Friday, September 25, 2015

The Fate of Humanities in the Hands of High School Teachers

Clifford Orwin, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, makes the good point in this op-ed column in the Toronto Globe and Mail (9/17/2015) that we might have wonderful arguments why students should study the humanities, but those arguments are not the reason students actually do take up the study. Great, often eccentric high school teachers are. After a wonderful description of the teacher who pointed him in this direction, he concludes: "On the whole, however, the fate of the humanities in Canada depends on its high schools, and their success at instilling a love of the subject that (like any love) owes nothing to statistics."

Monday, September 21, 2015

Alexander Hamilton Society Meeting

The Alexander Hamilton Society at Ashland University will host an Open House on September 24 at 7 p.m. in the Ashbrook Center, located on the eighth floor of the Ashland University Library. The event is free and open to the public and food and drinks will be provided.

The open house will feature Dr. Chris Burkett, Associate Professor of political science at Ashland University, speaking on “Immigration and National Security: Lessons from the American Founding.” There will be a question-and-answer session following the speech.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Self Destruction of Higher Education

Two recent articles from almost opposite political perspectives argue that the liberal arts in colleges and universities are bringing on many of their own problems.  Jay Schalin from the John William Pope Center reports in an op-ed, "The English Department's Willful Self-Destruction," on a study that was done of English Departments, especially in North Carolina.  "By almost any measure," Schalin says, "English departments are diminishing numerically, dropping standards, or calcifying into a hard-left intellectual status quo."  They are increasingly moving away from their core, which is reflection on the greatest works of English, American, and European literature, studied to find out what their authors meant.  Instead, the study argues, the new emphasis is on vocational training or on politicized readings that advance identity politics or uncover the hidden structures of racism, classism, and American or Western imperialism.  Borrowing the words of the columnist David Brooks, Schalin writes that the humanities "are committing suicide because they have lost faith in their own enterprise."

The other article, by William Deresiewicz, is titled "The Neoliberal Arts: How college sold Its soul to the market."  Deresiewicz argues that colleges and many professors have and are willfully abandoning the core intellectual tasks that lie at the center of liberal education as traditionally understood so that they can, as they believe, remain "relevant" to a business culture: "only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value" for a college education.  The solution? Treat education as a right, not a commodity, and adopt Bernie Sanders's proposal to tax Wall Street transactions so that four-year public institutions can be free for all.

The best part of this article is the discussion with which it begins of two mission statements from the same institution, one from the 1920s and one from 2015. The older one conveys a complex thought about the relation between various goals that were once thought to be the aim of higher education.  The contemporary statement consists simply of four unconnected words: leadership, service, integrity, creativity.  Deresiewicz provides a few useful and much needed critical reflections on these, "the loudest buzzwords in contemporary higher education."  Here are the opening paragraphs:

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.


Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

A spatial structure, the sentence also suggests a temporal sequence. Thinking clearly, it wants us to recognize, leads to thinking independently. Thinking independently leads to living confidently. Living confidently leads to living courageously. Living courageously leads to living hopefully. And the entire chain begins with a college that recognizes it has an obligation to its students, an obligation to develop their abilities to think and live.

Finally, the sentence is attributed to an individual. It expresses her convictions and ideals. It announces that she is prepared to hold herself accountable for certain responsibilities.

The second text is not a sentence. It is four words floating in space, unconnected to one another or to any other concept. Four words — four slogans, really — whose meaning and function are left undefined, open to whatever interpretation the reader cares to project on them.

Four words, three of which — “leadership,” “service,” and “creativity” — are the loudest buzzwords in contemporary higher education. (“Integrity” is presumably intended as a synonym for the more familiar “character,” which for colleges at this point means nothing more than not cheating.) The text is not the statement of an individual; it is the emanation of a bureaucracy. In this case, a literally anonymous bureaucracy: no one could tell me when this version of the institution’s mission statement was formulated, or by whom. No one could even tell me who had decided to hang those banners all over campus. The sentence from the founder has also long been mounted on the college walls. The other words had just appeared, as if enunciated by the zeitgeist.

But the most important thing to note about the second text is what it doesn’t talk about: thinking or learning. In what it both does and doesn’t say, it therefore constitutes an apt reflection of the current state of higher education. College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Professor who Put Teaching First

Jason Stevens, a visiting instructor in political science and history at Ashland, as well as a graduate of our program, published this nice tribute to our former friend and colleague, Peter Schramm.  It is published today in the Wall Street Journal:

When I first met Peter W. Schramm, who died last month at 68, he was in his office at Ashland University, smoking a cigarette and reading a book. It was 2003 and I, a high-school senior, was there to interview for the Ashbrook scholar program, an intensive course of study in history and political science.

I remember almost everything about that meeting. He criticized me for deciding to write my high school thesis on “power” in politics. He scoffed when I admitted that I never read out loud. We spent nearly half an hour on Abraham Lincoln, and why in the Gettysburg Address he had called the principle of human equality a “proposition” instead of a self-evident truth, as Thomas Jefferson had done. At that point, Schramm jumped out of his chair and gestured wildly. “Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal!” he exclaimed. “Do you see it?”

When I came out of that room, I was totally defeated, with no hope of attending Ashland University in the fall. Then Schramm emerged and quietly announced that I was in, if I wanted it. He explained that I’d have to “work like a dog” and threatened that if I ever came to class unprepared, he would casually slide a quarter across my desk and say, “Call home. You’re done.” This was my first encounter with the man.

In the dozen years since, I got to know Schramm first as a teacher, later as a friend and colleague. He had spent his childhood in Soviet Hungary, but as his father told him when the family left for the U.S. in 1956: “We were born Americans, but in the wrong place.” After earning a Ph.D. in government, he helped found the Claremont Institute and worked in the Reagan Education Department before becoming a professor.

Schramm published little, but this was only because he put teaching first. His office was always full of students wanting to tear off a bit of wisdom. Schramm probably missed more than a few meetings to continue these conversations, which ranged from an obscure passage of Plato, to a moving line of poetry, to practical questions of life and happiness. Schramm taught his students how to think and live well, how to be prudent and judge wisely, how to seek the just and the true.

He began his freshman course by asking about the nature of the acorn. After several false starts, someone would say, “To become the oak tree.” Once the truth had revealed itself, Schramm would react with palpable joy—a loud outburst, a fist pounded on the lectern, a little hop. He reveled in our successes mostly, I think, because he loved what was good and saw the potential for good in us.

The great oak has now vanished from the face of the earth. But, thank God, he has left behind thousands of tiny acorns that continue to grow.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Study Abroad Opportunities

There are at least two good opportunities for Ashland students to study abroad coming up, one in Tuscany, Italy and the other in Taiwan. There will be two information meetings for the Taste of Tuscany: Cuisine and Culture of Italy Summer Program on Wednesday September 9th and Thursday September 10th both at 4:00 PM in Rybolt 230. 

There will also be a meeting for the COBE in Taiwan Summer program on Tuesday September 8th at 4:00 PM in Dauch 105

Kayla Gowdy's Internship in Washington, D.C.

Kayla Gowdy, a junior Political Science major, did an internship this summer in the Washington, D.C. office of Congressman Pat Tiberi (Ohio's 12th District). "My main task as an intern," she says, "was to be a constituent correspondent, and through my work I provided a channel for how constituents were able to pass on their concerns to the Congressman. Along with constituent work, I also assisted with the legislative staffers through my attendance at briefings and hearings and then reporting back to the appropriate staffer what was discussed. Being an intern on Capitol Hill during the summer also gave me the chance to attend the 'Summer Intern Lecture Series,' which gave me the opportunity to meet multiple influential leaders, including Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, who provided advice for how to grow and survive in the political field."  All this "provided an incredible experience to see how the legislative branch truly functions."  The picture shows Kayla's networking skills in action. 

Why We Have College

Louis Menand has written this useful analysis of the current state of higher education in the United States (in broad strokes).  The article includes a brief history of higher education as well as a discussion of two recent books on the subject.  He ends by raising the question of why in the liberal arts we faculty ask students to read the books we do, a question we should continually re-examine and for which we must have good answers.