Tag Archives: education

Humanities’ Horse-Latitudes: will the real culprit please stand up?

I was perusing the venerable publication The American Scholar today, just in the interest of keeping up with my own Phi Beta Kappa.  I won’t mention the fact that I should probably be getting this journal free, but this is PBK, where you have the honor of buying a seventy-dollar engraved tie clip.  If you can see where this is going, you probably know me too well.

Anyway, here’s the spotlighted article, by a certain William M. Chace.  Give it a read, it’s free online.  I’m always interested in things like this, not just because it’s my field, but because as liberal as I might get, there’s something in the cantankerous “ubi sunt!?” that will always appeal to me, for better or for worse.  Anyhow, I read through the piece with increasingly mixed feelings, finally and frustratedly seeing what the problem was.  At least, in an opinion I shall seek to disguise as humble.

Here’s the gist of Chace’s argument: we all know that the humanities have lost tremendous ground since mid-century, and largely it has been stampeded and squatted upon by the thugs of Business (alias the Dread Negozioid!).  So far, so good: regardless of your ideological stance here, the facts are the facts, and Chace lays them out clearly instead of just ranting, to his credit.  Okay.  Where to go from here?  Instead of defaulting to country-clubby elitism or a caustic jeremiad against the modern univiersity, Chace goes introspective: we ourselves, as English faculty, are to blame for the erosion of humanities education and prestige.

How so?  It takes a while for the truth to come out, but it’s basically this: we’ve embraced Critical Theory.  ooOOOooo.  It’s not said in so many words, but this is what I feel to be the Main Import.  In Chace’s words,

… it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the “clean slates” are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and déclassé. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.

Okay, we’ve heard this one before, and it’s got a kernel of truth to it; it’s not as though there haven’t been some circus performers on the critical theory tenure tracks.  As Henry James could tell you, in far more complicated sentences, importing European culture to our shores isn’t an easy task.

The solution — you might’ve seen it coming from paragraph 1. — is to consolidate, purify, and immure the discipline in clear boundaries, essentially a great-books-new-critical circumambience, which will no doubt attract a smaller but more dedicated crowd, giving English Lit a status somewhat like that of “the study of the classics.”  He doesn’t actually recommend a “purge,” but you can easily imagine that this world has little room for a Culler, a Spivak, or other such scholars.

This solution set a lot of little synthesis-bells going off in my head; isn’t this precisely the goal of many in the Republican Party (boot out Scozzafava in favor of Hoffman!  Make room for Beck and Palin!), and of a distinct minority in the Roman Catholic church (time to bring in hardline traditionalists and dial everything back to pre-Vatican II times!  Make all religious brothers and sisters go behind bars and you’ll get more vocations!)?  That’s not a judgment really, since it depends upon your view of those other things to make an analogy.  I’m just interested to see such a climate of retrenchment and ideological purification out there in the world today.

It makes me wonder if there isn’t something “out there,” in the general world, that is simply awry.  Is it really consolation enough to contract, to retreat, to calmly accept a marginal position?  Would this not lead to a necessary ossification, a stagnant lowland into which no fresh, challenging breeze can blow?  I don’t even want to touch the G.O.P. or the Catholic church, but just thinking about the humanities (esp. Literature): I submit that the hand-wringing and introspection is a distraction, specifically a displacement of the true problem, the proper object of our militancy.  What if the mass exodus into business programs is the result of an irresistible summons from the very fabric of our society?  What if people didn’t just “get stupid” and “abandon their culture” this century for no reason, but because economic reality constrained them?

This is where I lose most of you.  But I submit that those students’ obsession with financial stability isn’t a root cause of the problem; in other words, the paradigm shift placing money over fulfillment and philosophy didn’t just perversely arise out of some de novo increase in Greed.  It’s rather a symptom of the heady, unsustainable trajectory of late capitalism.  Does anyone really think that, ceteris paribus, people would still prefer business at the same rate if it paid the exact same as lit or philosophy?  I’d like to give our undergraduates just a little more credit.  Sure, some of them are devoid of the slightest interest in culture and truth; some should probably not be going to college at all.  But for the great mass, who just want to figure things out, their choices are clearly the result not of intrinsic shallowness, but of capitalism breathing down their necks.

It’s time to quit pretending here.  Time to quit taking potshots at straw men.  The time to agonize over our identity may come, but for now, we know who we are: the people who care, who look for more than the numbness of a moneyed bourgeois satiety.  Critical theorists or New Critics or anything in between, we are the humanities, and we’re being choked out.  The python of capital has us mostly dead, and the further we move into crisis economics, the more we will be squeezed.  Maybe it is time for introspection after all: instead of dithering around within the system and seeking little victories, why not try to imagine a university or a country outside it entirely?  We are almost beyond the point of imagining an alternative, but sooner or later, it has to happen.

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Usury 101: or, The Idea of a University, 2008 anno domini

Look for some more posts from me in the next couple of days; I’ve been away for a while but not through my intention.  It’s just the usual grad school travails keeping me away from the all-important world of the ‘blog.

What cannot wait to come out of my enraged head is a little comment on some horrendous, festering trends in academia.  My friend Sarah is taking a class on what passes for “Rhetoric and Composition” this semester and she tells me, from time to time, some of the horrors from the class’s textbooks.  I’ve harped on enough in the past about my opposition to the use of the University as a glorified job-training course, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.  But seriously.  Here we go.

One of these “textbooks” was trying to make the point that the classroom should focus on computer/technological literacy.  Big deal, right?  Well, when you realize that the reason for doing this is to “secure satisfactory employment,” you might begin to see my objections.  Here’s a bit from a description of a class from Florida State University:

CGS 2100: Microcomputer Applications for Business and Economics.  Course enables students in business and economics to become proficient with microcomputer and software applications that are typically used in the workplace …

Again.  If these students voluntarily enthrall themselves to a business school (I am just being cantankerous here, I jest a little) then this is fine.  But the author also insists, later in the book, that technology courses ought to be considered a full-fledged branch of the humanities.  There’s a problem with that.  If you look at state universities today you’ll see that in fact the humanities are just a branch of the technological and, as William Zinsser would say, “pre-rich” fields.  Namely, the “useless” branch that brings some sort of prestige, like the tiny “literary fiction” imprints of the massive publishing houses.  “Look, we do literature!  We’re credible!  Don’t consider the fact that 90% of our revenue comes from trashy romance novels and faddish diet books!”  The humanities cannot survive when “profitable” pursuits are grafted on to them; the profit margin simply widens until they are devoured.  Even Barack Obama, the particularly intelligent candidate for president, harps on how he wants to expand funding “for the hard sciences” at the University level.  Seriously, just the hard sciences?  Screw history, philosophy, anthropology, english, psychology, etc.?

The same goes for my own class.  We’re kept on something of a short lead, and while that usually gives me little reason for complaint, I’ve been urged more that once to replace a reading from the classics or even just from a more “literary” source with something from the newspaper.  Nothing against newspapers or current events – I happen to be a little obsessed myself.  But the election and the subprime meltdown you have not always with you.  Art and beauty, and the quest for truth, will hound us until we are wiped off the face of the earth (well, unless the current theorists have their way, in which case we’ll just be plugged into virtual reality machines and given continuous pleasurable stimulation).

Okay.  I never thought of myself as the wrathful “ubi sunt” type or a cantankerous traditionalist.  But seriously.  Is money really the only thing that matters to anyone anymore?  I’m just amazed that credible academics tout these theories; they seem more proper to small-souled, small-time lawyers or unscrupulous petty managers.

Academe vs. the Philistines of competition.

Today I found the latest issue of National Review (June 16 2008) on the dining room table, open to an article by John Hood called “Against the Cartel: How to reform higher education.”  The article certainly has some good points, particularly making a contribution to the fascinating debate of whether too many people are going to college: I don’t like to think that, because I have known people who were not instinctively intellectual who benefitted tremendously.  But just as much have I known students who didn’t even know why they were in the academy, when their only aspirations were to open a bakery, apprentice to a master carpenter, etc.  I agree with Hood that society shouldn’t ram these students into the four-year degree system, if they don’t want to go.

However: though Hood himself has a nice, clear prose style, undoubtedly thanks to his journalism degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the entire tone of his article denigrates the liberal arts and social sciences that “do little but restate the obvious and recycle the devious.”  Ouch.  As if we aren’t challenged enough by the daunting publishing industry to produce something “original,” now we’re both stupid and evil.  Funding these hooligans, he argues, is patently unconstitutional, despite the fact that the very founders of this country, with whose “original intent” we are to mystically commune, provided for federally funded public education in the Northwest Ordinance all the way back in 1787.  Oh wait, there is one exeption: 

The federal government does have a proper, constitutional, and likely indispensable role in funding some of the hard sciences, which often have national-security applications.  Conservatives need to push the government’s education policy in the right direction, rather than try to eliminate it altogether.

Seriously?  So the only reason the government would ever send out a grant for higher education, and I mean ever, would be to foster the creation of new military technologies?  Because it was my belief that the academy generally a). eschewed the merely pragmatic, b). democratically questioned the policies of government, and c). promoted humanitarian causes.  But military technology, though it’s a necessary evil, is a). 100% pragmatic and cannot participate in the aesthetic, b). is wholly created to serve the government’s most frightening power, and c). kills, maims, mutilates, and poisons.  Only a neoconservative would want campuses to be crawling with nationally funded “counterterrorism strategists” and missile technicians.  While we’re at it, why don’t we just replace a few “devious” ivory towers with columns of Cruise missiles?  At least the horrid, politically correct, gay-loving professors can’t kill anybody.  Sheesh.

Here’s another quotation from Hood, who remember has a journalism degree:

By weakening the connection between colleges and their consumers, subsidies enable much of the propaganda, political theater, and pseudo-intellectual twaddle that pervade American higher education today.  Private dollars tend to flow to the hard sciences, business programs, and other disciplines where practicalities militate against political bias.  Public dollars become handy resources to finance academic preening and political activism.

He’s not entirely wrong, you know — competition does favor the “practicalities” in higher education just as much as in other sectors.  Note to fiscal conservatives: just because people want to pay for it doesn’t make it right.  Otherwise, the Nintendo Wii would have to be judged superior to Salman Rushdie’s fiction.  And that, my friends, is a nightmare world.  Obviously, I’m not going to be tyrannical the other way and advocate the end of practical disciplines.  I’m aware that, at least in our current rat-race of a market society, these fields will always be better funded than mine.  All I’m asking is to survive, to have a chance to laugh at young national security specialists walking the hallowed corridors of the Halliburton Cheney WalMart Center for Counterterrorism from the dilapidated window of the Oliver H. Nobody Hasn’t-Been-Renovated-Since-1952 English building.  I just don’t want to be destroyed by zealous market-obsessed bottom-line-fanatics who find me irrelevant or downright evil.

One final word about the “tenured radicals” that Hood would like to drive out with the purifying whips of market dollars: I’ve known a lot of English professors, both at the universities I’ve attended and ones I’ve heard as guest speakers or at conferences, and plenty from departments like history, theology, political science, etc., and not a single one of them (even the most liberal) entered the department as a cloak for a sinister political agenda.  They enter because they love what they do.  If politics tend to follow that, it’s probably because these fields cannot help, by their very impractical nature, but eschew bottom-line thinking and focus on the “human” and “cultural” things that can bring us together.  Perhaps at the expense of super-efficient missile production.  Oops.