Category Archives: Education

Letter From A Former Student

The pansy, a symbol of freethought.

After my recent post, “Outgrowing Religion,” I received the following from Jason, a former student who I admittedly do not remember. (I’ve taught approximately 10,000 students over a 30-year career.) Let me say that I have seldom been so moved by a correspondence. We often think our efforts are futile and then, seemingly ex nihilo, we find that somewhere in the long-ago past we had a positive effect on someone.

That being said, I don’t mean this post as a paean to my efforts on behalf of Jason’s education, but rather as a tribute to his open mind. For it was simply fortuitous that I was privileged to play the role of Socratic midwife for him. Had I not been there, someone else would have played that role or, alternatively, he would have come to most of his conclusions without any teachers. His desire for knowledge came from within.

While moved by this correspondence it also stands as a carefully and conscientiously crafted statement of freethought—the testament of one who thinks independently or freely, forming their opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority. It touches on many of the themes found in the great freethinkers like Voltaire, Hume, Russell, and Ingersoll. Here then is the correspondence.


Many years have passed since I was seated in your intro to philosophy class. I recall being somewhat apprehensive to the ideas discussed. Being a young father and very Catholic, you, and especially you, can imagine how upsetting it was to hear that most of what I had based my approach to child-rearing was nothing more than moonshine. I recall you mentioning that the indoctrination of children might just be the highest form of child abuse. As disturbing as it was, I found the idea to be self-evident soon thereafter. Beyond the course and a couple of Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett, and Kurt Vonnegut books later, the curtain was lifted and my Sunday’s were spent fishing instead of at mass. I can honestly say my enjoyment of Sundays became instantly immeasurable. The church crowd has its invisible deities, and my small family has a lifetime of great family memories and photos to boot.

This set me on a path to learn a new language, abandon racism, embrace the gay community, rebuke ethnocentricity, demand logic and reason, and hone a particular disdain for religions and willful ignorance. Today, I am still amazed when I explain that for a miracle to happen, the laws of physics have to be suspended on a whim, and all of science fails—well at least the scientific method does. And my Christian brethren agree and explain that their Lord works in mysterious ways. So it goes.

Instead of biblical teaching, I employed my education in philosophy and anthropology to educate my child. Her mother and I are often in amazement when we watch has easily our daughter absorbs new information when she doesn’t have to reconcile it with a religious indoctrination. She graduated with a 4.7, was a stellar athlete, heavily engaged in charity work, a non-apologetic atheist, and never any trouble. Already, at the age of eighteen, her ideological compass points towards altruism and she is off to study environmental science in college, taking with her a set of principles that will suit her well, and perhaps one day save her life.

We have watched our Christian neighbors live in a state of self-inflicted torment with many of their children, and they continually blame secular society. I live in Texas, it’s to be expected. As for me and mine, we will continue to embrace rationality, the physical world, and the whole of humanity.

I’ll end with a quote that goes out especially to Jason from a former teacher,

To all freethinkers, past and present, whose independence of mind isolates them from the sympathy and understanding of their community, but whose courageous and unwavering devotion to the scientific method has liberated their community from the dark ages.
~ David Mills

Destroying Higher Education in America

(University of Bologna is the oldest institution of higher education in the Western world.)

“History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
~ H.G. Wells

I just read “How the American University was Killed in Five Easy Steps” by Debra Leigh Scott on her blog Junct Rebellion. The essay outlines how countervailing forces have conspired to destroy higher education. As a lifelong educator and lover of learning, I’m heartbroken knowing that I agree with almost everything in the essay. 

Scott begins with a brief history. After World War II the GI bill and the affordability or free access to college swelled the ranks of university students. By the 1960s

universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times. It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The Liberal Arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late fifties into the sixties — the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent — against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses.

However, corporations, war-mongers, racists, misogynists and others hated those who might upset the status quo. They would have loved to shut down the universities, but such action would have been deemed too anti-democratic. So a plan was developed (or slowly emerged) to kill the universities without simply closing them or sending the scholars, intellectuals into “re-education camps”. Here is that plan in five easy steps.

STEP 1 – Defund public higher education

If universities are hotbeds of radicalism then the establishment has a reason not to support them. And, since funding for universities comes from state and federal governments,  reducing that funding is crucial to undermining them. (This idea was supported by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” It is now known as the Powell Memorandum and it called for corporations to increase their role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.)

This defunding is now pervasive. For example, the University of California system once had free tuition supported by taxes! Today the lack of public support for colleges is pervasive throughout the United States. The lack of funds also allows conservatives to stress vocational skills and attack, among other things, the arts and science curriculum that expands the mind, develops critical thinking skills and helps create an informed citizenry.

STEP 2 – Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors 

There are about 1.5 million university professors in this country, and 1 million of them are adjuncts. Being an adjunct means that you are hired on a short-term contracts, usually one semester at a time, with no job security and no benefits whatsoever. This means that full-time work, if you can find it, will pay about $20,000 a year on average. Oftentimes you can only find a class or two a year in which case you would make much less. As Scott puts it,

All around the country, our undergraduates are being taught by faculty living at or near the poverty line, who have little to no say in the way classes are being taught, the number of students in a class, or how curriculum is being designed. They often have no offices in which to meet their students, no professional staff support, no professional development support. One million of our college professors are struggling to continue offering the best they can in the face of this wasteland of deteriorated professional support, while living the very worst kind of economic insecurity.

Even tenure-track professors make the same, adjusted for inflation, as they did almost fifty years ago. And the competition for those jobs is fierce. A single tenure-track position in a typical state university will elicit hundreds of applications.

Step 3: Move in a managerial/administrative class to govern the university

Similar to how health care in the 1970s was transformed from a non-profit to a HMO and for-profit model something similar has happened to higher education. Scott writes

From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country.

Note too that while teachers salaries have been drastically cut, the money has been re-allocated to administrators, sports coaches, university president salaries, lawyers, and marketing firms. The funds have been redistributed away from the scholars and students’ education itself. ( College presidents salaries “went from being, in the 1970s, around $25K to 30K, to being in the hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars—salary, delayed compensation, discretionary funds, free homes, or generous housing allowances, cars and drivers, memberships to expensive country clubs.)

Step Four: Move in corporate culture and corporate money

To control how the university is

… a flood of corporate money results in changing the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Corporate culture hijacked the narrative— university was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job”. Anything not immediately and directly related to job preparation or hiring was denigrated and seen as worthless — philosophy, literature, art, history.

As universities increasingly rely on the private sector for funds corporate money buys influence in both the type of research and the outcome of that research. The result?

Suddenly, the university laboratory is not a place of objective research anymore. As one example, corporations who don’t like “climate change” warnings will donate money and control research at universities, which then publish refutations of global warning proofs. OR, universities labs will be corporate-controlled in cases of FDA-approval research. This is especially dangerous when pharmaceutical companies take control of university labs to test efficacy or safety and then push approval through the governmental agencies. Another example is in economics departments — and movies like “The Inside Job” have done a great job of showing how Wall Street has bought off high-profile economists from Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or MIT, to talk about the state of the stock market and the country’s financial stability. Papers were being presented and published that were blatantly false, by well-respected economists who were on the payroll of Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch.

The result of all the corporate money is that academia is no longer an independent institution. It can no longer value the intellectual, emotional, and psychological, creative development of its students, and the contributions of the scholar to society. It is now like the corporation; it is almost exclusively concerned with profit which “depends on 1) maintaining a low-wage workforce and 2) charging continually higher prices for their “services” is what now controls our colleges. Faculty is being squeezed from one end and our students are being squeezed from the other.”

Step Five – Destroy the Students

This is done in two ways. First

you dumb down and destroy the quality of the education so that no one on campus is really learning to think, to question, to reason. Instead, they are learning to obey, to withstand “tests” and “exams”, to follow rules, to endure absurdity and abuse. Our students have been denied full-time available faculty, the ability to develop mentors and advisors, faculty-designed syllabi which changes each semester, a wide variety of courses and options. Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed “common syllabi” courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.

The second thing you do is make college unaffordable to all but the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families. Anyone else who attends will be saddled with monstrous debt that will follow them for a good part of their lives. Borrowing is actually encouraged as part of the alliance between lending institutions and the Financial Aid Departments of universities. Scott’s reflections on all this are particularly chilling:

Within one generation, in five easy steps, not only have the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out, but the entire institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will ALL be impoverished, indebted and silenced. Now, low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy. The only people immediately benefitting inside this system are the administrative class – whores to the corporatized colonizers, earning money in this system in order to oversee this travesty. But the most important thing to keep in mind is this: The real winners, the only people truly benefitting from the big-picture meltdown of the American university are those people who, in the 1960s, saw those vibrant college campuses as a threat to their established power. They are the same people now working feverishly to dismantle other social structures, everything from Medicare and Social Security to the Post Office.

Unfortunately, Scott believes the opponents of higher education have won. Of course, they won’t declare victory. Instead, they perpetuate the myth that college is necessary for happiness and a middle-class life. In the meantime, their intellectual opposition remains impoverished, and students remain uneducated, indebted and docile.

It’s a win-win for those right wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

Can anything be done about all this? Perhaps Scott says,

But only if we understand this as a big picture issue, and refuse to allow those in government, or those corporate-owned media mouthpieces to divide and conquer us further. This ruinous rampage is part of the much larger attack on progressive values, on the institutions of social good. The battle isn’t only to reclaim the professoriate, to wipe out student debt, to raise educational outcomes—although each of those goals deserve to be fought for. But we will win a Pyrrhic victory at best unless we understand the nature of the larger war, and fight back in a much, much bigger way to reclaim the country’s values for the betterment of our citizens.

Scott’s essay exemplifies the good critical thinking that results from a quality higher education.

Teacher Burnout

The teacher-student-monument in Rostock, Germany.

I can still remember the thrill of teaching my first college class over 30 years ago. I walked into the room wondering “What am I going to talk about for an hour, three times a week, for sixteen weeks?” As I soon found out, I could talk that long easily!

For the most part, I enjoyed teaching, but I’m glad to have put it behind me. For one thing, I can now concentrate on my scholarly thinking and writing, and for another, I was burned out of teaching toward the end of my career.

There were many contributing factors to my teacher burnout. First, many of the students in my introductory college courses didn’t want to be there—most of them took my philosophy classes to fulfill a requirement. So it was like teaching someone to play the piano or program a computer who doesn’t want to learn how, not an ideal situation. Looking back I wish that I could have gone into a class and said: “If you want to study and learn then we can do it together but if you don’t please leave.” No, I never said this but I admit I wanted to. Also, you meet a few nasty students when teaching.

Another factor is the inherent conflict surrounding grading. Most students care primarily about grades whereas I care about their learning. This led to occasional, dispiriting battles over grades. Moreover, the cumulative effect of teaching as many as 8 classes in a single semester slowly took its toll. This resulted from the fact that, in addition to a full load at my primary institution, I usually taught community college classes at night. In all, I estimate that I taught about 250 classes in my career covering 25 different subjects to a total of about 9,000 students.

A final factor had to do with the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophy is mostly about controversial topics like ethics, religion, and politics. Thus teaching it well forces such topics to be broached. As Spinoza put it: “I can’t teach philosophy without being a disturber of the peace.” That’s exactly right but the problem is that most students don’t want their peace disturbed. Add to this the current instability and hyper-partisan nature of American culture and the classroom is fertile ground for tension. I just tired of the conflict.

As for the students who wanted to learn, I enjoyed teaching and learning with them, and I remember many of them fondly. I say with all honesty that I did everything I could to contribute to their educations and would spend hours talking with them if that helped. Real education is something I believe in and I’d still teach today if I had interested students.

But now I feel about leaving teaching the way Thoreau did about leaving the woods.

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

The Value of a College Education

My last post responded to some queries from student about the value of a college education. Chris Crawford added some additional insights on the topic in the comments section. I thought they earned a guest post. He adds 4 additional benefits of college to the ones I mentioned.

1. Social
Young people are intensely social; you learn from your peers as well as your professors. The great benefit of prestigious colleges is not that they have better teachers, but that they have better students. Plop yourself down amongst a lot of geniuses and you’ll find yourself working harder and learning more. Plop down amongst a group of dummies and you’ll get A’s without learning much.

2. Learning

Autodidacts learn what they think they need to learn. This works only if you already have a pretty good idea of the range of human knowledge. But how do you get that range of knowledge to start with? How do you learn to study concepts that you don’t even know exist? College shocks you with ideas that never dawned on you. I remember arguing with my professor once and he hit me with an idea that had never occurred to me. I was so stunned that I stuttered, “I have to go think about this.” and walked away. I learned an immense amount in that one moment.

I’ve had lots of ideas crammed down my throat in college that later became fundamental to my understanding. The concept of vector fields, divergence, and curl really confused me at first, but once I grasped them, they opened up new vistas for me.

3. The Hard Parts

When walking up a hill on a slant, we tend to drift downward; it’s difficult to keep heading upward. In the same way, when we study a subject, we tend toward the easy stuff. But all too often, you need to tackle the ugly stuff (often mathematical) in order to properly grasp the concepts. There are a zillion people who follow pop science and can talk all day about black holes, the Big Bang, galaxies, and stars. But their knowledge of this stuff is shallow. If you don’t understand the four equations of stellar structure, you can’t understand how a star works, why it can go nova, or how it can collapse into a black hole. If you don’t understand special relativity, including all those equations for time dilation, spatial compression, etc, you just can’t understand how a black hole works. In the world of physics and astronomy, the math IS the material.

4. Certification

Sorry, you don’t get to take a test to prove yourself. A college degree is a certificate that gets you in the door. It doesn’t get you a job, it gets you an interview. No employer has the time to be fair; they must sort through dozens of applicants quickly to zero in on the handful that they can afford to interview. Sure, it’s not fair, but in the dog-eat-dog world of business, you cannot afford to be exact; you have to settle for “good enough”. And throughout life, that degree will continue to give people a quick-and-dirty assessment of your intelligence.

I quit college with a Master of Science in Physics. My advisor urged me to stay on and get a doctorate, but I had realized that the academic world was not for me. I was far too curious to commit myself to the narrow existence of an academic who is the world’s leading authority on color centers in barium crystals. I wanted to learn everything, and, equipped with the solid education I had already gotten, I went on to learn much about computers (which I can now program in many languages), history, psychology, evolution, Erasmus of Rotterdam, economics (ugh!), climate change, and linguistics. Surprisingly, I haven’t followed physics or astronomy; I’ve already gotten a solid grasp of those. My personal library consists of two or three thousand books, all of which I have read at least once. Yes, I sometimes go back to an old book and re-read it; what you get out of a book depends on how much you know when you read it. If you want to see the range of my studies, go check out my website at It has a surprising range of topics.

No, I never got the PhD, and I don’t regret it. I have learned so much more; at some point, breadth of education yields a greater intellectual benefit than depth of education.

But it has taken me over forty years to learn all this great stuff.

Should I Go To College?

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.” ~ Hannah Arendt

I received the following questions from a student in a recent university class that I taught. While adequate responses to these queries would constitute a dissertation length study, here are his questions and my brief responses.

1) What is the meaning of college?

The point of college is to help you become educated, which is good for individuals and the society of which they’re part.

2) I can learn anything on the internet, so why am I here?

Various methods of distance learning, most notably the vast store of online lectures from major universities, do serve to replace in-person attendance. I suppose the social elements of such attendance and the superior credentials of a university education offer something that online education can’t.

3) If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t be learning as much as I am because I would lack the proper discipline. So is the university now a disciplinary institution?

Your first statement provides another answer to your second question—you don’t have the discipline to be an autodidact. Your question assumes that there is something negative about the university providing a structure in which you can become educated. But that is a positive for you if you otherwise lack the discipline to learn. After all, they aren’t forcing you to attend and you are free to become self-educated.

4) If I had the self-discipline to learn on my own, what would be the point of going to university? Is it simply a qualifier for real-world employment? If so, why not just learn on my own and take a series of tests to prove my competency to employers?

If you can be an autodidact, great, except that perhaps you can’t and you won’t have the credentials you would otherwise have. So yes. universities today have been transformed in large part to technical schools that certify people for employment—business, accounting, nursing, computer science, etc. As for just taking the tests, that is an alternative model and in areas of great need—like computer science—there is a lot of this going on, and I have no problem with that model if education is just about technical training. I also don’t believe that the cost of college is justified for a lot of people.

But I don’t think that is the point of education, as I’ve argued in a recent blog post. Here is a brief excerpt.

What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical techniques? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered all of the techniques necessary to practice their professions. Are they complete nurses or physicians? Most of us would say no; they need to understand their patients holistically, and this knowledge doesn’t come merely from their technical training. Thus, we do recognize the place in our education for philosophy, literature, poetry, psychology and history, even though they may not be practical. However, if material needs are all that matter, then the life of the mind may be irrelevant.

Now ask yourself: Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force of gravity? No! In lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, learn the valuable lesson that nothing comes without effort, and that life’s greatest joys accompany personal struggle and subsequent triumph.  And through this process our bodies are transformed. Analogously, education transforms us by increasing our awareness, diminishing our dogmatism, honing our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helping us to live well, and to be happy and wise. Jiddu Krishnamurti made this case:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.