OPINION: No President Starr, ‘valuing values’ isn’t education

A few weeks ago, a provocative piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Who Decides What’s Good and What’s Bad in the Humanities?” The article made an astonishing argument: The liberal arts “don’t transmit value.” 

Rather, the authors claimed, liberal education teaches something different. The real purpose of the liberal arts is to teach “metacognitive skills,” “disciplinary procedures and habits of mind” and “critical thinking.”

Does this description sound right? It might, to you. But it should, at least, sound familiar. The authors of the article were G. Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College, and Kevin Dettmar, a Pomona English professor and director of its Humanities Studio.

So that, then, is the kind of education that administrators at Pomona confess to champion: education that is value-neutral, dedicated to procedure and more concerned with second-order reflection than first-order interrogation. We should be worried.

But not because such an outlook is the road to relativism, as right-wingers often rail. My concern is more complex. I fear that Starr’s and Dettmar’s insistence on value-neutrality in the college’s classrooms (a position that many at the 5Cs are apt to support) actually feeds into another phenomenon (one that students are far less likely to endorse): the rise of bureaucracy in the college’s institutions.

This is a counterintuitive claim, so let me explain. I’ll start by clarifying Starr’s and Dettmar’s views on values.

Their argument begins with the (correct) observation that students today are diverse, attentive to difference and wary of appeals to authority. Consequently, they proclaim, instructors must recognize that “value is both situated and multiple,” not “transcendental” and singular. Teaching otherwise would be foolish at best, force-feeding at worst.

So far, so good. This way of thinking isn’t anything new — in fact, it’s a perspective that was first announced over 100 years ago, by the German sociologist Max Weber. In his famous “Science as a Vocation” lecture, Weber also insisted that “the task of the teacher” was to refrain from imprinting on students any “personal political views.”

Weber said this because he recognized, as Starr and Dettmar do, that spheres of value have become disaggregated in the modern age. Biology, literature, mathematics, politics — each is constituted by its own inner logic that is incommensurable with any other. 

Thus, in Starr’s and Dettmar’s pithy phrase, all an instructor can do is teach students how to “value values.” She cannot tell them which set of values to avow in the first place.

The problem with this position, of course, is that choices between systems of value, or between avenues of study, still need to be made. But if teachers are discouraged from providing guidance on that front, who does instead?

The answer, for Weber, was as obvious as it was terrifying. He realized that the vacuum left behind by the evaporation of traditional sources of value would be filled by a new, and much more insidious, ordering force. It would be filled by the “iron cage” of bureaucracy, a system that would profess value-neutrality, but which would actually usher in a new set of values altogether: those of power, procedure and profit.

Something like this is what has been happening at Pomona. It’s the reason why the number of administrators at Pomona has increased 384 percent from 1990 to 2016, even as the student population grew only 12 percent in that time frame. And it’s why the college’s various offices, though better-staffed and more-equipped than ever before, nevertheless prove their obduracy and opacity over and over again — as in the Orientation Adventure scandal last year and in the suspension of Student Health Services last week.

Neither of those events is a bug in the system. They are its features. The bureaucracy of modern colleges is unresponsive by design. Its real purpose is to shape student life according to the terms of its technocratic priorities, priorities that are purportedly value-neutral but which actually adhere to the Foucauldian “disciplinary procedures” that Starr and Dettmar commend.

It’s time for students to resist this. To do so, they’ll need to reject the administration’s impulse to drain education of its substantive value — pace Starr and Dettmar’s call to the contrary. 

They’ll need to rebuff the logic of Silicon Valley that Starr and Dettmar hold up high. They’ll need to legislate their own values, values that can act as countervalues to the bureaucracy’s bullheadedness.

Those values can grow up wherever students gather together in concert: in classrooms, in student-run clubs, in secret organizations like Mufti, in school traditions that have not yet been shut down or sanitized. It’s up to students to preserve what makes Pomona particular, to reflect on and reaffirm the value of their education there.

This is no longer my fight; I write here only as an alumnus perturbed by Starr’s and Dettmar’s comments in the Chronicle. I’m hopeful, though, that Pomona’s current students can rise to the challenge.

Matt Dahl PO ’17 is a a Ph.D. student in political theory at the University of Notre Dame.

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