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Education and the Technological Society

All of this is obvious. It is necessary only to draw the obvious conclusion: the distinction between university and society, the enduring effort of universities to develop a life and culture different from that of society—an effort which began with Plato’s Academy and continued into recent times—is now a distinction without a difference. If anything of a difference remains it is a consequence of the reversal which has taken place in the relationships between university and society. Broadly speaking, from the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth, universities were frequently criticized for failing to assimilate important types of knowledge, such as modern languages, newer forms of mathematics and science, and various practical arts. In our century, however, it is the other way round. Society is constantly required to adapt to the knowledge being developed in the universities, knowledge not only in the natural sciences and engineering, but in economics, psychology, and sociology as well.

These changes have registered their severest effects upon undergraduate education, especially at the large public universities. Today, undergraduate education is a shambles. Traditionally it has had the task of general education, of defining and transmitting the knowledge appropriate to a “well-educated” or “cultivated” man. When a civilization reaches a fair degree of self-consciousness and self-definition it embodies in a formal curriculum those values which it regards as essential to the best intellect and sensibility: the Greek Academy; the medieval trivium and quadrivium; the liberal-humanistic curriculum of the nineteenth century.

Moreover, in those earlier societies possession of the knowledge imparted through the college succeeded fairly well in equipping men for understanding themselves and their social order, and for taking positions of influence in church, state, and society. And since virtually all the educated shared a common fund of knowledge, college education enabled all those who had it to converse among themselves about the questions that mattered.

Merely to say these things is to see immediately how far we have moved from them. While all of the older conceptions of the content and purposes of undergraduate education still linger on in more-or-less mutilated form, nobody is very certain of their utility—or, as it is called today, “relevance.” Certainly, they provide the stuff of commencement day addresses and college catalog prose, but few will still argue that they provide the knowledge that leads to social power and influence. Nor is anyone really convinced that the liberal arts curriculum teaches values and molds character. About the strongest claim made for education in the arts and humanities today is that the knowledge so gained can enrich one’s leisure time: education to solve the “problem of leisure”; and leisure here means recreation, not the fullest use of one’s capacities.

The fact is, we simply do not know the form of the highest general culture appropriate to contemporary, largely post-industrial society. Whatever that general culture might come to be and mean, it certainly will not merely be what it always has been. Most colleges occupy the undergraduate years with a kind of pre-professional training and specialization, or a pedantic and uncertain humanism, or an uneasy compromise between the two—some “breadth” courses, followed by concentration in a “major.” The result saddens the best teachers, maddens the best students, and gladdens no one.

But the undergraduate curriculum will remain motley and infirm until the colleges decide what those vulnerable years in the lives of the young are for, and what they are not for. The most powerful emerging tendencies are either treating the undergraduate student as a candidate for graduate or professional school, or arranging things so that the student can have the greatest possible latitude for personal search and experiment. Both tendencies, of course, intensify intellectual fragmentation and pluralistic ignorance, leading to privatization rather than to genuine sharing of knowledge and experience. Once again the extremes produce weakness and lead to a society of disconnected particulars. On the one side, increasing professionalization, on the other, a growing tendency to let students go their own ways. Each tendency hurries the student toward his own cocoon.

Compared to the desperate confusions of undergraduate life, the higher reaches of the higher learning—graduate and professional schools and advanced research centers—appear peaceful and well-ordered. A closer look reveals currents which conceal weakness beneath professionalization, atomization beneath organization, powerlessness beneath power.

The proliferation of specialized knowledge, in addition to the availability of research funds, in addition to the tendency to inflate into “professional” status occupations that are really little more than fairly highly skilled jobs, has turned the modern large university into a bewilderingly complex collection of special institutes, centers, bureaus, and schools. These units occupy a semi-autonomous status within the university, enjoying their own budgets, governed by their own officers, adopting their own standards for staff and student performance, and largely oriented toward constituencies outside the university. The resulting centrifugal forces are ungovernably strong, and increasingly the university becomes a holding company with only nominal control over the agencies which bear its name.

These tendencies are strengthened by the multiversitarian ideology of the university as the servant of society. Under this ideology, knowledge is seen as the single most important “growth factor” in modern economies, and universities, as the leading producers within the knowledge industry, become indispensable to all the other productive agencies of society. Universities have always in some sense served society. But never has service been so mundanely conceived or so promiscuously offered as by the modern multiversity.

The precondition of university service to society is professional education. The natural locus of that education is the graduate departments. One expects to find a degree of professionalism in graduate study, but what is now of concern is the tendency to substitute specialization for professionalism and to extend an inflated professionalism into areas of higher education where it does not belong. At its core, the idea of a profession involves a body of knowledge and technique that can be codified, transmitted, and applied in standard ways to socially useful ends. A professional is one who has been certified by other professionals as being in possession of the prescribed knowledge. Specialization as such is not the basic mark of the professional: the lawyer in general practice is as much a professional as the one who specializes in tax law.

The Ph.D. degree most clearly displays the effects of specialization disguised as professionalism. It is no longer regarded as the badge of the man who has acquired competence in a body of knowledge which he wishes to profess to others, whose vocation is scholarship and the pursuit of significant truth, and who gives promise of intellectual creativity. In a growing number of fields, the degree is nothing more than a certification that a man has mastered a limited subject matter and certain techniques of work. The consequences are already apparent, and most are harmful: microspecialization of knowledge, narrowness of outlook, a growing inability to define intellectual significance in any terms other than those set by the techniques of research, and progressive disqualification for the task of teaching undergraduates. His growing expertise closes off much of his subject-field, while surrounding fields are terrae incognitae. His capacities for personal growth come to be defined in terms of growing technical mastery. But even this proves illusory: every field is now expected to be in “ferment,” and hence the techniques acquired as a graduate student will be superseded in a brief time. The only hope left is that he may some day become a dean.

It remains to point out one general feature of the modern job and income structure that has an important bearing on present student discontent. In simpler and more stable eras, persons who went to college could usually make an early choice of career with fair confidence that the future would contain a place for them. Furthermore, those who went to college could count on a future that would bring them a fair measure of personal independence and social influence and prestige: even the schoolteacher was a figure of considerable standing in the small towns of yesterday. But today, with the vast increase in the college-educated population, these exceptions no longer hold. Furthermore, millions of the college-educated now hold jobs that are far below their skills and ability, and those jobs have all the features of industrial work save one—the need for muscle. The work is repetitive, narrow, and stunting.

The college-educated—including increasing numbers of those formally classified as professional—can no longer confidently look forward to places within the established occupational structure that will bring them independence, challenging work, and social influence. They can count on a fair measure of material comfort and security, but more and more young people are asking whether that is sufficient reward for the sacrifice of autonomy and growth. This long-range change in the shape of work is perhaps one of the basic factors underlying youthful discontent and protest. In often vague and poorly focused ways, students are demanding that education be something more than a union card to job security in the bureaucratic-technological society, where one’s talents are exploited for the purposes of others, and where the worker has traded most of the dimensions of genuine freedom enjoyed by former educated and professional classes for clean clothes and comfortable working conditions. But the implementation of that rising demand will require radical changes in the occupational and organizational structure of the technological society itself.

Societies have always been, in part, organizations for the production of the nutrients of life, but modern societies are ruled, as no others have ever been, by the drive for production. Modern production is powerfully oriented toward consumption; and, since consumption is limitless, so too is production. But to produce something means to destroy something else. That is the dynamic of modern production: it must continue as long as there is anything left to destroy.

The evidence of the destructiveness is all around us, both in the realm of nature and in the realm of that “second nature” which is culture. Modern production has obscured the sun and the stars, and it has also made the cities unlivable. It chews up great forests and drinks whole lakes and rivers, and it consumes men’s religions and traditions and makes nonsense of their notions of the aims of education. It periodically slays heaps of men in war, and it daily mangles the spirits of millions of others in meaningless labor. The only aim of the civilization is to grow, and to grow it must consume. As Ellul has shown, the process must run until it consumes those who think they run it—until man is absorbed into technique and process.

The great intellectual task of the present is the task of rethinking every aspect of technological civilization. That this civilization inherently moves toward self-destruction is now clear, and any radical rethinking must start from the premise that its manifest destructiveness will not be stopped by a broader distribution of the values or a more intensive application of the methods and processes which constitute and sustain the evil itself. If the universities were to dedicate themselves to this rethinking, then they would not only serve society in the most valuable way possible, but they might even save themselves.

This task will require more than the opening of the curriculum to miscellaneous “problem courses” on whatever happens to be interesting or bothering people at the moment—with the consequence that the problems of peace, race, poverty, and transcendental meditation all receive equal time. It will require something more of the scientists and technicians than stopping work for a “day of concern.” It will require something more of the humanists than a deeper retreat into the sanctuary of ingeniously obscure research, while mumbling incantations about “higher values.” What it will require is a new focus, and the courage to withdraw human and material resources from the subjects which have high value on the current market, re-allocating them to the task of re-discovering and redefining the humanity and sociability which have become twisted and frustrated by the “single vision” of contemporary modes of organization and public purpose.

The task is in part critical: to examine what technological civilization has done to our language, literature, art, politics, and work. Partly it is retrospective: to expose the historical choices that were made by reference to the putative benefits of science and technology placed in the service of endless growth and power. That study must try to achieve a meaningful assessment of the gains and losses incurred by these choices. Partly it is creative: to reflect upon human history in all of its breadth and diversity in order to acquire the fullest comprehension of the range of human possibilities and, perhaps, a heightened awareness of the crisis which has estranged us from our humanity and our world.

We have preferred to call it a focus rather than a curriculum in order to emphasize the urgency of our condition. Technological civilization encompasses and influences all departments of knowledge, hence it is not just a problem: It is the problem. There is no subject more relevant, none so important for the renewal of hope for our species.

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