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Thursday, March 13, 2014


The reception of my rather unusual keynote address was generally favorable.  If I am any judge of audience reactions, they really began to catch on at the moment in the story when two people walk into the University admissions office.  One member of the distinguished UNC Chapel Hill group was so outraged that, after mumbling under his breath for a bit, he stood up abruptly and stomped out.  I was thrilled.  My talks do not often get that sort of visceral reaction.

The line that really stuck in their craw, however, was the observation by the Invertian Minister of Education, near the end of the story, that American "colleges and universities are engaged, educationally speaking, in the removal of pimples from the faces of intellectually beautiful young people."  When I gave the same talk at Mt. Holyoke College, one of the so-called Seven Sisters, the distaff equivalent of the old Ivy League, the faculty were outraged.

Many in my audience protested that the equivalence I was suggesting between medicine and higher education was false, and of course in a way they were right.  Rather than launch into an abstract discussion of those two professions, let me make their point with a pair of stories, one almost certainly apocryphal, the other certifiably true, as it happened to me.  Apocrypha first.

When the famous American economist Paul Samuelson was a student at Harvard, so the story goes, the time came for him to take his doctoral oral examination.  This was not the defense of his dissertation -- that would come later -- but a wide-ranging examination of every aspect of the discipline.  The committee examining him was made up of a distinguished group of senior faculty, among whom was the great Russian-American economist Wassily Leontief, himself, like Samuelson, later a recipient of the Nobel Prize.  The committee grilled Samuelson without mercy for two hours, after which he got up and left the room so that the committee could deliberate about his performance.  When the door had closed behind young Samuelson, Leontief looked around the table at his colleagues, smiled, and asked, "Well.  Did we pass?"

This captures Harvard perfectly:  the wit, the intelligence, the smug self-congratulation, the insularity.  In a single anecdote, undoubtedly merely a legend, it explains why, at the age of thirty-seven, I chose to walk away from a senior professorship at an Ivy League University in New York City to spend the rest of my career at a big, rural second-tier State school.  But there is much truth in the apocryphal story. 

All of us in the Academy have stories about our very best students who, if we are lucky, could as easily be our colleagues.  We all cherish those moments in a class or a conversation with a student when we know that we are being fully understood, that we are talking with someone who lives the life of the mind as we strive to do.  And all of us have our horror stories about students who seem utterly unprepared for what we are offering in our lectures, whose writing requires endless red pencil correction and emendation, who will never, we are sure, grasp what we have labored so hard to make clear and precise.

The second story concerns a senior Plastic Surgeon thirty years ago at Massachusetts General Hospital, the medical equivalent of an Ivy League university.  My first wife and I had gone to see him about a minor dermatological problem she was having.  This was a man who made a very fine living performing tummy tucks, breast enlargements, and rhinoplasty on essentially healthy patients.  He really did devote his day to something very like the removal of pimples from the noses of Adonises and Venuses.  But after the consultation, we got to talking, and it became clear that that was not what interested him at all.  His eyes lit up as he spoke animatedly about his work at the Shriner Burn Center, saving the lives and healing the bodies of children who had suffered extensive third degree burns.  Even if his enormously skilful efforts were successful, these children would be scarred for life, but if he was able to return just one of them to something resembling a normal existence, he felt fulfilled and justified.

Well, if I acknowledge these differences between medicine and education -- between the treatment of the body and the enlightenment of the mind, to speak as Plato does in the Gorgias -- what is the point of my lecture?  Once again, it is the Invertian Minister of Education who speaks for me.  "can [you] explain why, in five decades of university teaching, you have never felt the slightest discomfort at your country's settled practice of devoting lavish resources to the education of those least in need of them, while at the same time taking it for granted that your country's medical resources should be con­centrated on saving the lives of your least healthy fellow Americans [?]"

Higher Education is a sizeable sector of the American economy.  A quick search on Google tells me that in 2010 [the numbers have not changed much since] the Gross Domestic Product of the United States was $13.24 billion, 2.8%, or $350 billion of which was devoted to higher education.   The total endowment of all universities in America was somewhat more than $355 billion in 2010.  Just under half of that was held by the seven universities of the Ivy League.  For all their much proclaimed openness and ecumenicism, the elite private and public universities are the educational equivalent of those gated communities in which the rich isolate themselves from the rest of America.  More to the point, only a third of adult Americans earn a four year university degree, and yet I have lived my life in communities in which everyone has a college degree, the only question [and a burning one, at that] being which college or university the degree is from.

If we believe that the collective educational resources of the nation are being misallocated, what could or should be done to change that?  It is easy, though not wrong, to say that the money should be spread around differently.  It is harder, at least for me, to imagine a completely different conception of the professional ethos and function of the university professor, one that embraces the principle that scarce resources should go to those who need them the most, not to those who need them the least.

Perhaps rather than focusing on resources, important as they are, we should think about the social recognition we give to practitioners in medicine and education.  In medicine, we hold heart surgeons in high regard, and tend to think dismissively of plastic surgeons, for all that they make a great deal of money.  In education, by contrast, all honor goes to the select few who conduct advanced graduate seminars on the forefronts of arcane disciplines, while we feel a mixture of pity and contempt for those who teach Freshman Comp.  We have many ways to measure the success of distinguished scholars, and very few even to take notice of the work of remedial writing and math instructors.  I honestly do not know whether it is even possible for there to be, in Nietzsche's evocative phrase, a transvaluation of values in the Academy.  The Pimple on Adonis' Nose is my effort to at least begin a conversation.


Seth said...

"...the elite private and public universities are the educational equivalent of those gated communities in which the rich isolate themselves from the rest of America."

Yes. And that's really the point of the exercise. Education functions to provide a veneer of rationality and fairness to the brute fact of power and privilege.

You are starting from the premise -- one that I share or at least sympathize with strongly -- that the goal should be to invest in making people *better* than they otherwise would be. But the actual goal (as indicated by behavior) is to filter for desirable qualities before giving people access to opportunities. And among the most desirable qualities is what used to be called euphemistically "good breeding".

Slightly off-topic, but a related conversation we really need in America is one about "lottery justice". By that I mean the "American Idol" model of competition in which a winner-take-all prize replaces real opportunity. Somehow because one "lucky winner" gets to have something wonderful, it no longer matters that everyone else gets nothing, It is a swindle. Instead of Rawls' veil of ignorance prompting us to put ourselves in the losers' shoes before deciding what is just, we're offered a lottery ticket and encouraged to hustle on by the homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I couldn't agree more with both parts of the comment. The hardest thing, I find, is to get even supposedly progressive academics in the privileged sector of American higher education to recognize the reality of their situation and function. That was really the motivation for the essay.

See my early book, THE IDEAL OF THE UNIVERSITY, the chapter on the admissions ratrace.

J. W. F. said...


What you're calling "lottery justice" was mocked by the British socialist R.H. Tawney as the "Tadpole Philosophy":

"It is possible that intelligent tadpoles reconcile themselves to the inconveniences of their position, by reflecting that, though most of them will live and die as tadpoles and nothing more, the more fortunate of the species will one day shed their tails, distend their mouths and stomachs, hop nimbly on to dry land, and croak addresses to their former friends on the virtues by means of which tadpoles of character and capacity can rise to be frogs. This conception of society may be described, perhaps, as the Tadpole Philosophy, since the consolation which it offers for social evils consists in the statement that exceptional individuals can succeed in evading them."

Rawls' use of the idea of a "natural lottery" was clearly influenced by Tawney, whom he cites in A Theory of Justice.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

J. W. F., thank you for that great citation. I had never read it.