Monday, March 13, 2017

The Autodidact's Apology: Chapter 1

** Note: This post will be deleted sometime in the future. **



Chapter I: What's To Apologize For

 “But when they began handing out doctorates for comparative folk dancing and advanced fly fishing, I became too stinkin' proud to use the title. I won't touch watered whiskey and I take no pride in watered-down degrees.”
—Jubal Harshaw, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” by Robert Heinlein (1961)

It seems fitting to begin this work after the riot at Berkeley University, a response to a gay Jewish immigrant who wanted to give his opinion about “cultural appropriation.” The entitlement assumed by the advocates of “diversity” knows no bounds.
We all know that something is rotten in higher education. I will be so bold as to say that if you disagree with this premise, you may not have been paying attention to collegiate politics over the last several decades, and this is perhaps the third or fourth book you ought to read on the subject, rather than the first. The only disagreement is on how severe and how extensive the deterioration truly is. How much, if any, is salvageable? How might one go about finding metrics for making such a determination? And what do we make of the disparate reports from the vast number of students attending thousands of schools across the country? Some have had awful experiences; many had excellent experiences. Most fall somewhere in between. The divided collection of subjective experiences might appear to make a general condemnation impossible. And from this muddied water and confusion, we are left, by default, to assume that a four-year degree (at least) is an aspiration you ought to pursue, if you are at all able to do so.
By the end of this book, I hope this notion will appear as ridiculous to you as it would be in any other context.
I have been wanting to write this book for several years now, with one motivation driving a second. The superficial, second motivation is to condemn higher education, as it is, and as it will continue to be. The deeper, first motivation is to justify my own decision to abort my own ascension through academia—towards a degree in either journalism or in education—and instead to become a truck driver, a carpenter, and an exterminator.
It is easy enough to decry the failings of academia from a personal, subjective manner. In my experience, however—contrary to the teachings of the professoriate at many universities—subjective claims hold very little persuasive power. For several years, I could not even articulate to myself why I had left the path of higher education, and often doubted my decision to do so. Why should anyone else care about my thoughts or feelings on education, on the value and nature of learning, and on how it ought to look?
It should be clear from the violence and chaos—which ultimately emanates from these institutions of higher learning—that the barrier between subjective and objective eventually breaks down. All of our subjective experiences originate in an objective reality that we share, and if we act out in certain ways, we can objectively alter other people’s subjective experiences. Such a statement would be too obvious to be worth stating, were it not for all the people saying “that’s just your opinion,” whenever I give my reasons for withdrawing from something that they hold to be valuable. It literally is “just my opinion” that violent left-wing domestic terrorists attacked, and continue to attack, students and citizens who heinously attempted to attend a public speech by a public intellectual and journalist, and that similar, but less violent people, require everyone to regularly lie about their values and beliefs in order to succeed in the academic environment.
It is also my opinion that this is a bad thing.
Nevertheless, I believe that my criticisms of higher education are grounded objectively. I hope that through looking at the historical nature and purpose of education, and how different philosophies of education have variously succeeded and failed in producing happy, successful, and functional individuals, working within successful, sustainable, and fruitful societies, we can merge our subjective judgments and reach a more objective judgment about which direction our current education program is headed. Whether I succeed in this demonstration is, of course, your opinion. If you’re the type, it will be “just your opinion.”
Your subjective view and objective reality, will eventually meet regardless.
One thing that I want to clear myself of as quickly as possible is the charge of resentment. I love academia. Rather, I love the idea of academia; I love learning, I love the pursuit of knowledge, the courageous curiosity that asks uncomfortable questions, hungrily pursuing the truth. I don’t say these as platitudes; as a blue-collar layman, I read Robert Pirsig, and Matthew Crawford; I debate their similarities and theological overlaps (or lack thereof) with Buddhism and Christianity over drinks with friends. I plunge the depths of Nietzsche’s criticisms of Christianity (something which Christians seem to have been lazy or fearful in addressing), looking for signs of weakness, and finding them. I read Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Cicero’s De Oratore to learn how to make an argument, and listen to people like Vox Day and Stefan Molyneux applying them in our own age.
In short, I love what the academy is supposed to be. My hatred for what it has become stems from a complete betrayal of its nature, and not from any rejection I have received personally. I rejected higher education, and not the other way around.
This betrayal is subconsciously known by virtually every student with an interest in asking the hard questions. There should be no reason why science should not have an interest in learning about biological differences between races. But if you bring up Francis Crick’s ideas of genetic differences in a biology classroom, you are more likely to be ostracized and graded down than encouraged in your exploration. There is no reason why historians should not be interested in accounting for different ideas and theories about historical events, but if you bring up David Irving’s accounts of the Second World War, you may end up in trouble for “hate speech.” Heaven forbid an interest in exploring what the actual tenets of fascism might be, or why they are attractive. In the comparatively rare conservative classroom, the same rules apply for the explorations of communism, of nihilistic philosophy, and of revisionist historical texts such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
It is not necessary to contemplate whether such beliefs are true or not to understand that refusing to address them if a student expresses interest is tantamount to pedagogical neglect. No respectable psychologist today takes Freud’s theory of “penis envy” seriously, and yet no psychology class would be complete without a brief overview of the notion and why Freud came to hold such a belief. Put even more simply, a high level language class would not be possible without the prerequisite “see spot run” books and the accompanying errors at lower levels. Simple and bad ideas are to be addressed, rather than ignored. Yet ignoring, or casually dismissing, ideas contrary to what is politically permissible is the path that academia has taken.
Of course “penis envy” is a stupid idea. Do we even need to talk about it?
What will the teacher say to the student who takes interest in this? Imagine, if you will, a student who hears most of Freud’s theories, and concludes that the psychologist was a pretty sharp guy. Suppose that this student reads other works, and hypothesizes that maybe Freud himself didn’t believe in “penis envy,” but instead had come across evidence of large-scale parental abuse and neglect, on such a broad scale, and with such dramatic results, that a straightforward assertion of such violence against children would have emotionally closed people away from his ideas, and perhaps even resulted in his ostracism from polite society. The above examples of Irving and Crick show that such things are certainly possible. Perhaps Freud showed his research plainly, and simply disguised the ugly, necessary conclusion with a fake conclusion that was so obviously stupid—so cleverly stupid—that a reasonable person would be able to read between the lines and deduce the truth that Freud had discovered, and perhaps reveal it when the time was right.
Such a theory is speculative, to say the very least. Yet it wouldn’t be a ridiculous idea. It may, in fact, be a more rational interpretation of the facts being presented. And suppose the hypothesis is wrong? Wouldn’t the exploration of such an idea be exactly the sort of exercise that the academy should train people for?
The goals of students and teachers alike largely do not reflect these ideals anymore. Such a conversation could “derail” the agenda of the day’s lesson, no matter how boring or established that pre-planned lesson might be. The incentives of grading, of standardized tests, and of not getting fired for straying from the agreed upon social views of the educational administration, all prevent these sorts of conversations from being had.
Without free inquiry, without access to all kinds of different and conflicting ideas, and without the ability to explore these ideas and to weigh them against each other, a student cannot learn what makes a strong argument, and as a result, it goes without saying that they are unable to discern which arguments are the strongest. Yet this is precisely the academic and educational environment that schools have cultivated. Given this environment, the person who wishes to be an intellectual must become an autodidact.
Simply put, an autodidact is a self-educated person. But more precisely, didaktikos—the Greek word from which the second half of “autodidact” is derived—connotes a classical education derived from literature. It is a philosophical concept that revolves around the most important questions. A performance magician, for instance, who learned how to do tricks from YouTube and from the library is certainly self-taught, but he is not therefore an autodidact. The magician who studied history and the great works of literature, who spoke with mentors about their life choices, who thought long and hard about what he valued, and decided that he would learn magic in order to pursue those ideals—he is an autodidact.
The autodidact is free to pursue the academic inquiries that today’s institutional academic is not. This lends an intrinsic honesty to his opinions, which the academic can never have. The autodidact and the professor may hold identical views, but when the threat of ostracism, censure, termination, or even violence loom over the head of the professor like a Damoclean sword, people are right to doubt his sincerity, even if he happens to be perfectly honest. This does not mean we should trust every self-educated intellectual without a degree, but it does mean that between two individuals who have something to lose in a particular field, the one who is less constrained by the twisted incentives and pressures of a politicized institution will usually be more trustworthy.
As a rule, academics tend not to have much skin in the game anyhow. They get their paychecks from the government.
The point is that a love of learning, rather than driving us to university, ought to drive us instead away.
My argument, however, extends beyond a broad criticism of how things are, and a path back towards the light. I am not sure exactly how the education system can fix itself, but I am fairly sure that the predominant critics of education, from Stefan Molyneux and Aaron Clarey, to Greg Lukianoff and Alan Kors, to Scott Greer and Jonathan Haidt, have all understated the point.
While it is true that one can extract a great deal of value from particular degrees and academic certificates, such as electrical engineering, law, accounting, and computer science, the lies that all students are subtly coerced into telling, are a price far heavier than the wages that these lucrative degrees can deliver.
Institutions of higher learning are converged in the pursuit of social justice. And social justice, as an ideology, is in the business of reshaping humans. They do not re-educate every student, and among the ones they do, the ideological reorientation is achieved to varying degrees. But every degree that you pay for, work for, lose sleep over, fight for, and ultimately, benefit from, is an affirmation of the school’s authority to distribute professional qualification and respect. It constitutes a binding of your identity, by investment of time, money, and attention, with an entity whose very nature is opposed to the values of the honesty, courage, and commitment to the intellectual ideals for which academies were once founded.
It is possible to frame one’s life values in such a way that money and respect in the moment overshadow the portion of your soul that you parted with to buy them. Such a materialistic world-view appears more realistic, more measurable, than the abstract “principles” one is giving up. I believe the present moment, however, completely undermines that notion. The resentment of the Millennial generation, and of generation-Z, towards Baby Boomers is a practical, material reality, and a direct consequence of the kind of materialist calculations of utility that reject such abstractions as “principles.” As a generation, they will be lucky if social security lasts long enough to pay for their nursing homes until God, or the Devil, takes them in. The Boomers themselves are probably the least aware that many of their grandchildren hope it won’t quite last.
Like any game of musical chairs, it can be tempting to stay in the game, and count on your quickness and calculation to try to win as more and more people drop out. But staying in college for an appropriate, and lucrative degree comes with an opportunity cost that is both personal and collective. It is personal because any sufficiently intelligent and competent person who can make a good living from a degree should be able to succeed in the free market as well, and often at a fraction of the entry cost. It is collective, because getting a degree is itself an act of investment in a future which values degrees as a form of acknowledgment and skill. Likewise, acquiring a skill, a career, an identity, outside of the converged college campus, is an investment in a future that is not dependent upon institutions opposed to the principles you wish to embody.
An apology, from the Greek apologia, technically means an “explanation.” It is in this sense that The Audodidact’s Apology seeks to explain why the intellectual, or any person who seeks to live a life in accordance to their own ideals, should abandon the higher education system.
I write it in the more colloquial sense as well, however.
In amongst the ideologically-possessed professors and the inhuman bureaucratic machinery of the administration are a number of excellent and devoted teachers. There are some famous ones—Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Gaad Saad, and Jordan Peterson, to name just a few. But there are a great many more, whose names most people outside their institution (and a great many even within) would not recognize.
It is to these people that I offer a sincere apology, for what is happening to the institutions that they love as much as I want to love them, and what may happen to their careers as the academy continues to crumble down around them. I do not say this apology for my personal conduct, because the institutions will come down eventually, regardless of whether people act on my advice or not. I offer this apology out of sympathy, because of the reversal of circumstances that has happened since 1968 on campuses across America, and across the world. If I were capable, like God, to rain down fire and sulfur on all the colleges and universities but save the good professors like Lot and his family (so long as they don’t look back), I would do so. But it is not in my power to preserve or destroy. All I can do is observe what is happening, explain my own actions, and encourage everyone I can to avoid Sodom and Gomorrah.
That is both what the academy has become, and that is where it is going.