The Politics of Education and thernMetaphysics of Emptinessrnby Stephen A. EricksonrnThe president of a prominent liberal arts college recentlyrnconveyed to its philosophy department (and to other constituencies)rnthat regulations may soon be in place which wouldrninfluence, if not altogether control, the conferring of bachelor’srndegrees. Mandated by the federal government, these “guidelines”rnwould have a strongly utilitarian bias. However supportivernthis might be to the sciences and the social sciencesrn(chemistry and economics, for example) it is likely to harm thernhumanities. These (as of late, curiously self-destructive) disciplinesrnare likely to contract, perhaps even shrink, both in sizernand in influence.rnThis should not surprise us. Sputnik alarmed the countryrnabout its global military competitiveness, rather irrationallyrnsweeping the humanities along with the hard sciences intornwhat was quantitatively an educational boom. A rising tide isrnsaid to lift all boats, and the educational bull market of thernpost-Sputnik era made advanced degrees in any and everyrnfield common and plentiful commodities, compromising excellencernin the process and, rather tragically, breaking many anrnaspiring academic job applicant’s heart. Especially in the humanities,rnsupply rather quickly and devastatingly outstrippedrndemand, and this when it had already long been unclear whatrnneeds the supply was meant to meet. Were these needsrnmerely institutional, or were they in some deeper sense educational,rnor even metaphysical?rnNow in the 90’s, the terrors of a lingering, largely whitecollarrnrecession and a quiet but growing anxiety over foreignrninfluence in our capital markets have sounded a different call.rnIn the name of enhanced global economic competitiveness, therntrumpet sounds educational retreat, best known as eurricularrnretrenchment and restructuring, and where else first to down-rnStephen A. Erickson is a professor of humanities andrnphilosophy at Pomona College.rnsize than in the humanities, where bread is neither baked norrneven much eaten anymore but is mostly theorized about as arnpossible object of production and consumption—if, that is, itrnwere prepared by previously “marginalized” and gastronomicallyrnand politically correct bakers, 40-some percent of whomrnare to be women and about 30 percent non-Euroameriean. Ingredientsrnthemselves are to be gathered from previously “oppressed”rnsources (and by previously oppressed gatherers), andrntheir gathering must be environmentally nondisruptive andrnsexually nondiscriminating. In these requirements, incidentally,rnthere may be some genuine virtues, but in the meantimernlittle bread is getting baked and even less is reaching any student’srntable, except, that is, as an exainple of a kind of breadrnthat is not to be preferred over any other.rnSomewhat separately from the college president’s all toorneasily confirmable message, something slightly less visible hasrnalso been happening in the humanistic bakery and, morernimportantly, on those administrative drawing boards wherernhumanistic bakeries are now being remodeled and their staffingrnreconsidered. In accelerating increments, value-oriented discussionsrnare receding from view in the academy, gettingrndiscouraged if not subtly punished. It is not hard, though nornless painful, to understand why. Such discussions often implyrnchoices based upon evaluations of better and worse, commendablernand contemptible, promising and pointless, or evenrnthe more truncated Nietzschean categories of life-enhancingrnand life-denying. And these discussions are invariably guidedrnby deep commitments to first principles and to ultimates.rnThese latter are seldom adjudicable through further “argument,”rnthough they are often illuminated and even transformedrnin the clash of perspectives and convictions. At suchrn”clash points” serious dialogue must ensue; much is put at risk,rnand much also ends up devalued, if not rejected. But in an environmentrnwhere power and “empowerment” are themselvesrn26/CHRONICLESrnrnrn