Discover more from Matt Mandel
Review of "An Eduction for Our Time"
On the future of the American college
Colleges are in a precarious position. Student debt is skyrocketing as critics like Bryan Caplan make an increasingly persuasive case that college offers little beyond a credential to students and even less to society. Meanwhile, alternatives to college like the Thiel fellowship, coding bootcamps, and online education are becoming increasingly viable. And, in the background of all of this, colleges are caught in the crossfire of a culture war that threatens their political standing.
Perhaps most unfortunately for modern colleges, their defenders are not very good. In response to all of these threats, administrators and public intellectuals will just wax poetic about the incomparable value of a liberal arts education and how tragic it would be if we got rid of the tradition, as if judging college to be obsolete and defending the status quo are the only two logically possible positions.
It’s pretty unique to find someone who thinks colleges desperately need to be reformed and thinks a liberal arts education is vitally important. What is even rarer is to find someone who offers extremely specific proposals and rationales for reforming American colleges. I know of exactly one person who has written a book laying out such a plan to overcome the challenges faced by colleges today. The book is called An Education for Our Time, and, though it's 20 years old, it might be the most important text for reforming American higher education.
An Education for Our Time is written by Josiah Bunting III, a Rhodes scholar, Vietnam War veteran, and university president. He’s also written a bunch of novels and some non-fiction books. If you think that sounds like the biography of a guy who would care a lot about “inculcating virtue” and would use words like “disinterested service”, you would be exactly right.
Though An Education is fundamentally a playbook for creating a new kind of college, Bunting conveys his vision for the college through the literary medium of an epistolary novel, documenting the exchange of letters between a dying tech billionaire describing his plans for a college endowed in his will and the executor of that will.
If not the status quo or vocational training, what does Bunting think colleges should do? Fortunately, this book is not very subtle. According to Bunting, “the mission of the College is to prepare our students to give virtuous and disinterested service and leadership to the Republic” (219). He envisions a model of college that works on students’ souls (or if you prefer, students’ character) as much as their brains, and not because that is a nice thing to do, but because the more courageous, resourceful, honest, respectful, altruistic, confident, etc. one becomes, the better they will serve themselves and society at large.
Bunting’s college is not about creating people who know certain kinds of things; it is about creating certain kinds of people, namely those with “a positive passion for the public good” (39), “active and prudent minds and the will to act” (45), “unself-conscious moral courage, self-forgetfulness and self-mastery, indifference to material success and to ‘things’, fierce patriotism, willingness to assume responsibility without calculation of risk or reward, intellectual self-reliance, independence of judgment, retention of a lifelong sense of wonder, magnanimity, liberality, generosity, [and] physical hardihood and resistance to fatigue” (141).
Bunting’s approach to education might sound kind of hokey, but Yuval Levin has a great riff on education that totally changed my perspective and made me more receptive to the ideas in An Education:
The military is… the great exception to our loss of trust in institutions… And I think the reason for that has everything to do with… [how] the military is unabashedly formative. It's not just good at protecting us from our enemies. Though it is, it's also good at transforming young people into responsible serious men and women. When somebody tells you that they went to Harvard, you think maybe that's a serious person, maybe that's an intelligent person, maybe not. But you know, whatever they are, they got into Harvard because Harvard sort of measured them, decided if they were up to that standard, and then let them in. When someone tells you they went to the Naval Academy, you think this is a serious person. And it's because of the Naval Academy, because it made them that way. [emphasis added]
We know it is possible to create institutions that take teenagers and turn them into incredibly competent and trustworthy adults with leadership skills that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. As Levin notes, the military and its associated academies consistently do this pretty well. Levin highlights how, unlike the military, Harvard tends to merely house exceptional students who have already met the standards of their extremely selective admissions process. This distinction explains why Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are not thought of as “lesser” Harvard students even though they never graduated: our colleges today do not form leaders, they find them. But, this emphasis on “finding” over “forming” is not inherent to what it means to be a college. In fact, one might see it as a kind of betrayal of the purpose of college.
CS Lewis once wrote
[w]e make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful
I think Bunting would offer a similar diagnosis, and, in many ways, his book reflects a plan for fighting the phenomenon Lewis described. What would a college dedicated to making serious, virtuous future leaders look like?
There are two plausible buckets of reactions to the vision Bunting has presented: (1) his goal is a bad one (“this is fascistic, we shouldn’t be forcing our students to care about the public interest / this is dumb, all that matters is how much money our students can go on to make, not how virtuous they are / this is overly paternalistic, who is to say what is a better kind of life or leader”), and (2) his goal is a good one, but it seems hard to achieve (“yeah, obviously it’d be freaking sick if we could reliably produce holistically excellent and virtuous young adults, but how the heck would you actually do that?”).
Bunting doesn’t really address the first set of concerns, so I’ll leave them to the side for now. Though most pundits focus on issues in the first category, Bunting never really feels the need to defend the desirability of his vision. He takes for granted that we share his ends, and so the focus of the book is really on the means. How exactly would one create an institution to produce virtuous future leaders? This question – so out of line with contemporary public discourse about education – is the focus of the book, and the topic to which I’ll now turn my attention.
Bunting offers a succinct summary of his college in the form of the letter he would hypothetically send to community leaders to solicit candidate students:
A new College… seeks to identify high school juniors… Its purpose is the preparation of virtuous and disinterested citizens and leaders for the Republic… The College will enroll undergraduates only, for a five-year program, its academic curriculum to embody some requirements traditional to liberal education, but others (for example, the mastery to fluency of two foreign languages, one of them non-Western; required courses in mathematics, logic, and deontology) less apt to be required in contemporary undergraduate curricula. Eighteen months of the five-year tenure will be spent away from the College’s demesne, which is currently being readied near Douglas, Wyoming. All costs of the full undergraduate program, including tuition, room, board, books and sundries, and travel costs, will be borne by the College. All graduates are to incur a three-year obligation for service in some agency of federal, state, or local government. Principal qualifications for admission comprise, among others, demonstrated qualities of self-reliance, selflessness, tenacity, integrity, and judgment… Please send to [address]... the names of possible candidates, and a brief description of each. Do not, even if known, include SAT, ACT, or IQ ‘scores’ (62)
Bunting again refers to “virtuous and disinterested citizens and leaders for the Republic”. Though his language is a bit more flowery, the mission of his college as stated is actually not so different from that of existing institutions. For reference, Harvard’s mission is
to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society… hop[ing] that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents… and learning how they can best serve the world
Though Bunting’s college shares many of the aims of existing colleges, his vision seems better suited to achieving these shared goals. Of the Harvard Class of 2021, for instance, just ~6% of graduating students said they planned on working in government, politics, public service, or non-profits after graduation. Students’ first jobs out of college is an imperfect proxy for public spiritedness, but Bunting’s proposal to obligate students to work in public service seems like a reasonable mechanism for getting students to work for the public benefit.
Bunting also refers to an 18 month period that students would spend off campus. Later on, he elaborates that 12 of those months are to be spent in the military:
Our fourth-year cohort will serve on active duty as private soldiers in the Marines or the Army. That service will comprise the basic training common to all who enter either service; advanced individual training in one of its combat arms, such as the infantry; and an assignment of about six months with an infantry, armored, or Marine division, preferably one serving overseas. All members of the cohort will remain in reserve status following their return to the College for Year V, and for the normal reserve commitment of years after graduation. Some few of our alumni may wish to attain commissions and remain with the colors… The burdens of defending our democratic Republic must be borne equitably… when this sacrifice is paid in the currency of blood… [a]ll must be liable, and since I cannot hope to persuade my fellow countrymen of the wisdom of my judgment, I simply make military service a requirement for our pupils (188)
Bunting is essentially writing a utopian novel, so he has the advantage of, well, utopian thinking, but there’s something significant in his wakeup call that if colleges really want to achieve certain ends, they shouldn’t sit by and bemoan their inability to do so: they should try to implement policies with a reasonable chance of changing things.
Maybe forcing students to work in public service will breed resentment and ultimately push them towards John Galt-ism. But, maybe it won’t, and maybe it’ll help future CEOs, doctors, teachers, and technologists better understand our societal ills and better equip them to make a positive difference for their communities whether through their professional work or through further public service. There’s so much room for innovation and experimentation in figuring out how to achieve the goals colleges ostensibly care about, but higher education, especially elite higher education, has become a stagnant monolith wholly incurious about alternative methods for better achieving its ends.
Bunting is full of heterodox ideas like this for executing on the vision he laid out. Here’s Bunting on what he calls “sumptuary requirements”:
Students at the College are not to have money. They will not be allowed motor vehicles. They are not to adorn their persons with vanities of tonsure, or clothing that draws attention either to itself or to its wearer…. Americans relish money, far less for what it can ‘do’ than for what it seems to be: a means of validating stature and a way of establishing invidious ascendancies over others… I frankly desire the College to inculcate an indifference to it (96-7)
It’s not so rare to hear professors and college administrators lament, in public and in private, their students’ fixation on remunerative careers. What is rare is to see a college do something about it. Would banning students from having money make them care less about acquiring wealth in the long run? Like, maybe? It is a pretty dramatic statement though, and I can imagine how it could contribute to a greater sense of egalitarianism and comradery on campus.
Ironically, Bunting is writing these words through the voice of a billionaire, so of course we’re not meant to think that material success itself is the issue; rather, Bunting seems critical of a worldview centered around material things. And interestingly, some of the most financially successful Americans appear to not have been particularly driven by the pursuit of wealth.
Bunting’s monastic vision for the college doesn’t stop there. He quotes from St. Benedict’s Rules for Monasteries:
And if the circumstances of the place… should require that they themselves do the work of gathering the harvest, let them not be discontented; for then are they truly monks when they live by the labor of their hands, as did our Fathers. (100)
For Bunting, working in the dorms is not a matter of covering tuition (Bunting’s college is free for every student, after all) or a punishment to be dealt out (“under no circumstances is ‘work’ to be used for purposes of chastisement”). Bunting wants “the more senior students… [to] lead various teams attending to different chores [as]... another practical school of leading: more sure-footed in what it inculcates than mere classes in ‘leadership,’ and far more lasting in the lessons it impresses” (100). In Bunting’s college, work is to be woven into students’ everyday lives as a way of instilling a positive vision of the role of work in the good life.
This idea of working – and succeeding – together permeates Bunting’s thinking on student relationships:
For the message should surely be this: ‘Look to the left of you, look to the right, and make this resolve: your mission is to help your brother (or sister) through this program!’... we might call it Looking Out for #2. Every aspect of the way our students are to live at the College must be anchored in… a willing commitment to do their duty to the community, to their colleagues and friends before they attend to their own needs (95)
In An Education, comradery is not just about finding drinking buddies and occasionally helping someone bounce back from a hard time. The envisioned college is not a single-player game that sometimes involves others – it is fundamentally a group activity.
With this community-centered approach, Bunting abhors the idea of “turning a peer in” for a disciplinary infraction. He instead asks that the college encourage students to directly confront their peers who they believe to have done something wrong because (1) this gives the peer the opportunity to explain themselves before the matter is made to involve college authorities, and (2)
the act of confrontation… inculcates a measure of confidence, of the sort that each succeeding act of moral courage instills in young people. It is from hundreds of these small difficult acts that an active lifetime of integrity is derived (116)
Bunting does not just want his students to have relationships of convenience – they are supposed to recognize that they form a community and are supposed to be committed to the growth of each of the members of that community
Seemingly as important to Bunting as purely intellectual or moral growth is physical excellence. Colleges today talk A LOT about mental health but weirdly tend to neglect physical health.
(As a quick aside, I am reminded of an anecdote a friend once shared. The friend found out that his philosophy professor was an accomplished athlete, even during his career as an academic. He asked the professor why he took fitness so seriously, to which the professor replied, “Do you care about the development of your mind? Yes? Are you a Cartesian dualist? No? So how can you develop your mind while neglecting your body?” And, of course, Plato, the founder of the institution from which we derive the word “academy”, was a competitive wrestler and his name is a reference to his broad shoulders!)
On physical wellbeing, Bunting argues that
just as the American academy has long since abandoned its ancient avowed mission to promote virtue along with good learning, it has either forsworn or forgotten its former expectation that students be held to standards of physical fitness, or raised to them at least (104)
I do think it’s interesting how large a role sports played in the college lives of notable 20th century Americans. Gary Wills wrote of the 1968 contenders for the Republican nomination for President of the United States:
All the future candidates were ambitious: they dutifully participated in one sport (the minimum required of [college] campus leaders in the thirties): football for Nixon and Reagan, soccer for Rockefeller, water polo for Percy (Nixon Agonistes 19-20)
And of Nixon’s time playing football, Wills writes:
He never spared himself. He used to take an awful lacing in scrimmage. He was tenacious as the dickens. When he got hold of something, he never let go… He was not much of an athlete, though… Nixon was not only small, but clumsy… Why… did he keep trying so hard?... he thought it was his duty. Everyone tried to do something for the team, then - even if it was only to work as manager, a thankless task (Nixon Agonistes 161)
Readers of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker will also recall that Caro begins his 1,000+ page tome with an anecdote from Robert Moses’ time on the Yale swim team. It does seem like we’ve sleep-walked away from the understanding that college was a time to push, challenge, and grow oneself physically as well as mentally. As you might imagine, Bunting is not content to quietly acquiesce to this diminishing scope of a college’s responsibilities towards its students. He continues:
The College will demand our pupils be fit and prove it, and often. The instrument for attaining that fitness will be a taxing regime – exhilaratingly so – of physical culture… it would be idle to build our school where we are going to on a rugged haunch of hill at the edge of the American High Plains… without using its resources to promote this purpose (105)
To that end, Bunting wants his students boxing, learning survival skills, training for either marathons or “triathlon[s], whose aggregate distance is not less than fifty miles” (109), and going on prolonged treks through the wilderness of Wyoming (sometimes in teams and sometimes alone).
He probably overvalues the outdoorsy stuff, which is realistically just one of many good avenues to a healthy and vigorous life, but I’m kind of in on the idea that colleges should push students towards a more active lifestyle. In these physical activities, Bunting sees the potential for, among other things, improved leadership skills in rallying peers through physical hardship; developing a hobby that offers a respite from the stresses of professional life; and greater self-confidence in one’s ability to navigate the physical world and thereby greater self-reliance, all of which seem to be both plausible and valuable benefits.
Without explicit pressures to become physically healthy and the available means for doing so, many college students seem to fall into bad habits. I think most non-athletes who attended a typical American college would recognize a culture of high stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, and excessive alcohol use (note: Bunting proposes banning alcohol and drugs on campus). No one thinks these things are good, but it will require concerted effort from colleges to pedantically guide students to the things everyone knows will make them happier and healthier. Marathons might be excessive, but a mandatory running club seems like a potentially good thing.
All of this should give you a sense of the vibe Bunting is going for, but it might seem kind of peripheral to the meat of a college. I’m sure you’re wondering what his proposed curriculum – in theory, the core of any college – is like. Bunting probably would say that since everything is just in service of the development of students’ character, the line between classes and the rest of the experience isn't so well-defined. But, don’t worry, he has some very hot takes on classes as well!
Bunting offers the below breakdown of how many classes students should take in each of (what he deems to be) the key areas of study:
At first I didn’t notice the allocations and thought that Bunting had really dropped the ball – when you don’t pay attention to the allocations, this looks like a totally normie liberal arts curriculum. Where it gets fun is when you realize that History and Foreign Languages make up half of the classes Bunting’s students would take (and that doesn’t include the six months Bunting requires they spend abroad).
We normally think of a liberal arts education as instrumentally valuable to improving one’s thinking. The typical defense of the liberal arts usually includes referencing the “critical thinking and analytical skills” that such an education offers, and you can more easily defend Math/Science/Philosophy/English as subjects that sharpen the thinking/reasoning/writing skills that one might deploy in their professional work. History and Foreign Languages increasingly look like the least instrumentally useful disciplines in the liberal arts as they are less directly focused on refining those core skills. To include them at all is reasonable, but to make them the focus of the education seems kind of unjustifiable.
Given that An Education is a contemporary text defending a liberal arts education, I was shocked to find that Bunting really downplays the “build critical thinking skills” angle. For Bunting, the purpose of college is to create leaders, so he doesn’t feel a need to explain the value of his education in terms of the skills of middle-management. A successful education in Bunting’s eyes would manifest itself first and foremost in the character of its students, and Bunting believes that studying history is a really good way to form character.
The connection between the academic study of history and the cultivation of virtue in an individual probably seems tenuous, and Bunting would actually agree!
Everything that ‘history’ is becoming seems to me to be what it should not be at our College. As an academic discipline professed by college teachers, its purposes strike me as careerist, antiquarian, and out-of-joint with the real needs of undergraduate students who are going to be bankers, doctors, executives, politicians, lawyers – but almost invariably not history professors (150)
Aha! – an appeal to the pre-professional value of a liberal arts education, right? Not exactly:
Their study of history… is [not] teaching them… to make simple comparisons or simple-minded inferences from political history; [rather] I… mean the self-educating habit of taking decisions with reference to what our minds and memories instruct us has worked, or failed, in the past. I am thinking in terms of what you would call, generally, biographical. For when we learn about justice, about courage, about suffering, about patriotism, we learn best when we learn such as they exalt or crush individual lives, men and women we have come to know… is there a man in history that you love, whose life somehow seems to speak directly to your own consciousness, whose life, with its sorrows and exaltations, somehow means something to the way you live your own? A life you can somehow ‘realize’? (150)
Bunting’s appeal to the professional classes is not to them as such; instead, he offers history as a means of becoming a better person by pattern-matching against lives others have lived. In this way, he thinks professionals can benefit from the study of history – just as anyone else might – by becoming holistically better people.
He goes on to attribute the greatness of the American Founding Fathers in part to their study of great historical lives:
They had for the most part no degrees, as they had, for the most part no university education. Yet they thought more clearly, considered more self-reliantly, wrote more accurately and eloquently, than we. Central to their education and to that of their children was the idea of emulation: of – quite literally – making the best features of an historical person’s life their own. The premise was that we can learn lessons, moreover learn them in ways that will permanently influence our own conduct, from the lives of those who have gone before: particularly in the ways they faced crises in their own and in their countries’ lives, most particularly in their self-mastery. The premise seems to be timeless, the relevance to our own day brutally direct (153)
An individual, especially a young person, only has a limited set of experiences to draw upon when making decisions. They can appeal to the experience of their friends or family, but the sample set remains small and the long-term outcomes may still be unknown. How do you build a large sample of lifestyles and critical decisions and their outcomes? Reading a ton of historical biography actually seems like a pretty good approach.
The reference to self-mastery is interesting and illustrative. You can contrast Bunting’s vision for education with the way we normally think of education in terms of whether the student is learning to master themselves or to master the world. A typical American education is outward-facing: it is about learning how to use tools for manipulating and making sense of the world. You learn how to write so as to be able to persuade other people; you learn science to predict and control nature; you learn economics to analyze and change incentives; etc. It is primarily an education in how to make things happen. On the other hand, Bunting’s education is inward-facing: he wants his students to master their desires, emotions, and values so that their actions are oriented towards virtue and the benefit of the public. It is primarily an education in forming oneself and learning what one should want to make happen.
Is it true that studying history in this way would help people become more virtuous? The idea of the importance of representation in media might be illuminating here. The argument goes that it is good to have diverse casts in TV and movies so underrepresented groups can more easily identify with the characters in the media they consume and feel inspired to use those characters as life role models. You could imagine that a movie with a female president might unlock the idea for young girls that they too could be president one day. The underlying theory at work is that our perception of the kind of life we can and should lead is influenced by the kinds of lives we see and relate to in the media.
In the same way that underrepresented groups are supposed to find greater life possibilities in diverse TV/movie casts, I think Bunting thinks his students could take inspiration from historical figures. Students could look at history and see people being really courageous or ambitious or selfless or persistent in the face of adversity and think “huh, if [Cicero/Washington/Tubman] can do it, I could maybe be like that too”. In hearing stories about great figures acting virtuously, students might feel like the high standards that morality demands are achievable and even desirable. They might adopt historical figures’ strategies for meeting those standards. And in understanding how a historical figure made a difficult decision, students might develop a framework for making analogous decisions in their own lives. It’s no accident that the authors of the Federalist Papers chose “Publius”, a reference to one of the leaders of the revolt against the Roman monarchy and one of the founders of the Roman Republic, as their pseudonym when writing about the structure of their post-monarchical, post-revolutionary republic.
Bunting’s point is even more familiar when we think of parenting. Every parent is invested in inculcating in their children certain values, and parents know that lessons are especially well-transmitted through stories and parables: we tell children about the boy who cried wolf to discourage deception. Even religious teachings are often contextualized with stories and characters that have been passed down from generation to generation.
I’m sympathetic to the idea of pattern matching against great people to think about what a life of virtue entails and to build a model for oneself to emulate (a nice complement to this would be coursework explicitly focused on making sense of one’s purpose / life plan), but the value of the marginal history class has to be pretty low. I get that Bunting wants to emphasize the importance of the history stuff, but it’s not clear to me that this importance necessitates such time intensive requirements. Maybe there’s something to having a really wide range of lives to pull from, but once you have a handful, I would think the bigger challenge becomes actually implementing the learnings in your own life.
There’s probably some plausibility to the mechanism that Bunting suggests for shaping the character of his students through the study of history, though he probably is mistaken about the marginal value of such a class. Beyond evaluating this specific proposal, I want to highlight how cool it is that Bunting is trying to play a game that no one else is willing to try. It’s easy to complain about the prevalence of “men without chests”. It takes some gumption to offer a falsifiable hypothesis about how to shape the souls of future leaders.
What about the Foreign Language requirement? Bunting offers two main arguments for the centrality of the study of Foreign Languages and Cultures. First, he writes:
It is likely that… [our students] will live, serve, or work abroad… our countrymen will discharge their duties, not only to their companies, but also to our country with far greater efficiency and credibility if they know the language of their hosts’, just as they should be avid students of their hosts’ country itself (162)
(Bunting clearly underrated the value of the fish-out-of-water comedy)
Though globalization has definitely continued, if not accelerated, since the book was written over 20 years ago, Bunting seems to have overrated the importance and prevalence of living abroad, perhaps because he underrated the influence of the internet. The instrumental argument for studying Foreign Languages seems kind of weak, but Bunting also gives a more self-mastery-y argument:
Our students must study foreign languages for what they may teach us about ourselves – ourselves as ordinary men and women and Americans, but also as members of the larger human community, as it has lived through history and will live when our generation is gone. Goethe is said to have remarked ‘Who knows not another language knows not his own’; Macaulay, remembering Charles V, reminded us that to learn any new language and learn it well was to acquire a new soul. ‘New Associations take place among the student’s ideas. He doubts where he formerly dogmatized. He tolerates where he formerly execrated. He ceases to confound what is universal and eternal in human passions and opinions with what is local and temporary. This is one of the most useful effects which results from studying the literature of other countries’ (162)
I’m more sympathetic to this justification – whether for Sapir-Whorf-y reasons or more mundane ones, foreign languages do seem to help us see the world differently – but, again, Bunting doesn’t do a great job of thinking on the margin here. It’s really hard to become fluent in a foreign language. Are the benefits from foreign languages in terms of stretching one’s mind so much greater than reading world literature in one’s native tongue or meeting people from different kinds of American communities? You could probably have a pretty perspective-bending experience traveling between urban, suburban, and rural parts of any American state, let alone traveling between states, or even visiting other anglophone countries.
The rest of his education stuff is kind of banal. Some of it is geared towards self-mastery, other parts seem more focused on instrumental knowledge. The History, Philosophy, Theology, and Deontology, Imaginative Literature, and Music and Fine Arts (collectively 50% of the curriculum) seems to be mostly about self-mastery. The Mathematics, Science, and Composition/Rhetoric (collectively 30% of the curriculum) seem to be mostly instrumentally valuable, equipping (presumably already virtuous) leaders with high-level skills to be effective in the world.
The book is full of other proposals along these lines that I don’t think it makes sense to explore at length here, but suffice it to say that Bunting also has very strong views on dining arrangements, dorm sizes, proportion of time spent with others vs alone, the professional backgrounds of professors, the makeup of admissions committees, and so on. What I hope to have conveyed by exploring the examples from An Education that I did is mostly the possibilities of:
a college having the courage of its convictions to implement policies that could reasonably achieve otherwise unsatisfied goals,
an education in self-mastery vs just an education in mastery over the world, and
holistic approaches to education that take a strong stance on issues beyond curricula
Overall, I thought this was a cool book! It felt like a breath of fresh air in a stale but important conversation.
It’s definitely not the final word on college: I left with more questions than I had going into it. Does the education of an already talented and ambitious elite really matter or should we be more focused on education for the average American? Does Bunting’s book have relevance for non-elite education? Would any of his proposals actually work? Do we care if they work – do we need 20% more virtuous students or would we prefer 20% smarter/etc students? Bunting doesn’t really touch on any of these questions, and I think they’d be good things to ponder as the conversation around higher education continues.
My most valuable takeaway was just a broadening of perspective. Like good literature, this book helped me see greater possibilities in the world. I like that the book is utopian but specific – it makes it easy to crib ideas from it and actually test them out. Say what you want about Bunting, the guy is generative.
Maybe Bunting is wrong about the impact of any specific policy, but he throws out a lot of innovative ideas that someone who shares some of his goals (which I think is most colleges) should try. If existing colleges are too sclerotic to implement some of this stuff, then people should start some new colleges. And if others have different priorities than Bunting, they should take a stab at shaping a college to achieve their goals. Where’s the EA college optimizing for students’ global long-term impact?
Another cool aspect of the book is that it helped me reframe the cultural debates around colleges. One of the big debates right now is whether colleges are too woke, suggesting an overly moralizing culture. Without really weighing in on that, I now think an underrated question is whether colleges are too libertarian. It wasn’t until I read suggestions that colleges could take positions on issues like student physical health, relationship to money, post-grad job choice, etc. that I realized how hands-off contemporary colleges are. Generally, if you’re passing your classes, meeting distributional requirements, and not egregiously breaking the law/basic school rules, colleges don’t really care about what you’re doing. It’s no accident that in the cultural imagination, American colleges have a reputation for libertinism – they’re a uniquely laissez-faire institution.
But, even committed libertarians should not want everything in society to be libertarian – at some point in the societal stack, someone has to take a stance on what is good, otherwise it’s just people passing the buck on what to care about all the way down. Part of the motivation for libertarian politics is the idea that political neutrality on the best kind of life allows different non-governmental institutions to help people pursue their specific conceptions of the good life. But, that requires institutions to step up and confidently assert the desirability of some way of life over another. Colleges are supposed to be formative institutions that help young adults figure out what kind of life they would like to lead, and it’s actually kind of striking the extent to which they have basically totally given up on this function.
Finally, there’s a “Seeing Like a State” thing going on subterraneously in An Education. For a bunch of reasons, the college experience has been made more legible over the last hundred years or so. People now leave college with GPAs to indicate their performance, majors to show their areas of expertise, and so on.
One thing that is not very easily made legible is character. Employers recognize this and try to approximate an understanding of someone’s character with behavioral interviews and reference checks, but that seems to be best used to ensure against bottom quintile values. It’s pretty hard to quickly distinguish a 75th percentile leader, or 75th percentile “good person”, from a 95th percentile one in a way that is just not true of intelligence or subject matter expertise.
Though Abraham Lincoln was seen by many as a mediocrity in his time, with clearer eyes we now acknowledge him as one of the greatest leaders in human history. Character is a really hard thing to quantify accurately. Venture capitalist John Doerr popularized the idea that if something matters, you should measure it. The contrapositive of that though, is that if you can’t measure something, it doesn’t matter… Given these difficulties in quantifying character, we shouldn’t be surprised that colleges stopped trying to optimize for improving their students as people. Colleges don’t report to US News and World Report how many of their students would cheat if they could get away with it or how many would eagerly avoid responsibility for a group failure. Should we care about the loss of these illegible values?
As An Education comes to a close, the dying billionaire, in his final moments, starts to reflect on the meaning of the kind of life he hopes for his students:
I believe… the life of ceaseless learning and of working somehow to make the counsels of mind superintend the urgings and imperatives of will, of desire, of appetite – that such a life brings one to the final gate with something approaching equanimity (241)
To describe the feeling of approaching that final gate, Bunting/our dying billionaire of course reaches for an extremely erudite reference:
There has never been a pianist like [Sviatoslav Richter]... Every pianist who has ever played… [The Great Gates at Kiev] has thundered out the scene and sound… But Richter did it so quietly, so simply, with such unforced calm and restraint, that I suddenly understood the… meaning of the scene. The traveler had come to the Gates in reverence and awe, but composed, calm, certain that he had finally prepared himself, through all the means earned and given him, to pass through (241-2)
I’m not sure Bunting, or anyone for that matter, could actually create a college that produced students that reliably found a sense of equanimity in the face of death. It’s a very tall order, and one that is basically impossible to ever verify. But, when I read that final passage, I couldn’t help but feel that such soulcraft is an immensely noble pursuit.