In the July, 2015 issue of The Baffler, Siva Vaidhyanathan, one of today’s most insightful public intellectuals and a professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia, sparked by Thorstein Veblen’s 1918 book The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men, examines the current state of American higher education and its evolution over the past century. His essay is titled “A Study in Total Depravity.” Near the end, he notes that:
Great “disinterested” research still can come out of the American academe. But it’s less common all the time, as more and more university funds come from politically directed “big science” projects and from donations earmarked to address the maladies that afflict the wealthiest Americans.
Not long ago, things were better. Between Veblen’s time and ours, state, national, and university leaders recognized the tension Veblen described. So, from about 1950 through 2000, the federal government generously supported research that had little obvious practical use. Much of that, including the research that sparked nanotechnology and personalized cancer treatment, ultimately yielded practical uses. For a while, we considered ourselves a rich and wise enough nation to forego short-term results. We were comfortable pursuing knowledge rather than vapid “deliverables” and “learning outcomes.” We were a nation worthy of curiosity. We were striving to be less like Sparta and more like Athens. Now that’s all changed: Sparta had learning outcomes; Athens learned.
Americans both resent and embrace prestige, and both defer to and ridicule intellectual sophistication. Americans worship technology but dismiss science. These contradictions drive us crazy. They drove Veblen to clarity. We should seek to reclaim Veblen’s brand of unsentimental insight, together with his high analytic tolerance for contradiction and irony. Most of all, though, we need to recover his commitment to the academy as a repository of values that rise above efficiency and expediency.
Follow the link; the entire article is well worth reading.
By Timothy Vollmer (originally posted to Flickr as Siva Vaidhyanathan) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons