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AC Grayling, New College of the Humanities, and Thoughts on Higher Education

June 14, 2011

Whilst corresponding with a friend over e-mail recently, I was asked my opinion of the recent AC Grayling story. And so I’ll offer it.

For those who don’t know, here’s the backstory: AC Grayling is a prominent British philosopher, who pursued a conventional academic career as a professor of Philosophy at top universities in the UK for much of his life. At the same time, however, he went out of his way to develop a public presence as a voice for philosophy in the UK, authoring a regular column for The Guardian and becoming a prominent figure in public debates about (among other things) war crimes, aerial bombing, the ethics of assisted suicide, etc. in the UK. (One might add here that the UK, for complex reasons, has a very different culture than the US in terms of academics playing a role, not quite as public intellectuals, but as figures in the major newspapers, on television, and on radio – this is one reason why the US produces many fine professors of History, but fewer total media personalities along the lines of Niall Ferguson or Timothy Garton Ash, both of whom are probably now better-known for their media presence than their scholarship, although Ferguson, at least, is certainly still more than capable of producing impressive serious stuff.

AC Grayling Does Advertising

AC Grayling's New College

Recently, Grayling announced that he was leaving his position at Birkbeck College, London, in order to found the New College of the Humanities, what he calls a “new concept in education.” You can read in more detail about the concept elsewhere, but it has the British higher education establishment outraged, as Grayling’s concept is basically to charge £18,000 a year for the education (twice the new legal limit for British public university annual fees), and to bring in an All-Star lineup of some of the Atlantic World’s best professors to teach students, primarily in the humanities. Some of the batting lineup includes Richard Dawkins, the biologist and “New Atheist,” Linda Colley, a celebrated historian of the United Kingdom and British identity, the above-noted Ferguson, Stephen Pinker, the celebrated linguist and Harvard professor, and others. True, there will be a small army of lesser-known lecturers running around to provide more teaching, too, but the basic pitch is All-Star professors at All-Star prices.

Coming to a school for rich children near you!

What to say about this proposal? Three things come to mind for me.

On one level, I think it represents a further step in the disturbing trend of the segregation of rich Western countries between a rich élite and a permanent underclass, not to put too fine a point on it. We have to take as a starting point for the discussion that Oxford admitted few Black British students last year, and that, for example, in the USA right now, one in four children will experience homelessness at some point in their lives, that more than 10% of the American population is functionally illiterate, and so on. As journalists like Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, writing from places like West Virginia, Rust Belt Ohio, and Camden, New Jersey, have underlined, the United States in the last thirty years became a strange archipelago of first-world locales (Manhattan, Cambridge, Palo Alto), and some more aspirational centers for members of the non-elite (Houston, Dallas, Denver), but with many pockets that are effectively a third-world country. In many areas, prisons are the primary source of employment. Camden does not have a grocery store, and the city’s library system has been shut down. The only two available sources of food in several West Virginia towns that Hedges and Sacco visited are Church’s Fried Chicken and donut stores – grease and fat. Much of this structural dismantling of pockets of America took place at the time of what James Chanos has underlined as the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, namely the enriching of the American financial class from the 1999 Financial Services Modernization Act to 2008.

Joe Sacco's Cartoon Rendering of Camden

Still, the United States remains, perversely, not only the wealthiest country but also home to the greatest institutions of higher education in human history. You can get a better education at American universities than in any other system in the world. Especially if you’re willing to pay for it. While figures like Peter Thiel and scores of so-called “scambloggers” have devoted justified attention to the rising cost of college education in the United States, one man, John Sexton of New York University (itself one of the most expensive schools in the USA, often leaving a trail of debt-burdened 20-somethings in its wake), has sought to expand the global presence of NYU, namely by establishing a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. As my friend Jeanne-Marie Jackson, a scholar of comparative literature, underlined in an op-ed some time ago, NYU Abu Dhabi represents a vacuous marriage of the liberal arts and a global education. Instead of toughing it out in Soviet-era apartments and struggling with crappy plov at Tajik restaurants – but also making real encounters with people from very different cultures, often decidedly not from élite backgrounds – which is what both Jeanne-Marie and I have experienced at points in our education, NYU Abu Dhabi offers its students the values of a liberal arts education in a country where homosexuality is illegal, and where labor abuses of the South Asian population are common. Global mingling takes place, but mostly among the spawn of plutocrats in air-conditioned dormitories built by Indian laborers. I’ll take my crumbling Soviet dormitory, thank you. But here’s the real point: this shift towards “global” and often times, super-expensive, private education, further segregates society. It trains future élites for global mingling of a sort, but it fails to teach the empathy, the immersion in actual foreign cultures, the sense of gratitude for an élite education that institutions like Princeton, Oxford, and so on often try (and still often fail) to do.

NYU Abu Dhabi

Global Education for Plutocrats

Confessions: I’m a beneficiary of this move towards more global education. I’m funded by plutocrats, and many of my friends at Oxford are, too. But within the foundations that fund us was always the promise of a meritocracy, built through semi-transparent competition and the promise that scholars, public figures, and others who made it to the top of this meritocracy would give back to society. Yes, more men win these scholarships than women, at least in the USA, at least at Princeton. Yes, cocktail parties at exclusive Manhattan venues may not be the best way to inculcate virtue into your future meritocratic class. But there’s at least a sense that this could be a problem, one that I think escapes Sexton and Grayling. One of the most arresting comments that FW de Klerk made at a recent event at Rhodes House was that as soon as an élite begins to think of itself as an élite, that bodes poorly for society. I’ve been critical elsewhere of people who benefit from élite scholarship schemes, only to use them as a ticket into the global financial élite. (I was richly reminded of this last night, when I had to walk through a Credit Suisse recruiting event at Rhodes House in order to make it to a session on public service). All of this is not to say that a participation in commerce and industry is illegitimate; in fact, I think that a participation in the major economic institutions is important, but this has to be married with a sense of giving back, a sense of capitalism as a process where investment takes place, rather than the split-second speculation common to computerized trading houses on Wall Street today; rather than the élite training atmosphere of MBB firms. At its best, schemes like the Rhodes Scholarship or its imitators (many of my friends here are being funded by the Weidenfeld Scholarship program) encourage their students to, yes, potentially enter the world of business or further élite institutions (basically this means Harvard and Yale Law School), but as part of a broader path towards leadership in public or international affairs, business (with an eye towards the national interest rather than evading as many taxes as possible), or scholarship (with an eye towards enriching a public conversation rather than mere arcana). True, so many people find ways to dilute their passions with astonishing explanations of why a spell at McKinsey or Harvard Law School is really the best way to realize their dreams as a documentary film producer. But all in all, this combination of serious philanthropy, international educational institutions, and a sense of noblesse oblige, an ethos of “Yes, I’m lucky to be here … now to give back” may be the best we have. I’m not convinced that Grayling’s scheme will achieve any of this, or contribute to a general culture in which these values will flourish.

If there's one thing that "Thrills" me more than obscurantia about Soviet history, it's celebrity culture among academics!

Second, however, I view the scheme as participating in a broader culture of academic celebrity, and celebrity culture more generally, that I view as completely the wrong direction for higher education and the humanities in the future. To take a step back from academic-land for a moment, one thing I’ve noticed in reading the news from Silicon Valley is a tendency to distinguish between content generated by “Big Content” (Hollywood, music studios, professional sports leagues, etc. – huge, high-cost ventures that produce spectacular content in single big shots) and collaborative content: stuff like Wikipedia, YouTube, Twitter, the NewsFeed on Facebook, and so on and so forth. These collaborative processes take advantage of collective intelligence and collective wisdom.  Less collaboratively but also exciting are projects like Sal Khan’s Khan Academy, which started as a one-man operation to teach the world fundamentals across a number of subjects. Podcasts, too, allow for mass distribution at low costs. What distinguishes all of this kind of “Small Content” from “Big Content” is that it leverages technologies, favors autodidacts or intellectuals outside of the major institutions (which I view as unambiguously a good thing, product of major academic institutions though I am), and tends to democratize learning, or the content experience. Big Content, meanwhile, is about building brands, monopolizing copyright, limiting the circumstances under which said content can be viewed (movie theaters vs. YouTube), and selectively licensing said content under non-Creative Commons terms for profit rather than cultural or pedagogical motives. (I might only add that this analysis touches on a separate debate in digital land about anti-intellectualism in the tech space.)

Niall Ferguson and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Nice tux, check ... intellectual arm candy, check ... actually doing something for public education, uh ...

We might, I would argue, make a parallel between the issues in the land of Big and Small Content, and academic culture today. Grayling’s New College of the Humanities seems to me to represent the equivalent of Big Content for the academic world: limited access, expensive, a focus on one-on-one education (which is essential to good education, but by definition impossible to scale), and with professors who are basically media empires unto themselves. Here’s where the big difference between famous American and British professors comes to the fore: if you’re going to, say, a Timothy Snyder talk, you’re primarily there to see a scholar expound on his work and discuss the issues at hand. But if you’re going to, say, a Niall Ferguson event, or a Christopher Hitchens event, or a Richard Dawkins event, you’re more likely than not going to see … a production, a spectacle, an event which may or may not have a connection to economic history, politics, or molecular biology. But I don’t think this focus on academics’ media empires can be warranted in terms of the larger culture. Having Niall Ferguson galavant around Europe in a leather jacket while dating glamorous Somali intellectuals doesn’t really do anything when it comes to actually improving educational outcomes (as measured in the neo-liberal fashion) or improving the broader culture when it comes to awareness of history. True, maybe having Timothy Snyder give book talks in Oxford doesn’t do so much in the big picture, either. But it all makes me think: why not turn away from a focus on celebrity media empires, and turn more to the focus that, for example, Michael Sandel of Harvard has taken, with televising his famously influential “Justice” course? If scholars want to actually have a broader impact on students worldwide, and in escaping the common chant of irrelevance that humanists especially face, why not have the Google Analytics, or YouTube views, or downloads, to back up your claims that your content is actually valued? Instead, Grayling’s project to me seems to be going in the opposite direction – away from digital democracy, “big data” allowing us to track student progress on a granular level, and actually spreading the message to the masses – from where we should be headed. Instead, it tends more in the direction of Davos-speak (“global education”), celebrity culture, and siloed Big Content rather than democratized content with an aim of improving the broader culture.

From the lecture hall to Davos ... all in the life of a celebrity academic

And yet .. at the same time, one part of me – perhaps a more selfish side – is delighted by the plan, at least if they can get people to pay for the program. I think it might raise awareness of the role that a rich humanistic education can play, of the applicability of the kind of thinking you get in a humanistic education, and may prompt British society and firms to think more openly about whom to hire, and what values to take in mind, when considering a candidate.

Ali Khamene'i and Vladimir Putin

Keeping Russian and Persian studies relevant ... for now

What do I mean more precisely? For those outside of the traditional humanities disciplines (history, literature, classics, music, philosophy, and to some extent anthropology and sociology), we have to take as a starting point that many students, certainly graduates and many undergraduates too, are repeatedly told by the broader culture today that their education is worthless. Go to a corporate hiring event targeted at professionally-minded women, or speak with Davos Woman at the World Bank, and they’ll tell you that they’re looking for people who majored in statistics, economics, computer science, mathematics, physics, and so on. Women’s studies and media studies are viewed as a joke. Likewise, I have been critical of Patrick Pichette’s talk at Rhodes House earlier this summer, for encouraging young people to follow their dreams, to take risks and adventures, while many of the firms that Pichette’s class often explicitly recruit among MBB (McKinsey, BCG, Bain) consulting firms, some of the most homogenous work around for prestigious young 20-somethings. Since coming to Oxford, I have become aware of an entirely new vocabulary employed mostly by social scientists, wherein “quantitative” and “technical” mean, essentially “good,” and “qualitative research” basically means “hand-waving.” One professor of economic history, who shall go unnamed, once told me at a Christmas Party that he thought that all non-”data-driven” research (highly statistical, highly mathematical) was good bedtime reading, nothing more. The more generous from the new technical class seem genuinely curious or perplexed when I tell them that much of my own academic work consists of parsing weird documents from archives around the world, and making arguments about it. The fact that there’s Russian and Persian involves adds a vague flair of national security – clandestine sex appeal to the whole affair, but the confusion remains. The situation remains much more dire for friends with interests which speak less obviously to current events – younger scholars interested in, say, African-American women’s history, or German poetry.

Ronald McDonald and Children

Gotta recruit those future humanities PhDs early ...

This broadly condescending attitude has structural ramifications. Across the US, there has been much outcry over the slashing of the Fulbright-Hays Scholarship for this year (bafflingly, international studies now seems irrelevant, not rigorous enough, not economic enough). Many in the scholarly community were justifiably upset when branches of the State University of New York announced that they were cutting most, if not all, of their foreign language programs. In the UK, intellectual historians, classicists, and others were horrified when King’s College London announced that it was making unprecedented cuts to its paleography department, one of the most impressive in the world. Most fundamentally, in the UK, the unstated assumption behind the market logic of the Browne Review, as I have noted elsewhere, is that rational consumer students will pick the most economically gainful courses, and those disciplines, like African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, etc., will eventually become extinct.

PhD Student Living at Home with Parents

Not quite the post-doc I had in mind ...

In this light, one might expect Grayling’s plan to be economic suicide. But plenty of wealthy people already elect to pay hefty amounts of money to send their children to expensive private institutions anyway, often for a humanistic education. While the deflation of the higher education bubble will probably wreck a good portion of middle- and lower-tier smaller colleges, it would surprise me if colleges like Amherst, Williams, Middlebury, and Pomona, to say nothing of the Ivy League schools, go out of business anytime soon.

Amherst College's Logo

Yours for a mere $200,000

And given the increased focus on fees in the UK, compared to the US (which has started to wise up to the cost of college in recent years), I wonder: if scores of wealthy parents are indeed lining up to spend £18,000 a year to have their children educated by Ferguson, Dawkins, and company (rather than signing them up for trade school), rather than insisting that they pick up a C++ book, might this be able to trigger a more fundamental discussion about what an education is for? In other words, if a humanistic education (at a high level) still remains something that people are willing to pay big sums for, might this spark further discussion about the necessity of societal support for it at a public level? I want to underline that I suffer from no delusions that many of the parents sending their kids to this school are doing just what many parents do, as mine did, when they annihilate their retirement savings to send their child to Princeton for approximately $200,000 or more: a ticket to the social élite, solid connections, and an opportunity to slide into a well-paying consulting or banking job afterwards. But the fact that we haven’t yet seen a total shift to the technocratic, statistical, data-driven education that powers so much of business and innovation today suggests to me that the power élite’s idea of education, culture, and standards is still strongly anchored in the humanities. I hope that the British, in their best tradition of class outrage, can focus their scorn on Grayling’s scheme and demand that the kind of education Grayling is proposing for the rich be more democratic.

And that’s my take on Grayling: nay to the segregation and celebrity culture, (potentially) yay to the attention this might lend to the value of a humanistic education as preparation for life. Thoughts?

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