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Awake inside the American Nightmare

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

Education and the pleasure of thinking

Edith Hamilton — a worthy intellectual companion indeed — once said something that ought to be emblazoned on the wall of every classroom and discussed at length by every teacher and teacher-wannabe, so wonderfully does it encapsulate a vital truth that cuts neatly through the endless layers of bullshit that encrust the contemporary theory and praxis of education:

It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education, so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated (from The Saturday Evening Post, September 27, 1958).

This is more than tangentially related to a famous and worthwhile observation from Sydney J. Harris:

The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one’s mind a pleasant place in which to spend one’s leisure.

Oh, how I wish these subversive (in the contemporary environment) quotes could be dropped like philosophical bombs on the bloated and technique-infested corporatocratic corruption that is the modern American higher education establishment.

What kind of teacher should I be?

For most of this week I’ll be tied up with professional development training at my job. To tide over my high school classes during the interim (and to help prevent a nervous breakdown on the part of the substitute teacher), I came up with an assignment that should take awhile for my students to complete. Hell, it took me a couple of hours just to type up the description for them, which printed out at nine single-spaced pages. So I know it should take them awhile to read it, let alone respond to it.

And that is, in fact, the nature of the assignment. They’re supposed to read a loooong letter from me, and then respond to it in writing. For this week’s Teeming Brain post, I thought I could do no better than to share this letter. Maybe it’ll provide a window into what life is like in my classroom.

Or maybe it’ll just prove how ill-suited I am for this job.

Either way, I hope you find something interesting in it.

* * * * *

TO: All students in my high school classes

FROM: Matt Cardin

DATE: May 7, 2007

RE: You and me

Dear everybody,

As I told you last week, I’m going to be involved in some required professional development training this Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so I thought I’d leave you something to do while I’m away. I mentioned this assignment to you last week as well.

To get the grading part out of the way right up front: the assignment is worth 100 points. These are test points. You will get all of them simply for doing what I ask you to do. That will necessarily involving your reading this letter from me to you. I’m talking about every last word of it. If you stop reading it before you’ve finished it and start asking someone else, “What are we supposed to be doing?” then you’re just proving a point that I make later in the letter. Please don’t do that.

As many of you, or most of you, or maybe all of you, already know, I’ve been fairly frustrated with some of my classes this year. Maybe you’re a student in one of those classes, or maybe you’re not. In any case, you know that I’ve been variously annoyed and frustrated and angered and depressed at the way much of this school year has gone. A couple of my classes have been more difficult and unruly in their behavior than anything I’ve previously encountered as a teacher. You’ve seen how I’ve handled it. I’ve complained a bit, withdrawn a bit, shut down a bit, shrugged my shoulders, overlooked various things I probably shouldn’t have, and in general have just rolled with the punches. We’ve still had fun together. That’s simply the way I do things. Ask anybody who’s had me as a teacher in the past, and they’ll confirm it.

I’m happy that we’ve all reached a point where we’re now getting along personally here at the imminent end of the school year. I honestly like every one of you on a personal level. I hope you like me in return. Somehow I achieved the status of being a “cool” teacher back when I first started working here in 2001, and I sense that this reputation has survived the current school term. I guess this is good. I’m certainly not complaining.

But I do fear that I haven’t exactly done many of you a service by being so compliant and unassertive these past many months. I don’t think you’ve gained as much as you otherwise might have from your time in my class if I had forced the issue by becoming more authoritarian, clamping down on immature and rude behavior, and generally running things with greater strictness. Maybe I’m too hung up on the idea that getting along with you personally is more important than accomplishing the academic work that could be accomplished under conditions of stricter discipline. The thing is, I know there’s a wide variety of opinions and inclinations among you when it comes to English class. Some of you like to read and write. Others of you don’t. Some of you are naturally good at it and drawn to it. Others of you aren’t. Personally, I think the current American high school system is unrealistic and unfortunate in the way it forces teens to take classes they don’t want in subjects they don’t like. So I have a hard time convincing myself to force the issue when some of you express a complete disinterest in my class.

On the other hand, maybe I should force the issue. After all, it’s hardly the case that you should never be expected or required to do things you don’t want to do. It’s just part of life to do some things simply because you have to do them. In the issue at hand, maybe you really would benefit from a more authoritarian approach on my part. I just don’t know.

The controversy itself leads into a wider question that I’ve been preoccupied with lately, namely, the question of who and what I should be as a teacher. And my mentioning this begins to lead into the part of this letter where you’ll find out what task I’m wanting you to complete in order to earn your 100 points. But first, you’ll have to read some more.

As we near the end of this school year, I feel very much the way a college professor named Mark Edmundson described in an essay he wrote entitled “On the uses of a liberal education: as lite entertainment for bored college students.” It was published in 1997 in a hugely influential magazine that you’ve probably never heard of called Harper’s, and it raised a firestorm of controversy across America because of what Edmundson said about the students and the administrators on America’s college campuses. In a nutshell, he said the students are eaten up with an attitude called “consumerism,” that is, the idea that the whole point of life is for people to buy and use up things they enjoy. He said America’s college students have absorbed this attitude from the social environment around them, which has been defined from their earliest childhood by television, video games, advertising, shopping, and so on. And he said this attitude has infected their view of education, so that they graduate from high school thinking that a college education is just something else to buy, and since they are paying for it, it’s the job of the colleges to give them what they want. As for the administrators at these colleges, Edmundson said they have given in far too quickly to this insane demand that the modern generation of students is making, mostly unconsciously, on America’s higher education system, and that as a result our colleges and universities are in awful shape, since they’re awarding more and more degrees to people who are not truly educated, people whose college classes have been watered down and reshaped to make them less difficult and more entertaining.

The part that I identify with the most is the part where Edmundson describes his feelings about the way his students view him. In most colleges it’s standard for students to fill out an anonymous evaluation form at the end of every class they take. This form represents their chance to rate the jobs their teachers have done. In his article Edmundson describes his feelings upon reading the comments his students left at the end of a semester course he taught about the writings of Sigmund Freud. As usual, the comments were extremely positive. His students loved him because of his humor, his tolerance, his references to movies and other pop culture items, and more. In all of these things, he reminds me of me. As you know, I joke all the time in class with you. We horse around a lot. I like many of the same movies and a lot of the same music that you like, and I talk about these with you. I’m casual and tolerant about pretty much everything. And for the most part I feel like we get along well because of it.

But Edmundson, instead of feeling good about his students’ nice words, said he was conflicted over their collective response to his class. He said he felt like the only thing they had gotten from him was the jokes, the casualness, and the easy attitude he brought to the subject he taught, when in fact what he had wanted was for them to be deeply affected by what he was teaching. So he hated the image of himself that emerged from his students’ comments on those evaluation forms.

I’ll let him speak for himself, since he does it better than I can. I ask that you read the whole quoted passage below very carefully. FYI, for those of you who don’t know it, the indented paragraphs contain Edmundson’s words. This type of indentation is a standard format to indicate extended quotations from somebody else’s writing. When it goes away and the left margin returns to normal, that’ll mean Edmundson’s words are over and it’s me talking to you again.

Here’s what Edmundson said:

I have to admit that I do not much like the image of myself that emerges from these forms, the image of knowledgeable, humorous detachment and bland tolerance. I do not like the forms themselves, with their number ratings, reminiscent of the sheets circulated after the TV pilot has just played to its sample audience in Burbank. Most of all I dislike the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervades the responses. I’m disturbed by the serene belief that my function—and, more important, Freud’s, or Shakespeare’s, or Blake’s—is to divert, entertain, and interest. Observes one respondent, not at all unrepresentative: “Edmundson has done a fantastic job of presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way.”

Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course—and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations—somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind. The off-the-wall questions and the sidebar jokes are meant as lead-ins to stronger stuff—in the case of the Freud course, to a complexly tragic view of life. But the affability and the one-liners often seem to be all that land with the students; their journals and evaluations leave me little doubt.

I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read. Why are my students describing Freud’s dangerous and disturbing ideas as being interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? And why am I coming across as an urbane, mildly ironic, endlessly affable guide to this intellectual territory, operating without intensity, generous, funny, and loose?

Because that’s what works. On evaluation day, I reap the rewards of my partial compliance with the culture of my students and, too, with the culture of the university as it now operates.

Okay, this is me, Cardin, speaking to you again. If you read and understood what Edmundson was saying, then you’ll understand a significant part of how I feel about my performance as a teacher this year. And every year.

So what is all this leading up to? What’s the 100-point thing you’re supposed to do for me?

In answer, I give you—(drum roll)—something else to read! It’s on the next page. You just may recognize the author. The piece is an editorial that was published in the Springfield newspaper, the News-Leader, a little over two months ago. It talks about me and it talks about you. And I don’t just mean that metaphorically; I mean it really talks about me and you. Turn the page and you’ll understand. And after that, I’ll tell you what I want you to do to earn your 100 points.

[Note to Teeming Brain readers: At this point in my letter, I provided a photocopy of the editorial I wrote back in February for inclusion in The News-Leader, the large daily paper based in Springfield, Missouri. The title the editor gave it is “Media obsession with trivial hurts our nation.” I’ve mentioned it previously here at my blog.]

Okay, so now you know a little bit about what I think of my job, and my students, and the entertainment culture that virtually saturates the very air we breathe. I hope you understood as you read the editorial that I wasn’t attacking any of my students here at this school, but was instead attacking the culture you’re growing up in. I view you mainly as a symptom of that culture, not a cause. And I myself suffer from the very same disease that I diagnose in you.

Again, what does this all mean? What are you supposed to do to earn your 100 points? It’s simply this: You’re supposed to write me a letter in which you respond to that editorial, and also to everything I’ve said in this letter to you, and tell me what you think and how you feel about it all. Tell me whether you agree or disagree with the point I made in my editorial. Tell me whether you agree or disagree that you and your fellow teens today are being zombified by television, movies, video games, popular music, and an all-pervasive attitude of consumerism. Tell me whether you agree or disagree with Mark Edmundson about the attitude and outlook that he thinks young people have today. Tell me whether you think I’ve done you a disservice by running your class so casually this year. Have I short-changed you? If you say no, then it must mean you think you’ve learned some valuable things in here. Tell me what they are. Or if you say yes, then please explain to me what you wanted to learn in here that you didn’t.

While you’re at it, if you want to talk about anything else that comes to mind as you think about these matters and write your letter, please write it down, because I’ll be more than happy to read it. I’ve gotten really personal with you in these pages by sharing some of my private thoughts. I ask you to do the same with me, in your letter, to whatever degree you feel comfortable doing so. Nobody will read what you write except for me. And I’ll give you a hundred points for your efforts. I want you to start your letter with either “Dear Mr. Cardin” or “Dear MC” (I’d really prefer the second one) and end it by signing your name. I’d prefer the whole thing to be typewritten. That’s why the substitute teacher is taking you to the computer lab. But you can handwrite it if you really want to, as long as your writing is legible.

Be advised that a mere few sentences, or even a mere few paragraphs, simply won’t do. I’m talking about a substantial letter that clearly shows evidence of your careful thought and honest emotion. Write it as well as you can, in terms of both what it says and how eloquently it says it. If you wonder just how long it should be or how in-depth it should go, take my own letter here as an example.

In the interest of fostering further personal-ness between us, I thought I’d finish this letter by reprinting something from my blog, The Teeming Brain. I started the blog last year in June, and it’s become quite popular in the months since then. Many of you know that I’m a published writer. There’s a crowd of people who are interested in me and my creative works. This can be seen in the fact that the blog is currently averaging about 3100 hits per month. My first post last year was a kind of “About Me” entry that was intended to give readers an indication of who I am. It’s reprinted for you below. Maybe reading it will give you a better idea of what’s really important to me, and why I struggle so much with this teaching gig.

And hey, that gives me another idea for the letter you’re supposed to write me: At the end of it, after your signature, please include a section titled “About [your name.]” Mine, for instance, would be titled “About Matt Cardin.” I want you to write up a miniature statement of who you are. You can say whatever you want in it, as long as it’s honest. Consider the “About me” section that’s found on MySpace pages as a good example of what I’m looking for. I’d really love for you to use this part of your letter to tell me about your view of life in general, as in, what type of things you think are important and valuable, what you think about the purpose or “meaning” of life, how you’ve come to believe these things, and so on. You’ll see that I’ve said a little about this kind of thing in my own self-description below. But whether or not you talk about such matters in your own “About Me” description is entirely up to you.

So, to repeat, you need to write two things:

1) A letter to me in which you respond to my letter and editorial

2) An “About Me” section at the end of the letter, after your signature

The assignment is worth 100 points. It needs to be full of depth and detail. It’s not extra credit. You’ll get a zero if you don’t do it. It’s all-or-nothing—100 points or 0 points. You’ll get all of them as long as you do what I’m telling you to do. The assignment will be due at the end of the hour on Wednesday, May 9th, so plan and pace yourself accordingly.

Okay, that’s it. Get to work.

[Signed]Matt Cardin

[I finished by pasting in the text of my inaugural post to this blog from last June 13, 2006 titled “Welcome to The Teeming Brain.”]

High tide for anti-intellectualism

This post is in response to a query somebody made at the Shocklines forum. In various conversations at that board, people have recently been mentioning a supposed surge of anti-intellectualism in America today. One person responded with the following:

I’ve been hearing a lot about this ‘wave of anti-intellectualism’. I’m curious about it.

All artistic ventures aren’t immediately dismissed by the general public. Memento springs to mind; it was certainly a different sort of film, but it also had reasonable legs as a movie which didn’t even break 600 screens, and its DVD sales seemed pretty strong. While it’s undeniably true that the most innovative movies do not have corresponding box office receipts (hey, Shallow Hal beat out Memento by a long shot) it’s also true that this is not a new thing. I don’t recall a time when the most innovative films racked up the best box office.

What is the root of the anti-intellectualism argument?

I could go on and on about this topic all day, and would end up thanking you for the provocation to vent. But I’ll restrain myself, relatively speaking. Apologies in advance if I sound smotheringly didactic at points. I’ve recognized that fact about my writing for years but have thus far been unable to overcome it.

I think the basic idea behind the anti-intellectualist argument presents at least two aspects. One of these is the simple recognition that “dumb is in.” I remember seeing Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey mention this in an interview a couple of years ago. When the interviewer brought up the subject of Ms. Fey’s reputation for intelligence and wit, she jumped on the opportunity to express serious concerns about the fact that in American pop culture, which for several decades has been synonymous with (prepackaged) youth culture, it’s become hip to be stupid. She talked about kids, and especially girls, feeling pressured to suppress their intelligence and appear stupid and vapid in order to fit in. And she contrasted this with her parents’ generation, when the counterculture was in full swing and it was hip to be über-intelligent and well-read so that you could effectively criticize the American government or the radical commie sympathizers or whomever, depending on your stance.

So this is the first and easiest-to-get-at arm of the argument, this pointing-out of what might be called the Bill & Ted syndrome, or the Harry & Lloyd syndrome, or the Jesse & Chester syndrome. Especially among the under-thirty crowd, there’s a cultural pressure to act stupid even if you’re not, and this is hostile to intelligence.

The deeper and more extended aspect of the argument represents a kind of medical diagnosis of a peculiarly American pathology that has now infected the rest of the world by means of cultural imperialism — that is, via the aggressive exporting of a lifestyle centered around consumerism and mass media entertainment. The idea is that America is in the throes of a systemic crisis that is largely economic in nature, the effects and implications of which have inevitably spun off into a detrimental effect on the American intellectual character. Then there’s also the related recognition of America’s longstanding bias in favor of what might be called “down home-ism” and against anything perceived as highfalutin, a tendency that has been alternately muted and dominant at various periods in the nation’s history. People who point to current anti-intellectual trends like to say the tendency has now moved dramatically and perhaps definitively to the fore, with youth culture’s “dumb is in” phenomenon representing just the tip of the iceberg.

Please pardon me while I let other people do much of my thinking and speaking. When I first started writing this reply to your query, I was just out of bed and my brain was quite foggy. (I’ve never been able to fathom how or why so many writers find this time of day to be the best for doing their work, since I myself can barely put two words together until mid-morning.) So I’m just going to offer some quotations from, summaries of, and links to a number of books and articles whose ideas have amplified, shaped, and/or coincided with my own. Read the rest of this entry