Postrel: "Turning College into a No-Thought Zone"


Former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel (archive) has a great column up at Bloomberg View.

It's about the ongoing degradation of the university as a site of actual discussion, conversation, and argumentation about the things that matter most.

After summarizing an insane but sadly representative case of students getting in trouble for daring to discuss a petition condemning the National Security Agency outside a designated "free-speech zone," Postrel writes:

A public university is a type of public forum—not as open as a public sidewalk or park, perhaps, but nonetheless government property subject to the First Amendment. A state college campus is different from the purely private property of the Googleplex or a Walmart parking lot. To pass constitutional muster, therefore, any restrictions on speech have to be both content-neutral and "reasonable" to accomplish a narrow government purpose. The government can't play favorites, and it must have a very good justification for any rules it imposes….

Educationally, speech-zone restrictions don't further the purposes of a state college. They undermine those purposes.

Contrary to what many people seem to think, higher education doesn't exist to hand out job credentials to everyone who follows a clearly outlined set of rules. (Will this be on the exam? Do I have to come to class?) Education isn't a matter of sitting students down and dumping pre-digested information into their heads.

Higher education exists to advance and transmit knowledge, and learning requires disagreement and argument. Even the most vocational curriculum—accounting, physical therapy, civil engineering, graphic design—represents knowledge accumulated through trial and error, experimentation and criticism. That open-ended process isn't easy and it often isn't comfortable. The idea that students should be protected from disagreeable ideas is a profoundly anti-educational concept.

Read the whole piece, which outlines a court case being organized by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, of which Postrel is board member).

What I respond to most strongly in the piece is the defense of college and university—all types and all levels—as a place where thinking happens. One of the most disastrous misconceptions of the current moment is the idea that college exists as a credentialing agency, where kids drudge their way through classes and parties until they are ejected into whatever career they chose when they were freshmen or sophomores. Nothing could be further from my experience (all of it at state schools) and nothing could be less compelling, from a student, parental, or taxpayer perspective.

Last year, Reason magazine sponsored a forum titled "Where Higher Ed Went Wrong," that featured Glenn Reynolds, Richard Vedder, and Naomi Schaeffer Riley, and others. In my contribution, I argued that critics on the left and right who talk about college in terms of getting a job are missing the point.

You should be going to college to have your mind blown by new ideas (read: whole fields of knowledge that you didn't know existed until you got to college), to discover your intellectual passions, and to figure out what sorts of experiences you might want to pursue over the next 70 or so years. And let me suggest that it's precisely the broad field of inquiry that takes the most abuse for being totally impractical—the humanities—that students should seek out most. Understanding history, literature, art, philosophy, and the like won't make you a better citizen, or a more responsible employee, or a happier camper, but those disciplines will give you the tools to figure out who you are and what you want to be if and when you grow up.

That may be the first-generation college student in me talking—I'm still amazed that I had the opportunity to spend a relatively inexpensive four years (college can still be done on the relative cheap unless you're a status-obsessed idiot) to learn that there is a whole world out there beyond the one in which you grew up. But if college is really just a high-end vo-tech program, it really is useless and should go away already.

Postrel's Bloomberg View piece reminds us that college isn't simply a degree but a process, one that ideally inculcates not just knowledge but thinking skills and some passion about the world in which we live. We forget that at our peril and the future will never forgive us.

NEXT: Jacob Sullum on Arresting Women for Using Drugs During Pregnancy

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  1. Nice piece Nick, although, pace your alt-text, going through college fat drunk and stupid might not be as good as taking it seriously, but at least it’s better than treating it as a credentialing agency. The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom, and all that.

    1. I guess I should have chosen pharmacology.

  2. Then an administrator came out of a nearby building, informed them their discussion was forbidden outside the speech zone, and warned Sinapi-Riddle he could be ejected from campus for violating the speech-zone rule.

    “Oh. Well, would you kindly escort me to the nearest free-speech zone?”
    *** walks to zone with “administrator” ***
    *FUCK YOU*!!

    1. Brilliant! This is the type of thing that would enter my mind about 5 minutes after the opportunity had passed.

  3. I took my daughter on her first college visit yesterday to George Mason. I was actually impressed with the amount of development, as it was all being done on academic buildings. But having said that, I would imagine it’s the exception to the rule.

    As an aside, any GMU grads out there? She wants to be a vet, so her undergrad isn’t so crucial but we’re figuring the smithsonian zoo program they have and all the other connections she can make will help her get into a better vet school when that time comes. Also, it’s gonna cost a lot less than UC Davis in the long run since I claim her on my taxes and she will get in state tuition here now instead of in California.

    1. plenty of good schools in VA I attended VCU, but Mason has some good programs. Tech probably has the best Vet program, but they pretty much all have good nursing programs. JMU has the best bang for your buck as far as cheap to quality except there are a ton of New Jersey people there. William and Mary/UVA are pretty much the top end tier.

      1. She’ll likely either go to Tech for vet school or will go to Ohio State. She’s all but given up on staying in California, so there’s no benefit to going to Davis anymore and being stuck in the same shithole town for 7-8 straight years.

        I’m begging her to look into a couple of DC schools but she doesn’t want to incur that much debt for her undergrad.

        1. Tech is definitly the best school to go to if you want a job in NOVA best system of networking alums in the state. Problem is they are obsessed with hokey nation, flags will start propping up in your yard, bumper stickers will appear on your car and your daughter will start drinking moonshine and playing stump.

          1. Is,that really worse than what the kids at your school have done to the good bars in The Fan and Carytown? Is it?

            1. No, drinking beer out of a pbr can when pbr is on tap and cheaper is literally the worst thing anybody has ever done. This is done everyday in the Fan and Carytown.

        2. she wants to be a vet? dude, as much as I cannot believe I am saying this (Texas grad here), Texas A&M pretty much is based around the ag science/vet programs. Probably cheaper than DC too

    2. Don’t know anything about veterinary, but at least she can take some good econ classes from the Austrian School while she’s there.

      1. Doesn’t Walter Williams teach at George Mason? A single class of his would probably be worth the entire cost of admission.

        1. Williams, Cowen, Caplan, and a host of others

          1. I love Walter Williams. I wish he’d just take over Rush Limbaugh’s show, cause Williams is THAT awesome and entertaining.

            And I always learn when I listen to him. He’s amazing.

            Also – Thomas Sowell.

    3. I went to GMU for grad school in economics so I can’t comment on the undergrad experience much. The Fairfax campus always seemed really dead on the weekends (they finished a lot of the new dorm buildings right as I was finishing my last semester).

      We had some great professors in the econ program.

      I would argue that you shouldn’t send your daughter to JMU, not because it’s a bad school, but uh, those kids are a little wild. I would say Tech would be ideal.

  4. I wish Nick had said, “If we didn’t have state-run colleges, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

    Education is no decent function of government.

    1. Heh. This too, a bit. I personally went to a private school, as did my wife and all my kids.

      I really, really hate paying a portion of other people’s tuition every year, but…THAT’S THE PRICE OF CIVILIZATION, RIGHT??

      1. That is Section 8, Paragraph B of the SOCIAL CONTRACT.

        1. Link, please?

          1. It’s in your copy. DON’T YOU STILL HAVE YOUR COPY?

    2. There are no private colleges anymore. They are all dependent on the government to some degree or another.

      Johns Hopkins is the largest private employer in Maryland, but they probably receive billions in federal funding per year. (It was $750M in ’92)

      1. There are no private colleges anymore. They are all dependent on the government to some degree or another.

        Yah! How could the students drive to them without roads?

        1. Well, you know they didn’t build that.

        2. Time for the classic poem. Again.

      2. Couple of small holdouts: Grove City; Hillsdale

        1. That’s about it. The rest of them roll over readily to preserve their federal student loan guarantees.

          1. Yeah, and I’ve been captured since part of my salary (I assume) comes from those loans.

  5. Agree with Nick regarding the idea that college exists as a credentialing agency, and that the “best” part of college is learning about stuff you never knew.

    I never knew how interested I was in religion and philosphy – ended up taking enough electives that I almost minored in one or the other. It was my money, had nothing to do with going into manufacturing and becoming a monocle-wearing, upper-management capitalist pig. And, yeah, I could have just read books at home – but them I wouldn’t have recieved instruction from visiting teachers from India, Britain, Nigeria, etc. etc. talking about their personal knowledge of various religions in particular cultures.

    History was the other one. I LOVED those courses – again, took enough that I almost minored in it. Most proud that I always got the highest grade in each course, always besting the history majors (well, besting everyone 🙂

    Anyhoo – I concur, Nick. I recommended to all my kids to get into stuff they’d never seen. Two of three ended up majoring in something they never studied before college.

    If you want college to be a job-training site (like most of my Business colleagues), that’s great. It’s your money. For me, the biggest learning in college was all the shit I don’t “use every day on my job”. Actually thinking about going back to school when I retire just because I like the mental exercise of college work.

    PS You know, school was a lot better when Virginia Postrel was at Reason…

    1. Heh – still remember the first day of “Eastern Religions” with visiting Prof Doctor Harish jaiswal from India. He was going through the intro, and kept talking about “eeteeks”. Someone finally raised their hand and asked what he meant. “Eeeteeks! Eeeeeteeks!” “Eee…teeeks?”

      He went to the board and wrote out “Ethics”. AH! The class went smoothly from there…

      1. I had a class like that once. Professor Wong, from Hong Kong. I spent the first session doing nothing but tuning into his accent.

        1. My econ professor, Dr. Mookerjee, was from India and spoke English better than most of the students. Many students (not me) thought it was unfair that he included grammar and spelling when he graded essay questions.

          1. Well, if it’s so bad that a native speaker can correct them, they should get marked down.

            In the long run, though, he was doing them a favor. In any job where you wind up having to write, spelling and grammar do generally count. And if you can write half-way well, it adds to your value to your employer.

    2. Fat, DRINK, and stupid …

    3. As an engineer, when I took classes outside my major, it was almost always met with “What the fuck are you doing here? You don’t belong to our collective.”

      1. Did you go to a small school? I don’t ever remember knowing, or caring to know, the major of the other students in the undergraduate classes I took. Especially since the Gen Eds that would have the most diversity by major were usually 80 plus kids in a class.

        1. 800 or so per class year. Class sizes outside of the requirements were relatively small, a dozen or so. I also took courses at the local art institute where I was with Gen X’s version of hipsters.

          1. I also took courses at the local art institute where I was with Gen X’s version of hipsters.

            Well, there’s your problem!

            1. We did piercings, beards, and skinny jeans before it was cool!

                1. Less Swede, more chain saw

      2. Scruffy,

        If your engineering school was like mine the reason people noticed you was because the nearly all male engineering students tend to go on a rampage when they attend a class outside of the engineering building that has actual real women.

        There was a class called “Technical Writing for Engineers” or something like that when I went to Memphis State. It was a requirement to graduate so each semester you’d see guys who were used to maybe 10% of the class being female (and those were pretty well grounded) show up in the English building, take one look at all the female english majors and it would turn into a scene like the caddies showing up at the pool in Caddy Shack.

        1. Our entire school was about 65% male. The engineering school was probably about 85 to 90%. I chased skirts at the local all women’s Catholic college instead. Better odds.

          1. I hate to break it to you, but Our Lady of Mercy High isn’t a college.

    4. I totally agree with the returning to college. I was just explaining to someone how much fun I think college would have been if I was there to learn instead of there to get a diploma so I can go out and get a job.

      My first run through at college was an exercise in gaming the system so I could get out as quickly as possible. I learned a lot, but my engineering degree has never played much of a role in my career as a programmer.

      At Memphis State anyone over 60 (?) could audit classes for free. I’m hoping I can find a college here with a similar program when I become a codger.

    5. People bash Humanities courses. To me, they were the most valuable for many reasons.

      I knew quite a few people in other disciplines like BComm, Engineering, whatever who could have used a course in the humanities or two.

      One thing I hate (d) are people who such courses with disdain, show no interest or acumen in cultures but yet get to travel the world – showcasing their stupidity I reckon. Someone I know has such a neat job traveling the continent and each time I ask him particular questions about them he can barely answer me. Wtf?

      I would have liked such a job but it never worked out for me.

      1. You cannot believe how far taking “Latin American History” got me with our Mexican and Brasilian colleagues, of which there were a SHITLOAD when I was in our electronics bidness.

        The fact that I knew ANYTHING about their countries beyond tacos and FUTBOL! blew them away.

        When I actually could converse about King Joao and “native Mexicans” and their governments and yada yada yada…I never needed to ask for their cooperation on anything 🙂

        Plus they were just really cool people I enjoyed working with.

      2. My university required X amount of humanities courses to get a Comp Sci degree. I wouldn’t say I hated any of them, but a few of them had little value to me. However, the World Civ classes were great in part because the instructors were great and they really wound up being advantageous in doing analysis and design. I work with several people who went to tech schools, and while they can program as good as anyone, their lack of breadth absolutely limits them in their analysis and design. Some humanities courses are nothing but masturbation, but some others really do get you to use a different part of your brain.

  6. What I respond to most strongly in the piece is the defense of college and university?all types and all levels?as a place where thinking happens.

    You poor, naive fool.

    1. a place where thinking goodthink happens


  7. Illustration from today’s uncommentable Brickbat:

    Is that a Kiwi gang rape gesture, or what?

  8. At Memphis State anyone over 60 (?) could audit classes for free/i

    Another example of oldsters mooching off the yutes.

  9. At Memphis State anyone over 60 (?) could audit classes for free/i

    Another example of oldsters mooching off the yutes.

  10. Goddammit.

    1. Don not tempt our wrath!


      1. Or our spelling errors!


  11. The thing that really blew my mind in university – now that I look back – was how self-assured in their ways and thinking liberal/progressives were. There was a distinct difference between leftists and conservatives in classes. Conservatives always struck me as informed and tactful while debating. Progressives were aggressive and ill-informed. Even when I hung out with them (or even dated) I was not impressed by their intellectualism. But they were avant-garde and cool I’ll give them that. I can’t tell you how many times I sat at the table with them and was left stunned by how they thought university was there to reinforce their world view.

    1. Except one guy from Ecuador. He was awesome. Before we met him he scared the living daylight out of us. We used to joke he’d throw an axe at us if we’d say something he didn’t like his stare was so penetrating.

      We got to know him and turned out to be one of those progs who argued with elegance. He was a socialist or something but he was just Victor to us.

      1. I had a Comp sci class with a group project. My group of 8 had 2 Arabs – and they hated each other. A group of 8 is probably going to splinter based on who can make meetings so they often turn social – so you get 5 at one meeting and 6 at another but rarely do you get all 8.

        So at times only one of the Arabs would be there and proceed to tell us the history of why the missing one was an asshole. And they were actually both sort of right. Still, the sniping between them when they were both there was kinda fun. Did I mention that most of the meetings took place in bars?

    2. I can’t tell you how many times I sat at the table with them and was left stunned by how they thought university was there to reinforce their world view.

      In many ways it kind of is.

    3. “Progressives” have a strong habit of arguing from the standpoint of their emotions and gut feelings.

  12. An engineering professor, one of my mother’s uncles, told me that the college experience really changed when returning WWII vets started showing up under the GI Bill. Where he taught, pre-WWII the engineers had to take seven or eight humanities courses. The returning GIs objected and eventually those kind of non-science courses became electives. I wonder if, today, a business admin. student ever has to take a course in world history, American literature, or intro to philosophy?

    1. I think it really accelerated as the progs took over the humanities in the 70s and 80s. They weren’t really all that interested in sticking with the canon that was really the bedrock of all humanities classes for non-humanities majors. And they certainly weren’t interested in getting any backtalk from an engineering or finance major. And, of course, the business and STEM majors really weren’t all that interested in having to take Opposition to White Male Heteronormative Oppression 101.

    2. My university required them in the 1980’s when I went. I’m not sure if it does today.

      1. My university was private not public.

  13. You should be going to college to have your mind blown by new ideas (read: whole fields of knowledge that you didn’t know existed until you got to college), to discover your intellectual passions, and to figure out what sorts of experiences you might want to pursue over the next 70 or so years.

    A laudable sentiment. Certainly one that I, as a graduate of a small liberal arts school, can sympathize with. But, one with certain implications.

    1. A college degree, in and of itself, should not be taken seriously as a credential. In terms of entry-level hiring, a college grad should be seen as a lesser candidate, other things being equal, to a high school graduate with four years of work experience.
    2. School networks should be seen as worthy of opprobrium as nothing more than another form of nepotism.
    3. Colleges should probably be split off from the STEM studies and other departments that really do require intensive, in-depth, training to master and much more closely resemble an advanced vocational program.
    4. In this context, college is properly seen as what it long was, a luxury good.
    5. There are probably way too many colleges. The market for a specialized luxury good of this sort is relatively small.

    Not saying I disagree with any of these outcomes. Just noting what they are.

  14. I’d add that Gillespie’s point regarding the right’s criticism of the humanities as impractical falls a bit wide of the mark. Most conservatives tend to believe that a proper understanding history, literature, art, philosophy, and the like will tend to make you a better citizen, or a more responsible employee, or a happier camper. What they claim is that the humanities have been so degraded as to have rendered themselves of little value. And on that, I can’t say I’m sure they’re wrong. A four year degree in victim studies isn’t really going to offer me a whole lot of insight on the world that I couldn’t get from a two-bit confidence man.

  15. “One of the most disastrous misconceptions of the current moment is the idea that college exists as a credentialing agency, where kids drudge their way through classes and parties until they are ejected into whatever career they chose when they were freshmen or sophomores.”

    It isn’t a misconception, it’s a fact. If you want to have a decent life in our society, you usually have to kiss prog ass for four years, and the weaker minded kids will drink the koolaid (the university is, after all, subject to a lot of the same social forces as a cult compound). There is no way in fuck that people as power-hungry and totalitarian as the prog left will ever give up such power, whatever harm it may do to higher learning itself.

  16. Over and over, the point is driven home. IF you value freedom, STOPPING GIVING TO THESE BAT-SHIT CRAZY PC COLLEGES!

    Too many people donate to their “alma mater,” based on a hazy recollection of their halcyon college experiences. Whatever you remember — real or sanitized — ain’t what’s happening on almost ALL of today’s campuses — public and private.

    Stop funding these anti-freedom, anti-American, totalitarian-oriented, brainwashing reeducation camps! Target your donations to nonprofit groups that support freedom — CATO, Reason, AEI, Heritage, etc.

    More important, revise your charity donations in your wills and trusts to fund institutions that support the liberties and Western classical liberal values that at one time supposedly were the standard at American colleges and universities.

    If you must fund a “throwback” college that still champions these values, Hillsdale College stands far above the pack. But arguably this small school has now received more funding than is “needed” — funding from people like myself who have surveyed the collegiate options and settled on Hillsdale by default — there’s practically no competition for such a traditional, rational collegiate education experience.

    So I’ve shifted my donations and my charitable remainder trust beneficiaries (a modest trust, to be sure) to the friendly think tanks, including REASON. There are actually quite a number of great options to choose from — healthy competition for liberty-oriented donors’ dollars.

  17. May be I am mistaken, but I have made a conclusion that education is not so important nowadays. I mean that we do need diploma but all this endless tests and assignments are usually useless. You know we can apply thesis helpers online for our academic papers and better spend more time for getting real experience in order to get some benefits when you finish you study. Everything depends on your personal abilities and your desire to become successful. There are even no bad or good educational establishment, it depends more on your motivation to take everything you need.

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