The $50,000-A-Year Socratic Joke, or,
What Are You Buying When You Buy An Education?
To cut to the chase as fast as possible, I’ll abstain from offering a detailed history of the Student Debt Crisis in Higher Education, or the Spiraling Costs of Higher Education. Both titles are “copy/pasted” by the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education on the reg, and a little judicious Googling will feed you all the info you desire. A few historical highlights, though: the boom in the humanities started with the G.I. Bill after World War II. The decline in the humanities started in the early ’80s when Reagan cancelled a bunch of grants, slashed the education budged, pissed on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and then sat back and laughed while the faggots died of AIDS. That more or less brings you up to speed, with one additional fact: even though the systemic decline of the humanities in higher education began in the United States well over 30 years ago, some people are still pretending that we’re in a “slump” or, famously, that “it gets better.”
Onward and upward.
Instead, let me explain the joke on the card above, since I suppose it’s possible some of my readers aren’t intimately familiar with Plato’s dialogues, the corpus of Greek drama, and the history of classical Athens in its “Golden Age.” Fortunately for you, I can boil it all down.
I’m fond of pointing out things in Plato’s dialogues that your teachers (like Derrida) forgot to tell you about; for example, the age of Socrates’ preferred boytoys (in the Protagoras, for example, he tells his nameless friend that he likes them just as their beards start to come in). When you read Derrida, you hear all this stuff about Plato’s distrust of writing, the logocentrism, and all that complex metaphysical hoo-ha your were supposed to learn in Intro to Critical Theory but everyone had the flu the day you read “Differance” and “Structure, Sign, and Play” (or maybe “The Law of Genre” if it’s a Comp.Lit. class). And yes, Plato does concern himself greatly with methods of inscription, techniques of memory, and all that fun stuff. But you know the character of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues is concerned with more than anything? Money. Yes, money.
Look close. Closer…eh, too close. A little too close (Jaffar, Jaffar, he’s our man).
What you’ll see if you look closely is that somewhere in every Platonic dialogue is hidden the true omphalos, the actual shibboleth by which Socrates decides whether a system of inquiry is “true” or not is…whether or not the instructor demands money. Though he drones on for page after page after page of aporia and elenchus, Socrates really only cares about one thing. Did you pay for your edumacation? If so, it sucks. Boom. Protagoras isn’t wrong because he’s wrong or a bad philosopher; he’s wrong because he charges money for lessons.
Socrates is running a much deeper and smarter game. What we might call “a long con.” You see, Socrates has something so much better going for him that tuition fees. He hasprivilege. Socrates isn’t a poor student or an immigrant, you see; he’s an Athenian citizen, from a noble family - what the Greeks called “of good birth,” oreugenos. This is, of course, the source of our word “eugenics” and we all know how happy that road was. Anyway. Socrates was independently wealthy. Moreover, he had connections and old friends among the high and mighty of Athens, which was then a largely oligarchical society of inherited privilege.
Socrates could afford to spend all day on the agora arguing with people for free. You know why? Money. That’s why. He had a wife, Xanthippe, to take care of the household regulation (oikonomia), no doubt assisted by a “manager” or majordomo who was likely a foreign slave. So he could spend all his time getting drunk at symposia, fucking little boys, and accosting poor, hard-working artists and artisans like the bard Ion and the self-righteous Euthyphro and instill in them a profound existential crisis. And he pretends to spread his philosophy for free, out of the goodness of his heart.
So what’s the con, you ask. Just this. Look at the structure of the Platonic dialogues. Look carefully. Almost every single one, at least in the earlier, properly “Socratic” tetralogies, begins with somebody running up to Socrates with a strange conceptual problem. And almost inevitably, Socrates responds something like this: “I see your problem, and I understand what you’re saying. I can ever help you resolve it. But first I want to know, who taught you this claptrap, and how much did they charge you?” Then Socrates pretends to unravel the problem, though he rarely does; and in gratitude for this “help,” perhaps the inquistor would like to make a friendly donation to the Socratic Philosophy Fund? In other words, Socrates will save your soul for free, but then you have to sell it back to him in exchange. Sound familiar?
If it does sound familiar, maybe you’re thinking of the Christian Church, which founded and spread itself according to much the same hypocritical principles. If you’re thinking of contemporary higher education, you’re right about that one, too. So what’s the comedic essence of Aristophanes’ The Clouds?
Well, here’s the thing. Aristophanes and Socrates were good friends. According to Diogenes Laertius, the only time Socrates would leave the city walls of Athens was to see the plays of Aristophanes performed at the Piraeus. Aristophanes, as his comedies clearly show, could read and cut a bitch like no other (except Diogenes of Sinope and Aristotle himself, and perhaps Critolaus, the Great Queen of the Skeptical Academy), and what he’s mocking in this short comedy is precisely this con on Socrates’ part: his pretense of saving students from the errors of others, in exchange for a modest sum and a lifetime of anxiety. At the end of the dialogue, as at the end of Aristophanes’ farce, the student is left more confused and indebted than ever.
I don’t think the allegory needs much more belaboring. So let’s return to our actual question. What are you buying when you pay $50,000 a year for higher education? Obviously, that’s an inflated figure relative to the average cost of state college and community college, for example. But that’s not the point. Let’s reduce the numbers drastically. Let’s just point out that a total of $50,000 of debt after a 4-year education is by no means unusual and leave it at that.
Now, before I start, let me point out once again that my critique, hyperbolic as it may be, is aimed at the humanities, since I have no experience outside of them. So let’s take a degree in English, say, or Classics, or even Philosophy, at Columbia or NYU or Cornell or whateverthefuck. What are you paying for?
Well, let’s think for a second.
In the Wayback Time of Long Ago - like, say, 1200 AD, when we can clearly see institutional structures identifiable as the prototype of the “modern” university - Scholastic universities were literally the only place in Latin Europe where it was ALLOWED to think. Publication and circulation of ideas without Church approval was just not done, and more importantly, nobody who wasn’t Catholic or Jewish in Europe know how to read, anyway. So if you wanted to be any kind of “thinker” or “reader” or “intellectual,” you had to go to a university, or at least start a basic Latin education at a nearby cannon school, or be Jewish.
From the 14th to the early 19th century or so “official” institutions of pedagogy, whether Royal Societies, the private estates of nobles, or proper Universities, offered a different type of exclusive access: books. In a time when books were rare and valuable, universities were literal center of learning where information could be access simply not available anywhere else. For centuries, scholars would travel around the world just to look at a specific piece of paper in a particular place. Wait, I guess some people still do that. Wait, I guess, I’ve done that. But anyway, you get my point.
This has no longer been true in the humanities since the beginning of printing, really, but it certainly isn’t true now that the “digital humanities” are exploding everywhere like fungal spores. Basically, most texts you can dream of are available for free on-line. And if not for free for a modest price. And if not online, at Amazon or the public library. “Content,” so to speak, is no longer a marketable commodity in the humanities. Onlyproductsare. A book. An on-line course. A 4-year degree. So again - what you buying for your money?
Well, in the United States, at the moment, you’re buying two things. You’re buying 4 years of housing and partying as a kind of normative suspended adolescence, and you’re buying a guided tour of the humanities.
Professors can’t give you “content” in exchange for money, not with Wikipedia telling you everything you need to know, and you can even download syllabi and course notes in virtually every topic now, not to mention order any number of “teach it yourself for dummies” kind of things. What the university is offering you is a guided tour of the history, meaning, and connections between “things,” whatever the field might be, and it’s telling you that you’ll get to study these things in a fun, comfortable environment in exchange for a lifetime of debt. And most importantly, it’s implying that, as a bastion of culture and learning, it can teach you to navigate these connections at a much higher pedagogical quality than you can hope for by piecing shit together yourself.
Well, folks, there’s the rub. Yep. Because that last bit, the ideological crux of today’s higher education system, is a crock of bullshit. The idea that you’re buying the best that is known and taught in the world is as old and rusty as “Dover Beach.” Give me a fucking break. Did you see my post on Byzantium the other day? Using a used Penguin Atlas that I bought for $4, Wikipedia, and a book called The Byzantines that I checked out from the library, I learned more about the Byzantine Empire and its philosophical history than I would have in many thousands of dollars’ worth of higher education. And this is assuming that you actually get a quality education for that price, which, as we know, is a rather hit-or-miss prospect. Trust me when I say that many undergraduates finish degrees at extremely prestigious institutions only to hate themselves and the teachers who failed them. I’ve taught some of those students. So basically, you’re going into a lifetime of debt for a 4-year summercamp.
Doesn’t sound quite so worthwhile when you put it that way, does it?