Ah the Academy, Western Philosophical Tradition and the wondrous art of asking questions. Such beauty, such purpose, such meaning. Drop a tear my friends, it’s OK. Socrates, the father of said tradition, would no doubt be stunned by what he started in the Agora or City Center of Athens those many years ago. Having been told by the god’s through the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man in Athens, he set upon a course of discovery not in the pursuit of money but of truth. By disposition a humble man and skeptical of the designation, Socrates was intent on finding the truth for himself. From his interlocutions with passersby we have what is now referred to as dialectics, the inquiry-based methodological approach to knowledge acquisition formalized in his student Plato’s Academy, the first university in the western world. How proud he might be to gaze upon the vestiges of his personal journey . . . or not. Seeing money changers in the hallowed halls of the temple of god might bring out something other than pride.
While Socrates was about the acquisition of knowledge for wisdom’s sake, contemporary Universities and their respective faculties are, one might argue, about the acquisition of hard, green money. What started out as an authentic attempt to enable and ennoble its interlocutors and otherwise understand and appreciate the phenomenological world, has evolved (or devolved) into an institutionalized money grab at the expense of said interlocutors. While Socrates cultivated students like Plato who in turn cultivated students like Aristotle, today’s priests of the academy churn out “scholarship” manufactured to increase bank accounts and disciples whose first order of business is, wait for it . . . wait for it . . . getting a good job and making tons of money. The exaltation and romance of it all takes one’s breath away.
While Socrates was given permission by the gods to stop practicing the art of looking upward for answers and start looking within through the exercise of reason, today’s professors/purveyors of higher education have become the oracles of the new gods of money who have taken the gift back. Instead of the currency of method the focus is on literal currency. Higher Education has become increasingly sophisticated, multivalent and multinational corporate money-making enterprise while the wisdom-seeking intellectual rigor it was designed to serve has become a hiss and a byword.
The College Boards’ latest surveys suggest that, together with tuition, fees, housing, meals, books and supplies the average student at “moderate” colleges will pay upwards of $23,000.00 a year while those at private colleges will pay approximately $45,000.00 per annum. Most students cannot afford such an exorbitant outlay and increasingly rely on scholarships, grants and loans. By far the greatest source of funding is the Guaranteed Student Loan. According to the Institute for College Access and Success in 2012 seven of ten students graduated with average student loan debt of approximately $30,000.00. According to the Economic Policy Institute, approximately “8.5 percent of college graduates between the ages of 21 and 24 were unemployed” and “16.8 percent of new grads were ‘underemployed.’” With the 2013 adjusted real median household income in the United States being approximately $52,000.00 per annum the choice to go to college is increasingly problematic.
Do the money-changers, priests and oracles of the new academy or temple of god take an interest in the plight of their devotees? Hardly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics College tuition and fees have gone up 1,225 percent since the first quarter of 1976. Nothing in the private sector comes close to that level of inflation.
With figures this daunting families and students alike are forced to make hard decisions. The case for making the investment can be made but for many it is a stretch. Balancing the economic needs of the present with the prospects of more income and economic stability in the future can feel like a crap-shoot. According to the 2011 United States Census Bureau report college graduates can expect to make roughly $1,000,000.00 more over the life of their professional careers than those with only a High School Diploma. The rate of income and money-making potential increases with added graduate level education.
According to the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics most high school graduates are choosing to attend college. Fully 65.9 percent of high school graduates in 2013 were enrolled in universities or colleges. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education the 6 year graduation rate for full-time undergraduate students beginning their education in 2006 was “57 percent at public institutions, 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 32 percent at private for-profit institutions.” As a culturally relevant aside for a different day the differences in male/female graduation rates were statistically negligible while there continues to be an “ethnic divide” as 51 percent of hispanic students beginning their education in 2005 graduated while only 40 percent of their black counterparts graduated. Asian students continue to outpace other groups as their numbers continue in the 70-80 percent range.
All the money that is spent on college notwithstanding, of those students that are in fact graduating, we are seeing a spike in grade inflation and a functional lack of the very critical thinking skills Socrates and Plato et.al., championed back in ancient Greece. Historically graduates of these institutions of higher learning have been history’s great movers and shakers, those who have authentically aggressed against in-artful or unjust power paradigms, institutions and ideations. The product of orthodox western philosophical tradition/higher education has ever been the light shining in darkness fully prepared, despite the push-back, to ask the right questions at the right time and to otherwise go (and take us) where the evidence takes them. Today’s graduates are, all too often, ill prepared to make the kind of difference their for-bearers made. The sad truth is that this failure is built on the failure of our public school system. Of the 65.9 percent of high school graduates choosing to go to college, all too many are matriculating ill prepared in the basics of critical thinking. One might well ask whether there might be a correlation between the woeful rates of pay (again, a money thing), in the public system and poor outcomes.
In all too many respects, today’s hallowed halls of academe are filled not with classical pedagogues (Socratic facilitators) but with what might be seen as neo-pedagogues (lecture-based know-it-alls). The neo-pedagogue is painfully and all too narrowly lecture-based, relying on students not to aggressively discover but to passively receive. This content/information, memorization-based, instructor-centric approach, informed by the taking of copious notes, memorization and the regurgitation of same gives rise to cults of personality and gnosticism where facts, dates, numbers and authority are more important than curiosity, creativity, inquiry and vision. Einstein suggested as much when he said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” But then if Western Philosophical Tradition can be reduced to the cold-objectivity of money-making enterprise then a good uninspiring lecture in the niceties thereof might be in order.
Western Philosophical Tradition is rightly less about answering questions than it is about asking questions and when professors lecture and simply download “truth,” they miss the point. In a lecture-based, memorization-intensive learning environment, students can be expected to retain, on a long-term basis, on their own without reference matter, upwards of 15 percent of the material. In a Socratic-intensive, pedagogical learning environment, what Malcolm Knowles referred to as andragogy or student active, discovery-oriented learning, what is personally discovered is retained and functionally available to the conscious mind at an 85 percent clip.
Properly appointed andragogical learning environments become highly charged, boiling cauldrons of inquiry where students, led by Socratic facilitators, discover the way forward for themselves. Students become the ideal in Socratic interlocution, discovering not only the principles of life-long learning but more importantly, positioning themselves to be the ones-among-the-many who can be trusted to dare ask the right question at the right time and otherwise rail against in-artful or unjust power paradigms, institutions and ideations. The wondrous paradox is that in taking students back to Athens we help them discover the way forward.
Because of a demonstrated and palpable lack of real concern for the student on the part of the academy and neo-pedagogues alike and a prodigal and selfish focus on the accumulation of power and money-making activities instead of student-empowering discovery and skill-development, students are faced with a double curse, paying too much money for what turns out to be a false-bill of goods. In retrospect and in good conscience, perhaps it is time to clean the temple of god of its money changers.
By Matthew R. Fellows
United States Census Bureau
Flores, Matkin, Burbach, Quinn and Harding (2010). Deficient Critical Thinking Skills among College Graduates: Implications for leadership
Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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