It turns not not everything J.S. Mill wrote continues to read like it was written last week.
Of course, in some ways nothing he wrote reads that way; philosophers no longer write like Mill (which is mostly to the detriment of philosophy), and naturally enough he often makes reference to political and cultural phenomena that have long since changed. It’s in the generalities that so much of what he says could have been written last week, or yesterday, or tomorrow. The following, however, definitely could not have been:
The proper function of a University in national education is tolerably well understood. At least there is a tolerably general agreement about what a University is not. It is not a place of professional education. Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings…Whether those whose specialty they are, will learn them as a branch of intelligence or as a mere trade, and whether, having learned them, they will make a wise and conscientious use of them or the reverse, depends less on the manner in which they are taught their profession, than upon what sort of minds they bring to it — what kind of intelligence, and of conscience, the general system of education has developed in them. Men are men before they are lawyers, or physicians, or merchants, or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men, they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers or physicians. What professional men should carry away with them from a University, is not professional knowledge, but that which should direct the use of their professional knowledge, and bring the light of general culture to illuminate the technicalities of a special pursuit. Men may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers – who demand, and are capable of apprehending, principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details. And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included. Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses. – Inaugural Address at St. Andrews (1867)
I have Internet access, and so I know that there is nothing so absurd that somebody isn’t typing it right now into a combox somewhere. But certainly nobody who knows anything about higher education in the United States today would write these things, except perhaps as cruel parody. In fact, one of the precious few things that mainstream politicians of both of our major parties agree on is that what Mill says here is false; their public rhetoric and their policy decisions show that they very much regard universities and colleges as places of “professional education,” intended to give people “some special mode of gaining their livelihood.” They know that they’re not trade schools; they don’t prepare you for some particular line of work like carpentry or plumbing or medicine or law. But the point of going to college is to get a good job, dammit. Of course, one reason they say these things is that their constituents believe them, but I suspect most of the politicians do too. I suppose there must be some politicians out there who not only believe, but publicly say, that higher education is or should be intended not to prepare people to make money, but to cultivate knowledge and intellectual virtue for their own sake. I haven’t heard them say it, but I freely admit I don’t stay up late at night watching CSPAN to make sure I’m up on the latest political rhetoric.
Politicians might also at times gesture toward the idea that higher education helps to prepare people for responsible democratic citizenship, but I haven’t heard that one from politicians very often (it’s dangerous, after all, for a politician to suggest that people without college education are less likely to be good democratic citizens). Further, while it’s closer to agreement with Mill — Mill thinks that good citizenship is part of what higher education should promote — it’s a far cry from the whole of what he has in mind. Mill thinks education should aim at the cultivation of the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic capacities of human beings, and that it should aim at this not as a mere means useful for bringing about something else, but for its own sake as an end in itself. And, details aside, he thinks of that as uncontroversial. Hence he spends most of the address considering how much and what kind of attention should be given to classical languages and literature, to the natural sciences, to logic, to religion, to poetry. In all of those respects, he takes himself to be presenting a contentious view, one among many rival alternatives. By contrast, the basic assumption that higher education is not professional training or preparation for earning a living — the assumption denied today, explicitly or implicitly, by most politicians and a good many ordinary people as well — is, for Mill, the subject of “tolerably general agreement.”
My goal here isn’t to argue in defense of the view that Mill took for granted; anyone who wants to read some good articulations of the ideals of liberal education against today’s opinio communis should read Kelly Dean Jolley and Roderick T. Long’s Two Lectures on the Idea of a University. It’s rather to show that times really have changed, and Mill is in some ways very much not our contemporary. Of course, that’s hardly a surprise. But the nature of this change might raise some, erm, complications for Mill’s optimism about the progressive tendencies of historical development. Here we are, 150 years since Mill delivered his address at St. Andrews, and the basic assumption about higher education that Mill took for granted seems, at least at times, to be on its last legs. We don’t have to worry that the spirit of liberal education will die out completely, but we may well soon come to see so-called colleges and universities reduced to professional schools and centers for research with direct practical applications. Perhaps Mill could find a way to regard that as progress.