Furthest Right

Materialism is a disease in education too

Stanley Fish bloviates over brandy:

In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.

This is a very old idea that has received periodic re-formulations. Here is a statement by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott that may stand as a representative example: “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.”

Understanding and explaining what? The answer is understanding and explaining anything as long as the exercise is not performed with the purpose of intervening in the social and political crises of the moment, as long, that is, as the activity is not regarded as instrumental – valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.

According to Donoghue, [the death of this idea of higher education] has been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “ fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”


Fish is indirectly hinting at a tragedy: by making education entirely a practical matter, we’re dumbing down the teaching of subjects which are conduits for skills that are applied outside of those subjects. For example, learning philosophy and literature means that we gain critical analysis skills, which is necessary for that 5-10% of the population lucky enough to merit jobs in which these are useful talents.

The problem, as I see it, is that education trivialized itself by focusing on theories of a Marxist nature which increasingly emphasized individual interpretations of reality without any correspondence to that reality. As a result, our best universities now teach Advanced Egomaniacal Bullshit as a means of keeping the aged toddlers pacified, but in the process, have eliminated the skill of critical analysis, or the finding of “more realistic” assessments through argument.

Share on FacebookShare on RedditTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn