Winders: ‘Literally nothing’ new under the sun

Paul Mayne // Western News

I cannot help but feel like we have been here before. Even so, I understand how waves are generated when the head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York says academic degrees are “preposterous,” and that except in only “a few strong professions such as medicine and law and the older branches of engineering,” university degrees might mean “literally nothing.”

“Confusion is revealed when one turns to the most conspicuous of the outward and visible signs of educational achievement. The creation of academic degrees has increased to a preposterous point. Only in a few strong professions can it be said that the possession of a degree today necessarily means anything. Elsewhere, all too often, a degree as such may mean literally nothing. … In the fine arts, however much possession of a PhD may imply as to scholarly knowledge, all too often it reflects the absence of creative interest and capacity on the part of the professor.”

Those words belong to Carnegie Corporation President Frederick P. Keppel, owner of several “preposterous” degrees like a Bachelor of Arts, twice a Doctor of Letters, six times a Doctor of Laws. His comments – delivered while announcing millions of dollars in grants to educational institutions – caused a minor stir in the postsecondary community for a few days, as they were reported upon in most major newspapers across the United States.

You may have missed the debate, however. Keppel made those comments in December 1939.

But they sound awful familiar, don’t they?

I revisited Keppel’s incendiary comments after being confronted recently by the latest batch of articles regarding the ‘value’ of a university degree. In just the last few days, for example, Vice Canada “asked people with the most useless-sounding university degrees if they regret their life choices”; The Globe and Mail explored if the university experience is worth the cost; The Daily and Sunday Express questioned if university offered a “better future”; and The Economist not-so-subtlety asked “is university making us dumber?”

The reams upon reams of reading are a reminder of one important fact – there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to naysayers and their university critiques. These media outlets are just the latest to join Keppel and thousands of other voices like his over the last 150 years or so to decry the value of a university degree in their moment in time.

Are we are beyond scrutiny? Absolutely not. Given our unique standing in society, universities are doomed to face these questions. Silly, repetitive questions. Oh, this time it is different, we are assured. But it isn’t. People are complaining about the same things they have since the beginning.

How we respond, however, will be key.

We must be careful about radically altering our mission in order to accommodate the short-sighted whims of those who think in terms of the next election or the following quarter, instead of the last and next millennium. Arguments about the value of a university degree in ‘the real world’ are as old as the modern university itself. We must maintain perspective and realize these warmed-over calls for ‘value’ should not be cause for panic.

I know it is difficult in the moment – funding, partnerships, public perception hang in the balance – but we must maintain perspective. Ours is a charge nearly a millennium in the making. We are about more than what jobs our graduates get; we are about what kind of world we live in.

And that is a point we are going to have to keep making.