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A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts (Parts 0-6)
David Eubanks   May 27, 2014  

In the Winter 2014 edition of Carnegie Reporter, "The Big Picture / Assessing the Future of Higher Education," Vartan Gregorian opens with: In recent years, there has been a debate raging among policymakers, students, educators, concerned parents, and many others about the purpose of higher education. Is it meant to develop an inquiring mind and a deep appreciation for the value of how knowledge enriches one's lifelong personal and professional achievements or should it be simply focused on gaining the skills to pursue a well-paying career? [source] This roughly divides education benefits into an internal and an external domain. Over the next several articles, I will explore the richness of this approach from the point of view of classical Cynicism. Given the topic, it seems appropriate to begin with a prose poem about the stakes.


Cogwheel Progress

The second millennium's concluding chorus was the whir and gnash of teeth, chewing up their tens of millions when the gears ground instead of meshing. Jugashvili got it half right: a million makes a statistic, but one is too small a sample for useful inference. The N was large enough by 1918 to circumscribe The Enlightenment with some confidence, but how many standard deviations does it take to be sure? Dada danced to no tune while the machines improved their minds and sharpened the null hypotheses for new trials. And yet more, until the theories' demands exceeded the number of actual people on Earth, and imaginary ones had to be invented to do the overkill accounting. By the time the curtain fell on the Three-Naught Opera, the teeth were wikid steel heat-treated-ferritic-martensitic-microstructure, whirring too fast to see and too numerous to compute.

H0: Machines cannot be enlightened

is written on the wall of a bathroom stall in the hand of  Leibniz, annotated by Hilbert, who also drew his cat, and Turing's clever limerick that rhymes with Gödel. In black marker underneath: "FOR A GOOD TIME CALL HAL."

Advancing, we have grown gears instead of ears, festooning heads with mech-punk, meshing ourselves, grinding into cadence, spinning to whir along with the new chorus. High-pitched doctors, greased with silicon to stand the heat, variable-ratio lawyers to adjust the foot-pounds of honest discourse to minimum drag, banks and forests of cogskulls to sell the truth / but sell it slant, and all the rest of the head-buzzers too, too many to catalog. They all whine on their spindles, but don't know what the noise is all about because angular momentum is all they have energy for. The null hypothesis unshaken, we endarken ourselves, and the crude mud-scratching past becomes ever more quaint. Washington's gears were made of wood, did you know? The Romans had the first detachable ones, by the way.

But statisticians did some calculations and proved that we cannot prove the null hypothesis, a Nobel-worthy triumph in double negativity. This hopeful doubt reduces friction and solves 95% of latency issues, according to Headgear Magazine's 2014 swimsuit edition. Intellectuals find this silly, but they have a better sop, because after all this time philosophers are finally in agreement. They inspected closely and found that we are nothing but gears all the way down.

The teeth and  mesh and flash of metal are friction to the eye, anyway. Better to switch off the light and be soothed by the machine's purr: white noise with a chance of ultrared.


In Part Zero, we accomplished two things. First, the value of higher education is considered as a combination of internal self-fulfillment and external function-filling in society. Second, The Enlightenment was cast as an evolving machine that may not even have the qualities that allow little-e enlightenment. We may be trying to milk a bull. I will use Cynicism to sort it out.

In The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in the Salon, Louisa Shea gives a tour of Cynicism's role in critiques of The Enlightenment. It's a wonderful book to add to your summer reading list. Here's part of the description:

Louisa Shea explores modernity's debt to Cynicism by examining the works of thinkers who turned to the ancient Cynics as a model for reinventing philosophy and dared to imagine an alliance between a socially engaged Enlightenment and the least respectable of early Greek philosophies. While Cynicism has always resided on the fringes of philosophy, Shea argues, it remained a vital touchstone for writers committed to social change and helped define the emerging figure of the public intellectual in the 18th century. 

Reading the book, one sees that Cynicism has constantly been reinterpreted and put to use for different purposes. I'll follow that tradition with yet another interpretation. What follows is my own thinking informed by Shea's book; please don't attribute  mistakes that may follow to her. I won't review the history of Cynicism, but here's the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article.

Our fascinating story begins with Diogenes of Sinope, who was charged to "debase the coin of the realm." A close reading of that mission will give us an analytical tool we can try out on the "Problem of Education" quoted in Part Zero.

Debasing the coin, taken literally, means to add a base (valueless) alloy to good metal cleverly order to fool the receiver into thinking that he has received a real coin, when that is actually not the case. The coin by itself is of little value (you can't eat it, and it won't keep rain off your head), but "in the realm" it communicates value by virtue of law or convention. You can trade it for food or shelter. The coin is a signal.

The ingredients necessary for Cynicism are therefore a social system (formal or informal) that uses signals, and the act of  Cynicism is to successfully and falsely signal something of value, so that the signal is degraded. It might appear that I'm suggesting with the deconstruction above is that Cynicism is nothing more than being a good liar. It's more subtle than that, because we have to look beyond the lying itself to the purpose: debasing the coin of the realm is adding noise to signals. It may not make the signal useless, but it calls it into question. Cynicism forces us to rethink the value of our societal signals because they are becoming less valuable due to the acts of Cynics.

To illustrate, it's useful to distinguish between Cynicism and cynicism. An example:

  • Cynical: add tin to coins to make them appear more valuable than they are. Succeed so well that the currency is gradually actually worth less (adding noise to signal).
  • cynical: telling everyone that the coins are counterfeit (calling the signal into question, regardless of the facts).
The original Cynics lived their philosophy; they mocked theory. It's much harder and risker to be a Cynic than to be a cynic. Rather than thinking that Diogenes and his followers were encouraging everyone to behave like them (everyone would have starved), I will choose to think of the Cynics as performing a valuable public service, much like a newspaper. The purpose of the newspaper isn't to encourage everyone to become newsmen and women, but to test the nature of truth challenging and exposure. Just like the news, Cynicism doesn't come pre-stamped as 'good for society'. As we will see, The Dogs still have teeth.
Test your understanding with the quiz below.

Quiz Questions: insert the appropriate c or C to complete the following.

  1. _ynical: Successfully perpetrate a literary hoax.
  2. _ynical: Newspaper articles like "The Diploma's Vanishing Value." or "Your So-called Education"
  3. _ynical: Teen tweets a threat to an airline, prompting a full anti-terrorism response.
  4. _ynical: The debasement of Cynicism into cynisicm in everyday English.
  5. _ynical: Creating financial instruments knowing they will fail. Selling and betting against them.
  6. _ynical: Creating and disseminating conspiracy theories.
  7. _ynical: A successful April Fool's joke
  8. _ynical: FDR's "Bank Holiday" to restore faith in banks


For anyone following along from Part One, here are the quiz answers: CcCCCcCc. The twitter example is a good one to use for illustration. A teenager, who upon the most cursory inspection, is no threat to any airline, makes a joke in poor taste about 'doing something big', and addresses it to American Airlines. She is arrested. Other teens follow suit. I don't know what happened to all of them.

In order to do Cynical analysis, we have to ask what is the 'realm' and its 'coin' that is being debased. Here, the realm must include the principles: government (US, EU), ordinary people, the airline, twitter, and terrorists. The 'coin' is the signaling power that twitter has to make terrorist threats. The teen debased that coin by making it worth less as a terrorist-signalling device. As a Cynical critique by the teen, this is very successful because it functionally points out the absurdity of using twitter as a means of getting warnings from terrorists. Why wouldn't the terrorists just flood twitter with constant threats and so overwhelm the system that law enforcement don't have time to set up speed traps? There's even an obvious solution: set up a terrorist-registration site, where anyone who wants to make an actual threat must first supply a major credit card, resume of bad behavior, and so on. Only one this registration is finished, will threats be considered real. This barrier would keep the kids out, and any terrorist bent on making a threat would probably welcome this system so he wouldn't be mistaken for a teenager making a joke. Everybody wins.

Cynicism is an epistemological solvent. In its extreme form, it's like aqua regia, disolving truth-carrying signals. It happens all the time, usually out of self-interest, as counterfeiting is. An example is the ongoing erosion of the literal meaning of "literal", which is more and more misused, so that it will eventually end up with very (verily=true) and really (real) as debased signals of real in contrast to rhetorical. I have elsewhere used real-real as a new substitute, which has the advantage of being able to add more 'reals' as needed.

The original Cynics assaulted the social signals that allow polite discourse, but not to their own benefit. Contrast this to Cynical investment bankers intentionally creating bad investments to sell and bet against. The difference is an internal critique that is parallel to the external one. The quotes are from The Cynic Enlightenment (CE)
External (social) critique:
Upon hearing Plato define man as "a featherless biped," Diogenes grabbed a chicken, plucked it, threw it in the circle that had formed around Plato, and declared, "Here is your man, Plato" (CE pg 10)
Diogenes doesn't simply describe the absurdity it of the definition (which would be a little-c cynical act), he goes the extra mile to demonstrate, actually debasing the coin (Plato's way of knowing). Note the cleverness of the Cynic in 'hacking' the definition of the signal. There is an element of cheating to it, which is a signature of Cynical acts.
Internal critique:
A constant presence in the marketplace of Athens, like Socrates [Diogenes] played the role of social gadfly, rebuking citizens for their follies. But he did so in a more outrageous manner than his famous contemporary. He could be seen masturbating in public places (when rebuked he signed, "[Ah if only] it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly!") [...] (CE pg 9)
This is an incisive attack on inner signals. Diogenes is saying that if we could manipulate our desires and emotions with the same vigor as we can social signals, they too would be debased. In fact, by living simply, the Cynics demonstrated this.

Higher education is ascribed external (social) and internal (self-knowledge) goals. Yesterday, had this to say about a Gallup report in "Gauging Graduates' Well-Being":

A new survey of 30,000 college graduates gives higher education leaders a chance to make their case that college isn’t all about jobs and income. 
The evidence from the largest survey of its kind is, however, mixed about whether colleges are doing enough to help students’ well-being in life, according a new measurement designed by Gallup and Purdue University.


A statement of fact is an act of violence. Established signals within a system ("coins of the realm") represent a peaceful efficiency because they create conventions for nominal realities: we agree to agree. Everyone wins if we all drive on the same side of the road instead of running into each other and arguing about who's right. The Cynic is dangerous to any such establishment because he actively undermines the convention. The Cynic is in effect saying "this is not my reality," and behaving accordingly. You have to take someone seriously who drives on the wrong side of the road.

Higher itself education is ripe for Cynical challenges, but the title topic refers to the role of higher education in the realm. Accordingly, we ask:

  1. What is the role of signaling within the realm?
  2. What are the effects of Cynical attacks on those signals?
  3. What is higher education's actual and potential role in the above?
The first of these was the subject of the prose poem in Part Zero. The Enlightenment has allowed construction of physical and virtual machines of ever greater complexity because of the establishment and maintenance of reliable signals [1]. This is the effect of organized and sustained inquiry into the nature of the world. But science is not the whole of The Enlightenment project. Humanism has not seen such obvious success. The computers that we love for their life-changing conveniences were created in order to solve shock wave calculations so that governments could kill more thoroughly [2]. 
So successful are the advances in signaling and the iron enforcement of convention, that in the West Cynics cannot function in the classical form. Diogenes was a public Cynic. The example of the teen tweeting a veiled threat shows that public mocking of official signals (no matter how absurd) is dangerous. Currently it's safer to be a (lower-case) cynic, mocking rather than debasing, but history shows that even this is not to be taken for granted. At a time when practically every form of digital communication is probably being archived and indexed, even cynicism may find itself underground. At that point we may as well entirely diminish the 'c', and merely think about absurdities but say and do nothing: Joe the Ynic ponders the absurdity of life, but dares not utter a cynical remark. By capitalizing the letter, it gives us seven more retreats before we come up blank. (Joe the ynic doesn't dare think about absurdities, but would like to, etcetera). 
This state of affairs is because of asymmetry in epistemology. The police officer with the radar gun gets to create your velocity-reality. No wonder devices that interfere with radar are illegal. The Cynic would laugh his socks off (if he wore any) at a typical traffic stop. The citation has a precise speed on it, but the system doesn't know who you are unless you produce a little laminated rectangle with your name on it. The fact that the systems are rapidly becoming smarter is more, rather than less, worrying to the Cynic.

In the latter twentieth century, official identity as defined asymmetrically by the state became the currency of life and death in many countries (Aryan/other, Bolshevik/other, Communist/other, Hutu/other, on the depressing list goes). It's clear that the humanist project is as much impeded by the progress in science and technology as it is aided by it. This isn't surprising in retrospect because machines have no humanity themselves; they can only amplify the wishes of their masters.

Although Cynical acts have undoubtedly saved some when the machine noise shifts register from white to ultra-red, for example by faking credentials, classical Cynicism has been impotent for a long time. Shea quotes Diderot in The Cynic Enlightenment [3, pg 42], snipped here from Amazon's preview (I bought the book, but this is convenient):
(The footnote indicates that the quote is the author's translation from Diderot's "Cynique"). If classical Cynics were gone in Diderot's time, it is no wonder that the common meaning of the word has retreated from acting to debase system signals (Cynicism) to merely complaining about them (cynicism). Even lower-casing was noticeably weak in the national news coverage of the impending invasion of Iraq in 2003, where the system classification "enemy" was being sold to Americans. There was, however some reflexive cynicism by the press afterward.

This brings us up to date on the state of affairs of the first item on the agenda at the top of this page. Next time we consider whether  or not classical Cynicism or its lower-cased offspring have the potential to make systems operate with more humanity.
[1] Gleick, J. "The information: a history, a theory, a flood." (2011).
[2] Dyson, George. Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. Random House LLC, 2012.
[3] Shea, Louisa. The cynic enlightenment: Diogenes in the salon. JHU Press, 2010.


The agenda from last time is:

  1. What is the role of signaling within the realm?
  2. What are the effects of Cynical attacks on those signals?
  3. What is higher education's actual and potential role in the above?
Last time we saw that reliable signaling ("coins of the realm") enable modern systems like governments, and that asymmetrical control over these is empowering. See Foucault for more in that vein. Now let's look at the effect of Cynical debasement these coins of the realm.
The power that is inherent to signaling can be co-opted by clever individuals. Probably anyone could create a so-called "mortgage-backed security" that was bound to fail, but to then get it blessed by a ratings agency is a work of Cynical art [1]. Speaking of art, Marcel Duchamps' The Fountain, poked the very notion of art (a social convention-type signal) in the eye with a sharp stick by entering a urinal in an exhibition. This is not only Cynical, it's a nod to the original Cynics and their habits. Modern epistemological challenges to the notion of art have successfully debased the traditional meaning beyond recognition.
My hometown of Pinckneyville, Illionois is famous for basketball. One story, as I received it, is that back during the glory days, the P'ville team had a strategy that drove opposing fans nuts. Late in the game, if they managed to get ahead a few points, in order to prevent the other team from evening the score, the five players would stand at the edge of the court, arms out-stretched over the out-of-bounds and pass the ball back and forth. This way, the opposing team couldn't get to the ball without fouling, and meanwhile the clock ticked down to a Panther's victory. Of course, this debases the meaning of "basketball game" to something silly, and new rules eventually put a stop to it. But it won a lot of games in the meantime.
Or take patent law. The sub-reddit /r/nottheonion accumulates stories that seem to be parodies but aren't--a good marker for Cynicism. One link there today is [US Patent Office Grants 'Photography Against A White Background' Patent To Amazon]. This is a case of Mutually Assured Derision, as big companies try to patent everything they do (no matter how trivial), so another company doesn't get there first and sue them. This ongoing Cynical destruction of the idea of intellectual property may finally end when no manufacturing or services are any longer possible, and the only business of the country is patent arbitration. You'll pass a friend on the street and think "Hello, how are you?" but are unwilling to pay the licensing fee, so you pass in silence.
You see the possibilities? What kind of general do you want leading your army--one who abides by the conventions of war (McClellen) or one that bends, breaks, spindles, folds, and mutilates them in order to get what they want (Lee, Jackson, Sherman)? What kind of lawyer do you want? What sort of lobbyist? What sort of CEO?
Cynicism as I have described it so far is an amoral strategy--it doesn't come pre-package with values. Driving down the wrong side of the road to make a point is evil. Finding a way to get out of a traffic ticket is good. That discussion will be deferred until we talk about signals that are internal to our own minds.
Cynicism is a powerful tool, and its better to have the Cynics on your side than the other side. This is where the liberal arts (finally, you say) comes in. There is a simple-minded perception that studying things like art and music and literature (and math and science are liberal arts too) are somehow useless. The contrast is made between such frivolities and "gaining the skills to get a good job." This is a dangerous viewpoint. Cynicism is fermented in the liberal arts--you can tell by all the alcohol consumed in those departments. It's dangerous stuff, and you aren't going to get it from "skills training," but by rubbing your nose in things that you disagree with, that keep you up at night wondering if you've gone mad. Because then you have a chance at seeing through convention and understanding that the whole thing's a put-on like the Wizard in Oz. If you put your hands on that font of signal, it is power.
Steve Jobs put a nice spin on it, taming the Cynics for a speech where their rudeness wouldn't be welcome:
[1] Lewis, Michael. The big short: Inside the doomsday machine. WW Norton & Company, 2011.


So far we have established the necessity of  laws and convention in the creation of civilization, and which grew in amount and sophistication due to The Enlightenment. It should be noted that many Cynical acts contributed to these advances. The progression of Copernicus to Galileo to Kepler, for example, shows the development of empirical thought by direct attack on existing epistemology.

The "coins of the realm" that comprise system signals exist not only externally, like a which side of the road to drive on or when to pay your taxes, but also internally. We noted this back in Part Two, and it's time to consider this aspect of classical Cynicism.

Kepler makes a good example. He worked from received wisdom from the ancients, particularly Aristotle, who taught that the heavenly objects were perfect, and moved in circles. This had been a problem for a while because the observations of planets did not support this view very well. Compromises were created using circles within circles (a Fourier series in modern terms), and Kepler 'approximated' orbits with ellipses even though he knew this wasn't right according to Aristotle, but it was a mathematical convenience. Eventually this internal convention was overcome, and everyone nowadays knows planets move (more or less) in ellipses. [1]

Although Diogenes of Sinope supposedly started off by literally debasing coins, after he got out of prison for that crime, he applied his craft to social conventions. But he took the principle within himself. For example, he analyzed his needs and decided that a bowl was unnecessary to have because he could cup his hands and drink. There is also no evidence that Diogenes used Cynicism like an investment banker--for self-advancement. In fact, when Alexander asked him what he would wish from the king, Diogenes insulted the ruler with "Get out of my light," which can be read as "darkness follows you." This is not just a social critique, Diogenes also reveals that his motivation is not freedom through wealth, as if to say that real freedom came from within. Since the Cynic supposedly also sold himself into slavery at one point, this must be a very potent kind of internal freedom!

Internal signals are insidious because they construct our reality. I "know" our dog is laying on some towels that were outside to dry because of the conventions buried deep in my brain. I snapped the photo below with my phone so you can play along.

Can you see the guilt-ridden expression? That's another signal, born of evolutionary psychology. We've been living in groups so long we've internalized conventions like guilt and shame and glory and many unnamed punishments and rewards for 'doing right' by the group.

Diogenes turned his sights on these internal signals as well as the external ones that critiqued society. He apparently knew no shame himself, or excised it somehow. Internal well-being is one of the two strands commonly offered up in articles about the value of higher education (the other being job-readiness), so we will consider the effects of this internal critique and then connect to the liberal arts in higher education.

Internal signals include our basic ways of knowing the world, including emotions. All of these are influenced by external conventions and constantly reinforced. A combination of social conventions and biological hard-wiring comprise the signals by which we know reality. Within this epistemological cauldron, the Cynic offers us a demonstration of how to exert control over our own respective internal worlds (what R. M. Rilke, in his First Elegy, calls "der gedeuteten Welt," the interpreted world [3]). The Cynics didn't theorize about this seeming self-debasement, they tried to live like dogs, from whence 'Cynic' comes.

So how do we control signals? We have seen some examples of external signal debasement (usually to satisfy some motivation, like taking money from other people), but what about internal signals? Let's consider the question generally first, and then apply it to mental states.

The most basic recipe for control is signal interdiction by denying its validity. If people stopped taking dollars in exchange for goods and services, it debases the coin quickly and thoroughly. This is why bank runs are so damaging, and why we value our credit scores. When countries don't accept each others' currency, it's a denial of reality, and money exchangers get paid to navigate between those separate worlds.

A signal only has informational value if it varies. Denying its validity debases the signal by setting it to null (a constant). Alternatively, if the signal is 'always on', it has the same effect. Runaway inflation combined with printing presses that add more zeros to denominations of bills is an example. (Read Der Schwartze Obelisk for a wonderful fictionalized account of inter-war Germany.)

Internally, these methods lead to different examples. Taking pain medication is signal interdiction. A constant euphoria produced by other kinds of drugs debases pleasure by overdoing it. That is, both pleasure and pain presumably exist for evolutionary reasons, and by attenuating or amplifying the signal we interfere with the associated control mechanisms. Football players on pain medications can happily go about damaging their bodies, and crack addicts can ignore everything in life except the next hit.

Those are both crude examples. It's much more interesting to consider an individual's internal recognition and use of a social signal like embarrassment. The Cynics apparently overcame this impediment! This line of thought suggests a liberal arts agenda:

  1. Identification, classification, and science behind internal signals. This is a vast domain, and only a fraction of it could be done in a general education curriculum. For example, what are the internal signals of citizenship? From the personal point of view, glory, patriotic zeal, and self-righteousness (opposed by shame) might be in the list, whereas external signals include formal citations (or firing squad), and social signals include fame (or notoriety). 
  2. Prioritization of signals. This is personal; the first active step to Cynicism. If you prioritize social responsibility, this is different from prioritizing a life of contentment. This comprises a conscious attenuation of some signals in preference to others. It's an existentialist project. 
  3. Creation of intentional stances for the most important signals. This is an exploration of ethics. Stoicism has much to offer for the driven social changer, whereas Epicurus might be more attractive to others. Even variations of classical Cynicism itself could be considered for a few brave souls. 
  4. Identification of behavioral change that logically follows, and acting accordingly.
The Cynics hid 1-3 within wit and ridicule, and expressed their lemmas and theorems by their acts.
[1] Ferris, Timothy. "Coming of age in the Milky Way." Coming of age in the Milky Way., by Ferris, T.. Morrow, New York, NY (USA), 1988, 496


[3] Example of an English translation here: 


We have taken the Cynical charge to "debase the coin of the realm" to mean interference with signals of all sorts, from coins themselves (a promise of a future good or service) to emotions (pain as a signal from the body). More traditionally, the classical philosophy of the dogs has been dismissed as unimportant (Hegel), used as a model for social critique (Diderot, Foucault), adopted into Sadism (de Sade) or romantic primitivism (Rousseau), and as a guide to self-enlightenment (Sloterdijk). All attempts to completely civilize the Cynics necessarily leaves out the dog's bite, argues Louisa Shea in [1].

As we have considered it here, Cynicism is a sort of weaponized philosophy, having little to do with the academic philosophy that peeks out of books and journals. The coin of the realm for academics is convincing other academics of something. In other words, a socially-constructed "truth" ripe for cynical attack [2], [3],[4]. A famous description of Diogenes going about by day with a lantern to look for an "honest" man might seem to point to a common ground. In fact, some describe the Cynics as searchers for Truth. At face value, this seems backwards: the Cynical project is the debasement of coins, not the minting of them. A counter-argument is that by debasing coins, the Cynics show that they were valueless to begin with except as tokens of the king (state-sanctioned signals), and this deconstruction is the real Truth.

At the least, signal attacks are a method of "truth-through-conflict". A good example is Diogenes' plucked chicken challenging Aristotle's definition of humans as featherless bipeds. The most effective challenge to any claim of Truth is physical evidence to the contrary.

In a liberal arts curriculum, students ideally receive instruction in what we might call homeopathic Cynicism. It is so dilute as to be safe for the classroom, but still useful. Examples include competitive truth-finding in critical analysis of texts or art, or other exchanges where students and teachers challenge each other to find meaning. This is practice is social truth-finding, and the corrosive power of Cynicism to turn signals into noise is there waiting to be rediscovered. Society is too tame to embrace it as pedagogy, although I think even liberal arts programs would benefit from adding more Cynical doing to the curriculum. Theory is too easy and too easily (little-c) cynical, too easily dismissed. Having a plucked fowl tossed at you makes an impression.

By contrast, jobs training doesn't benefit from producing graduates who question authority or are self-reflective. A job is a cog in a gear in a box, and what it needs is a consistent interface. The best employees are efficient machines that absorb their employer's epistemology. There are three problems with this.

The first problem with jobs is that computers and robots are taking them. It turns out that machines are better at being machines than people are. The second problem is that bureaucratic systems are amoral, and may do bad things. In the "homework problem" from last time, an employee became dissatisfied with his job on moral grounds (blowing up strangers based on what phone chip is in their pocket). The recent history of our species is strewn with far worse examples. Jobs training (writ large) works by inculcating a amoral epistemology, and what we see time after time is that the establishment of these ways of knowing and doing gives moral cover for individuals. "I was just doing my job" may end up being the epitaph of The Enlightenment.

Third, the "education for jobs is good for the economy" argument may be true in the short term, but invention and entrepreneurship don't come from 'jobs training', they come from disruptive impulses by people who don't want to scan groceries.  Liberal arts education is far from perfect, but even heavily diluted, the few molecules of Cynicism that remain are enough to make a difference. Even if the education doesn't change anyone's mind, it validates those who come looking for something they can't find in jobs training. Few are going to be full-blown Cynics, because that lands you in jail these days. But even a whiff of the vapor can be intoxicating.

Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do. --Steve Jobs

Anyway, the focus on jobs just detracts from the big picture, because the jury is still out on The Enlightenment as a long-term survival strategy for humans. We don't just need consumers and producers--we need Cynics to dissolve all but the most essential truths for us so that we might have a chance of constructing a system of living together that doesn't kill all of us. Or perhaps we look at the epistemological coffee grounds and conclude that this is impossible [5]. That would be major progress.

[1] Shea, Louisa. The cynic enlightenment: Diogenes in the salon. JHU Press, 2010.
[2] "Publishers withdraw more than 120 gibberish papers," Nature, 24 Feb, 2014
[3] "Read Derrida's Response to the Sokal Affair," Critical Theory, Aug, 2013
[4] Latour, Bruno. We have never been modern. Harvard University Press, 2012.
[5] Eubanks, David A. "Survival Strategies." arXiv preprint arXiv:0812.0644 (2008). 

David Eubanks holds a doctorate in mathematics and works in higher education. His research on complex systems led to his writing Life Artificial, a novel from the point of view of an artificial intelligence.


“Is it meant to develop an inquiring mind and a deep appreciation for the value of how knowledge enriches one’s lifelong personal and professional achievements or should it be simply focused on gaining the skills to pursue a well-paying career?”

It certainly can’t continue to claim to be the former as long as it continues to betray the concept with speech codes, “trigger warnings”, assaults on dissenters and disinvitation of speakers for “controversy”.

“Is it meant to develop an inquiring mind and a deep appreciation for the value of how knowledge enriches one’s lifelong personal and professional achievements or should it be simply focused on gaining the skills to pursue a well-paying career?”

A false dichotomy.  We don’t have to chose between having an inquiring mind or focusing on gaining career skills, because an inquiring mind is one of the skills needed for a well-paying career.

The problem with liberal arts education is that they no longer develop critical thinking skills, as they once did.  Gone are the classes that helped students develop the ability to think critically.  Instead, we have classes where facts are presented but never analyzed or critiqued lest one runs afoul of some rule of political correctness.  Under the PC banner, all positions and beliefs are equally valid and therefore unassailable (unless those positions and beliefs are from western civilization; some animals are more equal than others).

So liberal arts students don’t learn critical thinking skills anymore.  And that’s why the value of a liberal arts degree is in freefall at the moment.  If you paid six figures and four years of your life for a degree with the word “studies” in the title, then you’ve been ripped off.  Have fun working at Starbucks!

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