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.

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