October 24, 2015

Education for Buffoons

Chris Lehmann has a pretty trenchant essay on American higher education in his book Rich People Things that shows how far we've fallen in this area since the days of Horace Mann (1796-1859). In those days, says Lehmann, "public education was not intended to serve as a means of investment, or as a guarantor of enhanced life opportunities." Mann was the founder of the "common school" movement, the goal of which "was to educate Americans to be democratic citizens...to grasp and honor the value of education as a social practice in its own right." He wrote that the spread of this type of education would "open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand, and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society."

Fast forward to the present time. Lehmann writes: "The content of most curricula...rarely bothers any longer with the conceit of using the rare margin of leisure culturally programmed into the adolescent experience to bring students in contact with philosophic, literary, or spiritual traditions that would permit 'the social feelings to expand.'" His best example of this is the multicampus for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix. Billionaire founder John Sperling declared that UP is "a corporation, not a social entity. Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop [students'] value systems or go in for that 'expand their minds' bullshit." At least he was honest. Of course, given the value system of nearly 100% of Americans, UP has become the largest university in the country, with 420,000 students currently enrolled. So that the faculty doesn't have to do very much (which would drive up the cost to the university), students are encouraged to develop and administer their own learning programs (which meshes well with the chic and politically correct "we're all learners here" ideology that is very prevalent today). "The idea," writes Lehmann, "is clearly to herd as many people into Phoenix programs as possible, charge inflated tuition rates, and leave them to ford through an indifferently conceived and executed curriculum largely on their own."

How has this played out, in actual practice? UP graduates 16% of its students, as compared to the national average of 55% for public and private universities. 11% of graduates from schools such as UP default on their student loans, as compared to the 6% default rate among these other schools. In addition, UP is frankly crooked. Recruiters are given cash incentives (i.e., kickbacks) to enroll unqualified students, which they do by lying to them. They mislead them about the scarcity of enrollment space, about the amount of financial aid they are going to receive, and they falsely claim that their UP credits will be transferable to other 4-year institutions. In 2009 a whistleblower lawsuit resulted in a fine for the Apollo group, UP's parent company, to the tune of $67.5 million--which did not, according to Lehmann, result in any significant change in UP's recruiting methods. (They probably paid off the fine out of spare change.)

A sad story, the evolution of higher ed in America, but perhaps not very surprising. Hustling and commodification ruin everything; all content is eviscerated in the rush to profit, to get "ahead." When the entire nation is a con, there's no reason why any one institution, such as the university system, should not also be a con; the pressure is difficult to resist. It's possible that when the whole structure comes crumbling down, there may be a very small residue of Americans who will say, "This is a pile of crap! Has anyone ever heard of Shakespeare?" I'm guessing, however, that that day is a long ways off.



Blogger Miles Deli said...

Greetings MB and Wafers,


It is a sad story, MB. Turning America's students into profit centers straddled w/a lifetime of debt for an "education" w/out any real knowledge is a complete disgrace. Is it too improbable to think that we may likely see the beginnings of an *underground schools* movement ran by Wafer-like persons of high integrity? Like Montag in "Fahrenheit 451" secretly cloistering away his stash of books, these schools will operate in similar secrecy. Fraudulent and useless education coupled w/runaway campus shootings might coalesce into something like this, de futuro, yes?

MB, Wafers-

An intriguing article presenting a possible road to the White House for the Trumpster:


It's pretty good, but I'm still waiting for a psychopathological analysis of both Trump and Hillary. Hillary, of course, is easy. She's like a robot, capable of projecting the brute strength of a female tribal chief; furtively biding her time b4 she unleashes upon her foes charges of being sexist-racist-homophobic-gender-based persons of privilege and power. Trump's hold on the populace, on the other hand, is a bit more magical than political. Like Hitler, Trump is more of a fey spirit, w/an uncanny "mystical" ability to tap into the American people's deeply troubled unconscious. In effect, Trump appeals to the reticent, the dreamy, and the neurotic.


ps: Time for some Thelonious Matzo Ball Soup:


2:34 PM  
Anonymous John S said...

Morris, Wafers

Rich People Things certainly seems like a very interesting book.

Was wondering how familiar Morris, anyone is with the works of David Foster Wallace. I just saw the film "The End of the Tour," about his book tour of Infinite Jest, which I thought was excellent. I actually had not been aware of him or his writing until I watched the film believe it or not. As some know, he suffered from depression and committed suicide several years ago. He's considered an important writer, but haven't not read any of his work, can't comment on that.

Anyway I bring this up, because I recently found a youtube video of an interview he gave in Germany several years ago (2003), and the way he describes our empty consumer driven society as well as the irrelevance of writers to influence society these days seems to echo much of what Morris has written about as well as many comments of others, so thought I'd pass it along. He rambles on a bit, but I thought much of it makes a hell of a lot of sense.


3:16 PM  
Blogger Bill Hicks said...

Confession time: before I retired I was a middle manager with about two dozen people working under me, most in positions that required a college education. Though we never would have been dumb enough to put it in writing anywhere, whenever it came to hiring my fellow managers and I would place any resume from a University of Phoenix (or any other for profit college) graduate at the bottom of the pile.

Harsh on our part? Perhaps. But we needed capable people, and during a time when we'd get law school graduates applying to be glorified telephone operators it wasn't hard to find them.

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Edward said...

@Miles Deli

Here is the end of the article you provided:
"While I’m not predicting Donald Trump will win the presidency, it’s time for us all to realize that President Trump is not only not implausible—it’s very possible."

Obama and Bill Clinton are highly educated, but look at what they have done to the country. Clinton sold out America; the causes of the financial crash of 2008 started in his 8 years in office. Yet he is a Rhodes schalar with degrees from Cambridge. Obama got the best education that the West has to offer. Look at how he abandoned all the good stuffs he promised us in his campaign of 2007. He can't even prosecute one crook from the Wall Street.

Anybody who thinks Hillary Clinton will be different from Obama or Bill Clinton is a dishonest fool. At least Trump made his money working for it (unlike the Clintons and this Empty Coat Obama).

Either the country turns around faster or implodes faster under Trump. In either case, I have nothing to lose or gain. Under Hillary, we will simply get the same old tired tricks.

12:56 AM  
Blogger Marc L Bernstein said...

Dr. Berman and WAFers:

I was an undergraduate for a very long time (studying psychology, zoology and chemistry, dabbling in physics, astronomy, geology, genetics, botany, human physiology), and a graduate student in mathematics also for a long time. My association with institutions of higher education ended in the Spring of 1991, but I have remained with a "graduate student mentality" ever since. Things have changed in institutions of higher learning since I departed. Student debt was not a serious problem 25 years ago. Now it's a national disgrace. Since I was involved in the sciences and mathematics I was not particularly aware of what was going on in the humanities.

Henry Giroux writes prolifically about higher education today, its faults, its relationship to the greater society and its trajectory. Giroux is a passionate, optimistic guy with a basically progressive outlook, but he's an insightful analyst with an abstract, conceptual approach. Here's a recent article and video, not so specifically on education but more about youth in the USA:


Sheldown Wolin died a few days ago at 93. Here's an article about him. Most WAFers probably are familiar with his recent interviews with Chris Hedges.


To any anonymous readers:

I have a suggestion for a handle (in the spirit of Dr. Berman's) : "schmutz on a t-shirt"

You don't need to be a genius to figure out where I got that idea from.

A great article written recently by Herman Daly:


I'm a big fan of Herman Daly. Too bad more classical economists don't understand his ideas very well.

1:48 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Greetings Dr. Berman and

The neoliberal fetish for privatization dominates the education policies of both right wing American political parties. Obama's ed policy favors charter schools at the expense of public education, and the Repugs are waging a jihad against the vestigial remnants of liberal arts education.

Check out Henry Giroux's latest piece in Counterpunch : 'Culture of Cruelty: the Age of Neoliberal Authoritarianism' http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/10/23/culture-of-cruelty-the-age-of-neoliberal-authoritarianism/

and Lewis Lapham's article on the latest theatric display - the 2016 Oligarchic Selection - titled 'Bombast Bursting in Air' http://harpers.org/archive/2015/11/bombast-bursting-in-air/

2:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Horace Mann was not exactly interested in education in the normal sense of the word. His annual reports were phony - he never saw the school which he reported to have visited and then go on to recommend. He believed phrenology, like dewey after him, would be the basis of a new education.
Mann was more interested in how he could break the common bond of working men! University of Phoenix sounds like it is continuing this great american tradition of self-alienation and social alienation.

Best wishes,

Mark Riccio

3:13 AM  
Blogger Kanye Cyrus said...

It's not as bad in the UK yet, but it's definitely getting there. It seems like all universities care about nowadays are organising "hackathons" and having the best "incubators" to churn out the next Steve-Jobs-alike douchebags. With the government's clamp down on Humanities furthermore and the increase of tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a couple of years ago (gee what's next £27,000?!), universities are now only at the reach of a wealthy elite. The UK is also very keen on promoting collaboration with the Chinese, which I strongly believe are bigger hustlers than Americans today. Xi Jinping was on a visit to the UK last week and visited all the major universities in the country, who bowed before him like before a king.

I once had a conversation with a Chinese flatmate I shared a flat with that I'll remember forever. I asked her what she believed in in life, whether she believed in God or not etc... She told me "It's very simple, Chinese people believe in money, that's all we care about". Can't make it any clearer than that.

Otherwise I watched the "Man in the Machine" documentary on Steve Jobs yesterday that recently came out. Recommended viewing for Wafers.

This is also neat. What's the point having a nurse to wipe your ass when you're old when you can have a robot doing it?!


8:17 AM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Timothy (from the previous post),
What the police do is simply a reflection of what occurs to most of us in daily life. It is, as Dr. Berman reminds us, a nation without a heart. For instance, I work as a kind of counselor in a seemingly middle class school. The student that has been assigned to me obviously has some issues. Yet, he is the one who is forever targeted by the teacher and administration for the most innocuous of infractions. In other words, society demands conformity and most Americans are more than willing to comply. Thus police can essentially act with impunity since they know that the public will support even the most outrageous and grievous methods of control. By the way, 3 times yesterday I was the victim of road rage. I go the bird for just driving at the required speed limit. I'm almost certain I'll have a gun pointed at me at some point. We truly live in a wretched culture. Amazing how people could look at Hillary's face and not see monster. On the other hand, and this is even more frightening, they do see monster and are comforted by it.

8:19 AM  
Anonymous stephanie said...

They've been selling that line, that we're "competitive" and you likely won't get in.. In public colleges for a long time. Now it's extra bad. Finally, an honest fellow said, no that is not true, 99% get in.. Philosophical education has been for over 20 yrs - something you had to seek on your own, at so-called public universities. And cost prohibitive.

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad Sam,

In a recent post you talked about your friend from Honduras who left his country for the US, and is very grateful for his new life here, you wondered how to respond to him. It sounds like you already might know how to respond to him: you say he's breaking your heart knowing how much he risked to get here. I think your answer lies in the sympathy you feel for him; words come from there.


1:26 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Marianne and Mark-

Need to fix your blog entry, because u.r. coming thru as Anonymous. You need to come thru as Marianne and Mark (or choose a different handle, if you wish). Too often, I just see Anon and delete. Thanks.


Pls watch length. One half page, max. Thanks.

This from Henry Demarest Lloyd ("Wealth Against Commonwealth"):

"Our tyrants are our ideals incarnating themselves in men born to command. What these men are we have made them. All governments are representative governments...We go hopelessly astray if we seek the solution of our problems in the belief that our business rulers are worse in kind than ourselves...Every idea finds its especially susceptible souls. These men are our most susceptible souls to the idea of individual self-interest...The conclusion is irresistible that men so given the lead are the representatives of the real 'spirit of the age'..."


1:59 PM  
Blogger Juliet Cash said...

Dr. Berman,

Thank for sharing those depressing thoughts on the state of college education.
It makes me wonder: Is there any profession left that is fun in the USA? What a joyless group of people university professors have become. I thought you might like to read this article published in Salon today. This has to be a Wafer. He doesn't buy into the populist movements given the appalling state of education amongst the majority of the populace. He has some pretty grim statistics you might want to check out.


I think Americans who have absorbed their exceptionalism are exceptionally blind at how truly ignorant they have become. And empty. And impoverished. And shallow. And joyless. The list goes on and on.


PS: I posted that Alternet indicated that 25%of Americans have warmed up to socialism. The problem might be that the majority of them probably don't know what that means.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous marianne said...

sorry to bug you. I"m trying to get this right so anonymous doesn't come thru when I write.

Did I come thru owning who I am this time?


8:39 PM  
Blogger Bill Hicks said...

Kanye--here in Northern Virginia suburbs there is a large Chinese and Korean population, and I can confirm from observation that many of them are driving around in the biggest gas guzzling SUVs and living in some of the largest and most hideous McMansions. A couple of years ago the Washington Post featured a story about a woman who was a first generation Chinese immigrant, moved to the DC area and founded an IT contracting firm that is now one of the biggest Beltway Bandit contractors in the region. The article featured pictures of her and her family, all aglow in their gigantic Great Falls palace that could have comfortably housed about 100 of their former countrymen.

It was supposed to be a feel good, Horatio Alger-type bit of fluff journalism, but it made me ill to think that that's what the American immigrant dream has become--get rich on the backs of the taxpayers and blow the cash on huge amounts of conspicuous consumption. The story was proof positive that selfishness and greed are not exclusively American values, but that people the world over admire America not for its supposed political freedom but for the liberty to be a selfish, hustling asshole without the government interfering.

True story: my brother is a successful MD who commutes to his clinic in a 10-year old Toyota. His staff has asked him numerous times why he doesn't drive a BMW or a Lexus the way the other doctors do. He always answers that since he's perfectly happy with the car he has, why should he waste the money? He's pretty sure they think he's a space alien or something.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous John S said...


There is the buffoonery of the masses, but there is also buffoonery in educated elites as well. One type of faux optimism I find fascinating is what I term scientific cornucopianism, the idea that science or reason is a natural force that is inevitably leading us to progress. I find the idea asinine and easily refuted, but there are a slough of recent books that basically extol this thesis, and these are only a few that come to mind at the top of my head, or all the other books out there that promote some kind of energy – solar, hydrogen, nuclear whatever cornucopianism.

The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker
The Moral Arc – Michael Shermer
The Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley
Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny – Robert Wright

These are the elite among scientists or popular science writers. And I haven’t even brought up obvious sophisticated cranks like Malcolm Gladwell, Ray Kurzweil or Bjorn Lomborg. I didn’t even bring up the other major stooge, Tom Friedman. What is common among all these authors, are that they never question capitalism, like the underlying ideology of this misleading New York Magazine review of Naomi Klein’s book - it’s a given, capitalism is good, no questions asked.


I wonder why these writers, who otherwise are capable of writing and understanding pretty insightful works on many other subjects, can fall for such utterly simplistic false nonsense, really not far from the ideology promoted by Fox News. My only theory, is the one by Chomsky - that they are part of the liberal intelligentia, fully indoctrinated in to the ideology, and having made it relatively speaking to the top of science or science journalism, they are necessary servants of the gospel of faux progress, have the need to connect only the dots that promote their ideology, ignoring everything else that refutes or contradicts it.

9:43 PM  
Blogger Juliet Cash said...

@Kanye Cyrus

This article is about China, published not so long ago in Slate magazine. Apparently, the Chinese value money more than their own lives. They rather kill a pedestrian than go to court for damages.


How did a "communist," mostly Buddhist country? turned so brutal that individual life is worthless? What happened to their agrarian roots? That is also the same country where female fetuses are tossed in trash cans in favor of the male babies.

Wafers,Dr. Berman

Sheldon Wolin was such a gentle and soft spoken, incredibly brilliant man. In this video interview with Bill Moyers he emphasizes on how lost a democracy is in the absence of a liberal arts education. How can anyone disagree? However, many CEO's had a philosophy, Ivy League liberal arts education - mogul Carl Celian Ichan who made most of his money in Wall Street is one of them. Why is it that their "liberal" education didn't teach them ethics? There are ethical men who grow up without that education. I know many. Do Mercedes Benz liberals - do as I say not as I do- share a lot of blame in the fall of liberal education?

Chris Hedges might be deluded about a progressive revolution. There won't be any. I agree. However, given the dismal state of education is a populist revolution the right prescription? Here is a good write up in favor of elitism.


I am an example of a reformed hustler. I was one myself. I am warming to socialism. Self education did that for me. I believe if a recovering hustler like me can warm up to it, then I won't give up on the power of ink just yet. Just my opinion.



9:58 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


It worked this time, thanks!

Thank u all for insightful comments, as usual. Unfortunately, gotta catch a bus, so we'll talk later.



10:19 AM  
Anonymous al-Qa'bong said...

Hello Wafers:

I just received "Rich People Things" via interlibrary loan a few days ago. I had forgotten all about it, as I ordered the book so long ago. Besides his scathing criticisms of those in power, Chris Lehmann writes well; this guy loves language. I haven't reached the "Higher Education" chapter yet, but I'm living it. As is the case with other post-secondary schools, our knowledge mill is churning out "educated" widgets who seem to be more a source of revenue for the corporation rather than the focus of our efforts.

In other news, someone asked about the Canadian election. I've been contemplating the best way to describe it for a yanqui audience. I suppose the facile approach is to say the gift of Trudeau is like that of Obama: all wrapper and no present. Despite the more human image Trudeau presents, he won't be more than a superficial change from Harper. The Liberals are no less a corporatist, big money party than the Conservatives.

I guess I'll borrow a line from the movie "Platoon": All that happened here is that Stephen Harper is gone.

At least that's something. It's nice to be able to say "Stephen Harper" in the past tense.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Miles Deli said...

Greetings MB and Wafers,

Here's something:



No argument from me, amigo. Obama and Clinton are good examples of, as MB says, "even the smart ones are dumb in the US." Unfortunately, even Masciotra's article about the need for elite rule in the US fails to address this crucial fact. Discussions of how/why America needs elite rule to solve our structural problems, should be put in the context of: What kind of a country is this exactly? Into what kind of model can we place the American system of power? As a result of DAA and WAF, we have a good idea about this context.

I think, however, we also hafta investigate deep power structures within the US. Intellectually speaking, what we've got is what C. Wright Mills long ago called, "the fraternity of the successful," i.e., an interlocking corporate-political- Wall Street-investment bank-permanant war economy species that can't be easily separated. This is the ruling class and system of American power and rule that predominates, and it needs to be taken together as a whole; a conspiracy of higher circles, so to speak. Their work goes largely unseen, is vaguely understood, and rarely criticized. Furthermore, the stupidity and ignorance of the American people makes this system work a whole lot easier.


4:57 PM  
Blogger Rook said...

Hi Guys,
I was very lucky to receive a liberal arts education at a good European university. No tuition fees and I received a maintenance grant as I was from a low-income family.

@Kanye: British students should consider studying in Sweden, Netherlands or Germany (for example). It is tuition free for EU citizens.

1:01 PM  

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