Search Results for colleges
Interesting video from The Chronicle of Higher Education showing speakers and attendees at the Chronicle‘s Leadership Forum, held on June 7-8 in Washington, D.C., hashing over the question of just how worried colleges ought to be about the economy, and how they ought to respond to the crisis.
Their bottom line: Brace for serious change.
Even if the economy doesn’t get worse, for higher education it will get worse in two years’ time. If the economy gets even worse, that’s yet another problem. And I’m even assuming the economy stays okay.
The key is to make tough decisions in good times. When bad times come, your hand is forced. You don’t have that many easy cuts to make. When it feels like you don’t have to make cuts, that’s when you need the discipline.
….I think right now people are behaving as if everything will be the way it used to be, and they’re not putting enough aside in reserve funds, and they’re engaging in short-term behavior just like our banks were doing two years ago. And so there will be major cuts coming for 2011. Or even if we have another stimulus, that stimulus won’t last forever. It will only postpone this day of reckoning. And it will happen. Right now we’re a bit blind. Short-termism.
Also see my three-part series about the future of America’s colleges in a world that has entered a quasi-permanent and fully apocalyptic economic crisis:
In the first post in this series, I talked about the economic crisis that will force and is currently forcing the realignment and, in many cases, the wholesale revisioning of many U.S. college and university plans. The overwhelming majority of America’s higher education institutions will have to make major changes — raising tuition, eliminating faculty, staff, and entire programs, shutting down campuses, cutting back on student and staff services, and much more — in order to survive the new depression. Many — such as in Washington, Louisiana, and California — already face major decisions. Many won’t succeed, and many that come out alive will do so in a vastly altered form.
(In fact, in the handful of days during which I have organized this post, new info has come flooding across the transom about colleges cutting and planning to cut programs and staff, raising rates, and so on in response to budget emergencies:
- Students pay more, may get less — The Arizona Republic, May 16
- Georgia State U cutting 300 staff positions — WALB, May 18
- Financing Gap Leaves Uncertain Future for U. of Texas’ Online Arm – The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18
- Utah Disbands E-Learning Consortium — The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18
- Higher education cuts could mean double-digit tuition hike — Minnesota Public Radio, May 18
- University of Washington slashes athletic budget — Philadelphia Daily News, May 14
And so on.)
In the second post I talked about the distinction between education, properly conceived as the inculcation of a certain literate, critical, and sensitive cast of mind, informed by important thoughts and ideas, and job training, which over the past several decades has come to serve in America’s high schools and colleges, and also (just as importantly) in standard public thought and discourse, as a counterfeit substitute for true education. I did this in response to the claim, which I have had personally addressed to me, that the death of many higher education institutions will be a good thing since “college is useless” insofar as it requires people to engage in economically unhelpful things like studying Shakespeare (for instance) instead of preparing them for the “real world” of work-job-career.
In this final installment I’ll continue with the themes broached in the second one by exploring further — in a more free-form and rantish manner — the muddle of principles and motivations that characterizes the current higher education system and leads directly to our current quagmire.
Revisiting the uselessness of Shakespeare
When I recently expressed the aforementioned thoughts about Shakespeare and the distinction between vocational training and a liberal education etc. to an online community, one of the responses that came back was this, which I repeat in closely paraphrased form:
“But I’m an accountant and have never had to quote Shakespeare while preparing tax returns. Sure, knowing the humanities might be a good thing as general preparation for living a meaningful life and all that, but I don’t think colleges ought to require students to read Shakespeare etc. in order to earn a technical degree. When I was going to college I had to pay my own way, and I didn’t appreciate being forced to spend money on classes that didn’t specifically teach the knowledge and skills that would advance me in my chosen professional path. That doesn’t mean I’m a Philistine. I’m middle-aged now, and I read Shakespeare, Dante, Dostoevsky, and so on for personal enjoyment. The thing is, I also enjoy fishing, too, but I wasn’t required to take it in college. Nor should I have been. And the same holds true for the humanities.”
I think this line of thought is hugely helpful and valuable, because it hits right at the heart of what’s wrong with how we have collectively come to think and talk about “the value of a college education,” and have come to redefine and reorient our higher education institutions accordingly.
Should purely academic subjects like literature, history, philosophy, higher mathematics, etc., be required studies for people who are pursuing post-secondary training programs for specific job and career fields? The answer, in a nutshell, is “Hell, no!” — unless those career fields are somehow specifically related to those studies.
But should those subjects be required studies for earning what used to be considered a standard bachelor’s degree? The answer, in another nutshell, is “Hell, yes!” — unless we’re happy to abandon completely the ideal of a liberal education and the type of person it produces — that is, the type of person represented by, say, our founding fathers or Martin Luther King, Jr.
The near universal muddling of this distinction has done incalculable harm to our collective educational situation.
Our educational (and cultural) tragedy
Our problem is that we have tried to collapse the two functions, providing a liberal education and providing job-and-career training, into a single higher education system that never should have been about job training at all, or at least not like it is today. The principle-level conflict was embedded deep in the situation right from the start. Think about it. It’s obvious. How can a college or university justify recruiting somebody for, say, a marketing degree, and then charge them outrageous and always-inflating tuition prices (which interface nicely with the always-inflating textbook prices) while forcing them to take survey courses in British literature or Western philosophy? The answer, of course, is that it’s not justifiable at all. Training in marketing methods or any other purely commerce-oriented field doesn’t require a knowledge of the neorealist poets or 18th century continental philosophers.
But the really tragic thing isn’t that so many people are forced to spend time and money on classes that they truly don’t need to take as practical preparation for their chosen career paths. Rather, the real tragedy, which is considerably more insidious, is simply this: that our current ridiculous practice of forcing those academic classes on people who are only going to college for post-secondary job training (as distinct from pursuing an authentic education) works in tandem with the overwhelming commerce-and-consumerism focus of our insane American culture to make it seem as if literature etc. really are vestigial traces of a now-defunct old way of doing college, and that they ought to be dropped in favor of the business courses and other technical job training. In short, Shakespeare comes to seem inherently useless when the raison d’être for college is redefined in terms of a value system (job training for corporate consumerism) according to which it really is nothing but a waste of time when you’re forced to read the Bard for college credit. This is the height of idiocy. And it’s what we’ve been doing with increasing intensity for decades.
To state it another way: For many years the traditional liberal arts have been finding themselves forced with increasing frequency to justify their continued existence and relevance in economic terms. I’m talking about all of the marketing chatter by religious studies departments and philosophy departments and literature departments about their wonderful track record of teaching people to think and write well, and their oh-so-inspiring claims that these will be really valuable skills for getting top-notch, high-paying jobs in — wait for it — the corporate world!
To which I say: Er . . . what? So, let me get this straight. If I’m fascinated by, say, religion, and am passionate about studying the anthropological, sociological, historical, philosophical, and general cultural phenomenon of it all, or if I’m fascinated by Shakespeare and want to devote four years to studying and writing about his life and works, then I’m supposed to be thrilled at the supposed utilitarian value of this passion for gaining me a job as a communications assistant at a bank? Methinks there’s something rotten here.
A further problem: How long can these programs and departments continue justifying themselves on such grounds when their very faculties don’t really believe or agree with them, since these very subjects of study tend, if allowed to speak for themselves and really get under a person’s skin, to inculcate a cast of mind that rejects or at least sees the vapidity of the whole über corporate-consumerist lifestyle?
Over the years this inbuilt contradiction in the philosophical principles that underlie the current shape of our higher education system has steadily hollowed out its soul and rightfully raised all kinds of objections and hard feelings. And that’s where I get around to agreeing, in much qualified form, with those who hail the onset of major crises in that system as a positive boon. I keep hoping that the current world-shifting troubles will act like dynamite on this whole bloated structure of stupidity that is our educational establishment, and will thereby force the culling of so very many things that it will prove impossible to avoid making very hard decisions, and that in the process our colleges (and high schools) may rediscover their own souls.
And that’s the crossroads that America’s colleges and universities find themselves standing at now, with no guarantees about which way they’ll decide to turn.
To college seniors: Everything you have been taught is wrong — thank God
That’s enough from me. As you finish reading my words, why not leave here and go read Sharon Astyk’s recent, brilliant (and hypothetical) college commencement address, “As you go out into the world” (May 15)? Ms. Astyk envisions telling an assemblage of graduating college seniors the following:
It is, I believe, conventional at college graduations to begin from the premise that those graduating are about to embark upon life in the “real” world – a venture that is supposed to be radically different than their carefree college years. The assumption is that the institution in question has given you what you need to embark upon a meaningful and productive future – you are wiser than when you came in, and perhaps more ethical, certainly fitted to the world of work. Now, I have been chosen to give you your very last bit of wisdom, something to carry with you into the future. So here is the sum total of that wisdom:
“Everything you have been taught to expect is wrong.”
She then goes on to talk about the exigencies involved in living through the new depression and the onset of the era of peak fossil fuels, diminished resources in general, and deindustrialization.
Also check out the commencement address delivered (in actual fact) a couple of weeks ago by renowned environmentalist, entrepreneur, visionary, and author Paul Hawken to the graduating class at the University of Portland. Hawken said, among other amazing thing:
Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation — but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.
. . . . When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.
. . . . This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.
The very fact that somebody really said such things very publicly, and that similar passionate insight is blossoming everywhere, may be grounds for expecting more than the worst.
See the previous installments in this series:
If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you might want to go back and catch up before reading this one.
A few weeks ago I posted a link to the article that forms the backbone of part one of this series — which, again, is “A Straight-Talk Survival Guide for Colleges” by Peter A. Facione — at a very popular online doomer forum. (For the uninitiated, that’s a forum devoted to discussing economic collapse, peak oil, global warming, the nexus of famine and water shortage and disease due to ecological overshoot in the human population, and other cheery topics clustered around a central theme of possible civilizational doom.) It sparked a lively discussion in which many participants expressed their disdain for the corporatization of America’s higher education system.
This is a criticism with which I heartily concur, but then it became apparent that a number of participants in the conversation were expressing their disdain not just for college in its current American form but for the idea of a college education at all. One person even mentioned that, as a professional accountant, he/she had never been obliged to “use” the knowledge of Shakespeare that he/she had gained in college literature courses, and therefore those classes “were a waste of time and money.” Some other people vigorously responded in protest, but the ideological meme was still out of the bag, and the idea that the imminent partial implosion of many of America’s colleges and universities is something to rejoice over because college is just a useless diversion from “real life” — and is inherently nothing more than this — was an in-my-face claim that demanded a response.
I don’t claim any special revelatory knowledge that qualifies me to offer such a response, but here goes:
As somebody who taught high school English for six years, currently teaches reading and writing at a community college, and has been building a career as a writer of fiction, reviews, essays, blogs, and scholarly work for the past 10 years or so, I’m painfully aware that the “Shakespeare is a waste of time” comment opens a proverbial can of worms that can’t easily be dealt with. I don’t know that anybody really has an answer to where the divide should lie or the divisions be made between education as job training and education as the informing and shaping of a person’s soul. But this difficult division is definitely the issue to which the claim in question points.
What’s not controversial, or at least it shouldn’t be at this late date, is the recognition that education in America at both the high school and college levels has been definitively conquered and shaped by two reigning ideologies: first, the attitude that equates education with job training, and second, the market-driven consumerist model, which mainly reigns at the college level.
Both are a form of brainwashing when applied universally and uncritically the way they are now. They have resulted in (so-called) educational institutions that are not only administered according to business-and-market principles but are administered for and by these principles. To run a college or university according to sound economic principles is necessary. To run it as a business and let its fundamental mission and outlook become market-driven is the death knell for real education.
The school of economic indoctrination
As a minority of the population already knows, the education-as-job-training meme was established at the public school level in the early 20th century. The model of today’s American public school system — with its strict age and grade divisions and its warehousing of kids into institutional settings where they’re isolated in separate rooms and moved around at the ringing of a bell — comes to us via a joint effort between the federal government and big business in the early 1900s that invented a system to assimilate immigrants, domesticate rustic farm kids, and prepare all of them for the drudgery and rigors of urban living and factory work. The idea that public schools are properly about job training has dominated our collective thinking ever since, and was given a huge boost by the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act under LBJ in the 1965, which really was the defining moment in solidifying the policy-based idea that everybody ought to graduate from high school (even though in actual practice this had already taken root in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, when economic recovery and advancement became linked for many people to the idea of a high school education). Before that, the stigma of not having a high school diploma was much less intense, and the relative economic value of such a diploma was much higher, owing to the simple workings of supply and demand. More high school diplomas means less value attaching to each one of them.
Then the idea arose from the 1970s up to the present day that, just as everybody ought to graduate from high school, everybody also ought to go to college or at least “some form of post-secondary training” (to quote the formulation that politicians repeat ad nauseam these days) in order to advance his or her economic status and help “keep America competitive in a global economy.” (Note that the “global economy” was only born circa 1970 anyway, largely due to policy decisions in the Nixon administration. But that’s another — but closely related — story.) Naturally, this devalued the high school diploma even further by transforming and demoting high school to the status of preparation for the real job training that was to come later.
Education vs. training
Just as significantly, the idea that what comes after high school — even four-year college degrees — is primarily about job training represents the most serious revisioning of collective attitudes toward education that has ever happened in this country. It’s emblematic of the total subjugation of our sense of self and our national identity to the market-driven, money-and-economy-centric model of life on earth. And since our brand of economics is pure consumerism, higher education has become the embodiment of that.
You don’t have to fancy yourself a bookish intellectual to recognize that the takeover of higher education by market models and values really is at odds with the idea of the traditional “liberal education.” This is a huge loss. In fact, as Albert Jay Nock argued so powerfully in the early 20th century, it really isn’t even correct to call such an approach “education,” since “education” properly means the inculcation of a certain sensitive, critical, and able cast of mind, informed by important and profound ideas, and this is an entirely different animal from education-as-job-preparation, which ought to be called what it is: training, not education.
Moreover, Nock offended militant democratic sensibilities everywhere by arguing that not all people are educable in that higher sense. The thing is, he was right, and that’s no slam to the uneducable, nor is it some special praise to the educable. It’s just a fact. Some people, it seems, are suited and even intended, via their natural abilities and inclinations, for education in the proper and high sense. Others aren’t. And our collective, robotized “send everybody to high school and college” attitude is absolutely toxic to the ideal of true education, and effectively kills the chance of its happening at either level, except as an exception. Real education in the current system happens not because of the system but in spite of it, among individuals whose need and desire and capability to be truly educated can’t be wiped out by a system that earnestly seeks to do so while refusing to see or acknowledge this unfortunate truth about itself.
(Note that I say this in full awareness of the damnable dangers and difficulties involved in trying to distinguish between people along these lines, and also in full awareness of such things as Earl Shorris’s brilliant work that led to the establishment of the still-astonishing Clemente Course in the Humanities, which exposes the cultural and institutional mechanisms that serve to maintain a permanent impoverished underclass in America by denying some people access to a liberal education and shunting them instead toward job training with fatuous “good intentions.” See Shorris’s classic 1997 essay for Harper’s, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.”)
Not incidentally, there’s a wide field of worthy writings about this very subject that ought to be ingested by anybody who wants to think about it with breadth and accuracy. Some of the ones that have informed my personal thoughts and feelings about this issue in a big way, and to which I direct interested all-comers, are:
- Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture. Berman has a good blog post from early last year that delves into some of what he talked about regarding education in that book: The Purpose of a Humanities Education.
- Albert Jay Nock, “The Value of Useless Knowledge” (1934), “American Education” (1931), and more.
- Mark Edmundson, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students” (1997).
- John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education (2001).
- J. Peder Zane, “Lack of Curiosity Is Curious” (2005), about the rise of intellectually incurious students in American colleges due to the job-and-economy-related insecurities of consumer culture and economic globalization.
- Paul Trout, “Student Anti-Intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of the University” (1997), about the inevitable dumbing down of university standards in the face of the impossible-to-deal-with flood of unprepared and disinclined high school graduates who really aren’t college material.
Note that Berman’s book contains the single passage that stands as the most compact and quintessential statement of the problem with current American educational ideology and praxis. It’s one that longtime readers of The Teeming Brain will remember from my previous references to it. And it’s one that confronts the “Shakespeare is useless” claim head-on.
Berman describes a job interview that he had for the position of publications editor with a large national education organization (almost certainly the NEA, as he only barely avoids stating outright) that proudly states its overall mission in terms of preparing students for social action and whatnot — a move for which it receives heavy corporate funding. The interview was conducted by the organization’s president. Berman says at one point in the interview he brought up the idea of knowledge for its own sake, “of knowing what makes oneself, and society, tick.” The president opined that such knowledge could only be useful as preparation for a contemplative and withdrawn life, which would of course conflict with the organiation’s goal of encouraging an education that produces engaged citizens. In response, Berman proceeded to explain — “Much as I might have to explain it to a college freshman,” he says — that he didn’t think this type of knowledge and the type of education designed to inculcate it is useless at all, since its goal is to expand and deepen a person’s sensibility, so that he or she can then participate vigorously in life but with a much better and broader understanding of the big picture and how he or she fits into it. He describes how the interviewer became almost angry at this and obviously couldn’t comprehend it. And he concludes:
This woman is a leader in the field of higher education, and she has literally no idea of the deeper meaning of a liberal education. Whereas my influence on higher education is nonexistent, hers is enormous. It’s not that through her influence students learn to scoff at a nonutilitarian notion of liberal education; rather, they never get to learn that such a notion even exists.
Coda: The upside of destruction
As for me, I can personally verify from my aforementioned six years in public high school teaching that nearly all teachers and administrators (but with a wonderful minority of dissidents) are caught up in the mindset Berman describes. I can also verify that the students are as well, and this applies to my current college students, too. When asked if they really think money and material comfort and making a living are the be-all, end-all of life, they vigorously say no. But their guiding attitude toward education, and toward the goals they articulate for their students or themselves as a result of this so-called education, belies that denial. And who can blame them? Economic times truly are difficult for so many people, and students really do want and need something to lift them out of their troubles. And the merciless assault of the propaganda about “improving education” (defined as raising test scores) in order to “increase/maintain/preserve America’s economic competitiveness in a global economy” is practically impossible to resist.
Still, I’m hoping that some of this attitude may be knocked out of the education scene by the convulsive economic troubles that have descended upon it. That’s the positive result we can hope, root, and work for, as distinct from the attitude that says, “Shakespeare is useless, college is stupid, let’s blow ’em all up and get back to what’s really important: Getting a ‘good job’ in the ‘real world.'”
But more realistically, I expect colleges, universities, and public schools to respond initially by continuing to play their market-oriented game, and to make all of their decisions amid the economic turmoil based on their tightly held self-image as big businesses instead of educational institutions properly conceived.
See the other installments in this series:
This is the first of a three-part series. (Also see parts 2 and 3.)In this post I’ll simply point to the problem and refer to a couple of recently published pieces that lay it out in bleak detail. In the next two, to be published over the course of this week, I’ll lay out some of my reactions.
* * * * *
America is in the midst of a real economic crisis. That’s not news. What may be news to some (although it probably isn’t) is that America’s colleges and universities are staggering right through the center of it.
According to education consultant and former university professor and administrator Peter A. Facione, America’s higher education institutions are going to have to buckle down and make hard decisions if they want to survive.
Note the stark emphasis: Colleges are in a fight not just to thrive but to survive. That’s how serious the crisis really and presently is, as argued by Facione in “A Straight-Talk Survival Guide for Colleges” (The Chronicle of Higher Education online, March 20, 2009).
He begins by diagnosing the situation in unflinching terms:
It is time for some straight talk, starting with the realization that organizations that can’t or won’t adapt will fail. This recession has caused many of the nation’s largest retailers, banks, airlines, manufacturers, and brokerage houses to do so. Millions of Americans have lost jobs and homes. Why would we think colleges, and those employed by them, would be exempt from the same fate? The market sorts itself out at times like these. Industries realign.
….[H]igher education is part of the larger economic system. There will be casualties, just as commercial businesses will fail and other worthy nonprofit organizations will go broke. If a state’s tax revenues fall by large percentages, given that the priorities of the states are usually public safety, unemployment support, transportation, basic services, and a balanced budget, then something will have to go. Often that something will be support for higher education.
….If you as a college administrator think you are in a sailboat during a gale, you are right.
Then he offers his prescription, which consists of a long list of recommended action steps, attitude shifts, institutional reorganizations, and policy changes for college and university administrators, faculty, and staff to make if they want to survive. These are fairly dramatic and include suspending programs, reducing salaries, imposing freezes on hiring and searches, closing campuses, and more.
Not incidentally, Bloomberg agrees about the severity of the problem, as explained in detail in a May 1 article:
[T]he American system of higher education is in turmoil….Independent colleges that lack a national name or must-have majors are hardest hit. Many gorged on debt for construction, technology and creature comforts. Now, as endowments tumble and bills mount, they’re struggling to attract cash-strapped families who are navigating their own financial woes. Such mid-tier institutions may be forced to change what they do to survive. In the best case, they’ll merge with bigger schools, sell themselves to for-profit organizations or offer vocational training that elite colleges eschew, says Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst at the College Board. In the worst case, they’ll shutter their doors for good (“Colleges Flunk Economics Test as Harvard Model Destroys Budgets“).
Briefly, and in anticipation of what I’ll talk about in the next post in this series, I’ll say that when I read this kind of thing I can’t help thinking of what the likes of, e.g., Kunstler and Greer and Berman have been saying off and on for years about the non-future of the American higher education scene in its current form. I also can’t help noticing that Facione and the Bloomberg reporter naturally think and talk in terms of market conditions, competition, the market “sorting itself out,” and all of that. I know, of course, that it really is necessary to devote attention to this “nuts and bolts” end of things — but I also keep hoping to read something in a mainstream publication like The Chronicle or Bloomberg that doesn’t just talk the same old tired economic language of business as usual but recognizes the need for an explosive paradigm shift away from the higher education world’s pervasive current model of college as a purely market-driven enterprise.
But I’ll say more about these matters in the next installment. Check back in a couple of days.
See the next installments in this series:
Here’s media studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan making the case for recognizing the reality of an academic/scholarly calling — in the authentic religious vocational sense — in the midst of a neoliberal age obsessed with the economic and political concerns of the so-called “real world”:
In the United States, and increasingly in the world at large, we tend to reduce the conversation about the value, role, and scope of the scholarly life to how it serves short-term and personal interests like career preparation or job training. Sometimes we discuss higher education as an economic boon, attracting industry to a particular location or employing thousands in a remote town. Or we probe it as an engine of research and innovation. And sometimes we use academia as a tableau for satire or social criticism when we expose the excesses of the lazy and self-indulgent professoriat or giggle at the paper titles at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.
But none of these appraisals of the life of the mind gets at the real heart of the matter: the now quaint-sounding matter of the university’s “mission” — the bigger-picture question of what our institutions of higher learning do for and with the world.
. . . Within every great American university, even MIT, there is a monastery. It’s at its core. Sometimes the campus walls and spires make that ancestry undeniable. More often, the stadiums, sweatshirt stores, laboratories, fraternity houses, and career-placement offices mask the monastery. But it’s still there. European universities emerged from the network of monasteries that had accumulated, preserved, copied, and catalogued texts and scrolls over centuries. The transformation from cloistered monastery to slightly less cloistered university occurred in fits and starts over three centuries. But by the eighteenth century, universities throughout Europe were able to converse about this new thing called science and reflect on the meaning and utility of ancient texts that bore new meaning at the dawn of an industrial age.
Early American colleges and universities were likewise religious institutions built to train clergy to serve a sinful people. Soon they took on an additional role: exposing idle sons of the landed gentry such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to dangerous books coming over from Europe.
. . . [But today] When we scholars explain our passions — the deep satisfaction we feel when we help a nineteen-year-old make a connection between the Mahabharata and The Iliad, or when our research challenges the surprising results of some medical experiment that the year before generated unwarranted headlines — many of our listeners roll their eyes like my fellow students did back in that classroom in 1995. How embarrassing that people find deep value in such uncountable things.
It’s been a couple of decades since any American faculty member could engage in the deep pursuit of knowledge untethered from the clock or calendar. But many of us still write for the guild and the guild only, satisfied that someday someone might find the work a valuable part of a body of knowledge. But if that never happens, so be it — it’s all part of the calling’s steep price of admission.
Image: “Medieval writing desk” [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The “practical beginner’s guide” to H. P. Lovecraft that I published here last month has received a lot of attention and traffic, but not all of it has been necessarily positive. One observer, Teeming Brain regular xylokopos, commented, “What is the point of this detailed, beforehand investigation into the man’s life and correspondence[?] . . . . Doing any sort of online research in advance of reading the stories, will do the reader a major disservice. Why approach Lovecraft with already formed ideas about his themes and motivations?”
I certainly understand and sympathize with the criticism. Even before I clicked the “publish” button on that post, I noticed that I had given the prospective Lovecraft reader a fairly heavy load of introductory material. Chalk it up to my natural bent as a professional teacher of writing and literature, which leads me to focus on the undeniable fact that the very worthy work of a great many authors, and also of many other types of artists, isn’t readily accessible to a lot of people’s sensibilities.
Sometimes this hindrance is due to an inherent quality of idiosyncrasy, complexity, or some other sort of difficulty in the work itself. Sometimes it’s due to the passage of time, which has made an author or artist’s basic style, cast of thought, and/or cultural worldview remote and strange. Sometimes, as in the case of Lovecraft, it’s because of all this and more. Lovecraft, in addition to living and writing nearly a century ago, deliberately wrote in an antique and even archaic style, and to call his basic tropes and themes “idiosyncratic” is a gross understatement. Many modern readers who have heard of him approach his work eagerly at first but then bounce off in boredom, incomprehension, and disappointment.
This is why I think there’s definitely a place for the formal type of introduction that I laid out in my post. The “classroom”-type approach is intended to help a person by giving enough contextual information to facilitate an authentic appreciation and enjoyment of a given author, artist, or work of art or literature. Yes, when done poorly it can be insufferably pedantic, but when done well it can be a wonderful thing. Or at least it has been a wonderful thing for me personally, on the several occasions when I’ve been fortunate to have excellent teachers who introduced me to life-changing discoveries.
That said, I do take xylokopos’s criticism to heart, and I’m perfectly happy to admit that I myself have had many wonderful literary and artistic experiences by skipping the classroom approach and simply diving right into someone’s work.
I think the fact that this has all been on my mind in recent weeks may explain why two recently published essays that would have caught my attention anyway managed to catch it with extra sharpness. Each says something, and says it very well, about the danger of killing art and literature by playing the pedant and refusing to give the works a chance to speak for themselves. So of course I want to share them with you. Read the rest of this entry
In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Dr. Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, examines the way in which America’s liberal arts colleges, which have traditionally been based on “a uniquely American higher education ideal” embodied in “small classes led by professors devoted to teaching and mentoring, in a community dedicated to learning,” and which “produce a stunningly large percentage of America’s leaders in virtually every field of endeavor,” have come under assault by the culture-wide shift toward vocational education. Here’s the official description of the book and its argument by its publisher, Harvard University Press:
A former college president trained in law and economics, Ferrall shows how a spiraling demand for career-related education has pressured liberal arts colleges to become vocational, distorting their mission and core values. The relentless competition among them to attract the “best” students has driven down tuition revenues while driving up operating expenses to levels the colleges cannot cover. The weakest are being forced to sell out to vocational for-profit universities or close their doors. The handful of wealthy elite colleges risk becoming mere dispensers of employment and professional school credentials. The rest face the prospect of moving away from liberal arts and toward vocational education in order to survive.
Yesterday in a brief piece for Pacific Standard, Dr. Ferrall argued — compellingly, I think — that this trend has dire implications for an American polity already afflicted by a raging pathology: Read the rest of this entry