Veblen The Higher Learning In America

The Higher Learning in America (1918)

According to Veblen, there always was a special class of people in society who sought for what they perceived as eternal truth. Consequently, the pursuit of higher learning (see Veblen, 1918) and the way a society actually distinguished itself was largely influenced or shaped by this class. When it came to pursuing higher learning, formal learning was constrained in such a technical and pragmatic manner that what was considered practical was often associated with what could be produced profitably. Thus, as higher learning looked to this special class for clues as to what sorts of knowledge should be pursued; the influence of business and the type of learning that helped make business more profitable became a predominant shaping tool.

Interestingly, the pragmatic requirement for the quest for knowledge was not necessarily an innate feature of the human race. According to Veblen, there were two impulsive traits of the human race: "idle curiosity" (which led to the drive toward knowledge) and the "instinct of workmanship" (where action was directed toward concrete purpose or achievement or end). The former lacked preoccupation with practical use and the latter solely pushed men to systemize things. Nonetheless, as capitalism developed, profit motives of business necessarily left their mark on the ideals, aims, methods, and standards of science and scholarship, especially as the instinct of workmanship was tainted by the impersonal, cold calculation of the business man and modern technology. The result was that modern learning was simply "matter of fact."

With "matter of fact" type knowledge as the goal of modern civilization, the university had two criterion that it had to strive to fulfill, first, scientific and scholarly inquiry, and second, instruction of students. As such, teaching would solely include instruction necessary to help students inquire after truth and should not include indoctrination or inculcation of results, especially the teaching of things like obedience, piety, and citizenship.

Veblen suggested that graduate school should be completely separated from the lower schools because undergraduate work was task work and graduate work was about personal relationships and delving into the unknown. To him, separation was important so that the methods of the scientist would not be blended with the methods and mission of the schoolmaster. Some argue, however, that the university saw its birth from the professional schools, and to separate them would be impractical and foolish. Veblen countered this argument by pointing out the fact that goals for old barbaric orders of Europe and contemporary times shifted from the quest for salvation and citizenship to pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, as societal goals change, so should the institutions.

There were two main reasons why graduate schools were still bound with lower schools. First, there was an ancient tradition that was held intact by the governing body for a "brave show of magnitude," and second, the lower schools benefited in terms of prestige by association.
Veblen pointed out that the main goal of the university was to promote the increase and diffusion of knowledge. However, this "has never been realized in any concrete case." Since worldly concerns of our time were pecuniary in nature, our standards and methods of acquiring knowledge were also heavily influenced by our pecuniary world. This was evident, for example, by noting that in the earliest days of the university, the governing board was primarily comprised of religious authorities. Now, however, businessmen and large corporations from our pecuniary culture provided advice. Paradoxically, the average businessman was fairly antagonistic towards higher learning and commonly viewed it as a waste of time.

As a result of our pecuniary culture, the college president was selected based on their pecuniary fitness and became of a captain of erudition with the main focus streamlining the college process as if it were a business. Hence, the main tasks for a college president were to facilitate the cre'ation of esoteric knowledge, and to show that this endeavor was a worthy business investment. This need was fulfilled by proof of degrees and courses offered. Department heads were chosen and tasked in a similar manner as the president.

Possession of prestige and goodwill was another important feature of modern higher learning institutions, especially as they had to cater to a competitive business environment including the imperative concern for profitable traffic. In order to draw potential donors, a university needed to increase the school's prestige via investment in real estate and fancy ornamentation of the campus rather than simply bolstering academics.

The university staff was also judged based on pecuniary distinction. Therefore, hiring took on a new perspective by not only requiring educators that were gifted with true scholastic ability, but also requiring educators to possess an acute aptitude for business and pecuniary pursuits. Successful, or should I say, higher paid faculty members were required to be capable and willing to interact with the well to do so that university donations would increase. They were also required to spend most of their income conspicuously while they socialized. In protection of the university's good repute, staff members had to be careful to stay within respectable political bounds and not cause any disturbance that would damage the school's image.