Thursday, July 29

“Sailing With Ulysses” Reconsidered


Not quite a year ago, as this is written (20 Nov 2016), I published an article in the Be-Zine in which I defended a broad-based liberal arts education by reference to the audacious undertaking of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, Ulysses in setting out again in his old age for exploration. (A previous, slightly modified version of that article was published as a “Skeptic’s Collection” column.) I still believe and stand by everything, without exception, that I said in the 2015 piece. But, in retrospect, I realize that it needs to be qualified in two practical ways that got shouldered aside in my original access of romantic zeal. Upon more mature reflection, I realize that I should have addressed with more urgency than previously two related issues:  (1) the sheer cost of a modern university-level education, and what those costs imply for the practicability of my previous model of higher-education-as-odyssey; and (2) the implications for (1) to someone who actually undertakes that Ulyssean journey.


Of course, I did refer, in both the “Skeptic’s Collection” column and in the subsequent Be-Zine article, to the emphasis on professional education at the university level– and I did so from the second paragraph of the piece:

[The result of the emphasis on professional education is] the “monetization” [Prof. Stanley Fish's term] of education: the belief that any field of study has to justify itself in terms of a quantifiable dollars-and-cents return-on-investment that will qualify a student who majors in that field to be gainfully employed upon graduation. Hence the contemporary emphasis on the STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

What I did not emphasize sufficiently is the geometric, in some cases perhaps exponential, increase in educational costs driving the monetization phenomenon, and its consequences for students in terms of the freedom they have to question, to explore, and to learn in fields outside their professional majors.  A propos of this, I trust you will excuse a personal digression.

For a whole string of reasons too long to even synopsize here, I quizzed out of most of high school – I was a high-school student for only two weeks – and matriculated at Wichita State University (WSU) in Wichita, KS, as a freshman, even though I was a high-school sophomore, chronologically. I remember well my first semester’s tuition at WSU was … I don’t remember the precise amount … but for a full course load of 15 credit hours (5 3-hour courses), the tuition-only cost was somewhere in the middle triple digits. No, that is not a typo, not a ganja dream:  best I recall, around $500, plus or minus, for a full load of 5 classes.  Granted, this was 1964 – a half-century-plus ago -- I was a commuter student, as were most students at WSU, but even if you factor in dorm fees, the aggregate cost might double. Compare this to the cost of one year at Harvard at the time Diane and I left Boston in 1989 and decamped for Seattle:  $40,000 … or compare it to the tuition-only cost of one 10-week quarter at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, c. 2000, for which we routinely wrote $10,000 checks (even with a partial scholarship).

Embarkation of Odysseus -- Claude Lorrain -- Louvre
Chapel of Keble College, Oxford

Bottom line – which, to repeat, I did not emphasize sufficiently in my original “Ulysses” piece:  no wonder I could undertake the luxury of Ulyssean peregrinations through the seas of curiosity and wonder!  I could damn well afford it:  I could afford to be a bit of a dilettante. Oh, I picked up the odd fellowship and scholarship here and there. (I got an instructorship in the math department at WSU for my master’s in math, and my graduate study in physics at Tulane two years later was entirely paid for by the legendary generosity of a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship.) But even if I had not, and even though my parents were blue-collar, middle-middle or even lower-middle working class, my parents could have paid for my education out of their own modestly shallow pockets, and I would still have been in no danger of graduating under an aggregate debt sufficient to afford a healthy down payment on a house in the Hamptons. To shift the metaphor, students like 21st-century versions of me who are beguiled by the prospect of endless wandering in the shaded vineyards of Academe had best do a cost-benefit analysis first, and do it purely in dollars-and-cents, return-on-investment terms. Hence “monetization.” For to an immensely greater extent than was the case in my student days, curiosity generates debt … immense massifs of debt. I wonder how far from Ithaca Ulysses could have afforded to sail if he had insisted that his ships had to be platinum-clad hydrofoils.

That's the bad news. Now for the good news. There are two parts to the good news.  Good News Part 1: if you really want to learn something, you don't need a classroom or formal academic training. You do not need a classroom or formal training, even if you are interested in a field -- like law or cardiology or accounting -- whose actual practice requires certification for admission to "the guild":  the bar, state board certification, a CPA, etc. But that is the practical side, concerned with doing what you learn. If all you want to do is learn, you need none of that. (For the record:  I am glad, as we all should be, that there is a "guild," and that admission thereto is considerably more than a slap-on-the-back-and-remain-standing affair. I would not want heart surgery performed by someone not vetted by professional colleagues, or to defend myself against a criminal indictment by a lawyer not similarly qualified.) But if all you want to do is learn, sheerly just learn, you can do that on your own. Good News Part 2:  with certain prominent exceptions -- medicine and law being two -- learning on your own is quite cheap, especially in the Age of Kindle, Coursera, streaming video, and Amazon / Amazon Prime.

Curiosity Mars Rover (self-portrait)

Another personal aside: around 2008-09, for reasons, again, too complex to summarize, I became interested in the US Constitution, its history, writing, ratification, exegesis, and various methodologies of interpretation. Over the next four years, I read (by now) many multiple hundreds of books, most written by law-school faculty and historians for fellow academics, by people like Akhil Amar, Cass Sunstein, Jack Balkin, Jack Rakove, the late Pauline Maier, ... etc., etc. etc. ... on the history and meaning of the Document. I audited courses in "con law" and the First Amendment at the law school of the University of Washington. (I was aided immeasurably in this by the over-the-top generosity of a senior law-school faculty member who, though gratified by my interest, was somewhat bewildered by my eagerness to commute from East Hill Kent to UW to bang my head against con law through sheer interest, nevertheless acted as my de facto mentor, loaned me textbooks [which typically run triple digits each to outright buy], recommended books on constitutional interpretation, and occasionally allowed me, an auditor, to participate in class discussions.) Now, that said ... could I pass the Washington State bar exam? Almost certainly not. But that's just the point: I do not consider this a deficiency, for the simple reason that I never aspired to. (Most con law specialists at great universities practice very little law:  they are primarily scholars of the US Constitution.) But even though I cannot "become a lawyer," I still consider all that time and effort -- which is still very much under way -- as some of the best time I have ever spent in my life, literally "life-changing," as TV evangelists are wont to say. The bad news about the good news, parts 1 and 2, is that, because you have not paid tuition and fees, and because you must undertake to be your own Ulysses, you will end up doing so pretty much alone. Conversations on topics you are passionate about will be few and far between. So the good news is that, yes, you can be Ulysses, but the bad news is that you will perforce be pretty much a Ulysses Of One.

But that's quite OK.  So was Ulysses.

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Bust of Ulysses ... Carole Raddato ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Embarkation of Odysseus ... Claude Lorrain (Louvre) ... Public domain
Curious kids ... Flickr ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Keble College Chapel ... Keble College (Oxford University) ... CC BY 2.5
Curiosity rover ... NASA ... Public domain

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