The End of Nostalgia

Higher education faces what may be insurmountable challenges.  It may be that one day soon, nobody will need a college degree to get a job.

That will be a very good day.

When that happens, institutions that offer something more than 21st century skills will thrive.  Students will not see their education as a box that needs checking and will flock to the places that give them a chance to take the big questions seriously, at least for a season.

Homecoming at my alma mater this weekend gave me an opportunity to reflect on the formative nature of education.  If your view of education is purely transactional, then you’ll find it hard to quantify outcomes. I think this the fundamental flaw in Brian Caplan’s excellent new book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. Ironically, it’s the same misunderstanding that underlies technocratic test-based accountability measures.

But formation can’t really be rushed.  It is resource-intensive.  It requires emotional labor on the part of both the learner and teacher.

Formation is teleological, and this is what makes it unsuitable for standardization in a pluralistic society.   It’s easier to sell “skills” because they don’t imply an end towards which they ought to be directed.

When the cleansing fire of online education has consumed the dross, what will remain are the institutions that can clearly define their work in terms of habit (and thereby character) formation.

The more obviously useful a skill is the more fragile it is to disruption, automation, or outsourcing.  It is also true that these skills are more easily imparted through routinized training.

But it does not follow that the inverse of this is true.  Just because something is apparently useless does not mean that it is actually useful.  Hayek’s insight about the rationality of tradition comes in handy here.  While we should not defer to it blindly, tradition can give us some important hints about which disciplines of mind and heart might lead to flourishing lives.

We don’t call autumnal organized rituals in nostalgia house-comings.  We call them homecomings for this reason: a home is not solely defined by its functional quality of providing basic shelter.  It is an end point in itself, a place for refreshment of body and soul.  I’m glad I had a chance to come home this weekend.





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