With each passing year, American universities are facing a greater danger of looking less like the halls of knowledge and learning that they once were. Federal funding for universities and the scientific research conducted therein have sharply declined over the last decade, resulting in multi-million dollar deficits within the institutions that precipitate tuition hikes, which lead to student enrollment drop-offs.
In an attempt to offer prospective students a more concrete value-addition to the skyrocketing price of higher education, many institutions, such as the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, are shifting their focus away from the humanities and towards vocational training, cutting classes in departments like Art, American Studies and Political Science and replacing them with courses in Chemical Engineering, Marketing and Computer Information Systems. What this essentially says to students is: “Study here so that you can get a better-paying job after graduation,” rather than, “Study here so that you can explore your interests.” Practicality is overcoming passion, which for some isn’t such a bad thing, but for others it means the end of many uniquely human pursuits of the mind.
For professors like Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Don Berkich, scrambling to meet the educational needs of his philosophy students in the face of these changes has been incredibly frustrating and sad. Throwing up his hands at the financial hurdles he faced when trying to secure resources for his Honors Program, Professor Berkich decided that, to point out just how flawed he felt the increasingly vocational educational system is becoming, he would create a system of his own.
Professor Berkich wrote a satirical prospectus for an imaginary school he called The College of Unconventional Arts and Sciences, published in The Danish Yearbook of Philosophy’s “Revising the Idea of the University” issue. Professor Berkich’s prospectus envisions a college that has taken the idea of vocational training to its ultimate level of absurdity, instructing students in specific practical skills, the demand for which he suggests will survive Artificial Intelligence’s imminent automation of many current jobs.
Thus, his hilarious prospectus is essentially for a college of professionalized vice where students will be taught how to cultivate drugs, direct pornography and manage their very own brothel. The college's Department of Recreational Pharmacology and Applied Biology would prepare its students for earning a living with classes like Modern Marijuana Cultivation I & II, Marijuana Edibles, and Rave Drug Development, while its Department of Erotic Performing and Visual Arts would teach courses such as Voice and Diction alongside less familiar areas of study like Advanced Pole Dancing, Erotic Photography Techniques and Lighting, and Stage Sex I & II, to name a few of the unconventional arts on offer.
“Careers that depend on our ability to anticipate changes in consciousness and responses to those changes can be expected to weather the automation front nicely,” Berkich writes in his prospectus. “As will careers that essentially incorporate or otherwise involve human-to-human contact and connections of various kinds that hinge on the professionals’ empathy, understanding, or theory-of-mind.”
Drug dealing, drug making, prostitution and pornography all fall quite neatly into the realm of careers that “anticipate changes in consciousness” and “involve human-to-human contact and connections of various kinds.” And in a future in which these activities have been legalized, they would also serve the mounting imperative at higher education institutions to offer their students a financial carrot at the end of their educational journeys. Therefore, while it is a bleak academic joke, though currently unconventional, Professor Berkich’s fictitious prospectus might share more in common with the universities of the future than one would think.
PRØHBTD spoke with Professor Berkich to get his thoughts on the challenges facing academia, the motivations behind creating his spoof college, and just how soon we all might be able to sign up for RPSB 342: Psilocybin Mushroom from Farm to Table.
What prompted you to write the prospectus for The College of Unconventional Arts and Sciences?
Frustration, frankly. I spent five fruitless years as the Head of our Honors Program arguing for the resources needed to provide rigorous academic challenges and opportunities for our most dedicated, demanding and inspiring students. The final straw came when I discovered the program, which had already lost a third of its facilities to administrative offices and yet still managed to stretch its scarce resources to meet the needs of more than 120 such students, had a total annual budget that was exactly half the salary advertised for a single professor of accountancy. Not to disparage the professor of accountancy, but the disparity starkly illuminated the administration's priorities. In my letter of resignation from the honors program, I included an admittedly snarky proposal for a very different, thoroughly self-supporting program, which eventually morphed into the idea of an entire college.
Why did the method of satire strike you as a helpful way to highlight contemporary problems in higher education?
Satire is a tonic to absurdities, of which there are so many: The Baby-Boomer scolds who treat beleaguered, burdened and bewildered millennial graduates with utter contempt; systems of higher education in the E.U. and U.S., formerly devoted to discovery and mastery, justified merely by a dint of providing trained graduates to serve as corporate cogs; academic programs and disciplines which could be cooperating, cross-pollinating and deepening our understanding, instead silo-ed and fiercely competing with one another for scraps of resources; traditional, vital programs like physics and philosophy being shuttered in favor of chasing the latest market fads; societies like the U.S. and increasingly the U.K. that see higher education not so much in terms of the public good of having well-educated citizens, but in terms of private goods, which is of no, or very little, interest for society to support; institutions of higher education being more concerned with filling administrative than faculty positions; corporations demanding more and more educational and experiential qualifications from applicants while aggressively automating out of existence as many openings as possible... I could go on.
Why did you fill the prospectus out with departments and classes predominately geared towards illicit or illegal activities?
Ask if higher education is justified solely in terms of its capacity to serve market demands for skilled labor. Why should we be picky about which markets we serve? That is, if we've already sold our academic soul out in service to capitalist markets, why should we be finicky and discriminate against some markets in favor of others?
Gambling, recreational drugs, prostitution, and so on, these are all markets that have never had the advantage of professional credentialing and comprehensive training. It's mostly been a matter of apprenticing, given the general illegality and social stigma of those markets.
Yet it’s worth noting that one of the advantages of legalization is to create new markets requiring professional labor that is not easily eliminated by automation—advances in sexbots notwithstanding. For example, some of our most brilliant botanists laboring for years in the shadows cultivating marijuana are now able to pursue their creative and scientific developments openly after legalization.
The prospectus is being published by the Danish Yearbook of Philosophy [CFP], a “peer-reviewed journal that publishes original work relating to Danish philosophy.” What’s the connection between your prospectus and Danish philosophy?
Oh, there's nothing special going on here. Apart from having some well-regarded colleagues at Aarhus, I submitted this paper in response to their call for papers for a special issue, “Revisiting the Idea of the University.” The CFP seemed as close a match to this paper as any. In fact, the editors are part of the Centre for Higher Education Futures at Aarhus University.
Of all the challenges currently facing higher education, what do you see as the most troubling?
Viewing higher education, as so many do, not as an intrinsic good—something to be sought for its own sake—but as a merely extrinsic or instrumental good—vocational training, if you will, is good only for the job it gets you. Why not both, at least?
Is your answer to the previous question different if you look at it from the perspective of a student versus that of a professor?
Ah, excellent follow-up question! Yes, indeed. Here I speak only from my perspective as a faculty member at a large regional university in the U.S. serving economically disadvantaged communities that have historically been poorly represented in U.S. higher education.
In the instrumentally/vocationally justified university, students can often barely keep their eyes open during class because they are juggling a full-time job or two, a full-time school schedule, and family responsibilities. Their only hope for a better paying job to better their lives financially appears to be college, yet they confront every challenge conceivable when they try. They do have not the luxury of seeking higher education for its own sake. Yet the jobs for which they train so earnestly may well not be there for them when they graduate. This worries me greatly, especially as my own research interests are in the foundations of Artificial Intelligence, and I'm quite aware of the significant advances currently underway.
On the other hand, exploiting adjunct faculty labor while implementing onerous documentation and reporting programs seems not just common, but, oddly, commonsense among administrators of the instrumentally/vocationally justified university. Students are customers. Metrics must be developed. Efficiency must be optimized, and so forth. To be sure, tenured faculty members enjoy striking autonomy in their jobs, are generally well compensated, and have excellent job protection. Hardly the same can be said for our adjunct/part-time fellow faculty members, and the number of open tenured positions is dwindling rapidly.
Do you think that if the education system continues on the path that it’s on, while at the same time substances like marijuana, psilocybin and MDMA continue to move towards legalization and social acceptance, courses like some of those you “proposed” could one day become reality?
Yes, actually. I've already mentioned how those who cultivate marijuana have arguably pushed the bounds of the botanical sciences. I should also mention that the extent of the farce is not so great as one would imagine. For every department in my imaginary college, I began with actual course listings from undergraduate course catalogs. Surprisingly, many of the courses indicated are already being taught at established universities. The fun I had was in imagining additional courses one would want in place to fully flesh out a given department. The upshot is that all the pieces are in place. Any sufficiently large university could actually implement one or more of these departments without needing scarcely any new faculty hires.
So the move toward research on recreational drugs, their effects, and potential medicinal uses, along with broad trends towards drug liberalization and legalization frankly invite some courageous administrator to begin offering related degree programs.
Are there elements of the College of Unconventional Arts and Sciences that you think would be useful for real universities to implement, particularly in the AI-dependent future you’ve envisioned as the setting for your prospectus?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but AI and automation can either further enrich the few wealthy at the expense of the many, or it can free the many for creative and heartfelt pursuits of unimagined brilliance. Among such pursuits, surely, are those which cultivate human expression and interaction in ways that fit nicely with some of departmental descriptions. That is, ways in which we can enhance the human experience of the world and each other are well-suited to an optimistic, AI-enhanced future, however unlikely that future may be.
Of all the imaginary classes your prospectus poses, which one would you like to teach most?
I already teach a course entitled The Philosophy of Love and Sex. Despite being well outside my academic wheelhouse, it is a student favorite I thoroughly enjoy teaching. I'm not even sure if that course would be a good fit for a college through-and-through designed for, and dedicated to, vocational turning.
I now realize that I'm not sure I would bother to hire me to teach any courses in my proposed college.