Thursday Thinkpiece: Kingwell on Intellectuals and Democracy

Each Thursday we present a significant excerpt, usually from a recently published book or journal article. In every case the proper permissions have been obtained. If you are a publisher who would like to participate in this feature, please let us know via the site’s contact form.

Unruly Voices: Essays on Democracy, Civility and the Human Imagination
Mark Kingwell
Toronto: Biblioasis, 2012

Excerpt: pp. 131 – 133

Intellectuals and Democracy

You might think judges would make diverting dinner companions, but I can tell you that on the whole they don’t. The judge sitting next to me, who shall go nameless, condemned all modern art as overpraised child’s play. She railed against graduated income tax. She told me I would outgrow my socialist tendencies (I was 48 at the time). She left without contributing to the bill.

So I was not at all surprised when, after hearing what I did for a living, she said, “But what will your students do with that?”

There is a special intonation to this use of the verb ‘do’, familiar to anyone who has studied classics or considered a graduate degree in mathematics, with its long vowel of contempt honeyed over by apparent concern. When l was in rny second postgraduate year, a woman in an Edinburgh bus queue delivered the best version I have so far encountered: “Philosophy! Really! Do you have any idea what you’ll do with that?” (Poor sod: useless and out to lunch!)

I could have told the judge something she ought to have known already, which is that philosophy students usually rock the LSAT. They get into prestigious law schools, even sometimes make it onto the bench. Statistically speaking, there is no better preparation for success in law than an undergraduate degree spent thinking about the nature of knowledge, the meaning of being and, especially, what makes a valid argument.

But even though this is itself a valid argument, it is not a good one. I mean that the success of the argument actually concedes a greater failure; it gives away the game of justification to a base value. A degree in philosophy, or humane study more generally, does not require validation in the court of do-with usefulness. lt is a convenient reality that such validation is sometimes gained, but the victory is really a surrender performed on the enemy’s ground.

What’s surprising is how many of today’s university administrators are rushing to do just this, hyping the ‘competitiveness’ and ‘pragmatism’ of higher education. The annual higher education supplement published by Macleans, the Canadian weekly news magazine, is ground zero for the transactional reduction of learning. The latest version of the supplement included this representative claim from Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Parents of prospective students, he told a reporter, “are looking for a return on investment” in their child’s tuition.

And so professors are told that they need to justify their activities according to a market model of ‘research effectiveness, where quantifiable ‘impact indicators’ and ‘external research use values’ can be totted up and scanned. Students respond by assuming a consumer stance to their own education, swapping tuition dollars not for the chance to interact with other minds but to acquire a postgraduate market advantage. When a 2010 survey of 12,500 students asked, “What was the single most important reason in your decision to attend university,” just 9% picked “a good general education’ as their answer, while almost 70% had enrolled to “get a good job” or “train for a specific career.”

Historically, median earning power for university graduates is indeed higher than that of college or high school grads, and over their lifetimes university graduates earn substantially more—75% by some estimates—than non-graduates. And yet, paradoxically, recent years have witnessed an avalanche of over-qualification. “[M]ore than a quarter of a million Canadian university students are about to graduate into the workforce this spring,” Macleans noted. “Yet studies show that fifty percent of Canadian arts and science grads are working in jobs that don’t require a university credential two years after graduation.”

All is not lost, however. “As the knowledge economy continues to grow—and manufacturing jobs disappear—there’s more demand for university grads in the workforce than ever.” Rest easy, parents. Pony up, students. There’s still a reason to get an education! It’s just not anything to do with education.

Call this familiar mixture of doom and market optimism the standard position. It can be summarized this way: university education must be judged according to its ultimate usefulness. That usefulness will be understood as career success of one sort or another, especially measured by wealth. The position then adds the soft option: get a degree because the “knowledge economy” will otherwise crush you.

The soft option is favoured hy presidents as well as university presidents. Barack Obama, giving a speech at a college in 2011, noted that America’s need to ‘remain competitive’ was an argument for higher education: “If we want more good news on the jobs front then we’ve got to make more investments in education.” He offered no other arguments in its favour.

For all its currency, the standard position strikes me as wrong-headed, if not dangerous. It is a philistine position, obviously; it works to hollow out the critical possibilities of education. Holders of this position regard real humanistic education as a dispensable luxury of idiosyncratic and purely personal value, and that makes them, in turn, dangerous.

They are correct, however, that the standard position is now so deeply presupposed that even calling attention to it can be enough to brand one an ivory-tower whackjob, tilting at windmills. The 2011 Macleans authors noted with some satisfaction that nobody would nowadays express the indignation that greeted similar reductive accounts of education a decade ago, not apparently aware of the role Macleans and its consumer-style surveys have played in that reduction.

As far as I’m concerned the judge and all those in the standard position camp are the enemy. They are not enemies of philosophy, or me, or my students; they are enemies of democracy, and insofar as we refuse to admit that—insofar as we soft-pedal the value of the humanities when confronted by a scale of value keyed only to wealth-—we are not being serious about what democracy means. As with the democratic narratives discussed in relation to Francis Fukuyama (see “The Tomist” in this collection) and the electoral system (see “Throwing Dice”), we are witnessing nothing less than the regulatory capture of universities under the general influence of a market model that can only be challenged by arguments rooted in another, human code of value.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    A belated comment: my training is also as a philosopher, and I was consciously hired and employed as such by Sun Microsystems (now Oracle).

    I discovered a number of other philosophers in the senior and management ranks of the company, and lots of historians, geographers and mathematicians.

    The ability to reason about sometimes recalcitrant problems of both a technical and non-technical nature is what the company was seeking: I did everything from parsing semi-structured text to building mathematical models to writing programs to expose internal operating system details, the same as colleagues with engineering degrees.

    The important thing was to have learned how to learn, how to construct an experiment and how to solve a problem. The harder the problem you faced in school, the better. And philosophy has a lovely collection of hard problems.