What price enlightenment?

What price enlightenment?
That will be a quarter million dollars, how would you like to pay?

Years ago, Mastercard launched its famous “Priceless” advertising campaign, the theme being that there are some things money can’t buy—a clever denigration of materialism in the service of a sale. For example: a professional baseball game setting with the superimposed words: “Tickets—$46. Concession—$26. Taking your son to his first ballgame—Priceless.”

I kept thinking of this campaign watching some of the debates set off by the President Biden’s announcement of (partial) student loan forgiveness. While much of the back-and-forth arguments have revolved around questions of the justice or efficacy of canceling student debt, they implicitly call into question the value of the education for which loan-holders are now to be reimbursed.

One the one hand, its proponents have steadfastly refused to link loan-forgiveness to a revaluation of the underlying product for which they were issued (not to mention the issuance of future loans); on the other, it is difficult to overlook the obvious implication that the degrees in question were not worth the price tag. Particularly after two years of remote learning, students (and their parents) might be forgiven for wondering just what they’re paying for at this point.

The fact is that the cost of a four-year undergraduate degree has doubled—and in some cases tripled—over the past two decades, even as its market value has declined. At this point, the Mastercard commercial for one of the better colleges would have to read: Annual tuition—$50,000; room and board—$20,000, an education in the liberal arts and sciences—Priceless.

Yet even those of us who wholeheartedly agree with the last element can hardly disregard the rest. It is all well and good to speak of the intangible, lifelong benefits of education, but money makes the mare go. And given that price tag, what—we might ask—is a liberal arts degree for in the year 2022 and beyond? The two most commonly-given answers are instrumental: a liberal arts degree is a value-added credential on the job market, or it is a necessary education for citizens of a liberal democracy.

The first is a declining proposition; the average tuition for the better liberal arts colleges exceeds $50,000. The median salary for a graduate ten years out is not much higher. A bare minority of liberal arts students major in mathematics, but this is not a difficult calculation. The more nuanced version of this claim is that those holding an undergraduate degree still enjoy far greater earning power than those without, which is certainly true. Nonetheless, its relative value has still declined, triggering a credentialing arms race as students increasingly pursue costly postgraduate degrees to distinguish themselves from their peer competitors on the job market.

The other answer treats the “liberal” in liberal arts as causal: that is, it creates the kind of citizens that liberal democracies require (and, conversely, the former’s decline has dire implications for the latter). Precisely because this claim flatters the class making it, it retains a certain appeal, but it rests more upon assertion than argument. I know of no one who considers early 19th-century America to have been a haven for liberal arts pedagogy, yet Tocqueville presents a remarkable picture of an engaged civic culture in that time and place.

And yet a liberal arts education is liberating. But it is not a form of liberty that necessarily lends itself to political expression. It is rather a liberation from the modern world’s relentless emphasis on utility and omnipresent deluge of half-formed opinions masquerading as considered judgments or facts. After all, even on good days, the demands of everyday life do not really permit one to indulge in radical inquiry (as any overworked parent will readily attest). So, there is indeed something liberating about the opportunity to ask: What is just? What is beautiful? What is the nature of the world around us? What kind of life is best?

This approach to education admittedly does not scale well, and the attempt to apply it across the entirety of the United States has stretched it well past the breaking point; it has long since disaggregated into ever more specialized niche disciplines, without providing its students with either a semblance of a whole education or useful career training. Yet the truth is that the liberal arts curriculum was never intended to serve as a model for mass education in a modern society. No such decision was ever formally undertaken. Rather, like many of the major institutions in contemporary American life—from healthcare to finance to our overseas military bases—it arrived as its present state through path dependency.

Consequently, we now have literally thousands of colleges and universities in the United States alone, at least two thirds of which serve little purpose beyond their own existence. Their students are largely driven not by an authentic desire to learn, but by a national propaganda that insists on the value of higher education without reflecting on the substance of that value. Meanwhile, their professors and administrators are de facto collaborators in their exploitation, loading them up with debt while delaying their entrance into the job market by several years.

This unfortunate reality, along with the role that subsidized loans have played in fostering it, has increasingly led critics to write off the system of higher education—including liberal arts education—entirely. I think this is a pretty classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Nonetheless, even the minority of schools with something real to offer still have a problem.

The outstanding question for them is whether—to paraphrase Alexander Hamilton—American colleges and universities can still design curricula through reflection and choice rather than accident. Over three decades ago, Allan Bloom observed that the dirty secret of higher education in America was its inability to create a coherent four-year undergraduate curriculum in the liberal arts. Little in the intervening period has emerged to call that claim into question. In lieu of such a coherent curriculum, we have—to quote Bloom again—substituted “a sort of philosophic U.N. run by bureaucrats for the sake of representation for all peoples.”

One could rejoin that the above is merely the caviling of sore losers in the education wars, except that the “winners” do not appear to have been made any happier by their victory. Indeed, the true winners cannot be said to fall on one side or another of any substantive debate over the purpose of higher education, but are rather an increasingly parasitic class of bureaucratic functionaries who have swelled their own ranks and salaries at the expense of both students and teachers.

Yet even if those administrative branches were to undergo the necessary pruning, the primary goal of articulating and instituting a curriculum that addressed the higher needs of undergraduates open to the life of the mind would remain. This remains the most urgent task of education. And for all the insistence in newspaper editorials and college promotional materials about the practical utility of a liberal arts educations, its true value is intrinsic.

Perhaps the ephemeral internet is an ironic place to make this point, but that value lies precisely in its distance from quotidian politics. The opportunity to step away from the meaningless daily onrush of events and immerse themselves in, as Ezra Pound said of poetry, “news that stays news.” Priceless is perhaps not too strong a word, and yet this ideal continues to recede from view, as the number on the sticker goes up and up and up.