Bloomberg columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University, Tyler Cowen, argues that universities should not use their endowments to help provide for food service workers and other staff while they’re unable to work because of the ongoing and expanding Covid-19 epidemic. The piece crescendos at the line: “The real contributions of Harvard, MIT, and Stanford to the world are not the food-service workers they hire. They are the ideas and innovations produced by its researchers, plus the talented students they educate.” This vision of the university would deprive it of not only its character, but any character at all. While it is now common to trumpet Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, as the core competencies of the university, the idea and purpose of the university lie in the humanities. Whether we’re talking about the great African Islamic temples of learning clustered around Timbuktu, the Chinese civil service academies rooted in Confucian teaching, Oxford, Bologna, Wittenberg, or any of the other great European universities; all were built upon a basic notion, that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and that it matters whether a human being does right or wrong, not because of some cost-benefit analysis, but because human is the creature that reflects upon its conduct and creates principles to guide its conduct. All intellectual traditions, one way or another are rooted in: Theology: the notion that every human creature carries within his or herself an irreducible spark of the rational principle ordering the universe. Philosophy: the notion that this spark empowers us to reflect upon and know more deeply ourselves and the world we inhabit. And Law: , whether formal or traditional, the idea that a community is defined by the rules it sets for itself. In short, the university, like all houses of learning, indeed, all learning, roots itself in the proposition that the world mankind creates, can and ought to be better than the world it was handed.
Dr. Cowen disagrees, saying: “I support a radical vision of the university as an institution devoted to learning and innovation above all. If a school is successful and fortunate enough to have a significant endowment, I am happy to see that school invest it at (one hopes) high rates of return. Even putting the mission of the school aside, those investments are good for overall economic growth, which in turn enriches the broader citizenry. The accumulated wealth also means that those universities will endure and reflect some of our civilization’s highest ideals.
Only a few institutions in the world have been in continuous existence since medieval times, and most of those are universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bologna. (The Icelandic Parliament also has a long heritage.) For the most part, those institutions have been geared toward investing and accumulating wealth and social capital, not spending it down, and the world is much better off because of that.”
This is a very strange passage, what ideals does Cowen have in mind that are represented by the mere fact of having a lot of money? Perhaps he means that universities reflect some of “our,” civilization’s highest ideals, therefore, if they accumulate the wealth required to survive, that also reflects the survival of those ideals. It is dangerous, whether we are talking about political ideologies, political leaders or institutions, to take as a starting premise that merely by existing they do the world good, and then, based on that assumption, to say this justifies whatever they decide they must do to survive. In order to embody the highest ideals of human civilization as a whole, the university must do more than claim to embody them, it must do more than sloganeer around them, it must actually embody and enact them. Admittedly, once we start talking about “civilization’s highest ideals,” we are in danger of entering pompous, meaningless territories. But, since the general trend of human history, at least nominally, has been away from acquiring as much as one can at all cost; and since it has long been common for universities to claim they are making the world a more fair, more open, more universally prosperous place; and since even Cowen acknowledges that faculty and students at universities tend to adopt an egalitarian mindset, we might suppose humane conduct, however we discover it, to be the highest ideal of civilization.
In fact, there is no real distinction between Cowen’s “radical vision,” and the idea that universities should support and take care of all their workers, it’s simply a matter of what innovations we have in mind. Karl Marx was an academic forced into exile as a journalist, whose work has motivated and defined generations of university scholarship. In his commitment to civil and human rights, Martin Luther King Jr. drew succor from the ideas of academics like Howard Thurman, Martin Buber, Benjamin Mays and Reinhold Niebuhr, who by their word and example, gave him a conception of his Christian and intellectual duty that would not let him sit around plush offices bloviating about a better world, but bid him go forth into the streets and create that world. Every great humane idea has at some point been sparked or furthered or actualized by somebody out of a university. These innovations are never patentable, they do not inspire government contracts or create shareholder value, but in terms of direct impact, they are the greatest value universities can hope to create. It is therefore nothing but the erecting of an artificial barrier around everything elevated and noble in the human species to say that a generous and humane spirit is not something a university ought to devote itself to and set an example for.
But Cowen disagrees: I am not saying these universities shouldn’t do something charitable for their workers. They should, if only to maintain amicable relations within the university community itself. I am saying that their moral obligation to extend charity to those workers is not very strong. Had such charity been prioritized in the past, the U.S. never would have developed and maintained top universities.
I would argue that if the United States had taken more care of the well-being of its poor, it would have many more great universities than it has, in fact, it would need them; because of no longer hurling billions of dollars of human capital into the sea every single year by denying millions of children the chance to maximize their potential.
Part of America’s greatness as a nation, and as an innovator, is its unwillingness to ask anew every day whether its elite accumulations of wealth should be torn down and rededicated to everyday purposes of a supposedly greater benevolence.
It seems strange, doesn’t it, for a college professor to argue that America’s greatness lies in Americans’ skill at not thinking too hard?
Harvard, Stanford, and MIT stay true to their missions not by regularly asking whether they ought to redistribute their endowments to starving people around the world. And their food service workers are not more needy because of Covid-19 than other possible recipients of the funds — the dengue victims in Central America, say.
This argument would probably prevail very well with freshmen in a philosophy elective, that because we cannot do everything, that justifies our doing nothing. There is something to be said for proximity, if you can only aid .0001% of the human race, it seems better to start with the people you can most readily lay hands on, the folks nearest to you.
But even this is flawed, because of another artificial border Cowen throws up, the university vs.“The food service workers it hires.” A university is an idea that organizes people and brings them together, all who make the work of the university possible day-to-day are the university. Only vicious classism excludes food service workers from the circle of moral obligation while taking it for granted that it would be wrong to turn professors out into the streets to beg.
It is the injustice of the market that makes professors and administrators essential while food service staff is treated as disposable. There are those who worship the free market and hold its edicts inviolable, I don’t share their devotion; I don’t see why we should sacrifice human beings to the supply and demand curve anymore than the state should take a goat from me once a year and sacrifice it to Beezlebub.
Whether it occurs in an immense tower of stone or in a tar paper shack by the side of a dirt road, education, at its truest, is where the human being frees itself from nature’s constraints and reaches boldly upward. It is not mindless money-gathering. Though money is essential to do it on a certain scale, one of the most important things books have taught me is that no matter what miraculous things cash can accomplish, if I am to achieve the best of my potential, it must be my servant not my master.
The day one cannot venture into the university to find humanity is the day there are no more universities, not as a matter of charity, but of what makes a university something other than an elaborate content production facility. Every university claims to be rooted in higher principles when it suits its administrators, it’s what they sell to high dollar donors. In this one extreme case, universities should either live up to their own hype, or be honest about the worthless, unsuitable monstrosities they’ve become.
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