Information Overlord

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In in a commentary on the recent announcement of the “The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year”,[1] Neal Gabler points out the hidden category mistake of this title: “In fact, none of them are ideas.” He says, “[W]e live in an increasingly post-idea world—a world in which big thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.”[2]

It’s become commonplace to worry about the effect that all our texting and tweeting is having on our ability to think. But brevity does not in and of itself beget banality. Pascal had it right when he said, “If I had had more time I would have written you a shorter letter.” It’s not the conciseness of the letter that crowds out the important ideas, but rather the lack of time to ponder and refine them. (Even so, I doubt that Pascal’s ideas would be so well remembered if he had delivered them solely in tweets.)

The real issue here is whether we as a society are losing interest in big ideas. The marketplace loves the stimulation of new inventions and entertainment, but has little use for new ideas unless some adventurous entrepreneur or promoter can figure out how to make money off them.

Given our fascination with the entertainment value of staying constantly in touch with friends, fans and idols, it’s easy to see how the information glut can overwhelm the limited bandwidth of our attention spans. There might be no harm in non-stop communicating and information surfing if these activities reliably added value to our greater purposes as a society. Unfortunately, the opposite effect seems more common. Political rhetoric for example seems to have been driven to the least common denominator of sound-bites.  “Yes, we can!” and “No new taxes!” make great fight songs, but they are no substitute for the kind of considered wisdom we will need to judge the trade-offs required to balance the budget and generate growth in human capital. To make progress on these fronts we must move beyond the polemical piling-on of spin-controlled projections, and take time to question their underlying presumptions.

The same pressures are at work in academia also. Especially in a business school, the need to stay current can tilt the curriculum in the direction of studying the latest trends, in order to graduate students with immediately profitable knowledge and skills. There is merit in this aspect of a business education, yet it should not obscure or obliterate deeper thinking upon the classical ideas of morality, justice and human nature.

This is what incites my passion to teach classes on big ideas like the spirit of capitalism and the modern moral imaginary. We need leaders who have thought about these things. We need managers who have developed a robust context in which to make trade-offs affecting people’s lives as human beings, and not merely as workers and consumers. We need economists and legislators who weigh the stewardship of resources in the balance of the transcendent. Business is not just a matter of keeping up with the latest consumer trends, or speeding up the time-to-market for the newest technologies. Business is for doers, yes. But what we do, and how we do it, depends upon the ideas which inspire us. Gabler says it well: “The implications of a society that no longer thinks big are enormous. Ideas aren’t just intellectual playthings. They have practical effects.”

Big ideas inform the choices we make regarding how to invest our time and our capital—both financial capital and human capital.

Here’s an idea: when business is driven as much by the transcendent ideas which inspire the human soul as it is by the ideas which monetize the newest information, then business will truly be a boon to human flourishing, and the “invisible hand” will be guided by the wisdom of moral sentiments.

[1] The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2011.
[2] Gabler, “The Elusive Big Idea”, NY Times, August 14, 2011.

Academically Adrift without a Rudder

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“Civilization is doomed unless the hearts and minds of man can be changed, and unless we can bring about a moral, intellectual and spiritual reformation.”


 – Robert Maynard Hutchins, Journal of Higher Education (1947)


    “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” This tit-for-tat describes the facile, unwritten social contracts that often develop between professors and college students. Does this tired compromise signal a stalemate in the struggle of college students and their teachers to eke out space for the demands on their time outside the classroom? If so, it is a sad surrender in the battle to foster academic and personal growth in higher education. George Kuh calls this campus stalemate a disengagement compact—a tacit agreement wherein professors say, “I won’t make you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well.”[1] Like a prickly weed, this compact takes root wherever it can, and infiltrates our institutions, crowding out the covenant of learning that inspires the goals of our colleges and universities to nurture the personal and intellectual growth of the ascendant generation.

 In their new book Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa tell the story of how the  disengagement compact is eroding the mission critical capacities of our colleges and universities to get their job done:

 [T]he future of a democratic society depends upon educating a generation of young adults who can think critically, reason deeply, and communicate effectively. Only with the individual mastery of such competencies can today’s complex and competitive world be successfully understood and navigated by the next generation of college graduates.[2]

 Academically Adrift serves as the latest signal flare to be launched over the drifting boats of academia, calling attention to the distress in institutions of higher education and calling for help to get them back on course.

 How did we manage to lose our way, and why do we allow so many students and courses to run adrift? There are many explanations, to be sure: economic pressures upon students and schools, overworked faculty, overhyped expectations that college should be a rite of passage for everyone in our highly competitive society, and the trend toward extended adolescence in our culture. I would like to set those issues aside for a moment in order to pay attention here to one specific fundamental factor which might deliver the deepest blow of all: the drift away from moral education as the raison d’être for a university.

 As Arum and Roksa note rightly, there has been a poignant shift in organizational missions away from “the responsibility of providing academic and moral guidance to young adults in their charge.”[3] To chart a course of personal growth in the absence of moral guidance is like sailing a boat without a rudder; there isn’t much you can do but to drift along wherever the tide and the wind carry you, hoping idly that all turns out for the best. But hope is not a strategy.

 George Marsden warns that this drift away from the mandate of morality in higher education has placed our institutions “in the midst of a moral crisis.”[4] This crisis results from the loss of consensus in our society that there exists some shared commitment to a greater moral reality that transcends tolerance of diverse ideas as end-all-and-be-all of moral virtues. We might as well say that the greatest value in the design of a boat is that it be rudderless, because after all, it matters little which way the boat goes, so long as it does not tack into any prevailing winds of cultural pressure. With tolerance alone as our guiding star, and relativism as our chart, we seem to have slipped quietly and subtly into the habit of launching students adrift on rudderless boats, hoping that no one will notice so long as the passengers on deck are having fun, and the faculty can be spared enough time in their cabins below decks to pay attention to their own pursuits.

 Here we see how the seeds of the disengagement compact have taken root and sprouted in the fallow soil of moral crisis. There is a vicious cycle at work here.  When an institution of higher learning loses its ability to steer a course of moral direction and nurture the ethical growth of its students, disengagement will emerge as the winning strategy. Since there is no longer any consensus to provide a unifying direction of moral development to be shared among faculty and students, individual preference becomes the default choice of moral virtues. Relativism trumps calling as the notion that ascribes ultimate dignity to persons and institutions called according to a higher purpose.  

 In the absence of a higher purpose (or teleological end or eschatological consummation, take your pick), the winning strategy is to merely give the students, parents and employers what they want. That’s common sense. This explains why students emphasize “social learning” (i.e., “fun”) as a priority, over and above studying (i.e., “work”).[5] So long as the job market is ready to accept the product, and the students are having fun, the institution can stay afloat and no one is the worse off. This pragmatic strategy of appeasement avoids the issue of moral direction and reinforces the vicious cycle which generates the disengagement compact between faculty and students.

 If permitted to go on long enough, this vicious cycle erodes the inherent capacity of the institution to nurture the moral development and integrity of students in a manner that would prepare them to take responsibility for the ethical dilemmas that await them. Moral education is no longer seen to provide a defining purpose worthy for its own sake, and ethics courses are viewed as add-ons to vocational degrees. In deference to the prevailing winds of relativism, rudders are seen to be unnecessary on the ship of higher education. Like religion and altruism, moral education is taken to be an evolutionary spandrel, which is no longer central to survival of the individual or to the social purpose of institutions of higher education. Let a thousand rudderless dinghies launch therefore, because no one cares where the ship was going anyway.

 This is why I teach ethics in a school that believes in the spiritual reality of faith, calling and the moral significance of personal integrity. Certainly, we face the same financial challenges and cultural pressures as every other university, yet we have a reason and a hope that transcends those pressures and gives us a rudder by which to steer.



[1] George Kuh, “What We Are Learning About Student Engagement,” Change 35 (2003): 28.

[2] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 31.

[3] Academically Adrift, 13. Arum and Roksa cite the analysis of historian Julie Reuben to make this case; The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[4] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 423-24.

[5] “Undergraduate education is fundamentally a social experience.” This is the well documented conclusion of several studies; Academically Adrift, 59.