Saturday, August 9, 2014

Rise of the Technocrats

I recently came across this article in Forbes concerning another major retooling at my alma mater, my university in New York. Articles like this depress me as do most trends in the evolution and devolution of modern university education in the United States. While smaller liberal arts schools fill the void once occupied by the Ivy League in educational content, they lack the prestige and financial power to attract elite students. Conversely the Ivy League and similar schools like Stanford are committing academic suicide by loaning themselves out for a high escort fee like "ladies of ill repute" to major technology firms such as Microsoft and Google who in turn substitute these schools for career training and project development. What is lost in all this is education.

When I first saw my school's campus in 2006 its older structures, dating to the 19th century—infantile to my European readers, were undergoing major restorations, especially the residential West Campus below Libe Slope. Ivy still crawled up the sides of the Arts Quad buildings in spring time and the wild flowers and evergreens emitted sweet fragrances that permeated the summer humidity and carried throughout the 800 acre plantation. The buildings were a magnificent medley of neo-gothic, Beaux arts, neo-Romanesque, and Victorian/Edwardian English. Now much of that beauty and the symbolism beneath it has been drowned in an inundation of modernity.

Coming soon to Roosevelt Island, NYC!
When I graduated in 2012 several new glass monstrosities masquerading as science laboratories—in part paid for by donor from major technology firms like Bill Gates of Microsoft (a Harvard drop out with no standing affiliation with my school)—popped up like pustules on the once immaculate grounds. The school president, popular with donors and unpopular with professors, students, and alumni, won a bid to build a special "tech campus" in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was given the opportunity to give our commencement address as his reward.

The university's entire focus has shifted towards technological development and giving science students practical experience in preparation for S&T, R&D careers. The Humanities and Social Sciences have been largely forgotten. The Cornell History department was the first in the United States to have a professor dedicated to colonial American History. Now it has none. The last colonialist left the year before I arrive and he has not been replaced. The Anthropology department holds a major collection of 20,000 pieces of archaeological history dating to the Lower Paleolithic age, including an Egyptian mummy. It receives $1,000 per annum in funding. I wonder, if a physicist wanted the latest IBM toy would the university hesitate?

Community and unquantifiable types of knowledge are on the downswing and will remain so for the near future. Having grown up in the northeast, where the towns were originally modeled on Congregationalist theology and the typical English village, I have found the utilitarianism of urban and suburban Texas startling. Up north every town, with few exceptions, had a green and a white First Congregational Church at the center, inevitably near the City Hall or Court House. Small shops and office buildings grew up around it a century ago. Larger industrial parks and office buildings would be at the outskirts of the town and people would live in rural settings 10-20 minutes away. Dallas has no center. It has a downtown with no distinction of zoning or districts. The suburbs are former farm towns, flat and open, with the occasional industrial park, glass office building, or gated McMansion community. Nearby my residence in the Dallas area is an outdoor shopping mall built to resemble the layout of a northeastern small city, replete with one-off restaurants and shops so as to counterfeit the organic feel while not taking the upper-middle class nouveau riche clientele out of their element. The shops are not an attempt to create a real town in northern Dallas. They are weekend entertainment for the efficiency minded men and their wives who built the stark work holes and McMansions that now blot out the Texan fields. No doubt their employers will benefit from Cornell's new "tech campus."

And at the town center was once the Congregational church. Then when all the Catholics came we built our churches at the center of residential areas, often with schools. Any kind of society needs an intelligentsia and the Church is no different. With Greek, Latin, History, Philosophy, and common sense debased in academic settings, the newly "educated"—would "processed" be a better word?—will move into their McMansions without the communal mindset that once existed through the Church. They will not be able to replace it with any effective substitute either.

The sole point of optimism one finds here is in the people who still do value community, the Humanities, history and the like. They value these fleeting things more than ever before and are willing to do something about it. In this article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch covering the American ordinations for the ICRSS the journalist seems a bit surprised that a man who graduated from Harvard would be interested in being a priest dedicated to celebrating Mass in a dead tongue. Fr. Altiere said, "There is a saying that the priest does not go to heaven alone. My goal as a priest is simply to lead as many souls to heaven as possible."

Maybe he can find Cornell's soul, too!


  1. My city''s former Faculty of Pharmaceutics' campus:

    The current:

  2. In defense of "Utilitarian" degrees such as Engineering or Business, as someone who attended a new college built for that purpose:

    The current state of the "Humanities" is in such an abominable state, that pursuing an academic career in it is an unmitigated waste of time. Is it not better, then, to receive your "utilitarian" degree, work in a "utilitarian" job, and then pursue your intellectual interests in the time you have because you picked a useful degree?

    One hardly requires a worthless English or Arts History diploma to appreciate the beauty of true literature or art. In fact, I find that modern "Humanities" academia generally have a wretched grasp of their subject and a narrow view with little room for innovation or fresh ideas (If Shakespeare is our example, is not innovation a necessity for any art form?).

    Let this so-called "Humanities" burn for all I care! If it means I never have to listen to another pretentious interpretation or "thesis" on a work that has been beaten to death, then LET IT DIE!

    True art will live on as long as there are men who feel and wish to express it in artistic means.

    1. Sir Testy, it is largely the universities that have become mechanized in the way bemoaned above that have the sort of humanities programs you despise. True liberal arts universities—rare though they may be—actually have humanities programs that are human.

      That being said, I am one of those people who attained a utilitarian degree and profession, and spend my free time pursuing my humanities-related interests. It's not such a bad way to be.

    2. Not a bad way to be at all.

      Yeah, his traddiness has asked me before to tone down my use of adjectives. I'm working on it, but I think it's a little like asking an Indian chef to tone down on the spices, an Italian chef to use less tomato, or a French chef to use less cream.

      I would like to see a good Humanities university. I'm tempted to say, "show me one and I'll show you a Catholic university that still holds to its Catholic principles (i.e. hasn't rejected them like Notre Dame or gone off the deep end ala Fisher More)", but I'm afraid I'd have nothing to offer in return once you find a decent Humanities school.

  3. First, I grew up near Cornell. One of my closest friends attended, and I visited often. I always thought the town and the campus one of the most beautiful in the country. What you've described is very sad. Currently I live in Lancaster County, PA. With my FSSP parish comparatively near, it's a paradise.

    Second, with the caveat that some of the friendliest people on planet Earth live there, I hate Texas. I visit often for work, and I'll be in Dallas a week from today in fact. I detest the weather, and I detest the landscape, and think Henry Clay and Abe Lincoln were right; it should've been left to Mexico. The sterility of its architecture you've accurately described combines with the purgatorial heat to crush the spirit. A Catholic of European descent is forever an exile there, whether he knows it or not.

    Thus endeth the rant.

    1. Well, you know that notorious Mason, Explorer, and Politician Pike did describe practically everything south of the Missouri as the "Great American Desert," unfit for any useful exploitation. Maybe we should have listened to him?

    2. Considering that Colorado is my favorite state in terms of natural beauty, I will have to disagree with Pike.