• Silvio Bär

A Sad Victory For Anti-Intellectualism

Aktualisiert: Juni 30

When I moved from Switzerland (my home country) to Norway in July 2014 in order to take up a position as a Professor of Classics at the University of Oslo, I was determined that I was not going to speak out publicly on Norwegian politics unless I was going to adopt Norwegian citizenship. And, when I started this blog in November 2019, I vowed to myself that I was never going to write about politics – my blog should remain strictly academic in nature, directed at a general audience that is interested in my discipline. But, as they say, there is no rule without an exception – and thus I am breaking both of my promises today.

What is it that made me change my mind? On 9 June 2020, the Norwegian parliament (“stortinget”) decided to implement a new financing model for Norwegian universities and polytechnics (“høgskoler”) that takes as one of its incentives the question of whether or not students of a specific discipline find a “relevant job after graduation” (“relevant arbeid etter endt studie”). In other words, those disciplines that produce students who get a relevant job later receive more money from the big pot whereas those disciplines that fail to do so are allocated less. A most unusual alliance of three parties that otherwise have little in common – the social-democratic “Labour Party” (Arbeiderpartiet [Ap]), the libertarian right-wing “Progress Party” (Fremskrittspartiet [Frp]) and the agrarian centrist “Centre Party” (Senterpartiet [Sp]) – was able to outvote the minor coalition of the ruling parties that were against the new model.

While collaboration between party borders is generally a good sign of a functioning democracy with a pragmatic, non-ideological approach, the premises as well as the consequences of this resolution are problematic. Let us first look at the rhetoric behind this “relevant job after graduation” claim. In classical rhetoric (i.e., the rhetorical theory that goes back to ancient authorities such as Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian), this would be called an enthymeme. An enthymeme is a rhetorical syllogism where the underlying major premise of the logical conclusion is not articulated – a simple, often cited textbook example is the statement “Socrates is human, hence he is mortal”: the major, unsaid premise here is that all humans are mortal. In our case, the truncation is even more extreme: the claim that all graduates from tertiary education should get a “relevant job after graduation” presupposes two premises, namely, for one, that all tertiary educational institutions are vocational schools, and, for another, that vocational schools should lead to a relevant job. And hence the conclusion: all graduates from tertiary education should get a relevant job after graduation.

An enthymeme is a very powerful rhetorical tool because it does not impose its premise upon its audience; rather, it makes the audience deduce the premise. Hence, the illusion is created that the premise must be true because the audience has seemingly hit on it by independent thinking. That way, a rhetorician can make sure that an unspoken claim is silently accepted by their audience. This is exactly what has happened here. While one of the two premises – that vocational schools should lead to a relevant job – surely can be accepted as true, the other one – that all tertiary educational institutions (i.e., both universities and polytechnics) are places of vocational training that prepare students for a specific job – must be challenged.

It is of course true that universities traditionally have hosted some of the most demanding and most prestigious vocational trainings (one needs to attend university in order to become e.g. a physician or a lawyer). Yet, the general idea of a traditional university is that of a place of independent thinking and rigorous intellectual challenge and exchange, advanced through research and communicated through (research-based) teaching. This idea stems, more or less directly, from Plato’s Academy in Athens that was founded in 387 B.C. and that existed for approximately a thousand years (the name of Plato’s Academy is also the reason why people who work in higher education are still called “academics” today).

It seems evident that today, the notion of universities as places of free thinking and free research first and foremost applies to the humanities. The influential German-American literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has famously identified the cultivation of “counterintuitive thinking” as the principal value of all humanities: “Counterintuitive thinking, I argue, has a chance of acquiring the status and the merit of riskful thinking, because it can engage in thought experiments whose uncertain outcome has the potential for innovation.” However, mutatis mutandis the same notion can (and should) also be an integral part of any other academic discipline. Anyone who attends a university, irrespective of faculty and discipline, should be challenged and encouraged to “riskful thinking” and “thought experiments”. This is what lies at the heart of academic freedom – which is a fundamental tenet of research and teaching in higher education, and which is, in a wider sense, also connected to some basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Now, it could of course be argued that even the world’s best counterintuitive thinker needs food and a roof over their head all the same. Yet, humanities do not produce a large mass of unemployed (and unemployable) free thinkers who scratch a living as taxi drivers, as the cliché has it. On the contrary, it has been shown that university graduates with a degree in a humanities discipline are equally employable as graduates from other fields such as science, law, economics, etc. Consequently, the idea of unemployable humanities graduates is largely a modern myth; the main problem is probably just the fact that myths and prejudices often develop a life of its own and therefore are believed to be true although they have been falsified.

The main issue with the “relevant job after graduation” claim, as I see it, is the little word “relevant”. As demonstrated above, talking about a “relevant job after graduation” implies that higher education automatically means vocational training. But what is even worse, in my opinion, is the lack of recognition of an education that is non-vocational and non-linear and that does not straightforwardly lead to a specific profession; an education that instead offers thorough academic training and, through this, provokes “riskful thinking” and “thought experiments”. This, in turn, helps a student to develop transferable skills that are of great value in numerous professions for which there is no specific vocational training. Typically, these professions include leadership positions of all sorts, counseling, human resources recruitment, public relations, the publishing sector, journalism, diplomatic service, and many more (some more unusual job opportunites can be found here).

But let us return to Norway’s new financing model for universities and polytechnics. Driving forces behind the new model are, amongst others, Nina Sandberg (Ap), a political scientist, and Roy Steffensen (Frp), a former salmon farmer. Both are members of the Norwegian parliament and belong to the Standing Committee on Education and Research. While Sandberg rejects the accusation that the resolution was meant to be directed against humanities and instead reassures that “society needs both philosophers and engeneers” (“samfunnet trenger både filosofer og ingeniører”) (a claim with which I wholeheartedly agree), Steffensen says essentially the opposite. In the respected Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, he is cited with these words: “I do not think that many have been calling for philosophers in the last two months. One has been calling for care workers.” (“Jeg tror ikke mange har ropt etter filosofer de siste to månedene. Man har ropt etter helsearbeidere.”)

I have long been thinking about how I should respond to this statement. One way to respond would be to leave it completely uncommented because it is not valid. Rhetorically, this kind of reasoning is a non sequitur (Latin for “it does not follow”): two unrelated points are connected although there is no inherent connection between them (here: the fact that there has been a shortage of care workers during the peak of the corona crisis has nothing to do with the question of whether studying philosophy is sensible or not). Another way to respond would be to make a point about the actual benefit of a degree in philosophy (or in any other humanities discipline, for that matter). Ironically, it is exactly in the context of the ongoing global health situation that a need for people who have studied the fundamental questions of life and existence has been resurged. Ethics is an important branch of philosophy, and ethical issues have been hotly debated since the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes excruciating questions such as who should be given priority of access when the increased demand for health care could no longer be sustained with the available resources, or general problems relating to the (temporary) limitation of (personal as well as collective) basic rights (such as freedom of movement).

However, what worries me most about Steffensen’s statement is that it is deeply anti-intellectual. Of course I do not suggest that all politicians should be intellectuals (after all, in a parliamentary democracy the members of parliament should represent the entire population). But the global devaluation of people who see a value in “riskful thinking” and “thought experiments” is highly problematic. In addition to this, it creates an artificial disjunction between ‘theoreticians’ and ‘practitioners’, and it ignores the fact that the former may be of very concrete, practical value in many circumstances (as the example of the ethical challenges provoked by the corona crisis shows). The resolution of the Norwegian parliament is a sad victory for anti-intellectualism.

I have used the tools of classical rhetoric to dismantle the rhetorical fallacies that lie behind the “relevant job after graduation” claim and behind Steffensen’s argument about the alleged uselessness of humanists for society. Rhetoric is perhaps one of the best examples that demonstrates that a dichotomy between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ does, for the most part, not exist at all, but that it is a purely rhetorical(!) construction. I am going to teach a course on ancient rhetoric in Autumn 2020 at the University of Oslo, and I would like to invite Roy Steffensen (and any other politicians) to sign up for it. I promise that it will be relevant – for, I will use examples from contemporary politics to illustrate my points.

The view presented in this blog is my private opinion. All English translations from Norwegian phrases are mine. Please send me your feedback on this blog entry.


UPDATE: An abridged Norwegian version of this text was published in the Norwegian online magazine Minerva on 30 June 2020.

Raphael (1483–1520), The School of Athens (painted between 1509 and 1511). The painting was commissioned as a decoration of a room in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican in Rome. It displays nearly all important philosophers from ancient Greece, with Plato and Aristotle in the centre. Picture from Wikipedia (public domain).

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