Graduate students and people with teaching experience at the university level are encouraged to respond, as I am interested in their insights. I apologize in advance for the non-conversational essay format of the exposition, yet as these ideas are still fresh in mind, I could not think of a more informal way to present the message.
Today, very few of us could doubt that universities are a revered part of our society. For many of us, they represent the true path to social advancement and financial security. For others, they represent the place where the best and the wisest of academics congregate. Without a doubt, someone who can state 'PhD' next to their name must appear superior to those who do not and very few graduate students question the wisdom of this evaluative convention.
Thus far, I have briefly sketched what universities appear to be on a superficial level and what most people who are involved with these institutions tend to see them as. Now, I would like to point out what universities truly are.
This topic is certainly very broad and my description will not apply to every single institution, however, it will underline the prevalent tendencies that are common among most of them.
Before I begin, I have several warnings and disclaimers.
-First of all, I am not a professor, adjunct, visiting lecturer or a holder of any academic position with a university. The factual basis for my arguments comes from my four year education, experiences at my current 'job' as academic ghost writer (someone who writes college papers for students), independent reading and correspondences with senior professors and graduate students. The best I could do is start with as uncontroversial of premises as possible and employ reasoning devoid of fallacies to arrive at my conclusions.
-You should not read or respond to this thread if you fear disillusionment, are easily disturbed or for any reason prefer to dogmatically cling to the belief that most universities are exactly as I have described them in my first paragraph.
-Readers who have done a great deal of research on this subject matter or have far more experience with the academic community than I do, are more than welcome to contribute to or correct my expositions.
First of all, the University by definition is an institution that is a part of our society by and large. For the very least, it is influenced directly by our cultural values and economical circumstances. On that note, what are these cultural values that I have in mind?
The obvious notion that flies in the very face of that question is the American Dream, the goal of attaining wealth and fame. After all, many conventional Americans believe that if they work hard enough and make the right choices in life; one day they will be rich, possibly even famous! This thought is not at all uncommon among undergraduate students, especially freshmen. More pertinently, very few of them question that they must acquire a degree in order to seize their beatific goal as since Middle School they've been taught to believe that the smarter they are, the more money they make and that knowledge is power of course!
The University is the intercessor between the plebeian and the American dream; to frame the notion in the context of Christian theology, it is analogous to the common person as Jesus to the sin forsaken by God.
Our second prominent cultural value is mindless entertainment. As we can see, intellectuals exert very little influence over the American public in comparison to actors and pop-artists. Recently released movies often include copious action scenes and a distinct appeal to the senses as opposed to the intellect. For example, the previews often emphasize the fighting and catchy one-liners that took place in the movie, very little is the sufficient information granted to allow the viewer to understand the plot. This style of presentation has been selected for compelling reasons from the standpoint of marketing, as people aren't interested in complexities, they first and foremost desire to see what they could enjoy while reflecting very little and preferably not at all.
Thus, people are not in the habit of questioning the wisdom of pursuing the American Dream as critically reflecting upon anything strikes them as a decidedly arduous endeavor. If circumstances forces them to conjure up a reason why they shouldn't question it, they'd vindicate their prejudices by exclaiming 'why should we question it, don't we have better things to do? After all, will someone pay us for doing so, will someone think better of us?
What are the implications of such cultural values and attitudes with respect to the Universities? Since we live under the 'free market' regime, it is deemed inappropriate for the government to offer copious financial resources to the Universities. From their standpoint, if they aspire to remain active in business, they are largely on their own as the government cannot be counted on to support them significantly.
At the outset, this scenario seems austere for all educational facilities; after all, how can an institution that provides learning opportunities survive in the market where consumers tend not to be interested in learning? In light of the fact that the public is generally unreflective, the solution is very simple: protect the integrity of the University as an institution by misleading the public to believe that they are learning and befool them into thinking that the more education they receive, the more valuable they shall become in the workforce.
Quite obviously, if the Universities instituted an educational system that is genuinely edifying, the overwhelming majority of the public would drop out or willingly choose to have nothing to do with it, even if they believed that they cannot achieve the American dream without education. As John Milton has once stated in verse 'it is better to rule in hell than to reign in heaven'. The American Dream may be seen as heaven by these people but if suffering the excruciating pangs of purgatory in the classroom is the prerequisite for admission, aborting the mission quickly becomes a viable alternative.
From the standpoint of such aforementioned 'higher learning' institutions forcing the general public in that situation is obviously an unacceptable result. Accordingly, they have been left with no option but render the services that were likely to be lucrative. That is, construct a curriculum where students will not be forced to think for themselves and shall be evaluated on how well they follow instructions and conform to the arbitrary etiquette of proper scholarship.
It is also in their interests to reinforce the myth of education as the gateway to wealth because the more the public relies on the university, the more their revenue will increase. Although it is true that certain degrees often do maximize a person's employment opportunities, it is false that they do so in all cases. Nonetheless, universities are very much interested in propagating this myth for financial reasons and are quite comfortable with the cultural meme regarding the unquestionability of the notion that education separates the wealthy from the poor and the successful from the unsuccessful. Yes, there are anomalies, as for instance certain actors and music performers never had degrees, yet they are wealthy and successful; but again, the public must be led to believe that they will never be as fortunate as their successful counterparts who lack education. Therefore they ought to work, work and work, but doing so without a university degree is next to impossible.
There can be no doubt that students are very important to these institutions and they are very much interested in attracting as many of them as possible. However, this does not at all mean that they value their clients as individuals or that they are interested in inspiring them to learn or that they in any way have the students' best interests in mind. The fact of the matter is that historically, universities have not been primarily dedicated to educating the public as this was mostly the business of conventional schools that are now part of the K-12 education.
Universities have traditionally been regarded as facilities of research that were operated by researchers and geared towards the task of preparing students for a scholarly life. Today, a significant percentage of academics believe that at least some universities should be reserved for research only and students should no longer be admitted. Not a great deal has changed other than the 'capitalization' of the enterprise which forced them to feign allegiance to the humanitarian values of public education.
If my argument thus far sounds unconvincing, consider the following chain of reasoning. It is a fact that a person's moral values are largely a result of his social experiences. The majority of university authorities are practicing scholars who spent most of their lives practing in the academic discipline of their choice. Most of their training had little and in many cases nothing at all to do with educating others and in this respect they are very different from conventional K-12 teachers. Quite self-explanatorily, people become professors for reasons far different from the reasons why people become K-12 teachers. Whereas teachers are often inclined to see themselves as ordinary citizens of the community with earnest ambitions of aiding their neighbors, academics tend to be by far less inclined to share this viewpoint.
Academia has long been regarded as the domain of the wise and the esoteric, with its own set of values and aspirations that are detached from that are nearly unfettered by the mainstream society. This certainly does not mean that no professor is sincere when he or she claims that they have your best interests in mind or that they genuinely do want to help you learn, but it does mean that such attitudes are not supported or reinforced by the general academic culture that they are environed in. University officials who utter such remarks with great earnestness are mavericks.
Most are more than happy to pay lip service to these while maintaining fierce loyalty to the values of their own community where superciliously alienating the general public is not only tolerated but encouraged. It is regarded as highly desirable on the account that such an attitude supports the vision of academia as the domain of the wise who should be exempt from the conventional moral responsibilities and demands. It is not at all uncommon to see professional scholars cite a distinction between 'us' and 'them' where 'they' are but the ordinary people inferior both in intellect and worth as human beings. As William Pannacker has stated on a number of occassions, Academia operates under a set of clearly defined values, the main of which is the need to preserve the dogma that life outside of academia amounts to a failure in life. "Newhouse argued that graduate school in the humanities indoctrinates its students into believing that they are failures if they do not remain inside the ivory tower, even if there are no suitable academic jobs for them. Career counselors, she argued, have to find ways to persuade unemployed Ph.D.'s to believe that the outside world is not evil and that they are not apostates if they do something besides teaching and research." (Is Graduate School a Cult? - Manage Your Career - The Chronicle of Higher Education)
Pannacker aptly observed that these attitudes are irrational and as I may add altogether incompatible with the environment of the real world.
"Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational." ((Is Graduate School a Cult? - Manage Your Career - The Chronicle of Higher Education I refuse to use APA, MLA, Chicago or any other scholarly format as a subtle act of conscious rebellion against the arbitrary and irrational values that academic officials endeavor to impose upon their current and prospective students.)
One is compelled to ask exactly how do academics manage to preserve such seemingly absurd values that are inapposite to any other activity outside of academia? Their strategy is not at all new and its great efficacy and frequency of use made it somewhat of a classic in social and political disputes. One phrase pithily summarizes the fundamental principle of academic moral values, it has been once effectively uttered by Jesus and recently recited by Bush as an instrument of vendetta against the 'terrorists'. It is 'whoever is not with me is against me!'.
This is not to say that university officials are zealots who are willing to slaughter thousands to further their own jihad, but not due to their reasonableness, equanimity, kind regard or any human virtue. These people have spent over 10 years in institutions of post-graduate education, at least the last six of which focused on professional publication and public debating. Their training in the art of rhetoric and propaganda by far surpasses that of conventional lawyers, politicians, journalists or any group of con artists who have earned their profession notoriety by skillful practice of public deception.
Universities do need to maintain their appearance of benign, practically instrumental institutions for whose services the general public would gladly pay. Furthermore, it is a fact that because academics have spent the majority of their lives in activities that are irrelevant to society by and large as well as moral values that are incompatible with a life outside of academia, they shall in all cases cling to their institution with the tenacity of rats holding on to the sinking ship.
Because of their superb skills in elocution and nearly unrivalled intellect, the officials of academic institutions have successfully preserved the public myth that education is the bridge to fulfillment of the American Dream. To bring further stability to their own enterprise, they strengthened the faith of their most ardent aficionados by compelling them to believe that they have no other choice but remain true to the academic life-style which is founded on rigid values of social elitism. That, however, is not only the product of their cleverly contrived propaganda, but is also the inevitable byproduct of a person remaining a member of a community with very narrowly defined moral values and intense hostility to outsiders. The university student feeds on the emotional ambience of academia and develops fanatical zeal in its support similarly to how a recent convert to Mormonism is influenced by the unverbalized attitudes of the leaders of his cult.
The fact that hundreds of students eagerly apply to graduate studies in humanities with a full awareness of the fact that even if they do acquire a PhD, they can well expect to confront 500 other competitors for a University professorship position. These applicants are also aware that their career opportunities in the field of their specialization are strictly limited to professorship only. What, other than prejudice inspired by the propaganda of university officials can lead us to believe that these students apply to graduate school programs for any reason other than that their communities have convinced them that life outside of academia is unacceptable? What, other than the above mentioned prejudice can lead a reasonable person to believe that academia does not operate on the basis of 'whoever is not with me is against me'? What, other than this invidious yet ingenious propaganda can convince us that the University is not a mere cult, although an inconspicous and a highly refined one, the primary purpose of which is nothing but affirming its own goals by alienating and maligning the heathens?
Daniel Dennett once refuted the design argument by citing evolutionary reasons to believe that the oryx exists not because it was designed by God for man's benefit, in fact it does not need to be in any way desirable by mankind to exist. What must it be good for then, Dennett inquires? Only for making more of itself, in his own words.
The same can be said for academia, although just like the oryx it could be put to a use that is benign to the rest of the community, it is not at all the case that academia was created to benefit mankind, nor is it the intention of its average practitioner to change the system to render it more beneficial to the society by and large. Strictly speaking, academia is necessarily only good for making more of itself, or for solidifying its own foundations by convincing outsiders and its existing members to fervently believe that university education must be an indispensible part of their lives. This institution has cooperated with and catered to the needs of others strictly for the sake of ensuring of its own political and social survival, exactly in the way that the oryx may have been forced to show non-aggression or even gestures of cooperation towards other animals in order to merely survive.
But wait a moment, an adversary of this view could respond and say, is it not the implication of Dennett's evolutionary insights that this is how all creatures and institutions must behave. Not quite, this must may be the most natural way for them to behave, however, it is not an inevitability. It is possible to create artificial social constructs where individuals will be willing to engage in tasks that benefit others without seeking immediate reward for their actions.
Clearly, the University is not one of such constructs: it appeals to the infantile desires of every bohemian intellectual by convincing him that it is possible to have a fulfilling life without answering to the moral demands of society by and large or merely having basic responsibilities that every decent citizen can be expected to have.
But wait a moment, many academics have fought to protect us from tyranny, political manipulation, ignorance, corruption and even the unbenign behavior of institutionalized universities. They have used their supreme intellect and expository skills to inspire many to join their cause, this appears to be the opposite of the behaviors that I have accused the conventional academic of engaging in. Noam Chomsky, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Dennett, Bertrand Russell and William Pannacker constitute glaring examples of the case in point.
These men were mavericks, an average academic has none of their intentions to ameliorate society by and large. An average academic is chiefly concerned with forging a professional reputation for himself by impressing his colleagues with how extraordinarily clever he is and publishing his papers in an esoteric journal that will not be read by any scholar outside of his academic discipline, even less someone from the general public.
If academia is unbenign to the rest of society, is it at least instrumental in promoting genuine scholarly values? Not in all cases, and in many it does not. It is a fact that academia is influenced by vagaries of fashion in a manner similar to that of the fashion industry itself. Ideas go in and out of professional discourse for reasons other than their merit or demerit. Graduate students are often directly instructed to cite this, that and that theorist in their papers as otherwise they stand no chance of being published. Radical ideas are frowned upon as they threaten the pre-established social trends and the general culture of the institution or a scholarly journal in the context of which they have been propounded.
Over 400 years ago, the wisest of philosophers were independent scholars who lacked commitments to universities such as Spinoza, Hume and Schopenhauer. Today, the university has expanded and its institutionalization sent a clear message to all existing and future savants: they have no choice but to conform to the cultural whims of their institutions as otherwise they shall not succeed in academia and that is tantamount to an altogether failure in life.
If we cannot conclude that academia obviously is not conducive to affirmation of the values regarding honest scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge, we can be certain that it is not at all obvious that it does conduce towards a successful fulfillment of that objective.
The main reason for this is because it is an institution the primary purpose of which is to promote itself or in Dennett's words 'make more of itself'. Thus, any honest attempt to pursue knowledge or to promote values of genuine scholarship must be suppressed if it opposes the pillars which uphold it. Very often these values entail resolutely independent thought that is critical of the pre-established social conventions and for this reason it will, in many cases, demand the most uncompromising censure from the custodians of the current institutional regime. It insidiously reputed itself as the guiding light of those who pursue knowledge, wealth and the American dream to effectively conceal the nature of its profoundly parasitic relationship to the rest of society.