Is Higher Education Worth It?

The fascinating billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel (a Facebook guy, the PayPal guy etc.) seems to be carrying the day against the educational establishment in answering this question negatively.

He's teamed up with Professor Charles Murray to make some fine points. I will of course make the points in my own way.

Higher education must be overpriced.  The cost is rising several times faster than inflation.  What is most of the money for?  Needless amenities, bloated and self-indulgent administrations, and overpriced tenured profesors.

A really bad way to start out in life is saddled with debts.  Your options are limited, and you, of course, lack the freedom to take entrepreneurial risks.  You're pretty much stuck with getting the highest paying job you can, that is, join the mediocre herd in some corporation or such.

If college is primarily about liberal education (or philosophy, literature, and such), then too many people are going.  According to Murray, most people just don't have the IQs to think both abstractly and precisely enough to appreciate the finer points of language and logic.  The so-called liberal education or "general education" students now receive is a kind of senseless torture.  And the efforts to "engage" the average guy is dumbing down such education in a way that makes it equally boring to the few who could benefit from it.

If education, in most cases, is about learning technical skills, to prepare people for the kinds of work available to most people in a high-tech, middle-class democracy, then why pay big money to study at a brick-and-mortar university?  The person majoring in exercise science or public relations or beverage management or even elementary education could pick up what's needed in a couple of years.  And most of what is needed, in such cases, could be delivered online.

It's difficult to say that, in most cases, the "residential experience" is actually good for students these days in terms of developing personal responsibility and the other features of moral virtue.  The dorms are "state of nature," and lots of safe yet otherwise irresponsible sex is going on in a way that it just can't in real life.  This is especially corrupting for both men and women in different ways at most liberal arts colleges.  The gender imbalance makes men vain and silly (or vainer and sillier) and women are stuck with the rigors of the artificially competitive marketplace.

Classes are too easy; nobody flunks out anymore.  Students are catered to like consumers.  They don't have to do much for themselves—like cooking or cleaning.  (Most of this is not true of my school at all, but we're better than most.)

Not only that: Students aren't becoming in any sense literate in ways that would benefit them as citizens, parents, and so forth.  We've punted for the most part on cultural literacy and civic literacy and theological literacy and even personal finance literacy.

It's always been the case that many genuine geniuses haven't gotten much out of school. (Steve Jobs!)  And those who are, in my opinion, the very best and deepest American authors of the 20th century—such as Walker Percy or Flannery O'Connor or Shelby Foote or William Faulkner—didn't learn how to read and write in college.  Percy majored in medicine, O'Connor boring, textbook sociology, and Foote and Faulkner dropped out.  That's surely why Thiel is giving fellowships for such people to drop out.  (Actually, that's not why he's giving them; he's creating the impression that the highest human type is the entrepreneur.)

Certainly professors have become too risk-averse and careerist, saddling themselves for no good reason with autonomy-sucks such as measurable learning outcomes and student evaluations.  Professors, more than ever, are stuck with being agreeable and productive in depressingly conventional ways.  One piece of good news is that they may be less absent minded; the bad news is that college is becoming progressively more technical and less philosophic or genuinely liberating.

In order to facilitate discussion, I'll leave the case in the other direction mostly for later.  But one thing now:  What makes Thiel more interesting than even Steve Jobs is his serious interest in the philosopher Leo Strauss, one of the most impressive thinkers of the 20th century.

What interests Thiel about Strauss—who flourished in the very rigorous and aristocratic German educational system and received an old-fashioned German doctorate—is his candid and deep exploration of what's required for genuine human liberation.  (A whole separate, pro-American post could be written on why Strauss was, nonetheless, a misfit in the German university system but flourished in ours.)

So Thiel says that the Straussian issue is the libertarian issue.  But, for Strauss, liberation doesn't mean freedom to "do your own thing." It depends on a huge amount of education.  Thiel is a pretty competent amateur Straussian, but his liberation level might be called fairly low from a certain view.  He hasn't acquired, for example, the language skills, as far as I can tell, required to read the premodern texts—Plato, Aristotle, and such—with the care required to liberate himself from modern prejudices.

Libertarianism is a prejudice that's especially strong these days.  It's true enough that Jobs dropped out of college and invented lots of amazing "i" stuff.  But he wasn't liberated the way a theoretical physicist is, and just about all of those physicists needed the discipline of a Ph.D. program to know what's really going on—naturally speaking.

The lack of such liberation may be one reason Thiel sometimes seems suckered by the promises of transhumanism.  Hardly any Straussians are.

For Strauss, there's the still the higher kind of liberation of Socrates.  (Who admittedly didn't have a Ph.D and didn't publish.)  But Socrates was no liberatarian.  He reminded us in most memorable and amusing ways of the self-indulgent and pretentious view of freedom that animates every permissive democracy (such as ours).  That view of freedom is ugly in its self-forgetfulness, in its denial of the necessity that provides the foundation for human nobility and even philosphy.

In general:  Genuine liberation requires a huge amount of conventional discipline.  And in addition to the habituation that comes from a society that takes tradition and tough-minded virtue seriously, there's the need for genuinely higher liberation, which, in the West, has usually found its home in universities.  Our colleges and universities may be failing us, but that doesn't mean we don't need them.

Someone might also talk about Thiel's division of human beings into the "mob" and the liberated, which he learned from misunderstanding Strauss and Plato in a certain way.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.