Socrates, who should have a higher education?

A: Socrates, you believe in education don’t you.

S: Most deeply.

A: And you believe in the examined life?

S: Of course.

A: Do you think that this education, this examined life, should be available to everyone or just to some people?

S: I used to engage with anyone who would engage with me. My only criterion was that such a person was interested in asking questions, and in being asked questions, and who would stay long enough for a conversation to develop and gain a life of its own.

A: But in that previous life this did not include women or slaves or perhaps even the poor?

S: It did not.

A: Would you say that this educational opportunity should not be restricted to particular groups of people but should be available to anyone who wishes to participate?

S: That raises a number of interesting questions. Would you say that everyone is willing to participate in what the city calls a higher education?

A: No.

S: Then what do you think the city means by higher education?

A: I think it refers to the education that is after formal schooling, and which is voluntary.

S: And what is it for?

A: It claims to train people for the world of work.

S: Does it also strive to enlarge the questions that its students can ask, and deepen their understanding of the answers that are offered to those questions.

A: Perhaps in your day, but not so much now.

S: And is everyone willing to participate this?

A: Currently, no. Many people feel that such an education is irrelevant to them.

S: Why?

A: Because before they can indulge in such education they have to earn a living. And to earn a living, to learn a trade, does not require that kind of higher education. There are many other avenues that can be taken to receive the kinds of training that such occupations need.

S: That is understandable I suppose, but what kinds of jobs are seen to require higher education?

A: Non-manual jobs.

S: Such as?

A: Those that involve important decisions, those that need reflection on vital issues, those that affect the lives of large numbers of people, those for whom training is long and which demands immense intellectual resources, those for whom the skills needed are of a kind that only a very few are able to command.

S: And presumably these are the occupations that offer the largest financial rewards?

A: In most cases yes, but not always.

S: What, then, is the key distinction between jobs requiring a higher education and those that do not?

A: I suppose it might be the distinction between work performed by hand and work performed by brain.

S: But a surgeon works with her hands, does she not?

A: She does.

S: And a plumber works with her brain?

A: She does.

S: Then that does not seem to be a very robust distinction.

A: But plumbing is not what the city calls a graduate occupation.

S: Why not?

A: Because repairing taps is not as valuable to the city as repairing human bodies or minds.

S: Might that depend a little on circumstance?

A: How?

S: If a house is at risk of flooding from a leak and making someone homeless, then a plumber’s skills at that moment will outweigh those of a surgeon.

A: It will. But still there are lots of plumbers and far fewer surgeons.

S: That suggests that plumbers are needed everywhere all the time by everyone.

A: Perhaps. But the skills needed to plumb require less training and expertise in their trade than surgeons.

S: So, the jobs that qualify for higher education are those that create experts in occupations that few can achieve, and which are vital for the well-being of the city?

A: Quite so.

S: But that is not how I would define a higher education.

A: Really?

S: Perhaps it is better defined as seeking understanding through the asking of questions.

A: Yes, but that doesn’t specify what the questions are about. They could be about anything. Besides, if you want to be a doctor, then your questions will need to be about medicine. If you want to be a lawyer they will need to be about law. And if you want to be a priest they will need to be about theology. 

S: So, is a higher education to be defined by the training that it offers?

A: Of course it is. It is a training in something specific.

S: Is there a higher education that belongs to human beings that is not dependent upon one’s intended occupation?

A: I suppose some might say there is. Some argue that there is a set of skills generic to higher education, the skills that all students need regardless of the subject they are studying or the profession that are pursuing.

S: What are they?

A: Some say they are hard skills like carrying out research and managing data, or having high level critical and analytical skills, or the ability to plan for and carry through large scale projects. Some might even include the ability to husband human resources by means of empathy for the lives and conditions of others.

S: And do the students who are practiced in these skills have all of the benefits that a higher education can provide?

A: What do you mean?

S: Do they know of happiness from these skills? Do they enjoy wisdom from these skills? Do they feel fulfilled by these skills? Do these skills improve them as human beings? Do they make them better citizens of the city?

A: I’m sure some do, yes.

S: But of what use are these skills outside of the workplace?

A: That’s not a fair question. Most of the skills are work-based. That is what their higher education has been for.

S: Then higher education has no relevance for life outside of work?

A: If it is paid for by the city then it should only offer the kind of education that will serve the city’s interests.

S: You mean that it must repay the city for the city’s investment?

A: That is what many people would say, yes.

S: But in this city students have to repay that investment back themselves from their own income.

A: They do. That was not always the case. But it was the only way to offer higher education to more people in the city.

S: So, the loan is not conditional upon graduates repaying society with socially beneficial work. It is conditional upon being paid back by any income at all.

A: Yes.

S: Then the loaners do not care how the money they receive back is earned or what kind of work is undertaken?

A: They do not.

S: Then what is the basis of the claim that because it is public money that sends them there, the investment must lead to worthwhile jobs?

A: Any job is worthwhile if it repays the debt.

S: Even plumbing.

A: I suppose so. But you are forgetting that the paymasters promise that those who take out the loan and work hard at their studies deserve better jobs than those who do not.

S: And is working in an office all day, facing a screen, a better and more rewarding life than being a plumber?

A: I don’t know. I guess it might be, for the right person.

S: Then why can people not choose to train as a plumber and have a higher education?

A: What would be the point? The plumber doesn’t need a higher education.

S: A plumber doesn’t need a higher education in theology or medicine. But is there a higher education that the plumber and everyone else might benefit from?

A: If there is, what is it? What are the skills that are not work-related that would benefit the plumber, or indeed anyone else in a higher education?

S: That is a good question, and one that the city perhaps does not ask often enough.

A: Because it cannot afford to. It cannot afford to send everyone to higher education.

S: Whose money pays for higher education?

A; The taxpayer.

S: So why would taxpayers not be entitled to have some of their investment in the city returned to them, whenever the felt it to be the right moment for them, so that they might take the opportunity for the higher education that is not the one defined as training as jobs.

A: Why would they?

S: Because alongside the need for food and shelter and love, there is a natural disposition for us to need to understand things.

A: What things?

S: As well as the things that will give us some feeling of control over the small things in life, we also experience a lack of understanding about the greater questions in life, questions that might yield surprising and profound truths.

A: Perhaps not everyone has this natural disposition?

S: Be careful not to judge that on the evidence of people’s social or personal circumstances. There are many ways in which people can be discouraged from understanding, and indeed there are many ways in which they can be made to think that understanding is not relevant to them, and that it is useless to them.

A: Do you mean that the city still operates by deliberately keeping some of its people in the dark. Or in the cave of ignorance as you used to call it?

S: I think it clear that a class of privileged and powerful people know that higher education is beneficial both professionally and personally, and that they do their best to convince those who are not part of this group that such an education would be a waste of time and money for them.

A: Why would they do that?

S: To keep for themselves access to the most lucrative and powerful professions, to ensure that the law makers and policy makers work in the interests of the privileged, and because of a deeply held prejudice that virtue is innate to an aristocratic nature and not to the common women, man, or child.

A: So you are saying that they control access to the higher education that trains for the best professions, and they believe that any wider benefits that attend such a training, such as virtue and wisdom, are already the property of that same self-selecting group.

S: That is how it appears.

A: But are you sure that everyone would benefit from a higher education?

S: I think that everyone in the city is entitled to one. But not everyone will want or need a subject-specific higher education. There is no need to parcel life up into single academic subjects. Life does not do that. Why should the city be so foolish as to think that this is best way to learn about the world?

A: Then what kind of higher education might everyone enjoy?

S: Perhaps one in life and death and the questions that they raise for how human beings should live, and how the city should be run.

A: What does this education about human being look like?

S: It looks very different from the current version of higher education that the powerful are promoting in the city.

A: How so?

S: Single subject-based higher education is a training, and that has its place. But it is not what one might call an all-round education in life and death.

A: Life and death seems to cover everything!

S: Exactly. And so it does. Human beings live between life and death as the universe renews itself through life and death. Perhaps everyone should have time to understand themselves within life and death, and to understand themselves as part of the practice of the universe’s renewal. Perhaps life and death should be the only specialism that counts as a higher education for the city as a whole.

A: But to modern ears that sounds anthropocentric, or very human-centered. It sounds as if human beings think that only they are worthy of being the subject of higher education.

S: Not at all. Life and death are precisely not anthropocentric, and nor do they belong to the localized culture of this city. It is part of the higher education of all human beings that they learn to lose their own self-importance or illusion of centrality in this universal culture. It draws them away from anthropocentrism and into nature and the cosmos, into numbers and rhythms, into relations with other cities and other forms of life and death. It gives them an education in the kind of relativity that I used to speak of in the agora, the relativity of being nothing of significance in the macrocosm and the microcosm. Finding a truthful relation to life and death in such groundless relativity is the higher education that everyone in the city is entitled to.

A: Could the city’s universities be seen as the right place for this higher education of human beings?

S: A good question. As long as higher education is a tool for the preservation of wealth and privilege and the denial of higher education is a tool for sustaining a distinction between those worthy and those unworthy of human higher education, then, no, universities are not fit for the purpose of serving the city’s desire for its own self-understanding.

A: But such a higher education in and by the city might lead people to think differently about their lives. That might destabilize the city.

S: It might educate the city to think about the things that really matter in life. It might help it to reassess the kinds of lives that it makes people lead. And it might demonstrate that the city that makes such demands is really only the people who make such demands of themselves. The people are the city. What the city does to them the people are doing to themselves.    

A: What might change?

S: In examining life and death, people might find different priorities, they might find different ways of treating themselves and each other, they might reassess what they want and what they need and how to provide for this. They might reassess what really matters to them. They might think through how cities can coexist peacefully. They might decide to limit extremes of poverty and wealth. And in the process, they might remove many of the grievances that blight city of people who feel they have no control over its business, have no participation in its decision making, and who are considered to somehow have less entitlement and rights in the city than others. And in removing these grievances the city might also dissolve the distracting and comforting lies that people believe in. Such a city might reduce despair and anxiety in the city, and might re-educate the city about its own fears, which currently it represses and then projects in unacknowledged ways.

A: You are suggesting that this higher education would be healthy for the city.

S: The city that prevents itself, its people, from such higher education is the city that runs on resentment and anger. This resentment and anger is really aimed at itself even though it works under the illusion that it is caused by others, and under the illusion that it can be overcome by overcoming those others. The city that is unhappy with itself attacks itself at every opportunity for being unhappy.

A: And this is its own culture of unhappiness.

S: It is. It is willful self-punishment. It is the city rubbing itself raw on the bars of the cage that it creates for itself. It lives and dies in this condition.

A: Then the definition of higher education that it works with, and the access it offers to this higher education, are acts of this anger and resentment?

S: And those who lead the city practice this self-destructive anger by blaming the city for forcing them to run it in this way. This is the disingenuity of those who say that their privilege is the burden they must bear on behalf of the city. They say No to the higher education that city desires for itself. They say No to the city’s self-enquiry into its angers and its lies. They say No to life and death as higher education, and Yes to life and death as needing to be managed by the enlightened few.

A: What might the city say Yes to?

S: It might say Yes to its own education. And if it wants to be a democratic city then in order to prevent the abuse of its laws and institutions by its resentful and disingenuous elite, it will ensure that all of its citizens are entitled to the great adventure of understanding; that is the level of participation in the question of the city that would sustain the city by finding the justice that is innate to higher education.

A: The city will say it can’t afford to give everyone a human higher education.

S: If it is the city’s path to freedom, then make it free.

A: Eh? Really?

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