The Australian National University’s rejection of the Ramsay Centre’s Western Civilisation degree has ignited a debate about university education in Australia. It’s highlighted the extent to which left-wing ideology has permeated Australian education. There are many reasons why a degree in Western Civilisation would be controversial in Australian higher education, but one that hasn’t gotten traction is the effect that the conflation of tertiary and vocational education has had on university standards — and the impact this has on the culture within universities and on our broader culture.
Traditionally, tertiary education focused on thinking while vocational education focused on doing. By blurring the distinction between the two types of education we’ve created the Dunning-Kruger effect at a societal level. We have a generation of graduates who have studied subjects that should never be taught at university level, but who, through the cachet of holding a degree, believe they are more intelligent than they are. It’s a paradox. By teaching vocational subjects at university we’ve lowered the standards of tertiary education without lowering the idea of what a degree represents. The effects of this educational dumbing down are being felt in wider society. Instead of an educated elite we have a mass of delusional people who falsely believe they are educated. And who, ironically, are not intelligent enough to know the difference. They know how to do things but not how to think. And they’re having a catastrophic effect on the world.
The idea of equality is the root cause of the problem. Equality is the dominant ideology of our age and it is the philosophical foundation of our education system. Equality of opportunity is a feature of a civilised society. Equality of outcome is the road to tyranny. Confusing the two has created misery since the French Revolution. Our educational establishment has not understood this lesson. It has tried, through social engineering, to overturn the idea that there are innate cognitive differences between people. In other words, self-esteem trumps ability. One way this has been achieved is by changing vocational courses into tertiary courses. The results have been disastrous. Encouragement is good. But overstating someone’s abilities is as evil as understating them. The middle ground, as Buddha and Aristotle said, is the home of prudence — society works best when people face reality.
Why is this important? University graduates work in human rights organisations, political parties, trades unions, education, environmental organisations and journalism. Current university graduates are intelligent enough to be persuaded by propaganda but not intelligent enough to understand distinctions. They can’t think because they’ve never been taught how to. It’s not a coincidence that many institutions lost their legitimacy when the first dumbed-down graduates left university. Anyone on Facebook or Twitter will recognise the following nonsense because it is more likely to be spread by university graduates: Gaza is the Warsaw Ghetto. Separating families on the American/Mexican border is Nazism. Socialism is morally superior to capitalism.
It goes on. University graduates don’t understand that it’s a bad idea, as Voltaire said, to ‘make the perfect the enemy of the good’. They don’t understand that life is a series of trade-offs and that higher taxes on the rich mean fewer jobs and less social welfare for the poor. They believe every environmental scare campaign as if it were holy writ. They believe that feminism is a philosophical revolution and not just a branch of Classical Liberalism. They don’t understand that Western companies in third-world countries are good for poor people and that it’s a slow road from poverty to first-world prosperity. They believe the Noble Savage is something to aspire to rather than something to leave behind — so they eulogise non-Western cultures as superior to the culture that created individual rights, the rule of law and mass prosperity. They believe that everything is subjective except when it contradicts their own beliefs. They don’t understand that the Internet, computers and mobile phones are products of liberal democracy and capitalism — and that you can’t have these goods if you destroy the free market. These are generalisations but they are the default position of too many university graduates for it to be accidental.
Most people recognise the educated from the uneducated. It’s a broadness of mind, an openness to the world, an understanding of what underpins the study of history or philosophy or art; it’s knowing that some questions have many answers and the obvious answer may not be the right one. It’s giving an opponent the benefit of the doubt when they make a valid argument — and knowing when someone is talking nonsense. Education is hard to define but you know it when you see it. You also know it when you don’t see it. What it is not, though, is knowing how to do something. It’s knowing how to think.
In contrast, practical skills, doing rather than thinking, define vocational education. Tertiary education is not automatically more intellectually demanding than vocational education. The intelligence, skills and problem-solving ability of a plumber, a mechanic or a fitter are often the equal of anyone at university. But tradespeople don’t need, any more than nurses, librarians or journalists, a university education. Practical skills should not be taught at university. A liberal education engages with the broad sweep of history; it introduces students to the ideas that led people to kill and embrace each other; it cultivates an understanding of what’s important in art and literature. It broadens the mind rather than the wallet. It can’t be measured but it is vitally important for the progress of civilisation. And it is humble. It echoes Socrates’ claim that ‘the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing’.
Today’s graduates are too busy preening their virtues to understand that sometimes the lesser of two evils is real morality. We need to return tertiary education to the idea that the best and brightest, irrespective of age, sex or class, go to university to learn how to think. Sometimes categories are there for a reason. Vocational and tertiary education should be distinct. They are not the same thing. Knowing what you don’t know is the first step on the road to wisdom.