Consumers, Apprentices, Failed Universities


I have no complaints about living in Maine. I find good music, good restaurants, good friends in the small city of Portland.

I’ve taught inland and upstate in Bangor – just this side of Old Town, home of the classic canvas canoes I grew up with and rigged for sailing in a tidal river that opens on Buzzards Bay. That inlet-laced coast reminds me of the Maine Coast. There’s an older, slower, pace to life here.

th-2All this nostalgia and good vibes just got shaken a tad as I read a sales pitch to prospective students and parents considering the University of Maine’s flagship campus in Bangor.

The campus green is a Frederick Law Olmsted design.  It has a rural Ivy look. That doesn’t soften the greeting headlined on the web site.

This top administrator announces, quite cheerily, that the school does not cater to students — fair enough, there’s no need to pamper. Rather, he reports, it caters to “Student Consumers.”  Really!

In a decade of post-high school education I only consumed books and meals, never a course. I never bought one thing from a professor. I was a learner, not a purchaser. Paying tuition wasn’t purchasing a class or classes, it was an entrance fee for a carnival of academic experiences and disciplines.

Exposed to a brilliant and passionate professor, a course could consume me, but that’s a different matter: no cash was involved. I considered the lectures to be gifts.




Colleges and Universities, in my book, are a welcome retreat from consumerism. I stayed in retreat from buying and commerce when I joined the professoriate for the next several decades of my life.

If students are consumers, professors are in sales. I didn’t sell my colleagues’ work and I didn’t sell mine — either to my colleagues or to my students. There were no bargain sales or places to return damaged goods.

Colleges and Universities aren’t malls where you purchase things that please, nor are they legal or medical offices where, in special need, you buy specific services.

So what are they?

th-1Cynics might say, bars and dating malls, fashion and sports centers, party spots and pot fairs. In the last decade or so they’ve been a preferred site for massacres and lock downs.

The Great State of Texas just made it legal for students and professors to pack guns on campus. Teachers better not upset armed exam-takers or PhD defenders or disgruntled lecture-hall attendees. Perhaps distinguished professors will learn to be quick on the draw. Or take their learning out-of-state. Student consumers become student shooters.

Of course when violence abates, campuses  might best be seen as well-organized training grounds for the troops, the masters and servants needed to serve the industrial, bureaucratic, consumerist state.


Up a few levels, I’d rather think — very unrealistically and nostalgically, I’m sure — of Universities 1and Colleges as offering medieval apprenticeships in reading and writing, in painting or philosophy, in physics or history. I have a pre-modern fantasy of the university.

You don’t exactly buy the experience you get in a three or four-year novitiate or apprenticeship, though a certificate of accomplishment is worth something. And you can’t sell that experience or certificate on an open market, collecting cash for it, though it might translate into a desirable career shift.

An apprenticeship is not dropped off, or sold off, like a used car when you’re tried of it and want something flashier.

I don’t like being cast as a salesman hawking goods. And I don’t hire out for piecework — so many dollars a head per hour of service.

Although I get paid for my work, I don’t bill my clients – they’re not my clients, they’re my apprentices.



I like the idea of a college or university providing apprenticeships that allow you to learn a discipline under the tutelage of trusted masters of their craft.

thJoining a college or university is closer to joining a conservatory of music, yoga institute or museum, a summer writing or great books program. Paying the admission tuition is not buying goods and services.

With any luck, one gets first hand exposure to ways of expression and inquiry that broaden and deepen a soul (my pre-modern sentiments, again). It’s a gift, not a purchase.

Living well is a craft, or set of crafts, mastered (to the extent that it is) over a lifetime, and made available through apprenticeships where learning and character and culture rub off on the novitiate.  We all are apprentices to those who are ahead of us down the path, and masters to those behind who spot what we can offer.

Of course getting trained in medicine or computer science or environmental restoration is fine. It’s vocation-specific.  But undergraduate education shouldn’t be limited to vocational or career training.

th-1The classical crafts of wisdom, of self-shaping, soul-tuning, and political savvy are explored in Plato’s dialogues.

The crafts of appreciating novels and scriptures and symphonies, under the tutelage of masters, are equally valuable, food for the soul.

And there are studio and performance classes where crafts that enrich self and soul are passed on. We feel gratitude for a gift rather than pride in getting something on sale.

These gifts are not on a par with acquiring technical skill at balancing books, applying calculus or trig, or running a good lab experiment.


Colleges and universities can address cultural and existential needs. A Socratic address, tutelage rather than consumption of services, an invitation to dialogue, bespeaks care for the soul, preparation for death, cultivating commitments and critiques and ways of being. Too many have come to look like industrial parks more than musty hideouts for self-seekers and passionate scholars.

Unfortunately, a university’s compartmentalized disciplines, its indulgence of unnecessary technical jargon, and its valorizing detached and largely “objective” research agendas have darkened hope for the give-and-take of Socratic conversation, or the instruction in seeing and feeling that’s provided by the best literary and cultural critics.

Huge technological and market forces push a Socratic presence even further from the university and pull in the travesty of consuming students lined up for technical training.


The Mediterranean is a bowl of contrasting cultures – Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Muslim, Christian, Roman, African (the list goes on) — that gives us shifting narratives of peoples in cooperation, indifference, and conflict, in trade and in war and inevitable cultural exchange.

I’ve always thought the island of Malta, floating in the middle of this cultural swirl, would be a good place to study collaborative and competing cultures, peoples, nations and religions, over time.

It’s not so far from Cordoba th-3in southern Spain where a few centuries ago Christian alcoves were integrated amiably into a grand Mosque and where Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher, lived and wrote unhampered.

I decided to google the university to get details of this sweeping story, if I could.


Here’s the stark greeting: “The University of Malta is geared towards the infrastructural and industrial needs of the country so as to provide expertise in crucial fields.

Where are details of trade and religion, of language and city-building, of intricate wars and periods of peace? The humanities and arts seem unfunded and forgotten. Cognition is restricted to its instrumental roles. Imaginative variation and lyrical perception fall to the dust heap.

th-4There is nothing left of the old-time vision of a university as a sanctuary for curates of past lives — their intricate heritages welcomed or rejected by this culture and the next.

Nor does this mission statement honor futures flowing in, nor the ordeal of taking the next tremulous step into an unknown where questions are so much more telling than answers and even silence has its place.

th-5There is no vision of preserving this Van Gogh crow, this line from Rilke, this Socratic exchange, this invocation from Virginia Woolf, this Hepburn moment.

Tutelage from masters can expose novices, apprentices, and men-and-women journeying — to this gasp of Lear’s fury, this plea from Kierkegaard for a knowledge that will “come alive in me,” or this gasp from Einstein: “Now I believe in God!” (on hearing Nathan Milstein then a young violin prodigy in concert).


The landscape is shorn of forests and groves where we can husband, care for, and shelter the mysteries and gifts of life’s sufferings and exhilarations, declines and renewals.

Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009. – See more at:

Credits: The top photo is not of U Maine, Orono, but has the flavor of that campus.    The other images (from Google) are randomly picked to evoke mood and places, not to convey verisimilitude to anything more. Each will incite reverie, I hope.

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