The Role of the University in Post-Industrial Societies

During its origin in the Middle Ages the University was an institution for elite education, but in post-industrial North American and European societies over the past century the University has become a vehicle for mass education and practical research. As universities have began to occupy this role the justification of their funding, place in society and existence has had to change. No longer can universities justify their place by saying that they pursue knowledge for knowledge sake, or for providing students with a liberal education that uniquely enables elites to be effective leaders. Instead, the university is typically justified on four bases within post-industrial societies.

The first and most dominant justification suggests that universities are required educate citizens so they are able to get good jobs and achieve economic success. University education is then an investment in the young, that will allow them be economically successful.

The second dominant justification of the university is that it produces research and knowledge that will be able to help solve social problems, and ensure our society is innovative and thus is able to succeed in a competitive, economically driven world.

Thirdly, universities are sometimes justified on the basis that they allow people to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake and thus they don’t just help society solve problems, but also allow us to pursue the intrinsically worthy good of trying to better understand the universe.

Fourthly, universities are also often justified on the grounds that the education received, particularly in the liberal arts, will help students develop critical thinking skills, which will enhance democracy. On this view universities are seen to provide students with a well-rounded education that improves their character and capacities such that they are better citizens and individuals.

These justifications deeply differ and might even be supposed to conflict and thus the question I want to ask if it is plausible for the university in a post – industrial society to be able to fulfill all of the goals laid out by each of these four justifications. It seems to me that while it is conceivable that a university could do this in a particular kind of society, in post – industrial societies it seems that these justification are at cross-purposes, and thus the pursuit of one of the justifications will tend to negate some of the others. Hence the university, in its current form does not seem to be able to fulfill all of these goals effectively.

One quite glaring contemporary example of this conflict between the various justifications of universities is made evident by the failure of the bachelor’s degree to ensure economic success for those who pursue it. This problem arises because bachelor degrees, excluding nursing, education, engineering and possibly commerce, do not prepare students for any particular career or vocation. Thus while they may give graduates some skills it is not evident how these skills prepare them for economic success. For example, those who have a degree in the humanities typically learn how to construct an argument, read difficult texts, and write papers, but it is not obvious how these skills translate into any particular vocation, outside of the academy. But the reason why the bachelor’s degree in most forms fail to assure economic success for those who possess it is not because it is poorly designed, but because the degree is structured not simply as a prelude to a particular career, but as an introduction into a scholarly discipline, related disciplines, and to ensure people receive a well-rounded education that improves their capabilities. For example, the need for breadth requirements as part of a bachelor’s degree cannot be justified from the perspective education as a prerequisite for economic success. This is made evident because if I want to be a lawyer, why should I need to have an understanding of fields like the fine arts that have no clear relation to my field? But breadth requirements make sense if we think about the fact that different disciplines probably provide different critical thinking skills, and capabilities. Thus, to be a more well-rounded person, and citizen, you should have familiarity with a wider field of disciplines, rather than just with the discipline that you want to pursue a career in. Consequently, the very fact that the bachelor’s degree is structured, not as a simple preliminary to a vocation, but as a means to achieve a well-rounded education in some way harms its ability to justify itself as a means for citizens to ensure they have economic success. Pursuing an education that introduces you to a scholarly discipline and gives you a well-rounded appreciation of the world is a far less effective education for a career than a vocationally driven one. So, we have a case where one goal that a university is pursuing (well-rounded education) and another (education for a career) are in conflict.

We can also see this issue when we think of the research aspect of universities. The research that society is most interested in funding is often research with clear practical applications, rather than research that would best help us understand the world as a whole. So the university must try to reconcile two conflicting goals, as part of the mission of the university is towards serving as a haven for scholarship to help us better understand the world, and yet the state tends to see the university as a source of useful research that can solve its problems. While in some cases these goals may overlap, there is no reason for them to necessarily coincide.

The fact that universities are given the task of pursuing all of these unique, and conflicting goals puts them in an awkward place, and I cannot see universities being able to be successful at effectively pursuing all of these goals. Quite simply, when an institution tries to pursue multiple conflicting goals it tends to fail to deliver on any of them effectively. For example, the artist who tries to both be commercially successful and to produce something unique and interesting is not going to be able to deliver on either goal. He may try to produce something unique and interesting and end up creating something commercially successful, and vice versa. But as soon as he tries to simultaneously pursue both ends he will struggle as these goals do not always coincide and may conflict.

Does this mean the university should be abandoned? Certainly not, but it means that we need to stop being surprised that universities are unable to effectively pursue all of the goals they are tasked with. In addition we need to begin to think of how the university and mass education can be reformed so that the system of education, learning and research in our society can effectively provide vocational education, well-rounded scholarly education, produce practical research, and provide a haven for the pursuit of scholarship and science for its own sake. This may mean that the university needs to be supplemented with other institutions that can be tasked with some of the goals that the university is less adept to deal with. The existing vision of the university as a space for pure scholarship, practical research, education for economic success, and well-rounded education is well intentioned, but typically when one institution tries to pursue many disparate goals it will fail to deliver on any of them well.

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Problematizing the Pursuit of Career Success: Vice, Virtue and Post-Industrial Culture

The term “career success” brings to mind conflicting images. For many, career success means climbing the professional ladder so that one can get the best and most prestigious job possible. While, for some career success is more analogous to finding a career that is one’s calling. In an earlier entry, I criticized this latter conception of a career. In this entry I will critique the former conception. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the former conception of career success as “worldly career success.”

Worldly career success is valued extremely highly within post-industrial societies. For example, nearly every parent within these societies seems to want their child to have worldly career success, and children tend to internalize the desire for worldly career success and want to get an education and experience which will allow them to climb the corporate ladder and consequently achieve worldly career success. Furthermore, those who do not succeed in climbing the ladder of their profession and consequently do not achieve worldly career success are often called “losers” or “bums.” Thus, it seems that the culture of post-industrial societies puts a lot of value on worldly career success. Yet, I will contend that we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because in many contexts within post-industrial societies devotion to worldly career success will encourage the development of vices, as opposed to virtues.

On some level it seems that striving for worldly career success would reinforce virtues such as determination, and reliability, because in order to be successful within the work place one must ensure that one performs one’s assigned tasks, and does so, even if there are roadblocks to the completion of these tasks. Yet, at the same time striving for worldly career success often requires servility, and inauthenticity. Servility and inauthenticity are often required for worldly career success because in many institutions and firms it is necessary to be sycophantic and dishonest about how one feels and what one thinks in order to climb the professional ladder. For example, if I know that my boss has a stupid idea about something, but I also know that my boss is very sensitive to any criticism from people below him in the corporate chain, then if I am committed to worldly career success I will likely be dishonest and not say anything about my bosses’ idea just to ensure my chances of a promotion. So, it seems that in many contexts commitment to worldly career success could lead us to develop vices, because as we begin to act in a servile, inauthentic fashion within our working life to achieve worldly career success we will become habituated in acting in these ways and begin to become genuinely servile and inauthentic in the other areas of our lives. In such a situation one’s commitment to worldly career success has degraded one’s spirit and brought out the baser elements of one’s self. Consequently, we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because even if worldly career success has intrinsic value (which I doubt), it is still not something that we want to pursue at all costs, as an unconditional commitment to this value can to the development of particularly problematic vices.

Now it is true that post-industrial society does not explicitly tell people to be unconditionally committed to worldly career success, yet because the culture values worldly career success so highly it implicitly suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing this value as an ultimate end. If those who do not achieve worldly career success are “losers,” then clearly there is something wrong with not achieving worldly career success, and if this is the case then it is reasonable to think that it is legitimate to pursue worldly career success without qualification. Thus, the culture of post-industrial societies does encourage people to pursue worldly career success without qualification, even if no one is explicitly telling people to do so. As a result, it seems that the way that the culture of post-industrial societies values worldly career success is deeply problematic as it encourages people to pursue worldly career success in a way that may lead to the development of vices that any free, self-respecting person would want to avoid at any cost. Therefore, it is necessary to try to change this culture, and the first step towards changing it is to begin truly reflecting on how we value worldly career success, so we can revise our valuation where this is necessary.

The Careerist Model of Parenting

In many ways Hugh and Jenny Schuman were typical Canadian parents. They both had steady white collar professions and worked as hard as they could to provide their children with everything they required. They had three children: Joseph, Kirk and Annette. Furthermore, the Schuman’s lived in a beautiful manicured home on the outskirts of Ottawa.                                                                                       

Hugh and Jenny both came from backgrounds that emphasized morality; Hugh came from a family with roots in the Social Gospel movement, while Jenny‘s family were non-religious liberal humanists who tended to work with NGO’s.  Both Jenny and Hugh still felt some attraction to the high ideals of their families, but the experience of their lives had made them realize that a concern with these ideals would not ensure the stability of their careers and thus their family.  

While in many ways the Schumans were typical, one thing that made Hugh and Jenny slightly peculiar was their model of parenting.  For example, Hugh and Jenny encouraged their children to take minutes for all conversations that they had, so that they could prove that a certain conversation had transpired. Furthermore the children had to get sign off from their parents on a plan before they could build forts, play with Lego, or play dress – up. These plans had to speak to the purpose of the activity that the child was interested in pursuing.

The motivation that Hugh and Jenny had for this model of parenting was their concern for their children’s future. They believed that in order for their children to have stable careers they must learn to adapt to the norms of working life in the 21st century. In this world “litigiosity” is more important than religiosity and so rather than encouraging their children to learn about the religions of the world, they made sure that their children knew how to create documentation to prevent possible lawsuits.  It was not important for their children to be aware of the teachings of Confucius, Christ, or Buddha; however, it was of paramount importance that the children learned to start covering their bases in their activities to avoid possible legal action by others.

Jenny and Hugh saw other parents as deeply irrational and inefficient in that they spent their time encouraging their children to read for the mere enjoyment of it, appreciate athletics and develop friendships with others. For Jenny and Hugh while this approach to parenting might encourage an attachment to literature, athletics and friends it would not help their children be effective in their careers when they reached adulthood, and consequently this approach was deeply misguided. For the Schumans, anyone who truly cared about their children would adopt their model of parenting, as it clearly ensured that the most important aspect of a child’s life, their future career, was taken care of.

Jenny and Hugh’s love for their children ran deep, and their model of parenting would ensure that their children were effective 21st century workers, and what more could any person want to be.

 

Do External Incentives Degrade Intrinsically Worthwhile Activities?

There are many things that are worth doing on their own account, and not because of the consequences they produce. However, in a society in which there is a desire for meaningful work there is a temptation to try to take those intrinsically valuable pursuits and translate them into career opportunities. For example, someone who is drawn to the intrinsically valuable pursuit of journalism may want to try to turn journalism into a career. If this person could not cut it as a journalist they would still pursue the practise of journalistic writing on their own time, as this activity is its own reward and it does not need an external monetary, or non-monetary incentive, to draw people towards its practise. This temptation to turn intrinsically worthwhile activities, which we are willing to do without external incentives, into a career is problematic, because in many cases these external incentives will degrade the value of the activity itself. This is not to suggest that no one should try to turn such activities into a career, but rather that the value of the activity will be lessened once the activity has been translated into a career.

The danger in the transformation of an intrinsically valuable practise that one is drawn to into a career is that the external incentives, monetary or non-monetary, may crowd out the values that the practise realizes. Let us consider the person who pursues a journalistic career because of an appreciation for the intrinsic value of journalism. This person does not worry about deadlines, and is a perfectionist because she wants to ensure that her works fully realize all the excellences of journalistic practise. She may be extolling the virtues of the ideal journalist, but as a careerist she fails because she is not attentive to the fact that in a job you are being paid not to fully realize the excellence of a practise, but meet particular deadlines and produce particular “deliverables.” Consequently, it seems, that at least in some cases, pursuing an intrinsically worthwhile activity as a career will require one to compromise the integrity of the practise in favour of imperatives that bear little connection to the excellences of the practise itself.

This example helps to clarify why the careerization of activities degrades their value. Once an activity has been made into a career the person engaging in the activity cannot focus on fully developing the excellences of the practise but must produce particular outputs at particular time. This is precisely why the demand that academics produce a particular amount of research over every year is so antithetical to the excellences of the activities of the life of the mind and research. If one is worried about having to produce so many academic articles every year, one will likely not be able to fully devote oneself to ensuring that the articles are of excellent quality. Often producing articles will merely be a process of meeting deadlines rather than ensuring that one’s research fully realizes the excellences inherent in research.

In this way those who have an opportunity to pursue an intrinsically valuable activity that they are drawn to as a career are faced with a daunting choice. On one hand, they are given an opportunity to earn an income pursuing something that is valuable and that they would engage in without external incentives. Surely, this is a great opportunity. But on the other hand, they may have the sense that once this activity becomes a career they will not be able to fully devote themselves to realizing the excellence inherent in that activity. Furthermore, it is not clear to me whether it is better to pursue a compromised version of an intrinsically worthwhile activity that is not attentive to the excellence inherent in that activity, or to pursue a career that may not involve an intrinsically valuable activity, but that does not involve the degradation of an intrinsically valuable activity.