Friday, September 17, 2010

Ambition And Education

Dr. Deneen writes:
Today, the greatest source of motivation – at least that which I see in young students who are, indeed, motivated – comes from the same get-rich-quick assumptions as their parents, which comes from all of the above-named sources but one. Friedman equates “curiosity” and “ambition,” but I would submit that long before our young are able to develop a healthy sense of curiosity – that “wonder” from which the human impulse to know and discover arises, according to Aristotle – adults of “the Greatest Generation” make sure that the primary motivation is “ambition,” but only insofar as one’s efforts are undertaken in order to ensure outsized rewards in return for the markers of achievement (i.e., credentialing). Our motivation is to be “Number One” so that we can continue to have prosperity bought on the cheap. However – as we are rapidly discovering – this is not a long-term business plan.

Nobody, including Dr. Deneen, will be surprised to learn that FLG agrees with much of the sentiment, but does have some disagreements with a few points.

FLG totally agrees that the students Dr. Deneen interacts with at Georgetown are largely motivated by ambition toward achieving measurable and quantifiable goals (degree from Georgetown, lots of money, perhaps a Senate seat, etc) and he does believe the Greatest Generation was the one that started all this. They in turn passed it onto the Boomers, who in turn passed it onto Generation X and the Millenials.

Here's the thing. The Greatest Generation, through the G.I. Bill, was the start of the massification of higher education. Prior to this, and FLG is drawing a lot on the portrayal in This Side of Paradise, which is at Princeton and fiction but nevertheless broadly holds, that college was far more limited to the upper crust. People who were already credentialed by virtue of their last names.

Perhaps FLG's point is best described thusly: The Greatest Generation was the first to experience democratized higher education. Unlike its previous and more aristocratic nature, the democratized university was going to be about getting ahead. About the practical over the intellectual.

Tocqueville said as much:
It is evident that in democratic communities the interest of individuals as well as the security of the commonwealth demands that the education of the greater number should be scientific, commercial, and industrial rather than literary. Greek and Latin should not be taught in all the schools; but it is important that those who, by their natural disposition or their fortune, are destined to cultivate letters or prepared to relish them should find schools where a complete knowledge of ancient literature may be acquired and where the true scholar may be formed. A few excellent universities would do more towards the attainment of this object than a multitude of bad grammar-schools, where superfluous matters, badly learned, stand in the way of sound instruction in necessary studies.

All who aspire to literary excellence in democratic nations ought frequently to refresh themselves at the springs of ancient literature; there is no more wholesome medicine for the mind. Not that I hold the literary productions of the ancients to be irreproachable, but I think that they have some special merits, admirably calculated to counterbalance our peculiar defects. They are a prop on the side on which we are in most danger of falling.

Now, one could be curious about the scientific, commercial, and industrial. Individuals can really study and learn the intricacies of the field, but by and large people simply want practical knowledge that they can put to immediate use for their own profit. FLG laments this, but it appears unavoidable in a democratic society.


The Ancient said...

Someone ought to write a book [genre: American intellectual history] about the many colleges that were formed on the other side of the Appalachians in the first half of the 19th century -- partly in response to de Tocqueville. Colleges like Lafayette, Kenyon, Union and a dozen others. In that Jacksonian Age, these colleges seem to have been much more interesting places to be than Harvard, Yale or Princeton, and attracted bright students from all social classes.

P.S. They also attracted teachers like this rather formidable fellow:

George Pal said...

by and large people simply want practical knowledge that they can put to immediate use for their own profit.

By and large this is giving practical knowledge seekers too much credit. What people want most is to be certified by a prestigious paper mill and will, by and large, mindlessly go along with the curriculum, rote for note.

Our last two presidents, Harvard MBA and Law, have convinced me they know little of what they ‘learned’ or have been badly counseled on their career choices. It’s a small sample but gazing about I see more of this and am sensing a trend.

Withywindle said...

I think this democratized education you speak of has been going on for a thousand years, at least ...

FLG said...


Are you saying higher education has been democratized for a thousand years? You're the history expert and all, but I find that a very dubious claim.

If you want to say democratization of education began a thousand years ago, then okay. But higher education wasn't democratized, I don't think, until the Montgomery G.I. Bill. I guess you could say Morrill Act was the start, so you'd go back to 1860 something. But a thousand years?

The Ancient said...

FLG --

Fitzgerald might have got just as good an education -- insofar as he got one -- at dozens of schools.

But what he wanted was the romance of the rich. He couldn't get that at Carleton or St Olaf. He had to go somewhere he didn't really fit in to find that.

(Granted, he probably profited more from his specific college experience than most people.)

Andrew Stevens said...

FLG, my sense of history has been that the Greatest Generation was the first to see real mass higher education with extremely large percentages of the population attending, so in that sense it was democratized at that time.

But, you stated that only children of the wealthy (the aristocracy) received higher education prior to the Greatest Generation and this is not my sense of history. Talented but poor students have been receiving higher education for a very long time now. Isaac Newton was admitted to Cambridge as a sizar (basically a work/study program). Johann Gauss was born poor and still received a doctorate. These are not isolated examples, I don't think. Most of the "great geniuses" of history in the last thousand years were not born to the aristocracy; they were usually born poor. And I have to assume that there were a bunch of poor students who went to universities who didn't become famous.

However, this doesn't really disturb your thesis since the turn from intellectual to practical would happen due to the first definition of democratization not the latter. Those poor kids who went to university in earlier eras did so because they were great intellectuals and recognized as such, not because it was the best way to "get ahead." That only comes with higher education as a mass market good.

But I don't know if Withywindle was getting at that or something else which would disturb your thesis.

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