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It's back-to-school season, which is why U.S. President Barack Obama took a moment, in the midst of the Syrian gas-attack crisis, to propose a solution to the debt crisis in American postsecondary education. Speaking at the University of Buffalo in mid-August, Mr. Obama promised to create an alternative ranking system for colleges and universities, based not on selectivity or facilities, but on concrete outcomes such as graduation rates and postconvocation earnings.

Given the spiralling costs of university education, and the punitive debt loads shouldered by many students, even as job rates for graduates are stalling, the plan is obviously timely. The current college-finance situation has been compared to locking a generation of young people in a barn and then setting fire to it. Even with aggressive aid programs and more attention to bang-for-buck in choosing a school, affordable college education for a diverse population looks like a thing of the past.

The most controversial part of the proposal would tie federal aid to the ratings, such that underperforming schools might lower or lose their federal grants. Unfortunately, this immediately creates perverse incentives for schools to value graduation rates over quality, exactly contradicting the "learning outcomes" part of the ratings logic. Worse, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, much of the data needed for the ratings, including postgraduate earning levels and debt-to-earnings ratios, is protected from collection under the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Releasing the data will require a challenge in court.

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The various White House spokespeople who defended the new, cost-conscious ratings did not mention these awkward facts. They spoke, instead, of the magic cost-cutting effects of using "adaptive technologies" in higher education. As those of us on the front lines of education know, it is not at all clear that these technologies, whatever they are, will actually save money, except perhaps by cutting teaching staff. On the other hand, we now know – ha! – that laptop use in classrooms actually leads to lower grades.

One person who clearly understands adaptive technologies is Donald Trump, who made the other higher-ed headline in August. The state of New York is suing Mr. Trump for $40-million over claims that his private, for-profit university had defrauded students. "What I learned there I could read on the Internet," one student complained. Yes, New Yorkers have seen the future of higher education, and its name is #YouGotTrumped.

"Higher education cannot be a luxury," Mr. Obama argued in his defence of the ratings system; it is "an economic imperative." And yes, despite recent employment dips both here and south of the border, the data consistently show that graduates earn more over their lifetimes than non-graduates. There are few more effective levers of social mobility.

But the force of "learning outcomes" as a metric of quality extends far beyond these undeniable economic facts. Many university administrators already believe that every single program offered by every single department must be judged by whether it achieves a set of specific, bureaucratically approved ends: critical reasoning skills, analytic acuity, socio-cultural awareness, quantitative ability.

I get it: Students and parents have to choose, and administrators feel compelled to measure. But when it comes to valuing education, no ratings system or outcomes table can actually penetrate the mystery of why learning is good. When I try to isolate the one outcome that captures education's true value – formal and otherwise, higher or not – the best single candidate I can think of is not something quantifiable, nor even a particular idea or set of them: a sense of irony.

I don't mean the fly in your chardonnay, or the rain on your wedding day "irony." Sorry, Alanis, that's not irony, just unpleasant happenstance. I don't even mean the smart-ass self-awareness that sometimes passes for irony: what David Letterman tearfully renounced after 9/11. No, I mean something more like what the character Patrick Melrose, in Edward St. Aubyn's novel At Last (2011), identified as his most unshakable addiction: "Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning."

Irony of this sort can indeed be addictive. But it is also liberating, joyful, and militant. Reading Plato and Kierkegaard – also Chesterton and Wodehouse, Pynchon and Rorty, Zizek and David Foster Wallace – arouses feelings of difference that shake us out of habit and received wisdom, an appreciation of duality that forces me to confront the serious business of being a person.

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Irony of this kind is the opposite of ideology, that bastion of catastrophic fixed meanings. As such, it is a virtue of the democratic imagination, an invitation to think differently, opt out, depart from imposed narratives, be a happiness delinquent. And that's what education is for, finally. Ironically, you can pay for the opportunity but you can't put a price on the outcome.

The Spanish writer Gian Vincenzo Gravina: "A bore is a person who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company." Spending time with the right kind of book or teacher shows us the parallel definition. An ironist is a person who enhances your solitude with company.

Guess which one Donald Trump is.

Mark Kingwell teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Unruly Voices: Essays in Democracy, Civility and the Human Imagination.

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