Co-written with Jeremy Giffon
“If colleges don’t change their business model, they’re going to go bankrupt,” I told my professor, two days before I graduated from college.
She looked at me in disbelief.
“Yeah right,” she snickered.
Over four years at Elon University, I had watched the institution abandon its cardinal principles, as it transitioned from a liberal arts college and into a professional training center. Founded in 1889 to “transform mind, body, and spirit and encourage freedom of thought and liberty of conscience,” the school was built upon noble aspirations that united the community. It would provide a way for young adults to come of age by surrounding themselves with the best ideas humanity had ever produced — from the philosophy of Plato, to the sonnets of Shakespeare, to the music of Mozart.
Unfortunately, by the time I graduated, the school had abandoned that original vision.
All the new academic buildings centered around professional majors. Business majors and communications majors monopolized the prime real estate. Meanwhile, Liberal Arts majors were scattered around campus like trash occupying leftover space.
Though I’m disheartened by its priorities, I can’t blame Elon for responding to market forces. As one of my college advisers said to me, “Elon may be the most economically driven university in the country.” The university had to stay in business. No matter how noble it wanted to be or how much it wanted to stick to its original vision, it couldn’t prioritize majors that only a few students wanted to study.1 Financially, it was a smart move. Idealistically, I detested it.
The original definition of vocation is more profound than the contemporary one. It’s born out of the Protestant belief that God endows each person with unique talents and an occupation for which they’re uniquely suited. The word “vocation” was first used in the 16th century to describe how God called certain people to particular kinds of work. The term goes back to 1 Corinthians 7:20, where Paul says, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.”
With so many colleges struggling financially, the shift in Elon’s curriculum is being replicated by hundreds of American universities. It’s a dilemma. They can leave their original principles behind and become full-on vocational schools. Or, they can double down on their commitment to the Liberal Arts. Right now, they’re stuck in the middle of these options.
Most are turning into professional schools in order to survive. Like my alma mater, they are treating the Liberal Arts like a second-class citizen. But what’s good for their balance sheets isn’t necessarily good for the health of society.
In this essay, I’ll outline a plan for saving the Liberal Arts. I’ll start with their history by going back to the origins of Western thinking. I’ll argue that we can only think about education clearly once we split it into two halves: civilized and professional. To explain why, I’ll outline the evolution of the Liberal Arts, from the ancients to where we are today. I’ll show why we’ve devalued their study by serving our wallets instead of our souls. Finally, I’ll propose a plan to create a modern Liberal Arts school with lower costs, expanded access, and students who graduate with a holistic view of the world and an appreciation for civilization’s greatest works.
Section 2 – Common Vocabulary and Understanding
History of the Liberal Arts
In this essay, I will define the Liberal Arts as knowledge without immediate utility. It tends to be foundational, slow to change, and not the kind of knowledge that will make you a quick buck.2
I am also sympathetic to David Foster Wallace’s take on the subject: “I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”
When you study the Liberal Arts, you interrogate the fundamental assumptions of society. You make sense of its default programming, from the stories we tell to the ideals we worship. By doing so, you dig beyond the facade of intellectual fashions to explore the invisible codes that govern society.
The ancient Greeks defined the Liberal Arts as the knowledge required by free people to uphold their duty as citizens.3 In addition to political theory, they emphasized rhetoric, politics, philosophy, theology, abstract mathematics, and the natural sciences.4 Those were just the hard skills. They also learned to appreciate the softer sides of life, such as poetry, language, and storytelling.5 That changed with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when schools abandoned these original Liberal Arts values. Professional demands crept into the curriculum. Schools became an assembly line. Instead of merely “educating” students, they trained them to operate machinery, follow orders, and succeed in the workplace.
In fact, the etymology of “idiot” comes from the Greek idiotes, which referred to a private person who was so self-centered that they didn’t consider societal matters.
There were seven Liberal Arts in medieval European universities. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic made up “The Trivium,” while geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy made up “The Quadrivium.” People have always doubted their validity, which is why the word trivial corresponds to ideas in the Trivium.
The Greeks saw public service as a position of honor in a way that is hard to imagine today. The knowledge that was deemed to be of necessity to the citizen was what was most important to living one’s own life successfully.
Today, the Liberal Arts has been watered down so much that the modern definition is meaningless. The Association of American Colleges & Universities defines it as “an approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change.”
If anybody is aware of a kind of knowledge that doesn’t deal with “complexity, diversity, and change,” please let me know.
Education: A Classical Kind of Leisure
Though we should develop professional schools to help people gain employment, we should not forget education’s ultimate role in nourishing the soul. The word “school” comes from the Latin word skole, which translates to leisure. It describes a place to celebrate the pursuit of knowledge. It stands in contrast to the contemporary grind of slaving through term papers and staying up all night to study for exams just so we can get into the kind of college we can brag about with bumper stickers on our SUVs. But the quest for a diploma that will unlock a prestigious job misses the ultimate point. Often, we salivate so intensely for the eventual diploma that we never stop to ask why it’s worth chasing in the first place. If we continue to value only useful skills, we’ll end up with work-obsessed technocrats who are blind to the transcendent and unfulfilled by the rat race of achievement.
Or maybe, that’s what’s already happening.
We can do better. An expansive vision was best described by Elena Shalneva, who wrote: “The real purpose of education is not to acquire skills. It is to develop the mind. Fill it with knowledge, yes — but also charge it with fire, like a torch, so that, long after we have left the student bench, the mind still gleams and glares and throws a challenge to the maddening mysteries of the world.”
Her vision is a return to a more classical definition of leisure. But not the American kind of leisure where you veg-out by ordering Dominos, cracking open a six-pack of White Claw, and binging Netflix all weekend. It’s an active kind of leisure where you engage in meaningful conversation, contemplate enduring questions, and nurture the soul with everlasting wisdom. It’s recreation, not labor. Active, not passive. And by reminding you that there’s more to life than the physical world, her Greek-inspired definition of leisure is an invitation to lose yourself in the majesty of being.
Ultimately, the Greeks saw leisure as the expression of the highest moments of the mind. Not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.
Oswald Spengler: Abandoning the Greek Model of Education
In the words of Oswald Spengler, we should strive to be less like the Romans and more like the Greeks.
His magnum opus, The Decline of the West was a bestseller throughout Europe in the 1920s, even though he was just a high school teacher. He argued that the two societies had little in common beyond occupying a similar geography. The Romans focused on the material world and the utilitarian over the spiritual. They saw Liberal Arts ideas as a means to an end. The Greeks were different. They valued the needs of the soul as an end in itself. They idealized a Liberal Arts Education as a way to grasp a reality beyond the stressful demands of industry. To awaken the soul at a young age, they trained children in literature, geometry, sport, and song, which is why we think of math, plays, and poetry when we think of the Greeks.
Where you can understand the Greeks without studying their economic relations, the Romans can only be understood through them. The Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that the Romans’ fall from glory came from a short-sided focus on the concrete instead of the abstract. They obsessed over theaters, monuments, aqueducts, bridges, and buildings. Instead of cherishing the nonmaterial, they cherished physical objects like the Colosseum and the Pantheon. And yet, for all its grandeur, Roman utilitarianism reflected a culture of material greed and the forfeiting of worldly wisdom.
Spengler described the Romans as “unspiritual, unphilosophical, devoid of art, clannish to the point of brutality, aiming relentlessly at tangible successes.” Just when you think modern Americans are so different, consider the way we’ve devalued cultural knowledge in favor of technical know-how. Like the Romans, we praise industry and material wealth. In the late 1800s, a student wouldn’t have been admitted to Harvard without knowledge of Classical literature, algebra and plane geometry; familiarity with the laws of physics and elementary astronomy; and knowledge of the history and geography of Ancient Greece and Rome.6 We should scratch our heads at the parallels between the contemporary West and the late-stage decadence of the Roman Empire, which anticipated its collapse.7 Like the roadrunner from Looney Tunes, America has run off the cliff of tradition. Some can sense the cultural decline. It’s only a matter of time before we look down and confirm the fall.
I’m making a broader point about Civilized Education (which I’ll describe later in the essay), not a narrow endorsement about the specific knowledge you once needed to get into Harvard. Classical languages, for example, are not as important to me as studying history and philosophy.
In the words of one Yale University professor: “Somebody may decide in a few hundred years that the Dark Ages began in 1950. And that those pathetic people impressed with their little technological toys nonetheless didn’t know anything.”
We should not abandon our Greek values. Though we should train students for economic prosperity, we should not lose touch with our humanity. We should embrace the transcendental as well as the tactile; what’s interesting in addition to what’s practical. To make that happen, we’ll need to separate education into two camps: civilized and professional.
The Two Kinds of Education: Professional and Civilized
Colleges must stop trying to do two things at once — preparing students for the workforce while also trying to teach the Liberal Arts — and failing at both.8
There is a reason that most American colleges want students to stick around for four years, yet the requirements for their major can be completed in a little over half the time. Unlike their European counterparts that focus exclusively on one specialized area, the American college experience is focused on personal and social development, via dorm rooms and electives alike.
Historically, there have been two kinds of education: Professional Education for people who labor and Civilized Education for people who don’t have to work for a living.9 These two approaches have led to different kinds of teaching, even in the same domains. In mathematics, the working-class builders learned trade secrets while the aristocrats studied theoretical mind exercises like Euclid’s Theorem. But in the modern world, we’ve conflated the kind of education you need to make money with the kind you need to be civilized.
Implicitly, the point is that once people have achieved a comfortable level of wealth, they should be expected to pursue higher ends.
Conventional wisdom says that more formal education is better, but we actually need less of it. The public has been sold the lie that a decade and a half on the conveyor belt of academia is the fast track to the American Dream. This is wrong. Four-year degrees are oversold, overpriced, and oversupplied. By turning a college education into a prerequisite for a “respectable” career, we’ve given universities the liberty to charge exorbitant tuition.
Nassim Taleb argues that we can’t agree about what education should look like because we bundle two kinds of learning which should actually be separate. Inspired by him, we should solve our higher education problem by separating education in two parts: one that makes you employable so you can take care of your material needs and another that prioritizes the accumulated history of civilization so you can nurture your immaterial ones.10
Taleb’s original words are technical and liberal, but I’ve changed them to professional and civilized to match the rest of the essay.
Professional Education should be inexpensive and available to everyone. Though Civilized Education shouldn’t be required, it should be accessible to those with an active interest in it. If that means young people need to focus on financial stability and making themselves useful, so be it. But higher education should no longer be a mandatory checkbox that traps people in five figures of debt, without the return-on-investment to justify the time it takes or the risks of borrowing that kind of money before you’re old enough to drink a beer.
With that in mind, we need a way to think about Professional Education.
Professional Education should be short and focused. To keep pace with the changing economic landscape, it should be run by nimble organizations, mostly outside of the traditional university system. Students who want to become technicians or architects don’t also need to spend two years reading Chaucer. And yet, due to an outdated model of education, we force them to and make them pay the bill.
Institutions that prepare people for economic prosperity should be separate from those that help them live a flourishing life. We don’t need four years to prepare students for work either. Young adult education should begin with job training, and students should land their first jobs no more than 18 months after that training begins. We’ll call these mechanical skills with a defined set of prescriptions a Professional Education.11
The astute reader will notice that most of everything taught in school, even the so-called “arts,” falls under this umbrella. That’s because we rarely aim at the transcendental, even during “higher” education.
Once students have the skills to be paid for being useful, those with an interest should return to school to pursue a Liberal Arts education. There, they can study knowledge and information without the specter of imminent utility hanging over their heads nor the distractions of students who don’t want to be there. This new system will simultaneously lower the cost of a Liberal Arts education while increasing its rigor.
The Case for Civilized Education
Professional Education is relatively shallow, even though the majority of students should focus on it first. It aims to impart skills rather than ask questions of it’s students — and that should be the goal.12 I say that not to criticize it but to be explicit about the trade-offs we make whenever we advocate for professional training. It stands in contrast to Civilized Education, which is geared toward finding truth and cultivating the soul.
Yes, certain respectable careers require more than basic skill transfer. To this I say there’s less of a difference between white collar workers like doctors and lawyers and blue collar ones like mechanics and contractors than people care to admit.
That cultivation begins with the study of civilization. There is nothing that guarantees its continued existence. The moral, aesthetic, and intellectual heritage of humanity must be passed down from generation to generation. Otherwise, we will lose these traditions.13
In June 2021, I lived in a small Mexican city called Oaxaca. It’s famous for its buzzing cultural scene, especially in art and food. They treat cultural preservation as a cardinal virtue. Locals told me the region was able to preserve its heritage because it wasn’t colonized as heavily as other parts of Mexico. The Oaxacan commitment to cultural preservation was Japanese in its intensity. I must’ve read or heard the word “tradition” 10 times per day. The Liberal Arts is a way to institutionalize a commitment like that.
Culture is to society as style is to the individual. Both are an answer to the sterile ends of pure utility and the cold-heartedness of a survival mindset. All of us are a mere dot on the timeline of history where the dead outnumber the living 14-to-1. Our ancestors speak to us through the artifacts of civilization, and ignoring them is the hallmark of ignorance. It is the task of the cultured individual to surround themselves with their greatest creations, build upon their work, and share the gift of culture with their grandchildren.
There’s a famous Russian saying: “Work does not make you rich, but round shouldered.” Technical specialization without the eventual support of a Liberal Arts education is a good way to get rich but a hollow way to lead a life. Don’t get me wrong. The partnership between specialization and trade has created unprecedented amounts of material prosperity ever since the writings of Adam Smith. But just because a strategy works for the economy doesn’t mean it will work for the soul. Training people exclusively for a job denies them of the heart-driven exploration they ultimately need to nurture their humanity. That’s why higher education must preserve its original mission of furthering our knowledge of truth for the sake of something other than immediate monetization.14
It’s not called “higher” for nothing.
Growing up, military funerals were often the subject of my favorite movie scenes. I admired their beauty, even if I wasn’t always able to explain why. On the surface, they seemed wasteful. But in reality, they were soulful because they transcended utilitarian concerns. When it comes to a military funeral, only a cold person (or a technocrat) would call the ritual — filled with trumpets and songs and a star-spangled tribute to a fallen soldier — a waste of resources and manpower. Even though it doesn’t increase GDP, prioritizing things that don’t compute under a rational calculus is a necessary part of a noble society.
Though a Liberal Arts education should not be a baseline, we should aspire to it. If you’re just looking for a job ASAP, skip it. There are faster ways to earn a living. But the Liberal Arts are indispensable for people who want to escape the matrix by exploring the intellectual substrate of society. That said, people should only make financial investments in foundational knowledge once their basic survival is secure. Though a Liberal Arts education should not be mandatory, it should be socially applauded — even more than it is today. Though only a minority of people will choose to enroll, making it an opt-in endeavor will increase the quality and enjoyment of a Liberal Arts education.
It is a disease uniquely of the Professional Mind to feel a compulsion toward having to measure everything in the first place.
As the poet Rabindranath Tagore foresaw in 1917: “History has come to a stage when the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the … commercial man, the man of limited purpose. This process, aided by the wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man’s moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soul-less organization.”
Changes to how the Liberal Arts is received have been on the horizon for a century. But recent trends in the American education system have sparked an impetus for change.
The Evolution of the Liberal Arts
When I was in college, the adults in my life repeatedly told me the same thing: “I wish I could go back to college.” Meanwhile, I hated school. It felt like a prison to me. I only did my homework so I could eventually find a job that paid well enough for me to live in my own apartment after graduation. My friends and I valued ideas through a utilitarian lens, believing that they were only useful if they impressed our professors and helped us fatten our wallets after school.16
In college, I was in the highest performing academic fraternity. But it was mostly a facade. Even though a disproportionate number of my friends graduated in the top 10% of my class, most of them weren’t interested in intellectual conversations. They measured ideas through an utilitarian lens, and once they left the classroom, their intellectual curiosity disappeared. Fortunately, a number of mentors showed me the virtues of a contemplative life.
During my junior year, a friend recommended a Modern Philosophy class with a big-name professor. The semester would start with Descartes and Spinoza and work through the feminist theories of Cixous, Wollstonecraft, and De Beauvoir. When the syllabus peaked my interest, I walked into the professor’s office to ask about enrolling. But when she told me that the class required 200 pages of reading per week, I cut her off, stood up, and dashed out of the room.
“Thanks for your time, but I’m not a good fit.” Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays would be for beers, not books. Five years later, I see why those adults said what they said. It’s exactly the kind of class I wish I could take right now.
Plato, Aristotle, and the Myopia of Youth
The infrastructure of a Liberal Arts education should not be primarily for the youth. Plato was critical of those who focused too much on philosophy and science at a young age without first learning more practical skills. If he were alive today, he would advise newly graduated high schoolers to focus on becoming self-sufficient. Only once they have career momentum and their strength begins to fail them should they shift their focus to the Liberal Arts. And when that study begins, it should be their sole priority.17
Plato knew that being exiled from society would make you useless. He advocated for escape because working toward an end makes you too interested in the utility of ideas. But once you’re removed from the traditional calculus of utility, you can pursue seemingly useless ideas such as the questions of philosophy.
Aristotle argued something similar. No matter how old you are, he said, studying philosophy will be futile if you don’t have life experience. In Nicomachean Ethics, he writes: “A young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science, for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life … And, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action.” Aristotle concludes that the acquisition of foundational knowledge becomes worthwhile only when it’s done for its own sake.
Beyond the financial considerations, freshmen straight off the academic conveyor belt, who are focused on securing a prestigious internship, are not ready to seriously study the Liberal Arts. At the very least, gap years should be more common. High school graduates should use the time to work, live frugally, discover what they’re actually interested in, and make sure a six-figure education is actually worth it to them.
Being raised by the hard knocks of life will open their ears to history’s timeless ideas too. You can’t absorb the great books without the glue of life experience because they speak to the heart of the human condition. Like a budding rose exposing its leaves and turning toward the sun for the first time, struggle opens us up to knowledge. For the intellectual curiosity required to study the Liberal Arts, you need pain, toil, and heartbreak.
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the Great American Debate
The cognitive cleavage between the idealism of a Liberal Arts education and the pragmatism of a professional one goes back to America’s foundation, as symbolized by two of its founding members: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
In his seminal book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber used Benjamin Franklin to illustrate the connection between Protestantism and industriousness. Franklin believed that making money from hard work was synonymous with morality. Traits like punctuality, diligence, and moderation were valuable insofar as they made people productive businessmen. He saw wealth as a beacon of virtue. Weber criticized him ruthlessly. He wrote: “A way of thinking like that expressed by Benjamin Franklin was applauded by an entire nation. But in ancient or medieval times it would have been denounced as an expression of the most filthy avarice and of an absolutely contemptible attitude.”
Taken together, the dynamic between the German sociologist and America’s founding father echoes the division between Greece and Rome. The Greeks would have evaluated Rome by its temples and libraries. But the Romans scoffed at Greek infrastructure as a waning symbol of bygone greatness.
Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania, where he opposed the study of abstract and high-minded ideas because Americans had work to do and a country to build.18 He lampooned Harvard graduates as proud, self-conceited blockheads who’ve done nothing but attend a finishing school for the children of rich parents.19 Across the pond, Franklin criticized Cambridge for being little more than “a famous seminary of learning” because it taught the useless trifecta of theology, Latin, and Greek. Instead, Franklin argued for a practical approach to education. Indeed, when he went on to found the University of Pennsylvania, he envisioned a university that would “train young people for leadership in business, government and public service” and would drop the classic liberal arts curriculum, preferring instead to focus on a curriculum that focuses on a handful of professions.20
Franklin was a pragmatist in his day, but an idealist by our standards. Pragmatically, he was one of the first influential figures to advocate for studying English over Latin and Greek because he wanted to prepare students for careers like politics, law, and business. But he also suggested a diverse range of subjects including arithmetic, astronomy, geography, religion, agriculture, and history. All of them would be supplemented with knowledge of laws, customs, and morality.
These criticisms were written pseudonymously in his brother’s newspaper The New England Courant. See Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards: Selections from Their Writings.
See Franklin’s 1749 memo entitled “Proposals Relating to the Education of The Youth in Pensilvania” and Penn’s founding charter.
Given Franklin’s influence over America and its universities, I’m surprised it took until the 1980s for college enrollment in the Liberal Arts to drop below 25% of students. That very same year, the business major took the crown as the most popular subject to study in American colleges.
Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, saw things differently. As the founder of the University of Virginia, he advocated for a school to prepare students not just for industry but to be good citizens as well. America’s always been progressive in its willingness to subsidize higher education, and Jefferson led the way by fighting for the free education of Virginia’s most talented citizens.21 Also the author of the Declaration of Independence, he believed that the health of a Republic depended on its ability to nurture talent that would otherwise be overlooked. Education diffused knowledge and power, so Jefferson saw it as the counterweight to the natural tendency of elites to use their wealth to manipulate laws to create a corrupt and “unnatural aristocracy.” The alternative was a “natural aristocracy” where elites would rise to the top due to merit instead of the wealth of their parents. If so, the talented followers of today would become the leaders of tomorrow.
Racial disparities have always existed in American education. Classrooms weren’t integrated until the Brown v. Board of Education court case in 1954.
Jefferson’s students were encouraged to study classic texts.22 His vision aligned with the etymology of the word “university,” which is a synthesis of two words. “University comes from the Latin word universitas, which translates to “complex of all things.” It derives from universus, which means “whole.” True to those original meanings, Jefferson believed that a unified picture of the world could only be discovered by studying the consilience of knowledge. His interest in history didn’t stop him from valuing math and science, which accounted for half of his university’s curriculum. Though he didn’t encourage students to become scientists, he argued that scientific habits of mind and its method of inquiry could be applied across disciplines to create a more educated citizenry. In contrast to Franklin’s belief in a pragmatic higher education, Jefferson used it to produce a more civilized citizenry — moral, competent, happy, well-informed, capable of earning a living, and fit for political and social leadership.
As Jefferson once wrote: “I feel a much greater interest in knowing what has passed two or three thousand years ago, than what is now passing. I read nothing, therefore, but of the heroes of Troy, of the wars of Lacadaemon and Athens, of Pompey and Caesar … I slumber without fear, and review in my dreams the visions of antiquity.”
Tocqueville and the American Vision
Less than a decade after Jefferson’s death, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about how American culture lined up with Franklin’s vision. Even in 1835, he saw how they valued the practical over the philosophical. He showed how students are directed only toward specialist subjects with a profitable return in mind, saying: “There is no class in America which passes to its descendants the love of intellectual pleasures along with its wealth or which holds the labors of the intellect in high esteem.”
Beyond the walls of scholarship, even when it came to government, Tocqueville observed that the average American, when compared to their European counterpart, was uninterested in speculative ethics or the abstract principles of governance. But once the conversation shifted to practical matters like the policy decisions of their local town council or the county judicial system, Americans held an encyclopedic knowledge that was rare in Europe.
Americans have never found consensus on the purpose of a college education. One camp advocates for Franklin’s industrial focus, while the other argues for Jefferson’s idealism of an erudite republic. It’s the same debate all over again: Professional vs. Civilized Education.
The Abolitionist Movement
The etymology of the word liberal comes from the Latin word liber, which translates to freedom. That freedom is the essence of a Liberal Arts education. It comes from its self-directed nature, where students can forge their own path by following the breadcrumbs of curiosity.
Some abolitionists in the American South argued that slaves would ultimately be freed through a liberal education, not a technical one. One interaction between a slave named Frederick Douglass and his master affirmed the freedom-granting benefits of a liberal education. One day, Douglass’ slave master found him reading. Heart bumping, blood rousing, he turned to Douglass and said: “Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave.”
In an instant, Douglass learned that reading was a threat to those who tried to control him. As Douglass recalled: “From that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.”
In accordance with Douglass, the Civil Rights activist W.E.B. DuBois criticized the reduction of education to job training. Arguing against the industrial education movement promoted by the Atlanta Compromise, DuBois worried that a professional education would amount to nothing more than following somebody else’s orders.
His writings were prescient to a haunting degree. They anticipated the way we now belittle the Liberal Arts and any education designed to develop the soul. He wrote: “If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men … The curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.”
Today, DuBois’ words read like the visions of Cassandra, the figure from Greek mythology who was ignored even though she could predict the future because people didn’t want her prophecies to come true. But we should listen to DuBois because he saw how the incentives of industry would reduce higher education from an academy for sovereign souls to a factory for economically minded technocrats.23
Speaking of Greek mythology, the technocratic mentality is so totalizing that it shows up in unexpected places. Even our nuclear bombs have boring names now. After the War, America’s nukes had energetic names like Atlas, Titan, Thor, Poseidon, and Trident. But bureaucracy changed that. Today, with names like M-SHORAD, IFPC, and THAAD, our nukes have the kinds of nondescript names that only a technocracy would come up with.
Saving the Liberal Arts
Higher education’s disillusionment with the Liberal Arts is as financial as it is rhetorical. College administrators say they no longer have the resources to sustain Liberal Arts programs like English, history, and philosophy. Even the students themselves are more interested in programs that directly lead to employment after graduation.
Outside of the academy, government leaders have long been critical of the Liberal Arts.24 Without government support, schools are losing the resources and political capital to offer these programs. When he was the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan asserted that “certain intellectual luxuries” are unnecessary and the taxpayer “shouldn’t be subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” By the time Reagan sat in the Oval Office, business had become the most popular major in America. Even President Obama, a Liberal Arts major himself, once said, “We need more folks in engineering, math, science, technology, computer science … I loved the Liberal Arts, so this is no offense … we need more engineers. We need more scientists.”25 And when Florida governor Rick Scott was asked, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” He responded, “I don’t think so.”
As David Foster Wallace so astutely remarked: “Often in school you study the liberal arts … it’s all very much about the nobility of the human spirit and broadening the mind and then from that you go to a specialized school to learn how to sue people or to figure out how to write copy that will make people buy a certain type of SUV. I know that there is, at least in America, an entire class … of kids whose parents could afford to send them to very good schools where they got very good educations who are often working in jobs that are financially rewarding but don’t have anything to do with what they got persuasively taught was important and worthwhile in school. That’s a bit of a paradox isn’t it.”
Obama majored in English and Political Science at Columbia, one of the few schools that has a mandatory Liberal Arts curriculum.
Internationally, similar forces have taken hold. To the north, the government of Ontario has shown a glimpse of what is to come by tying state funding for higher education to labor market outcomes. Down under, the Australian government recently cut funding for university programs in the arts and sciences. Students are encouraged to pursue “job-friendly” subjects instead.
The decline of the Liberal Arts isn’t just a top-down phenomenon. The students themselves have also lost faith. They want jobs, which is why schools like my alma mater have abandoned the Liberal Arts to pursue career-focused majors like finance, marketing, and computer science.
Cost is one culprit. When my aunt attended the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s, she paid $178 per semester. A decade earlier, a California resident could have had a free education, from kindergarten to a PhD, for virtually nothing. Today, the cost of yearly tuition has risen to more than $13,000 a year for California residents, and the total cost for non-California residents who want to live on campus is more than $55,000 per year. These days, students are more interested in a marketable major than one that will help them live a meaningful life. I understand why. In a world where the majority of students graduate with debt, at an average of $33,000, I see why college kids optimize for financial success.26 When you’ve been loaned tens of thousands of dollars at 18 years old, it is prudent to think about what job you’re going to get at 22 in order to pay it off.
When my aunt attended the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s, she paid $178 per semester. A decade earlier, a California resident could have had a free education, from kindergarten to a PhD, for virtually nothing. Today, the cost of yearly tuition has risen to more than $13,000 a year for California residents, and the total cost for non-California residents who want to live on campus is more than $55,000 per year.
The changes aren’t just financial. They’re ideological too. In a study conducted during her time there, three quarters of freshmen said college was essential to developing a meaningful philosophy of life. By contrast, only a third said that it was essential to financial well-being. Today, those fractions have flipped.
The anxiety is not purely economic. Even at elite colleges, where tuition is often subsidized and majors are less relevant to employers, students overwhelmingly pursue a professional education.27 Most of their time in the library is spent on short-term memorization instead of comprehension. They just want to recoup their tuition dollars so they can be cash-flow positive as soon as possible and set themselves up for a financially lucrative life.
Once, your co-author attended an on-campus recruiting event for Goldman Sachs almost entirely because they had easily the best cheese platter of any of the major banks. Beyond the Brie and Camembert, he found himself in a room full of finance and economics majors. All of them were eagerly shoving their resumes into the beak of the vampire squid itself. It was lost on them that the corporate recruiter, who was an alumnus, studied art history in college before she became a derivatives trader.
The Half-Life of Skills
Professional skills can help you get a job now, but they will lose relevance during your career. In the World War II era, the rate of technological change aligned with the length of an average career. This alignment was a coincidence of history. Today, there is no guarantee that the lessons you learn in college will stay relevant for your entire career.
You’ll experience this tension if you visit any computer science department. Software engineers aren’t using the same languages and frameworks taught 20 years ago, and 20 years from now, those skills will have changed even more. Though programmers can develop job-ready skills with only 12 months of classroom learning, technological change makes many of their skills obsolete almost as quickly. To keep their jobs, software engineers will have to upgrade their skills continuously throughout their careers.
Ironically, given the rate of adaptation for professional skills, the enduring relevance of a Liberal Arts education raises its relative usefulness.
Practical vs. Fundamental Knowledge
During the course of our lives, the questions of the Liberal Arts will change very little. The case for engaging with them is best described by Stewart Brand’s pace layers theory. With it, he proposes six different layers in the working structure of a civilization: fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and nature.
There’s a trade-off between practicality and timelessness. Knowledge at the top of the chart, such as fashion and commerce, is immediately actionable, but decays the fastest. They’re relevant in everyday life for social and earning an income, but their specifics have a short half-life. Meanwhile, culture and nature are deeper on the chart. They offer fundamental knowledge. Their lessons apply everywhere, even if they’re beyond the scope of conscious thought in most people’s day-to-day lives. The further down the layers you travel, the longer it will take for the knowledge to pay off, but the longer that information will stay relevant and the more widely applicable it will be.
For our purposes, the graph can be simplified to include only two kinds of knowledge: practical and fundamental. Practical knowledge is subject to change in response to trends and technology. It’s usually pursued as a means to an end, like making money or finishing a task. Examples include being a doctor, plumber, or engineer. In contrast, even though people are quick to call it useless, fundamental knowledge is slow to change and pursued as an end in itself. It’s the soil of civilization. All of it has been fertilized by each successive generation. To study the Liberal Arts, then, is to taste the fruit of all this knowledge: poetry, philosophy, history, religion, language, music, and mathematics.
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
Though it should not be the goal, fundamental knowledge can sometimes lead to financial well-being.
I’m reminded of Aristotle’s story of Thales of Miletus, who was one of the first Greek philosophers. Thales was mocked for living in squalor because he focused on the Liberal Arts instead of applying himself to work or public service. Tired of the ridicule, Thales used his “useless” knowledge of the stars one winter to anticipate an unusually bountiful olive harvest in the spring. Confident in his predictions, he leased up all the olive presses while they traded at a discount, and when the ensuing harvest led to skyrocketing demand, he pocketed a personal fortune. In reflection, Aristotle wrote that Thales “showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort.”
Thales learned for the sake of learning. He saw interestingness as an end in itself, a goal that has fallen out of favor. Part of the problem is that the posture of high-paying knowledge work looks the same as the posture of contemplation.
Meaninglessness and Meritocracy
Historically, intellectual activity has been a privileged sphere that people were lucky to escape to. The triad of religion, leisure, and philosophy contrasted the drudge of manual labor and commerce.
During a time when it was impossible to work after sundown, we hailed farmers who read the classics with pleasure and industrial workers who could quote Shakespeare. In 19th century Britain, a culture of self-education rooted in the Great Books flourished among the working class. Their curiosity was as intense as their bank accounts were small, particularly among miners from Wales and weavers from England who enjoyed classical literature as much as classical philosophy. The ideas offered an escape from torturous working conditions and the slums they lived in, away from their families.
Today, things have changed. Physical workplace safety is no longer a concern for the kind of people who graduate from top-tier universities. But many are psychologically beat. The urbanites in particular have abandoned religion and ditched the kind of study that those British workers once enjoyed. When life gets challenging, the ones I’ve known double down on their commitment to work. They hit the gas pedal instead of stepping back to take stock of where they’re going. They fail to realize that the cargo cult of productivity offers no salvation. This culture of career obsession without questioning why working hard is worth it in the first place is a byproduct of a culture that doesn’t take the Liberal Arts seriously.
A huge percentage of these jobs are soul-crushing. In the 19th century novel Oblomov, the main character is visited by a friend who works in civil service. Reflecting on his work, he says: “My Lord, what does Man waste his soul on? He’s nothing more than a minor executor of someone else’s minor thoughts. How little of Man is needed here, hardly any intellect, hardly any will, hardly any feeling. Does he deserve to be called a Man? He violates his nature, trades off his soul. The wretch!”28
One sympathizes with Oblomov, the character who only has a perspective on himself as third person. He cannot get out of bed because his future is already laid out for him, determined. One can see how Goncharov was looking to satirize the Russian intellectuals of the time.
Two centuries later, the meaninglessness has intensified. In his final book, the late David Graeber observed that across the Western World, a large number of people devote their professional lives to meaningless work and superficial career paths. He calls them Bullshit Jobs. He cites industries like lobbying, telemarketing, and legal consulting because he thinks the economy could mostly operate without them. He contrasts them with teachers, nurses, and mechanics whom we depend upon for basic necessities. Graeber says: “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives executing tasks that they don’t even think are necessary, and they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.”
Following social norms for too long without questioning them can lead to cul-de-sacs of resentment. And sometimes, even depression. Maybe that’s why it seems like every young person I know is prescribed some kind of anxiety or depression medication. One recently told me that she buys Adderall from a friend because she can’t get through the workday without it. “I need to focus,” she tells me. And yet, instead of questioning her career trajectory, she doubles down on it.29 Work harder, be more productive, she says. Without equity in what she’s building, her career trajectory is the worst of capitalism: strife without reward, toil without wealth, sacrifice without upside.30
You can see where this is going: heavy self-medication to get through crushing arbitrary assignments that people complete because they need to, not because they want to.
In 2018, I received a call from a friend who was working in the sales department of a Fortune 500 company. He was “I can’t even get out of bed” depressed. That sorrow manifested itself as an emotional emptiness. Where others felt happiness or sadness, he felt numbness. He was a slave to the company because it was socially rewarded at the cultural and corporate level. All the while, he was blind to a misery that, he thought, only antidepressants could cure. To justify the expense of his marketing major, he is still on those same antidepressants and working that same bullshit job.
The God of Productivity
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks: “What does it profit a man if he gains the entire world and loses his soul?”
These words double as the intellectual current for this essay: Our obsession with another gospel, the gospel of climbing the career ladder, makes people allergic to non-income producing knowledge. The relentless pursuit of Benjamins turns the contemplative life into a distant and strange intellectual luxury.
Plato would have criticized today’s Westerners who compromise a virtuous life and salivate over wealth instead, even when they’re swimming in riches.31 In a criticism of his contemporaries, he observed that their love of wealth “leaves them no respite to concern themselves with anything other than their private property. The soul of the citizen today is entirely taken up with getting rich and with making sure that every day brings its share of profit. The citizen is ready to learn any technique, to engage in any kind of activity, so long as it is profitable. He thumbs his nose at the rest.”32
Plato advocated for an aristocracy, ruled by philosopher-kings. He argued for the synthesis between politics and philosophy because he believed that only educated leaders could make a society prosperous. To realize his vision, Plato founded one of the West’s first known organized schools, where he hosted students like Aristotle. Ahead of Plato, Socrates believed that only a select number of people were qualified to practice philosophy.
I applaud Plato’s general sentiment, but it’s incomplete without a reminder that people predominantly gained wealth by acquiring land. Compared to other kinds of wealth, land ownership contributes to the culture of inherited wealth that Thomas Jefferson feared so passionately. Though we should celebrate leisure, that leisure should come from the fruits of companies that benefit society instead of the zero-sum game of land ownership.
Our skepticism of rest is reflected in our attitudes toward the Sabbath. Today, we see the Sabbath as an indulgence for the rich instead of the keystone of a well-lived life. Insofar as the Sabbath is useful, people see it as a way to “recharge” for the workweek ahead as if it exists to make forthcoming labor more productive. But to the spiritual mind, the Sabbath has two meanings: “to rest” and “to celebrate.” The Sabbath doesn’t serve the weekdays. The weekdays serve the Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but rather the climax of the week where even the thought of productive labor is prohibited. Only then can people celebrate the joys of friends, family, and contemplation. Even God needed the seventh day to look back at his work and affirm it as Good, and yet we cannot take time from our yoga classes and self-help videos to do the same with our meager office jobs.
The Jews use the word menuha to describe it. They define it as a chance to distance yourself from the necessary so you can embrace things that give you life. And in turn, it’s a time for the body and soul to rest in unison. In the company of community and scripture, anger can lift and tension can evaporate.
Now that work and leisure bleed into each other though, they are in constant competition. At my first job, co-workers saw meals as such a productivity hit that they drank their calories with Soylent and processed, pre-made snack packs. One acquaintance, the Chief Revenue Officer for a fast-growing startup, wishes he could take a pill so he could work through the night instead of sleeping. One of his direct reports got chastised for not responding to emails at 1:30 a.m. The problem was eventually solved when the C-suite sent a company-wide message apologizing, and said: “We acknowledge your need for sleep.” Now that you can always open your computer and learn something to increase your earnings power, studying abstract philosophy is seen as a kind of intellectual decadence, and therefore, a sin against the God of productivity.
To be sure, America is a wealthier place because it attracts mono-maniacally focused entrepreneurs and innovators. Even though most of us are not Elon Musk or Bill Gates, they inspire us to regularly forgo leisure and the finer things in life. Out of an unquestioned admiration of “careerism,” we worship material accumulation and a productive lifestyle. We will neither accumulate Elon’s wealth nor the humanity he’s sacrificed to build such an industry-defining company.33 With a one-track mind focused on the arduous demands of labor, we’ll become spiritually impoverished. Instead of working to live, we’ll live to work — without the equity that makes it so lucrative for those who do.
Indeed, this is no criticism of maniacal obsession, in an area of life. Rather it is a criticism of those who work like the maniacally obsessed without that meaning behind them.
Stuck in this total work mindset, we’ll flock to ideas with a clear utility function. When we do, we’ll lose sight of the value in fundamental knowledge, either because we’re too thirsty for riches or drowning in a flood of debt. Blinded by the myopia of materialism, we’ll focus only on practical business skills out of a fear that anything more fundamental cannot be applied. We may even descend into the Greek idea of a banausos, which describes somebody who is not only uneducated, but numb to poetry and art. With no spiritual view of the world, we’ll agree to a Faustian Bargain in which we live in perpetual toil instead of granting ourselves the time to contemplate the wonder of life.
Somewhere inside of us lies the same instinct to follow in the footsteps of the 19th century working class. Though we’re less likely to spend our evenings immersed in the Great Books or talk philosophy with friends at the local pub, college students are yearning for big ideas (even if they can’t escape the utilitarian frame).
At Yale University, 1,200 students — almost 25% of the student body — enrolled in a 2018 course on happiness called Psychology and the Good Life, making it the most popular course in school history. A decade earlier, more than 1,400 students enrolled in Harvard University’s Positive Psychology class, the most popular class in its history as well. However, my friends who took these courses say they were BuzzFeed-shallow attempts to hack happiness because they reduced life’s greatest thinkers to self-help coaches. As superficial as these courses may have been, they imply a widespread cultural emptiness among high-achieving students.34
Your co-author sat in on one of these classes for a couple of weeks and was reminded of Galatians 6:7-8: “A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”
But if there’s no practical use, why should we study it?
The Liberal Arts gives us a chance to explore the larger questions of life once we realize that winning the meritocracy game doesn’t guarantee complete happiness. What you lose in immediate applicability when you study the Liberal Arts, you gain in timeless and fundamental knowledge. Practical subjects like marketing, medicine, and engineering are the opposite. They change so fast that a degree in these subjects from a century ago holds little value today. Though they put food on the table, they are inarticulate in the language of the soul: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, jealousy, striving, suffering, virtue.
To be sure, this isn’t an anti-science screed. I’m grateful to the software developers who wrote the code you’re using to read this essay and the doctors who cut my skull open to perform a surgery when I was 2 years old. The world is better for science and technology. When it comes to widespread material prosperity, they’re some of the best tools we’ve ever invented. But if we’re not careful, we’ll lose the humanities to their all-consuming orbit of utility. We’ll enter a world governed by cold logic and the tyranny of total rationality, one that’s obsessed with the factual, but blind to the Good and the Beautiful.35
An exercise for the reader: Ask yourself whether you believe in the objective existence Truth, Beauty and Goodness. If you answered yes for some but not all, can you truly articulate why? If you answered No to all, we’d recommend some resources.
We should celebrate the practical elements of the Liberal Arts too. Suppose you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness and stumble into hospice care. Would you rather be treated by a doctor who has only ever taken medical courses, or somebody who, in addition to technical competence, has studied the philosophy of death and what it means for the soul?36 The MRI machine is not enough. In our most tender moments, the Liberal Arts becomes a paragon of wisdom.
An extremely well-respected doctor told me that when hiring for his clinical practice, all else being equal, he’d take the candidate who studied something other than pre-med in college over the one who didn’t, everytime.
That’s why, in his sickest moments right before he passed away from terminal cancer, the author Paul Kalanithi brought three books to the hospital and into the room he knew he would die in: C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. As he told his wife right before he closed his eyes for the final time: “I need to make sense of my cancer through literature.”
Making Sense of Death
Don’t get me wrong. The fruits of materialism have advanced the human condition. I don’t want to go back to a world without clean water and modern medicine. But there is always a cost to worship. By focusing so much on our material needs, we’ve silenced our spiritual ones. On matters of the soul, we are bankrupt. We are more depressed and suicidal than ever before.
Materially, no society has ever been as wealthy as ours is today. The average person enjoys a level of comfort and sanitation that would’ve astonished even the kings of yesteryear. But that doesn’t mean we’re living in a utopia. As the psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple wrote: “Having previously worked as a doctor in some of the poorest countries in Africa, as well as in very poor countries in Pacific and Latin America, I have little hesitation in saying that the mental, cultural, emotional, and spiritual impoverishment of the Western underclass is the greatest of any large people I have ever encountered.”
And it’s not just the underclass. Rates of depression and suicide are rising in nearly every socioeconomic class. In Palo Alto, home to the children of wealthy Silicon Valley elites, where kids internalize their parents materialist priorities, the 10-year suicide rates for its main two high schools is between four and five times the national average. More than 10% of high-school students reported having seriously contemplated suicide in the previous 12 months. And it’s not just kids. Between 2007 and 2017, adults between ages 18 to 34 saw a 69% increase in alcohol-related deaths, a 108% increase in drug-related ones, and a 35% increase in death by suicide. And yet, the meritocratic march accelerates.
It feels like we’re living the story of Faust, who makes a deal with a demon to exchange his soul for material wealth. Originally, the trade serves him well. He lives a life of power and pleasure. But eventually, Faust becomes insensitive to human needs in the name of “progress and industrious will.” In time, he sees how the once-shiny allure of riches becomes futile when the Devil claims Faust’s soul and sentences him to eternal slavery. Today, the adjective “Faustian” refers to a situation where greedy people surrender their moral integrity for the ultimately meaningless ends of raw power and success.
How the Education System Failed
Colleges aren’t good at teaching students. But they are effective at their true purpose of curating the labor market. Employers depend on universities to filter quality workers. At the high-end, instead of hiring from a diverse pool of applicants, companies like Blackstone and J.P. Morgan recruit exclusively from Ivy League schools where they know people have been pre-vetted. In exchange, prestigious schools get to brag about top-tier job placement metrics, which justifies their placement at the top of a US News & World Report ranking system that barely ever changes.
Some scholars have argued that when it comes to education, we have cause and effect backward. Higher education is the byproduct of a rich society, not its cause. The economists Lant Pritchett and Alison Wolf have argued that formal education does not generate wealth. If they’re right, education is not as effective as we assume. By associating education with material success, college has been placed onto the conveyor belt of economic development.37
You can see this confusion in action by looking to the Antebellum South’s obsession with leisure and Hellenic culture. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, even with the slaves and ample leisure time and wealth, those of the high society pre-war South were unable to produce many significant cultural or intellectual masterworks. Their focus on seeming educated and idle was, in fact, nothing other than decadent stagnation. Most of the significant cultural masterworks came from the less educated classes. Soul food, for example, came from people who used the cheapest ingredients they could find. When their milk started to turn, they made butter, and they poured that butter over all kinds of foods.
Along similar lines, Malcolm Gladwell has asked a similar question about cause and effect: Does Harvard’s ability lie in its ability to pick the best or to nurture and develop them?38 For clues, we can look abroad. One study found “no evidence that India’s most prestigious colleges offered a better education.” But even if test scores stayed flat, earnings power rose. This implies that elite schools benefit students not because they are better at teaching students, but because they enhance networking opportunities.
Several studies have shown that Ivy League admission, not attendance, has the biggest predictor on future wages, which confirms your co-authors first hand experience.
The people you meet is why Harvard can charge such exorbitant tuition fees. For a pure education without the cost of an Ivy League school, there are tons of alternatives. For starters, studying abroad should be more popular. You’ll save money and come back speaking a foreign language. If you’re lucky, your kid might even master the art of cooking an exquisite foreign dish.
But it’s not really about the education. Though every parent wants the best for their children, college is often as much a competition amongst parents as it is amongst children. As irrational as it may sound, tens of thousands of parents look at their toddlers and imagine them holding a Harvard diploma one day. Growing up, one friend’s parents made him chant: “Harvard, Stanford, MIT; Harvard, Stanford, MIT; Harvard, Stanford, MIT.”39
He ended up attending Columbia. That experience helped him secure internships in college and a six-figure job after graduation. Ceteris paribus, going to an elite college is almost always worth it, and not just because you get to say things like “ceteris paribus.” However, the real perks are not the ones listed on the brochure. As the late comedian George Carlin once said: “It’s a big club and you ain’t in it”.
And it’s not just parents who drive the system. It’s employers too. Together, they shape the ambitions of our children.
Why the College Model Is Flawed: Employers Drive the System
When people criticize the education system, they complain that it forces students to jump through useless hoops. But that’s exactly the point. The willingness to put your head down and commit to arduous tasks in the classroom signals that you can commit to a monotonous job in the office — which is exactly what most employers want.40 But as the number of people who attend college has risen, signaling competence has become ever-more difficult.
The less skill based the work, the more this is true. Consider that the same student who works at Goldman Sachs is signing up to be abused for two years, whereas at Google she is pampered. While at Google she must produce something tangible with her hard skills, the main criteria at Goldman Sachs is the ability to withstand the hazing because very little, non-commodity, hard skills are required at entry level.
Just as drug users have to increase their dosage to get the same buzz, college students have had to increase the number of credentials they acquire in order to signal the same level of job-readiness to employers. The more credentials a student has, the more they signal a willingness to follow orders.
One Fortune 500 recruiter I spoke with tip-toed around the uncomfortable idea that Liberal Arts graduates who’ve developed a moral compass and been trained to ask critical questions are too difficult to employ. She said they’d rather have human robots who can follow orders without considering their role in the economic hierarchy. The more this mercenary system runs the show, the less universities will invest in the Liberal Arts and the more we’ll ignore hard-won cultural knowledge.
Why the College Model Is Flawed: The Tenure System
Being a tenured professor is a rare job because you’re disconnected from market feedback. The tenure system was created to give professors job security so they could pursue the unvarnished truth without worrying about their livelihood. Historically, it’s worked well because society benefits so much from the new knowledge that academics create. For example, whenever you use Google Maps to navigate in your car, you draw on the work of Ivan Getting, who conducted early research studies at MIT’s Radiation Laboratory during World War II. And once you click on your seat belt, you can thank Roger Griswold and Hugh DeHaven, who pioneered early car crash research at Cornell University’s Safety and Research Facility.
And yet, the tenure system can create maligned incentives. A paradox of higher education is that the better the college, the more its professors focus on research over teaching. Quality and prestige often work in opposite directions. The joys of boasting about learning from a world-renowned professor who is known for their breakthrough research often outweigh the alternative of learning from a better explainer of ideas. Since professors are generally remembered for their research, not their teaching, every tenured professor I know wants to spend less time teaching and more time researching.
That said, I don’t blame the professors. Academic prestige comes from the impact of your research and not the quality of your teaching. Why? Because administrators can now quantify the productivity of any scholar by measuring their H-Index or the number of publications they’ve received in top journals.41 As Peter S. Cahn, a professor at the University of Oklahoma explained: “To get tenure, you need a book or a series of articles. If you have great publications but lousy teaching, you’ll still get tenure. If you have great teaching but not-so-great publications, you won’t get tenure.”
Here’s the Wikipedia definition: “The H-Index is an author-level metric that measures both the productivity and citation impact of the publications of a scientist or scholar. The H-Index correlates with obvious success indicators such as winning the Nobel Prize, being accepted for research fellowships and holding positions at top universities.”
Without the incentives to focus on teaching, the market for professors self selects for sinecure. Professors can slack because they are among the only performers who have a guaranteed captive audience. If a YouTube video is boring, the viewer will click on another one. If a number of users also click away, the algorithm will stop recommending it. But mandatory attendance and the fear of how your GPA will shape your employment prospects means that students are chained to their chairs like prisoners in their cells. Kids have to show up, no matter how boring the class.
Why the College Model Is Flawed: The Financial Model
The financing model of higher education is flawed too. A college that truly believed it was helping its students achieve career success would allow them to pay in equity instead of forcing them to take out loans.
With income share agreements, students can already defer education payments until they get a job. Instead of paying a lump sum of tuition at the beginning of every semester, they can pay a percentage of their income after school. Students benefit from the incentive for schools to help them perform, while schools benefit from extra revenue if their students graduate with well-paying jobs.
The same strategies that broaden access hasten the decline of the Liberal Arts. Soon, companies will offer insurance packages for incoming university students to hedge the risk of financing and attending college.42 So long as students enroll in economically in-demand majors such as mathematics or software engineering while also exceeding a certain GPA and graduating in four years or less, insurance companies will pay off a portion of their student debt — if their salaries aren’t high enough to justify what they paid for college. By subsidizing the risk, the insurance companies will increase the likelihood that college is a smart investment.43 Deferred payment options will shrink the oppressive venn-diagram of people who are unemployed and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous debt.
I know multiple people at multiple projects who are working on this. Though their initiatives are still small, I think these insurance products will become standard.
Salary measurements will be benchmarked against the income somebody would’ve received with only a high school degree.
But unfortunately, by pushing students to pursue what is immediately profitable instead of what’s ultimately meaningful, they will devalue fundamental knowledge. That’s because the business models for income share agreements and student debt insurance only work if the students make a lot of money after college. Colleges will drift away from their position as stewards of fundamental knowledge for as long as they promise high paying jobs in return for sky-high tuition prices. That’s not going to change though. The money is too comforting. At this point, the foundation is so cracked that no facade will be able to treat it.
Why the College Model Is Flawed: Declining Standards
Grade inflation was once an abomination, but became normalized toward the end of the 20th century. In 1960, only 15% of college grades were awarded in the A-range. Today, that number has climbed to 43%.
Students don’t take class as seriously as they once did either. The number of hours college students spend studying outside the classroom declined from 40 in 1961 to 27 in 2003. One study found that half of sophomores hadn’t taken a single course the prior semester that required more than 20 pages of writing over the semester, and more than one-third of them dedicated less than five hours per week to studying in solitude.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said: “Human beings are born with different capacities. If they are free, they are not equal. And if they are equal, they are not free.”
Equality and exceptionalism are sworn and everlasting enemies. When one prevails, the other suffers. Making the Liberal Arts mandatory invites slackers into the classroom. They force professors to move slowly so students don’t fall behind, which degrades the experience for serious learners. To that end, teachers battle the trade-off between serving average students who just want a good grade and committed ones who want to interrogate ideas to their fullest. Under the current model of large-scale in-person learning, the more America embraces an egalitarian, “no child left behind” approach, the slower our best students will be able to learn.44
More than two-thirds of American educators report a widespread lowering of academic standards. In 1960, only 15% of students received grades in the A-range. Today, that figure has climbed to 43%. At Harvard, the portion of grades that are an A or A-, rose from one-third in 1986 to half in 2006.
Why the College Model Is Flawed: Low-End Disruption
Back when only a small percentage of people graduated from college, acceptance into a university sent a sufficient hiring signal to employers who looked for traits like conformity, socialization, and reliability. Degrees themselves were scarce, so it didn’t matter what a student studied.
But in the late 20th century, as going to college became synonymous with the American Dream, the standard Liberal Arts diploma lost its shine. Its value came from scarcity. That’s why Yale classics majors could make $200,000/year as postgraduate derivatives traders in New York, while somebody at a less exclusive state college had to major in software engineering to advance to the next step of a ladder she’d been climbing since kindergarten. Job anxiety is rising even at elite schools. In the 30 universities at the top of U.S. News & World Report rankings, as many degrees are now awarded in computer science as in history, English, languages, philosophy, religion, area studies, and linguistics combined.
As we saw before with Jefferson and Franklin, American education is plagued by a schizophrenia of purpose. On the one hand, the idealism of a Liberal Arts education is supposed to make you a virtuous and high-minded person. But on the other hand, that same education is valued by how well it prepares you for a rote industrial job that pays the bills. In the arms wrestle between them, higher tuition costs and the reduced strength of a college degree tilt the balance toward job preparation.
Historically, elite universities have responded to the ferocious demand for admissions by raising prices instead of increasing supply. Peter Thiel has argued that if a Harvard president announced their intent to quadruple its enrollment, they’d be immediately fired. Like a good nightclub, universities are popular because they set a limit on how many people they let in. The line out the door is a feature, not a bug. Enrollment statistics validate his theory. In 1977, Harvard had an endowment of $2 billion and a freshman class of 1,585 students. In 2017, the endowment had grown to $37 billion, but the freshman class was capped at 1,659 students, meaning that during that 40-year time span, class sizes grew 5% while the endowment grew by 1,750%.
But universities outside of the Ivy League and their near-equivalents have a grim future. In the internet age, self-disciplined people need less formal education than they used to. Colleges have lost their monopoly on access to information. Though they still boast about how many books they have in their libraries and all the academic journals that they subscribe to, every student now carries more information on their smartphone than any university will ever be able to provide.45
Knowledge is no longer a limiting factor, but universities are still a Schelling Point for brilliant people. For creative fields in particular, it helps to surround yourself with like-minded people who can supercharge your pursuits.
Colleges are expanding their student life offerings too. The number of students who said their college’s “good reputation for social and extracurricular activities” was “very important,” doubled between 1983 and 2019.46 Maybe it’s because students know that social success can be a better predictor of career earnings than academic prowess. One study of Harvard University students showed that members of selective final clubs earn 32% more than other students, and are more likely to join America’s elite class. If so, the returns to attending Harvard are high not because students learn more, but because they gain access to exclusive social circles and elite social status. But when it comes to information transfer from teachers to students, colleges over-serve their customers.
From 24 to 48%.
Before he passed away, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen predicted that 50% of the 4,000 colleges and universities would close or go bankrupt by the year 2035. Colleges have responded by prioritizing majors with a clear return on investment.
Online learning is a classic example of Christensen’s theory of low-end disruption. From an information transfer perspective, online education is already better than the in-person alternative. Virtual students don’t have to commute, their classes have better geographic diversity, and in addition to investing more in lectures, teachers can create small group discussions with the click of a breakout-room button. But online education is more of a threat than a savior to universities because they don’t have the culture or the institutional capacity to adapt. With extravagant amenities like rock-climbing walls and dorm rooms that look like the Four Seasons, today’s colleges over-serve their target audience. Most students don’t need four years of vocational education to find a job, and they don’t want to pay a yearly tuition fee that costs as much as a souped-up Mercedes.
Do We Have Too Many College Graduates?
The problems with college are the unintended consequences of the American Dream.
In 1960, 8% of Americans received college degrees. This was a great triumph. Before then, a “higher” education was reserved for those who were landed gentry in the Victorian period, those who were monastic in the Middle Ages, and those who held slaves in Antiquity. Until the mid-20th century, higher education was held up as the exclusive right of people with superior wealth, status, or potential.
In the period immediately after World War II, people who attended university had better social and financial outcomes. This set the stage for the democratization of college as a pillar of the American Dream.
Our understanding may have been backward though. The postwar period was an anomaly, and we shouldn’t consider that 30-year period as a baseline. With the economy booming and wages high for relatively unskilled labor, going to university and getting an English degree was a reliable enough proxy for one’s efficacy as a worker. Thus, students could translate the cost of a degree into a family-supporting income. Military veterans who needed financial support could pay for their education with the G.I. Bill. That’s why almost ~49% of college students were veterans in 1947. Education was made even more affordable by government-guaranteed loans for veterans who wanted to buy homes and start businesses. In the decade after the war, almost 10 million veterans received G.I. Bill benefits.
We still feel the second-order effects today. America was now on a mission to make college available to all. If government loans made it financially possible, cultural pressure turned saving for college into a social obligation. Today, the numbers have spiraled out of control. My friend’s financial adviser calculates that his son’s 4-year college degree will cost $738,000. In order to pay for it, he’ll have to save $1,600 per month for the next 18 years.
Now that almost everyone has a bachelor’s degree, the return on a diploma is no longer guaranteed. Add the transition from repetitive factory labor to knowledge work, and the recipe for upward mobility no longer holds. By 2016, that original 8% of Americans who had college degrees in 1960 more than quadrupled.47
The number of college-degree holding Americans grew even faster because of population growth.
The political scientist Peter Turchin calls this elite overproduction. There are too many smart people trying to fill a finite number of roles in institutions where the number of appealing job openings is growing more slowly than the population, especially when you account for the surplus of foreign students in the past three decades.
This supply and demand imbalance explains why there are more than 5,000 janitors in America who have PhDs.
Working-class jobs that could once be performed by anybody with the skills to execute them now require a diploma. As higher education permeated American life, people looked down upon adults without degrees as if people with nothing beyond a high school diploma were second-class citizens. These cultural shifts drove a belief that increasing the number of college graduates was by default a good thing. Though the intentions were good, standards fell, and the rigor of education declined.
Students Should Study the Liberal Arts … Later
Maybe Plato was right when he said that people aren’t prepared to study the Liberal Arts until the age of 30. He feared that studying philosophy at too young an age would lead to a life of lawless hedonism. In Book VII of The Republic, he writes: “Let us take every possible care that young persons do not study philosophy too early. For a young man is a sort of puppy who only plays with an argument; and is reasoned into and out of his opinions every day; he soon begins to believe nothing, and brings himself and philosophy into discredit.”
With that in mind, the future I envision may surprise you. It breaks the mold of walking the conveyor belt of K-12 education where the only goal is to grit your teeth hard enough to get into a prestigious college, in order to receive a well-paying job.
My suggested alternative is to study the Liberal Arts later in life. At community colleges and elite universities alike, there exist entire programs designed exclusively for people who took time off before college.48 Columbia University has the largest such program, founded by then university president Dwight Eisenhower after World War II to accommodate newly returning veterans. Today, one-third of undergraduates are enrolled in it.49
Other notable late-in-life college attendees include French chef Jacques Pepin, author Nassim Taleb, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, Leonard Cohen, and famed investor Li Lu.
Yale has a similar but smaller program.
Perhaps the most interesting example is Thomas Reardon, a 2008 graduate of Columbia’s School of General Studies, where he gave the commencement speech four years later. He came from a family where kids were taught to respect learning and get a job as fast as possible. That philosophy led him to a chance meeting with Bill Gates when he was 21 years old and shortly thereafter, a job at Microsoft. There, he worked on the early versions of the Windows operating system and came up with the idea for Internet Explorer as a component of Windows 97.
After leaving Microsoft, Reardon met a physicist named Freeman Dyson who encouraged him to brush up on his Latin and read a Roman philosopher named Tacitus. Those words of encouragement led Reardon to Columbia, where he swapped computers for the classics. After starting college at the age of 30, he double-majored in literature and classics, graduating magna cum laude.
The curriculum drew him to Seneca’s Letters and Homer’s Odyssey, which he read in their original languages. That Liberal Arts education led him to the sciences. First, the foundational knowledge of biology. And later, a more practical PhD in neuroscience. Eventually, this theoretical work prepared him to found a company called CTRL Labs, where he’s exploring the future of neural interfaces, which will allow people to control computers with only their brains. Four years after starting the company, he sold it for somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion. Listen to Reardon speak today, and he’ll credit that education with his continued success, even if it’s hard to trace the cause-and-effect.
What can we learn from him?
Once Reardon became wealthy, he withdrew from the matrix of money-making so he could nurture his mind with foundational knowledge. His decision was obviously correct to anybody in a pre-modern society where rencouncing material goods for the fruits of knowledge was a moral virtue. The Greeks believed that contemplative people were closer to the divine because they were removed from the mindless accumulation of riches. They knew that the allure of materialism disappears when you engage with the cardinal questions of a contemplative life. But today, leaving money on the table to explore the Liberal Arts is met with incomprehension.
You don’t need to be wealthy to lead an intellectual life, so we should respect Reardon not for the money he made, but for resisting the gravity of utility in favor of the eternal ideas that illuminate the Liberal Arts.50 As we formulate a solution, we should ask ourselves: “How can we create a similar experience for people who don’t have as much financial security as Reardon?”
It’s the pull that leads children to think of adolescence as a time to collect experiences solely so they can become an attractive college applicant. Once they arrive in college, that same pull leads them toward a full schedule of extracurriculars so they can find a job when they graduate.
How Churches Get It Right
You shouldn’t need to attend four years of college to earn a living. Instead, we should make it cheap and expedient for young people to receive a professional education and develop practical skills. After a year of training in the classroom, they can do an apprenticeship where they can get paid to learn instead of paying to learn.
These changes will help young adults achieve financial stability, build economically rewarded skills, and break free from parental dependence. They should study the Liberal Arts when they’re older. Rather than forcing students to slog through Dostoevsky when they are 18 — when they’re all wondering, rightly, how this is going to help them find a job — we should create schools for amateurs of all ages so they can read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov later, when they have the life experience to appreciate it.
This lifelong approach to education is just like the body of a church. When I lived in New York, I wanted to study Christianity, so I spent a lot of time with people at Redeemer Church. By far, the virtue I respected most was their commitment to lifelong education. They followed Plutarch’s dictum: “I grow old ever learning many things.” No member would ever be told to stop deepening their relationship with God because they’re too old. But that’s effectively what’s happening at universities. Even if they don’t have an official age limit, there’s a social stigma against grey-haired students. My bible study attracted a wide range of people as young as high school and as old as grandparents. In contrast, university student bodies have little age diversity.51
In 2019, I participated in a series of Christianity-focused discussion groups in New York City. From starry-eyed college students to contemplative grandparents, the groups had more age diversity than any community I’ve ever been a part of, which enhanced the quality of every conversation. Formal education has no such age diversity. The experience was unlike what you’ll find at a standard university where only 16% of students are over the age of 30 and less than 4% are over the age of 50. There are few official rules preventing senior citizens from going back to college, but everybody knows it’s weird to have a 78-year-old next to a bunch of hungover college kids who just want to party.
Today, most students are only able to formally study the Liberal Arts between the ages of 18 and 30. They only have four years during their undergraduate degree, and only the most academically ambitious of them continue their studies into graduate school. Of those who pursue a master’s degree, most stay in academia. For Oxford’s Bachelor’s of Philosophy graduate degree, one of the top programs in the world, more than 90% of graduates work in academia or pursue a doctoral program once they finish.
But if students could take Liberal Arts classes later in life, a much greater percentage would learn for the joy of it. Once again, the religious metaphor holds. No Church expects its congregants to only study the Bible for four years, with an option to keep studying as long as you plan to become a priest. But that’s what we do with the Liberal Arts.
Four years. That’s it.
In Praise of Rest
Plato would have criticized today’s Westerners who compromise an erudite life and salivate over wealth instead, even when they’re swimming in riches.52 In a criticism of his contemporaries, he observed that their love of wealth “leaves them no respite to concern themselves with anything other than their private property. The soul of the citizen today is entirely taken up with getting rich and with making sure that every day brings its share of profit. The citizen is ready to learn any technique, to engage in any kind of activity, so long as it is profitable. He thumbs his nose at the rest.”53
Plato advocated for an aristocracy, ruled by philosopher-kings. He argued for the synthesis between politics and philosophy because he believed that only educated leaders could make a society prosperous. To realize his vision, Plato founded one of the West’s first known organized schools, where he hosted students like Aristotle. Ahead of Plato, Socrates believed that only a select number of people were qualified to practice philosophy.
I applaud Plato’s general sentiment, but it’s incomplete without a reminder that people predominantly gained wealth by acquiring land. Compared to other kinds of wealth, land ownership contributes to the culture of inherited wealth that Thomas Jefferson feared so passionately. Though we should celebrate leisure, that leisure should come from the fruits of companies that benefit society instead of the zero-sum game of land ownership.
An Online Liberal Arts Education
The online education market will force university professors to compete with professional creators who’ve mastered the art of captivating an audience. In a voluntary approach to education like the online courses that have become so common, students don’t owe their teachers anything. They can skip classes, blow off their homework, and usually demand a refund. But college is different. Students have to attend class.
As the world goes digital, traditional academies will have to keep pace with advancements in online education. Maybe the knowledge transfer between online educators and tenured professors will oscillate so fast that universities will keep pace, and maybe even surpass, the cutting-edge of pedagogy. But don’t get your hopes up. Somehow, I have a hunch that a system that still takes the entire summer off so kids can work on the farm will struggle to adapt to the internet. According to every signal I have, it ain’t gonna happen. Online education software isn’t hard to use, but you can’t teach effectively until you have enough technical fluency to focus on the ideas you’re sharing instead of the tools you’re using to deliver them.
The sclerosis of academia, combined with the speed of innovation will tilt the balance in favor of online education. You’ll see the evidence in our language. Just as “online business” and “e-commerce” are redundant terms in an era where customer interactions are digital, “online education” will also just become “education.”
I took some Liberal Arts classes in college, but don’t remember much. I was partially to blame though. I was a slacker during my freshman and sophomore years. Most of my friendships revolved around parties instead of knowledge. But once my intellectual curiosity muscles activated during my junior year of college, I struggled to find peers to discuss ideas with.
The campus culture didn’t help. Some of my classes were even hostile to learning. Taking class seriously wasn’t a socially rewarded activity. I distinctly remember sitting in the back row of a philosophy class with 32 other students, 30 of whom were on Facebook instead of listening to a teacher who didn’t have the balls to stand up for himself. Two years after I graduated, my sister heard about my college reputation through a friend who said: “Half the kids liked you, half the kids hated you. The kids who knew you socially thought you were cool, but the kids in your classes rolled their eyes at you because you were such a try-hard.”
Learning on My Own
A try-hard, I am.
By the time I graduated and began a full-time job, my interests shifted toward economics. I even considered enrolling in a master’s program for it. Not for professional purposes, but out of curiosity. For guidance, I emailed a PhD economist from Harvard who advised me against pursuing a graduate degree because I’d learn the kind of ideas you need to become an economist, not the kind you need to become an intelligent citizen of the world. Economics departments, he said, increasingly focus on an empirical, numbers-driven approach called econometrics. So instead of enrolling in a master’s program, I learned the discipline by watching free Marginal Revolution University videos on YouTube.
After economics, my interests shifted toward philosophy. This time, I wanted to go beyond YouTube and learn with a committed group. I read Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates discussed how grappling with ideas through dialogue helps people digest them.54 But during my four years of living in New York City, I found no satisfactory method of Socratic study. I attended meetups, but without the skin-in-the-game of tuition or a discerning admissions process, there was too much variance in the quality and commitment of attendees.
The question-and-answer format of dialogue aids in learning because true knowledge does not come from the ability to recite a truth, but rather give reasons and arguments for that truth. No matter how much we wish it were the opposite, knowledge can’t be poured like water from the container of a teacher into the container of the student’s mind. It has to be digested, and conversation is the best way to do that. Two millenia later, Montaigne built upon the Socratic method when he counseled students to doubt what they hear and judge ideas independently of the person who said them. He believed that true knowledge came not from parroting ideas back to authority figures, but from applying ideas in new and unexpected contexts.
When public meetups didn’t work, I tried private ones. First, I found a tutor to train me in philosophy. Then I convinced six friends to join me. We read parts of Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, and St. Augustine, but without a financial commitment to the cause, we were only able to meet once per month.55 When we did meet, we never had enough time for more than a cursory introduction to each philosopher.
Alfred North Whitehead once said: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” And yet, we only devoted one discussion to Book VII.
Finally, I audited a class at Columbia University. Even though the teacher was an esteemed philosopher, the class was terribly boring. He knew the material well, but didn’t plan what he was going to teach until he stepped into the classroom. One day, as if the hands on the wall clock had stopped ticking, he spent the first 15 minutes of class thinking about how he wanted to change the syllabus. He may have been an expert, but he loved to ramble. Even though I was a sit-up-straight-and-turn-my-phone-off student, he couldn’t hold my attention. If I taught like that in Write of Passage, I’d go out of business.
As frustrating as those experiences were, each provided an insight. Meetups showed me how the internet could bring together people who would never otherwise find each other; the small tutoring group showed me how the questions of philosophy could foster friendships; and the class at Columbia showed me how formal education can expand your horizons by forcing you to study books you wouldn’t otherwise read.56 Without that class, I wouldn’t have read Max Weber’s Vocation Lectures or his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, both of which inspired this essay.
Indeed, a lot of a good liberal arts education is being forced to read, understand and respond to books you’d otherwise only lie about having read.
These combined insights revealed the future of the internet-enabled Liberal Arts education, which I’m now ready to outline. 57
If you’re skeptical of online for-profit schools, I don’t blame you. To date, most of them have failed and some have been littered with fray. Students at the University of Phoenix owe $35 billion in taxpayer-backed federal loans, and their default rate is higher than their graduation rate. But the tide is changing. Online education tools, such as live video conferencing and community management have become much better in the past decade. As they’ve improved, the cost of running a school has also fallen. I know this from experience. I run a writing school called Write of Passage. We are profitable and don’t depend on any government grants. As you can see on our website, students rave about the course too. Though an online course is less holistic than a full-on Liberal Arts school, it shows how the cost of education is destined to fall as the experience improves. As William Gibson once said: “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
Three Guidelines for a Liberal Arts School
Liberal Arts schools have three predominant failure modes: (1) It should not become a “how to be successful” course, (2) teachers should promote free thought over ideology, and (3) students may lose interest in a rigorous curriculum if their work lives get intense. To prevent these failure modes, there are three guidelines Liberal Arts schools should follow: Don’t focus on practical skills, prize free thinking over ideology, and target an older audience of professionally established people. We’ll take each in turn.
First, the school should not promise any kind of immediate practical skills. Doing so would create a utility-obsessed culture, targeted at students who want to maximize their return on investment. A market-driven curriculum will create McDegree programs where students study the kinds of self-help books you find in the philosophy section of an airport bookstore. Think of already-popular books like Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, which reduces the great Greek philosopher into a self-help guru. In the words of one Amazon reviewer: “Too little Aristotle. Too much Oprah.” As for marketable skills, none should be pursued directly. They’re beside the point. Nevertheless, students will learn how to interpret, analyze, and evaluate complex texts, which will teach them to instantly smell bullshit on the page. By doing so, they’ll use words in rigorous ways and rebel against the wishy washiness of contemporary discourse.
Second, it must promote free thought over ideology. Today, most roll their eyes when they hear the word intelligentsia because we no longer trust the elites who govern society. But under the original Russian definition, its members also had to act with decency, dignity, and honor. They were missionaries who said what was true instead of what was popular, even when it lowered their social credit score.58 Today’s academies have few such people, in part because the cultural DNA of the West makes institutions more and more homogenous over time. One study of Liberal Arts colleges found that 40% have zero registered Republicans as faculty members. Yeah, you read that right. Zero. At Williams College, long considered one of the world’s top Liberal Arts schools, the faculty ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 1:32. The more a discipline resembles the Liberal Arts, in subjects like English and sociology, the more ideological the faculty becomes. That kind of echo chamber prevents students from pursuing truth. As Thomas Sowell wrote in Intellectuals and Society: “In the schools and colleges, the intelligentsia have changed the role of education from equipping students with the knowledge and intellectual skills to weigh issues and make up their own minds into a process of indoctrination with the conclusions already reached by the anointed.” Some students believe that debating professors can only hurt their grades so they become as ideological as the departments themselves. But a Liberal Arts school should be the opposite. Its members should respect leftists and right-wingers alike, so long as they reason toward their conclusions. Its leaders may even choose to teach a specific doctrine such as critical theory on the left or free market libertarianism on the right. So long as that perspective is explicit and students are encouraged to push back, I have no issue with it. Ignorance and blind ideology, though, should never be tolerated.
As Elena Shalneva explained: “Intelligentsia is the modest hero who risks her life with a smile; the non-conformist who speaks the truth at his peril; the friend who never betrays … Never inclined to hover righteously above the rest, they were tolerant of all backgrounds and circumstances, and they admired talent.”
Third, students should be encouraged to study the Liberal Arts later, after they’ve established professional skills. People who are employed struggle to pursue a Liberal Arts education not just because they have busy schedules, but because the material can feel so disconnected from daily reality. As I write this, a friend who was the most committed undergraduate philosophy student I’ve ever known says that since he started a full-time job, he’s lost the motivation to study dense philosophy. He now sees the questions of philosophy as so abstract that they’re irrelevant.59 But three months ago, when he was studying in Columbia’s philosophy department, the rituals of email and PowerPoint slides felt just as irrelevant as the writings of Hegel and Heidegger feel now that he’s the Chief of Staff for a fast-growing startup. Following in Plato’s footsteps, he believes that you have to escape society to study philosophy because it requires a monastic disposition, where you’re free from the demands of normal life. After all, you can only see the Matrix once you’re outside of it.
The completion rate should be much higher than the standard 2% of massive open online courses (MOOCs), but that doesn’t mean it should be 100%. A school where everybody finishes is way too easy. Like a standard university, the school should have a rigorous admissions process, but it should have far less patience for slackers.
The transition to the internet will also change the content of what people study. As universities have become more professionalized, especially at the graduate level, they’ve become less attractive to people who want to explore a buffet of ideas. Increasingly, it seems like the great polymaths I know work outside of the academy.60 They are non-academic academics who study with the seriousness of a working college professor, but write with the freedom of a retired one.
Even if there is a selection bias, I stand by my point. It’s getting easier and easier to get your ideas published if you work outside of the academy. Furthermore, scholars who work outside of the academy are more incentivized to communicate clearly, so they can reach an audience of laymen.
Today, Oxford’s famous master’s program in philosophy is marketed not as a place for amateur seekers to grapple with the questions of Western civilization, but as a prerequisite for a PhD and teaching students in philosophy. Graduates who pursue careers outside of academia are the exception, not the rule. Those who stay specialize in obscure niches of philosophy because the journals and tenure systems don’t reward transformative, wide-aperture discoveries.61
As Robert A. Heinlein once wrote: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, coon a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Weber observed the trend toward specialization more than a century ago. Since scientists and academics had to concentrate on something specific in order to be successful, the system incentivized incremental discoveries at the cost of grand and fundamental breakthroughs. Weber’s theory still rings true today, as shown by University of Colorado philosophy professor Michael Huemer who writes: “You’re practically forced to take on incredibly tiny, hyper-specialized questions, because it is impossible to read the literature on a big question. If you’re thinking of writing on free will, for example, you’re going to find thousands of articles and books on that. So you pick something smaller – say, whether free will is compatible with determinism. But guess what? There are still hundreds of things to read on that. That’s still too many for a non-robot mind to absorb. So you have to take some small aspect of the compatibility question.”
Academic writing won’t get through peer review unless it builds upon existing literature and presents a new idea. At first glance, these requirements seem reasonable. After all, people who develop new knowledge should probably familiarize themselves with the existing literature. We should also be skeptical of anecdotal evidence and celebrate the scientific method. But in practice, it comes at the cost of grand theories that challenge a field’s core assumptions. The overreach of science has created a generation of people who are so skeptical of intuition that they don’t trust knowledge that isn’t backed by a study. Taken to its extreme, that worldview can be blinding. As Paul Chek said so forcefully: “I don’t need a randomised controlled trial to know that a kick in the testicles is going to hurt.”
Since it’s impossible to read all the literature on a big question, the incentives of academia turn scholars into hyper-specialists. The system turns generalist revolutionaries like Spengler who don’t conform to the prevailing intellectual narrative into outcasts. Especially in fields where you need funding, it’s hard to do scientific research that doesn’t conform to the prevailing narrative. Given all that, we should create an alternative to academia for PhDs. Instead of climbing the hierarchy of academia, they should be able to teach all kinds of online classes. At the very least, it’ll increase their BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). Universities will have to pay PhDs more and treat them better once the alternatives to being a traditional professor are financially lucrative.
The Oversupply of PhDs
An economic insight lies at the core of the solution: There’s an oversupply of PhDs who can leave the university system and start teaching online.
Even though they’re subject matter experts, universities can pay them little without a lot of career security because there are so many of them. It’s basic economics. When supply goes up, wages go down. That, though, presents an opportunity for online Liberal Arts schools: Hire the foremost expert in a given subject who can also teach well, double their pay, and commit to selling the courses on their behalf. For the students, sell an expensive online course, but anchor it against the exorbitant cost of traditional education. Then, use that money to double the salaries of your PhDs.62 Put together, you have the formula for a profitable business that democratizes learning, radically improves the lives of those PhDs, and also lowers the cost of an education for students.
When I explain this idea to people, they push back by saying that most PhDs aren’t effective lecturers. I agree. But even if that’s true, you don’t need that many PhDs to make this a successful business. Think in absolute numbers, not percentage terms. They’ll come marching in droves if you can double their pay, give them a path to higher status, and provide a better work experience by allowing them to focus more on ideas and less on bureaucratic drudgery.
Though online, this school won’t be anything like the first wave of online courses, which were defined by pre-recorded videos and low completion rates.63 Though they digitized the lecture format, they lacked alumni networks, group learning tools, and the rigor of a live cohort. But until the industry matures, it will remain oriented around individual courses that are led by individual instructors with domain expertise. But eventually, the nexus of attention will shift to schools that control the end-to-end experience. Once it does, they’ll provide a meaningful alternative to a traditional university education.64
Most massive-open-online-courses (MOOCs) have 2-3% rates.
Today, the admissions department is the university’s main sales channel because students don’t really choose schools based on the quality of a single professor. But online education will change that. professors who build their own audience will have more economic leverage than today’s university professors because they’ll be able to recruit students and meaningfully increase the school’s revenue. Those who do will receive a percentage of a student’s tuition if they remain in the school system and take classes with other professors. For example, what if Sam Harris decided to teach? Since his email list and social media following would be bigger than the school’s for multiple years, he’d recruit the majority of students.
Higher education has two ends.
Professional Education should prepare students for the world of industry so they can earn a living. The current system takes too much time and costs too much money. As we find ways to speed it up, we should remember that professionalizing education is only part of what it takes to build a great civilization. Like a home without decoration, it won’t have any soul, even though the basic necessities are taken care of. Shelter is only the first step. To make a home come alive, you need colors, patterns, and totems of personal significance.
For that cultural Feng Shui, we need the Liberal Arts.
We should raise citizens with trained and cultivated taste who can simultaneously thrive in society while questioning the structures that drive it. With the extended focus on Professional Education at the early stage of a career, we should create opportunities for students to receive a Civilized Education throughout their life where they can appreciate life beyond the almighty Dollar. A liberal education should welcome elderly students. Once it starts, it should never have to end. Bringing it online will turn it into a global experience, replete with a level of intellectual diversity that universities aim to offer but fail to deliver.
We should study our society, both so we can harness its gifts and alleviate its flaws. Only then can we accept the circumstances of our life without becoming a slave to the cards we’ve been handed. Wesleyan President Michael Roth, the author of the best book I’ve read on the Liberal Arts, once wrote: “Education is for human development, human freedom, not the molding of an individual into a being who can perform a particular task. That would be slavery.” Up until now, our colleges have followed a philosophy of giving young people freedom early and waiting until the postgraduate years to focus on a profession. Only toward the end of the 20th century did a bachelor’s degree become a prerequisite for most jobs and professional academic study such as a master’s or a PhD. We should return to a world where Civilized Education is not mandatory. Where students can postpone the Liberal Arts to acquire technical skills that are rewarded in the economic marketplace. Students are already asking for the changes, as shown by the changing composition of majors.
College was once a place to explore the True, the Good, and the Beautiful without regard for utility. But today, it’s seen as a means toward the end of finding a job. Ideas that aren’t economically valuable are belittled as useless knowledge. Materialism has become our North Star. As a society, we measure progress in changes to the material world, where we prioritize what we can see and measure. We evaluate ourselves by productivity, our economy by the availability of cheap goods, and our civilization by the rate of technological progress. We’ve forgotten about our human need for wonder, beauty, and contemplation. Today, we worship the Factual, the Useful, and the Monetizable.
Our lives are now governed by the demands of materialism. Don’t get me wrong. The fruits of clean water and modern medicine are miraculous. But what good is a materialistic utopia if it comes at the cost of a spiritual one? We are more indebted, depressed, and suicidal than ever before. And yet, we continue to worship technological progress and material abundance as if they will elevate the soul. As so, we run and run and run — hoping that all that effort will save us. But if people feel too constrained to pursue wonder and beauty as ends in themselves, are we really making progress?
This was, by and large, the role of spiritual religion for thousands of years. Judaism taught us not to worship false idols. Christianity taught us to imitate Christ and remember that the meek shall inherit the earth. Buddhism tells us that everything we need to be happy has been with us since we were born and that there is nothing “out there” that will save us. In a world without God, the Liberal Arts is the last place where people can take a systematic step back from society to see what we miss when we play its games. And now, we’re losing that too.
As Yale Professor William Deresiewicz wrote, students graduate as “intellectually and morally un-curious, uninterested in exploring the larger questions about the meaning of life, and unwilling to take intellectual risks. They are comfortably bourgeois and achievement oriented, but they care little about the inner self and the soul.”
Upon reading these words, one friend said: “This is put into words why I dropped out of Harvard.” With that mindset, it’s no surprise that students are abandoning the Liberal Arts. To the extent that we want to produce a nation of workers, that’s okay. But we need to be honest with ourselves: Today’s universities have abandoned the Jeffersonian vision of raising a civilized citizenry. Though they claim to value the benefits of learning for the sake of learning (as shown by “how to live a better life” commencement speeches), student job placement has become their most important metric.
Mistaking money for cultural well-being is like mistaking a roof for a home. ROI-brain only speaks in the language of materialism, and we should be skeptical of it. Otherwise, our lives will follow the leash of cheap pleasures and distracting dopamine hits. Corporations, too, will continue to sell instant improvements without regard for their long-term effects.
Gold should not become our ultimate God.
Until recently, this was common knowledge. Even John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest capitalist of the 19th century, was more driven by God than the mindless accumulation of riches. He followed the motto of his Christian minister, who preached: “Get money; get it honestly and then give it wisely.” From that day forward, he saw a spiritual link between making money and improving the world around him. He adopted a Protestant work ethic where he found his calling and applied himself with all-out devotion as if his riches were a blessing from God. I’m not saying that Rockefeller was a saint. He was as flawed as the rest of us. My Christian friends would even argue that neither wealth nor his charitable works earned him salvation. But unlike the Titans of our day, he saw himself as a mere instrument in a symphony whose music transcended mere practicality. Taken all together, the Liberal Arts is the meta-recognition of our world. Its benefits transcend mere utility and the limits of language.
It’s time to break the university’s monopoly on teaching them. Because of the internet, alternatives are financially feasible for the first time. They will succeed by lowering costs, paying teachers well, and expanding access to a Liberal Arts education. Like a Church, they’ll also provide a life-long experience for committed seekers.
Ultimately, the Liberal Arts reminds us that the mindless pursuit of material prosperity will not save us. If we cannot question the systems that guide our lives, we will be enslaved to them. Nor will we be saved by comfort, pleasure, or a respectable job that impresses your family at the Thanksgiving table. Only with a Liberal Arts education will we develop the capacity to thrive as conscious adults. By studying the foundations of how we think, who we are, and how we got here, we’ll gain control over our minds and create a more flourishing civilization.
Appendix A: Paying for Teachers
How will teachers get paid?
Since so few employees are needed to operate this online school, they’ll be able to receive a larger percentage of the overall tuition revenue for classes they teach compared to colleges.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the average adjunct makes $50,000 per year (some estimates are as low as $25,000, but I want to be conservative). These adjuncts already have the knowledge that comes with a PhD, but command the pay or prestige that comes with being a professor. Many of them have spent decades walking the academic track. To incentivize a change in direction and account for the career risk of leaving academia, we’d need to pay them more than what they’re currently earning.
My back-of-the-napkin intuition says we can guarantee teachers an annual salary of $80,000. They’d have more time to research too. The academics I know don’t devote as much time to their own research as they’d like. This study of professors in the Netherlands came to the same conclusion. The authors found that full-time professors only spend 17% of their time on their own research. Those professors are overworked too. They work an average of 55-hour weeks and 11-hour days. Add it all up and they spend less than 10 hours per week on their own research. And remember, the lives of these professors are the light at the end of the tunnel for young academics. Taken all together, some academics will be drawn to a school that can guarantee them more time for research.
Teachers will be expected to teach six courses per year, which is roughly what the academic world already expects of them. In addition to the $80,000 per year for each teacher, we should set aside $60,000 for a course manager who can handle logistics. Add in an extra $60,000 for miscellaneous marketing and operations costs, and you have a burn rate of $200,000 per professor. Assuming a tuition cost of $500 per class, a professor would need to teach 400 students per year to return the investment.
Achieving those numbers will be difficult at first. Since you have to own the demand to succeed on the internet, such a school will need to turn marketing into a core competency. Profitability will emerge from brand and scale. A quality reputation will attract top-notch lecturers with subject matter expertise. The better the brand, the less of a reputation hit they’ll take from leaving academia. Teachers won’t be limited by scale either. Unlike a traditional university, they’ll be able to teach thousands of students at once. Classes of that size will fund more coaches and course managers who can improve the experience for students.
Classes of this size might sound like science fiction, but I’m writing from firsthand experience. I just completed a cohort of my Write of Passage class with 342 students, and my business partner just finished a Building a Second Brain cohort with 1,620 students. Both courses are profitable too. Though there are kinks to sort out at scale, my experience tells me that large cohort-based courses can provide a better alternative for the Liberal Arts.
Students will benefit from an improved course experience; professors will benefit from more research time and an increase in pay; and the school itself will be profitable enough to reward and incentivize these initiatives.
Marketing is the core challenge, but I’ve outlined my plan in the section below.
Appendix B: The Marketing Strategy
There’s a famous saying in Silicon Valley: “First time founders focus on product. Second time founders focus on distribution.”
The opportunity to build a Liberal Arts school with internet scale reminds me of Netflix. The company can outspend traditional TV studios because its investments can reach a larger customer base. This school should set its sights on a global audience from the beginning. Even if the Western canon will appeal to Western audiences, there’s no reason to discriminate against countries. When it comes to business, the internet brings the gift of a global customer base and the curse of global competition. It rewards people who have direct relationships with their audiences.
Even with the internet, it’s surprisingly difficult to find high-quality Liberal Arts lectures. Two problems stand out: depth and inconsistency. Specifically, online content is over-indexed on introductory ideas, and a surprisingly high percentage of popular content isn’t very engaging. Suppose you want to study a philosopher in depth. Where do you go? The Great Courses deliver consistently great content; it’s expensive and the bonus materials aren’t very helpful. Audiobooks are nice, but they’re written for readers instead of listeners. YouTube is the optimal solution, but there’s a discoverability problem. Most good lecturers are hard to find, and the vast majority of content is geared toward novices.
From a marketing perspective, the first step is to attract a large audience of people who are obsessed with the Liberal Arts. That starts with a YouTube channel. We’ll invite professors to deliver 45-90 minute talks on the subject of their choice. Like Michael Sugrue’s channel, they must be entertaining and dense with insight, with all of the rigor and none of the stuffiness of your standard college professor (look at how students talk about him). Quality standards will be ruthless. People should prepare for the lectures like they prepare for a TED talk. If a lecture isn’t engaging, we won’t publish it.
First, we’ll recruit speakers from our personal networks. We’ll ask our most articulate friends to give talks on the intellectuals of their choice, starting with 5-10 part series on high search volume philosophers like Plato, Nietzsche, and Girard. No animations. Minimal editing. More rigorous than SparkNotes, less in-depth than The Great Courses. As the channel grows and it becomes a household name in the intellectual community, professors will start asking us to give lectures. Doing so will become a rite of passage. As it does, the channel will become an intellectual hub of the Liberal Arts world.
Inspired by Colossus, each lecture and each segment of those lectures will become building blocks on an intellectual tower of knowledge. Over time, we can remix those blocks like LEGOs. We’ll work with professors and a professional production team to create mini-documentaries on the Western canon and create learning curricula to help people learn about disparate topics. Everything we produce will be entertaining enough to capture attention, educational enough to keep people engaged, and inspiring enough to make people want to enroll in the school. Though these lectures will satiate curiosity, they’ll never be able to satisfy it. Scholars spend years grappling with these texts, so I’m under no illusion that we can get to the bottom of them in a short lecture series. Ultimately, the joy of studying the canon comes from reading and discussing the texts with an intelligent group of peers and a subject matter expert who can guide the conversation.
There are three core assumptions here. First, we can fund the channel with profits from the education business. Since we know there will always be a widespread desire to learn about the Western canon, the videos will have a long shelf-life. To grow an audience around the school, we can mention our email list at the bottom of each video. By building relationships with these lecturers, we will also attract a constant pipeline of people who could become future lecturers on the platform. Second, the economic success of The Great Courses and podcasts like Philosophize This proves that there’s demand for this channel. We can play in their arena because we have a different business model. Instead of monetizing the content, we monetize the conversations around it and the network that emerges from that. Third, high production values align the incentives for all parties. The channel (and with deliberate branding, the school) becomes the hub for learning about the Western canon. Professors benefit from free distribution and Hollywood-level production values that they’d otherwise have to pay thousands of dollars for. Students benefit from easy discoverability and tons of in-depth lectures that don’t exist right now.
By becoming the best place to discover, search, and consume the Western canon, we will become the leading destination for learning the Liberal Arts.
Most of all, I’d like to thank my co-writer Jeremy Giffon.
I’d also like to thank Will Mannon, Tyler Cowen, Tiago Forte, Johnathan Bi, and Justin Murphy for the conversations that led to this essay.
Finally, I’d like to thank Elisa Doucette, Joaquin Roman, Chris Angelis, Sarah Ramsey, Terri Lonier, Tara Lifland, Kevin Rapp, David Drysdale, Dan Stern, and Scott Burkholder for their extensive edits.