College for Cardinals, Global Province Letter, 29 September 2010

                     There are no future facts, but there are no past possibilities—Robert S.               

Global Dumbing.  Every professor worth his or her salt is rather sure that mankind is warming up the globe at an alarming rate. Indeed, it has been so hot this summer that many of us are convinced we are toast. But people on campus have become unduly exercised about global warming. They have become so choleric that they have heaped abuse on the lonely souls who oppose their views, such as Bjørn Lomborg.

In tandem, academic voices all about the land have sounded the bells in the tower and gnashed their teeth, putting permanent Ensor grimaces on their faces.  It bothers them not, even if they are aware of the possibility, that some fine minds speculate that we are actually headed into another Ice Age.  Unfortunately the brainiac community has become as much a thundering herd as the people at Merrill Lynch, and it may be leading us over a cliff.  That is, the science of where we are headed climate-wise is more than a bit ambiguous, and those who pretend to know what’s happening are probably more moved by ideology than observation.  More than ever we are in times where frenzy rules reason.

We can probably speak with more certainty about global dumbing.  Much convinces us that stupidity has run rampant.  We’re in a period where people are propelled by strange and more or less unfounded beliefs.  It is religiosity run astray.  In the face of all these minds run amuck, we can say with some certainty that in these United States we are spending more and more on education and getting less and less for it.  The trends at our universities are particularly worrisome.

There are frequent reports that college tuitions are racing to the moon, far outpacing inflation, frequently by a factor of 2.  Parents have now become numb from paying out $40 to $50 thousand a year.  Worse yet, many bill payers know they’re not getting their money’s worth.  Courses at many institutions are ill conceived, and are taught by teaching assistants who themselves are educational lightweights.  We recently learned of an urban planning course at one of the world’s leading universities where the instructors led students on urban planning exercises in the surrounding city but they themselves knew nothing about the history of the metropolis or its architecture.  In other words, colleges cost too darn much for too pitifully little.  “Over the past 30 years, the average cost of college tuition and fees has risen 250% for private schools and nearly 300% for public schools (in constant dollars),” according to Mark Bauerlein in the Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2010.

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus go into this decline and fall in Higher Education?(Read a review here.) A plethora of think tanks and journalists are in hot pursuit of bloated costs, low productivity, and weak teaching at America’s institutions   The Economist asks if  “America’s universities” will “go the way of its car companies?

Brumbaugh’s Intuition.  Most critics of the university basically say it has gotten fat and happy, and needs to be reformed so it can get back to teaching and twirl its arms around productively.  Some of us think the problems run deeper and that mere reform does not cut to the problem.

In 2010, we’re simply in a brave new world: the encrusted, very static university needs to be turned upside down. Maybe we are entering an Ice Age.  For sure, as the winds shifted in 2000, we crossed over into an entirely different kind of economy that calls for a very different, very global kind of university.  Its cloistered estate must come to an end.

Robert S. Brumbaugh, a brilliant but little known philosopher, posed questions a few decades ago that should have led to a much more dynamic university than we enjoy today. “According to Robert Brumbaugh, Whitehead’s mature philosophy has important implications for education. With his criticism of current commonsense ideas of space and time and the influence of seventeenth-century physics on twentieth-century metaphysics, Whitehead pointed the way toward a new realistic theory of education. "It is an obvious but important theme in his writings," says Brumbaugh, "that if education -- or anything else -- is to be realistic, it must rest on a correct notion of reality." ” Put a bit more simply, the university has become divorced from reality, and it does not prepare the individual for the cosmos we are in now.

Neo-Platonic Times.  As Ancient Greece was in decline and its sinews weakened, philosophy declined into mysticism.   While the philosophes dressed lots of their thoughts in philosophical idiom, they really offered a potage of fragmentary ideas and jumbled spirituality. We label this patchwork endgame NeoPlatonism.  That age is not unlike our present time:  illogic and emotion boldly masquerade as solid thinking.  Cultism has seized the day in politics, medicine, and just about everything else.  This is both bad and good.  Some awfully kooky stuff is going down as wisdom.   But, we’re also realizing that universities and the Western world do not have a monopoly on useful knowledge and often exclude it. Logic needs to be wedded to intuition, not an easy task in our halls of ivy.

Feng Shui. The populace at large is now grafting subversive ideas and theories onto their lives, which are alien to the university.  For instance, not just Asians, but many in the West are now paying attention to feng shui, a keen belief in the art of orienting buildings and their interior spaces, so as to get in the way of success and ward away bad fortune.  It was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution in China, but has since broken out throughout the Chinese diaspora and even in the West.  As the Chinese rent or buy more office properties in New York, feng shui drives the outcome of many transactions.

We ourselves have been touched by feng shui.  Some 25 years ago a Taiwanese intermediary had us visit with a famous Hong Kong feng shui master.  First, we convened at a Chinese restaurant on the East Side of Manhattan, which was normally closed for lunch.  Feeling honored, the owner himself cooked for our party.  Two people from our firm plus our Taiwanese friend, who offered to translate, sat at length with the master and 10 or 15 rather beautiful Chinese women all bedecked in mink coats. After the meal, the master and his aides repaired to our office where we celebrated a colleague’s birthday and also performed some feng shui rituals.

His good cheer and bevy of beautiful maidens carried the day.  We’re consultants, but we decided his advice is more powerful than ours, since it draws so many to his side.  In tremulous times such as these, there’s something to be said for those who traffic with magic.

That is, in rocky times, we might as well pick up a few tips from those who are better wired to deal with a universe that is out of control.  Perhaps Deborah Fallows implies as much in her new book Dreaming Chinese:  Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language.  She learns that they think differently and think about different things. As the Times reviewer suggests, “And she soon discovers that what the Chinese think is important isn’t always what we think is important. One thing they’re interested in is ensuring good luck. This explains why the Beijing Olympics began on Aug. 8, 2008, at 8:08 p.m. Eight, ba, rhymes with fa, “as in fa cai, which means ‘to become wealthy,’ ” making it a very auspicious number. And even though Aug. 8 was well into the rainy season, it didn’t rain.”

There’s not a lot in our education that teaches us how to have good luck.  We dare to suggest to our own consulting clients that we will bring them good luck.  That’s borne of the fact that a number of them have risen further and achieved more than they had ever hoped for.  But unlike the feng shui master, we cannot tell them how we do it.  We get them there by indirection.

Success by Chance.  In this age of the World Wide Web and decaying institutions, we become dependent on strokes of luck and chance encounters to flourish.  The Economist portrays this very changed world “In Search of Serendipity.” “When knowledge is dispersed, you are less likely to find what you want via a formal search. You may not even know what you are looking for. But you are more likely than you were in the past to discover something useful through a chance encounter.  That is why, the authors argue, people need to organize their lives in ways that increase their chances of unexpectedly bumping into someone who can tell them something useful.”

The College for Cardinals.  We suspect that the university has become hermetically sealed, isolated from the world historical forces that are rocking societies at every point on the globe.  This solipsism, more than waste, is the plague of modern education.  To get his bearings, modern man must have the chance encounters posited by the Economist but also must sense the mystical, even religious currents that stir in feng shui and in places entirely remote from the university.  We are called upon to get connected to world society and to the universe.

The new university, in this view, would blend the chunks of ordinary knowledge now propagated by academics with metaphysical insights that help us grasp the tectonic changes that are taking place on our globe.  This university would provide an education fit for cardinals, in Rome or elsewhere.  The university should drench us with knowledge, but it should also always make us think about the unknown.

P.S.  One leading indicator of the decline of the American mind is the inability of more and more people to put a sentence together.  One should read with amusement and despair Gene Weingarten’s “Goodbye, cruel words: English It’s dead to me.”

P.P.S.  “Prior to their formal establishment, many medieval universities were run for hundreds of years as Christian cathedral schools or monastic schools (Scholae monasticae), in which monks and nuns taught classes; evidence of these immediate forerunners of the later university at many places dates back to the 6th century AD.[7] The earliest universities were developed under the aegis of the western church, usually as cathedral schools or by papal bull as studia generali (Wikipedia)  As time has passed,  the cord between the church and the university has been cut.  This has made the university more parochial and inward looking. But then, the church itself has become more insular.

P.P.P.S.  We must ask whether our major universities have not become banks, instead of seats of learning.  Many have become asset collectors, as much as anything. Like our banks, some have lost their sense of mission and shorn their obligation to enrich society.  With unseemly endowments, many still charge students too much.

P.P.P.P.S.  One great scientist who had a big hand in creating the atomic bomb told us, “It’s simple.  If, in the sciences, you have to go to a big school in order to have proper research labs.  But, otherwise, the smart student should go to a small college where he will get a better education, a liberal education.” 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  In the adventuresome 1960s, San Francisco State College had a college within a college for a short while.  We’ve read that it had a course in Zen Basketball.  To our regret, we’ve never played the game.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  Lomborg interests us mainly because of the over-the-top comments he inspires.  Scientific American devoted a whole issue to opposing him:  it avoided any commentators who saw the grey hues of the global warming issue.  We corresponded a bit with one of Lomborg’s colleagues:  the chap utterly detested him.  It’s hard to reason together with so much vitriol about.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  A flock of philosphers have sprung up in the post-WorldWarII world who wrestle with how to deal with the unknowable.  Management thinker William Edwards Deming proclaimed, “The most important things are unknown or unknowable.”

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