magic. (Apparently, there's a scene where an aboriginal child diverts a cattle stampede right near the edge of a cliff.) Though I live and work in the middle of a large aboriginal community, my opinion was conspicuously not sought. In any case, I was a little too surprised to say much.

The lady's education consisted of knowing only a certain type of thing, seeing life only through a certain prism. Those who read the essays of Theodore Dalrymple will be familiar with the kind of educated person I'm talking about.

These folk, while availing themselves of all the amenities of a huge metropolis, were all of the "green" persuasion and placed a supreme value on something very remote called Wilderness. The fact that I spend most of my life in a wilderness did not stir their curiosity in the least.

One problem with higher education, is, as Zdeno mentions, the actual components of the course. What if higher studies in English, for example, required a reading fluency in Icelandic? There's actually a strong case for this, but the Humanities have been so vaporous for so long that the notion would be met with derision or outrage.

Yet the biggest problem with much tertiary education is that it seems to create a "job-done" mentality in many of its recipients. They feel exempted from knowing anything much at all, in spite of their undeniable capacity, and the common knowledge available to most becomes unavailable to them. Continued enlightenment is achieved merely by the adoption of certain attitudes vaguely known to be current in educated circles.

I'm not someone who's snobbish about Google and Wiki. (I vividly remember groaning when a contributor to this blog gave us a needless but extensive tour of his physical library as a lengthy prelude to discussing race, IQ etc.) No, the problem is not blogs, Google, Wiki etc. They're all here to stay, alongside millions of books.

The problem is the sense of exemption that so many of the tertiary educated now feel. Against all likelihood, this can mean that the dumbest guy in the room is the grad.

Just add AGW!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on October 22, 2009 7:04 PM

@ Peter Winkler

Don't you think the idea that 18-22 year olds can't produce much of value is a peculiar one? I certainly don't feel much smarter today than I did during those years, and I am pretty fresh out of them so my memory is sharp. Also, just because someone lacks skills and experience doesn't mean they can't be useful - why not get some work done around the office while you're learning how the show is run?

@ Peter non-Winkler, GNP-enthusiast extraordinaire

While I agree that the "harder" programs are orders of magnitude less cancer-ridden than Business and Arts, I still think they can be taught quite a bit better. Also, I think the best realistic path to reform is discontinuous. Entrenched interests don't often un-trench themselves very easily.

@ Tom

I'll watch my mouth, now that I know you are within driving-and-asskicking distance of me =)

U of T is one of our great frosty nation's better schools, so the problems I describe aren't as bad. Take a road trip an hour or two West sometime and visit the non-commuter, 2nd-tier Ontario Universities for a taste of what I'm talking about. You'll meet some nice girls, I promise you that.

As I'll hopefully make a bit clearer later on, I think that there's a place in our society for a few exclusive institutions of higher education, similar in more than a few ways to the Harvard's and U of T's of today. The tragedy I see is the legion of mediocre students being forced through the intellectual woodchippers that are the 2nd and 3rd tier crappy state schools, and their non-American equivalents. You could make a decent case for the existence of U of T, I'm sure - but York?

@ Robert


University students (nonsci/eng) are doing very little actual learning. They are ticking boxes. The smart ones understand that, and set about improving themselves in other ways, i.e. finding great part-time jobs, extracurricular reading, and starting businesses.

Thanks for all the interesting replies.


Posted by: Zdeno on October 22, 2009 8:36 PM

I've been taught by professors from all over North America and Europe, some with Big Names. Yet hands down the best lecturers in Humanities subjects that I ever encountered were at - wait for it - York University. The Fine Arts faculty had collected a really great crop of art historians, etc. and I wouldn't have missed them for the world. I liked some of them so much I kept my notes from their classes...

Posted by: aliasclio on October 22, 2009 9:54 PM

Since I've returned from abroad, I've taken a rather strong turn against academia, to the point that if the universities burned, I would toss some kerosene on the bonfire.

This is coming from someone who spent 9 years as an undergraduate and graduate student. I don't regret the choices I made in the matter. It was fun, and it was enlightening and I miss the girls everyday.

The problem is I feel I was sold a rotten bill of goods. Something absolutely useless once off the campus quad. Something I'm going to be paying for, for the rest of my life. But it's a long story, and it's not worth the telling.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on October 23, 2009 2:47 AM

I wonder where this fellow went to University? Perhaps if someone takes a "studies" class, one encounters rampant Marxism. However, for those of us who avoided those classes, and just stuck to the basic humanities (English Lit, Great works of the 19th century, European History from Greece to Renaissance Italy, etc.), there was never a problem of subversive feminism or cultural Marxism.

Posted by: Victor on October 23, 2009 3:56 AM

You'll find similar complaints about the universities in Gibbon and Adam Smith, with particular ire directed at Oxford. It needed sweeping reform to put right, and the leader was an outsider and foreigner, Prince Albert.

I rarely write anything as long as the above para on this topic; usually I just comment "Dissolution of the Monasteries".

Posted by: dearieme on October 23, 2009 6:28 AM

I largely agree with Zdeno, but I take issue with his views on Univ. of Toronto versus rest. The evidence suggests that the best undergraduate schools for liberal arts are small ones, and the mega-universities like UofT are giant sausage machines.

My did my undergraduate at a small university, and found it generally excellent. No TAs, small tutorials with the professor, even in first year. In fourth year, I even had some one-on-one courses.

Then I did grad school at a notorious party university "an hour or two West" of Toronto, not necessarily a bad thing for a social late bloomer. But the top scholars there were first-rate and could easily hold their own with UofT luminaries. And with a graduate class of 20, I'm sure I got to know them much better than in a graduate class of 200 at UofT.

This may have changed considerably since the 1980s, of course, and the situation in the States (Harvard etc.) may be different.

On the other hand, I'd say that middling students get very little worthwhile out of a arts/social science degree and would be better off in more practical courses, maybe outside the university.

Even if the liberal arts amount to the "21st century equivalents of Chrysopoeia , Alectormancy and Theodicy" that's not necessarily a bad thing. A bright person can sharpen their wits on any formal system, and it's the wits-sharpening that they will use after university. But a student who graduates with less than a middle-B average would be better off doing something they could excel at.

Posted by: ChrisB on October 23, 2009 3:31 PM

A dude in his late twenties, fresh out of University where he apparently majored in binge drinking and game, attacks the entire University system, with an emphasis of the Arts & Humanities, those bastions of lefties and feminists.

God, I miss Michael.

Posted by: Chris White on October 24, 2009 8:46 AM

ChrisB: "and the mega-universities like UofT are giant sausage machines."

I attended a mega-university (Univ. of Texas) for undergrad through my PhD (1989-1999). My undergrad degree was in electrical engineering so I had little exposure to the liberal arts side of campus but from my experience, a student's experience at a large university depends on his or her personality and needs. Mentoring and one-on-one interactions will not appear out of nowhere and students who are insecure or undecided about their goals can get lost (or just enjoy the four-year party). However, the student who has a degree of self-motivation and assertiveness will find endless opportunities at a large research university. I only once had a teaching assistant instead of a professor for a class (macroeconomics) and most of my classes, even large introductory ones, were extremely well taught.

But perhaps I'm simply restating Zdeno's point that the university experience is worthwhile if you are in the hard sciences or engineering but less so for the humanities and the classical liberal arts education. Certainly, the thing that struck me most interacting with other undergrads and then later as a TA in Astronomy, was the lack of well-developed critical thinking skills and the absolute terror of math at even its most basic level. One could spend a great deal of time trying to explain to a student that distance = rate x time is the same relation when it's applied to the speed of light and cosmological distances as when it describes how long it takes them to get to Houston from Austin if they drive 65 mph, but the mental block was stubborn. As Robert Townshend has already said, this caused some humanities students to be capable of believing some amazing things, especially if the alternative was politically incorrect. It's a shame, because the world is full of bad science and generally people come out of university without the tools to apply skeptical thinking.

Posted by: CyndiF on October 24, 2009 9:28 AM

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