Category Archives: careers

Assessment, Knowledge, and Magic in the Humanities

I do not recommend becoming chair of the accreditation team at your college if you value your mental health.  I do, however, recommend it if you want to understand the multitude of cultures that make up your own institution and to think through how they all fit together, or not, in the common educational enterprise.  Like all academics living it seems, we are grappling with various levels of success with the assessment tsunami that has hit higher education in the past decade or so.  One feature that’s very evident is that different parts of campus have different attitudes toward assessment and its virtues or evils.  Among we humanists, there’s still a large contingent that believes that what we do is unassessable, that our value can’t be assessed but that at the same time it should be obvious to everyone.

I think this approach is mostly self-defeating;  it seems to me that it mostly invokes a mystification that, if taken literally, means that we can’t even know ourselves what we mean when we say the humanities have a value that should be recognized by the institutions in which they live and move and have their being.  I do think there is a truth to which this mystification speaks.  Some of the most important moments in learning, perhaps the most crucial moments in learning, in the humanities are unreplicable and so unmeasurable. The fact that reading Soren Kierkegaard changed my life in some fundamental sense and filled me with a love for the life of the mind that has never since been expended is not a fact that means Kierkegaard should be required reading for everyone, as if reading SK were like learning an algebraic equation.

On the other hand, the fact of these transformative experiences, and most academics have such liminal experience or they wouldn’t be academics, shouldn’t lead us to say that no thing is measurable in what we do, or that because the things that we can measure are not the liminal experiences that made us who we are they are therefore not worth assessing at all.  This would be like saying that because the really crucial things in music are things like Verdi’s Othello or Handel’s Messiah, we shouldn’t bother to see if a music teacher’s methods are helping students to learn to play Bach two-part inventions effectively. It’s less sexy, but if students can’t do analogous things reasonably well, they won’t ever be in a position to have the kinds of transformative experiences with humanistic work that we ourselves value and recognize as fundamental to who we are and who we hope our students will become.

Over at Digital Digs, Alex Reid has a very good blog on assessment and the humanities  where he points to the need to develop forms of knowledge that help us get at things that will lead to useful change, and points out that doing this well is related to our oft-professed desire to be pursuing work that makes a difference in the world:

This is why, when it comes to assessment, I always ask “What kind of knowledge would we require in order to make a substantive change?” That question asks not only about the specific knowledge statement but the process by which the knowledge is constructed. Anecdotes are not strong enough. And my concern for the humanities is that it doesn’t believe that any knowledge is strong enough to make such decisions. This, of course, does not mean that curriculum doesn’t happen or that changes don’t occur. It simply means that we deny ourselves the opportunity to produce knowledge that is strong enough to inform decision-making. Instead we are left with individual feelings, opinions, and beliefs and whatever they amount to. A skeptic might say that this is all that humanistic knowledge has ever been. 

But I can’t believe that. I can’t afford to believe that. If we believe that as humanists we cannot produce knowledge of real value with the strength to make changes in the world, then what would we be doing as teachers or scholars? We would be engaged in some kind of self-pleasuring activity, perhaps with the idea that our performances might instill in others (through some quasi-magical, sympathetic incantation) a similar practice of finding self-pleasure (or aesthetic appreciation) through a purely subjective/cultural/discursive encounter with the objects we study. No doubt there is a strong strand of such thinking in the humanities, especially in English, that goes back at least to Matthew Arnold (though in his case the self-pleasure was imbuded with a chaste religiosity rather than the psycho-sexual implications one probably sees here). However, no one would imagine self-pleasure as the sole goal of humanistic study. We must be able to produce knowledge that has the strength to make changes. And that requires an understanding of how knowledge is constructed and operates in a world that isn’t divided into natural, social, and discursive realms. And this is as true for our research and teaching as it is for assessment.

via digital digs: constructing academic knowledge.

Reid points out that over and against this, we are usually driven by classroom lore, anecdotes about our students that seems to identify problems and lead to certain forms of common knowledge, but that never actually rise to the level of knowledge that can make a difference.  This is what we ought to be seeking in the humanities.  Knowledge that will make a difference in our students lives.  Because we clearly can’t replicate those magical moments that all of us have had with books and culture, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be attending to those more mundane items that are the ground through which that magic happens.  And so we need to figure out basic questions like the following:

  • Have our students established a fundamental level of disciplinary literacy such that they are able to make connections across the discipline and find connections for their work in other disciplines?
  • Do our students understand how to enter in to a disciplinary conversation through effective research, the development of an argument with a point of view and a broad grasp (appropriate to an undergraduate) of the issues that are at stake for the argument in the discipline or in the culture at large.
  • Do our students understand logical fallacies, the appropriate use of evidence, and the nature of different rhetorical situations?
  • Can our students effectively discuss the application of their humanistic knowledge to non-academic areas of life, and can they effectively articulate the relationship of the skills and abilities they’ve developed to the world of work and careers following college?  (An outcome I realize not everyone may embrace, but which I have come to think of as fundamental following the Rethinking Success conference of a few weeks ago).

There are probably others, maybe many others that are more important, but these would be a start, and we ought to be willing to work to find the tools that will effectively measure such things even though none of these speak to the magical moments we and our students have when we are seized anew by an idea.

Annotating Kierkegaard; an intellectual’s appreciation

I am largely an intellectual because of Soren Kierkegaard.  I mean this primarily in terms of intellectual biography rather than genealogy.  A few days ago I noted briefly my own vocational journey into English at the hands of T.S. Eliot.  That is a true tale. However, at Eliot’s hands and through English alone as an undergraduate I largely wanted to be the next great poet or novelist.  Kierkegaard taught me to think, or at least taught me that thinking was something a Christian could do, ought to do, with whatever capacity God had given him.  Through Kierkegaard I came to Walker Percy, subject of my undergraduate thesis, and then John Updike, subject of my first scholarly essay, and probably too to literary and cultural theory which became a field of my doctoral studies and has remained a passion.   His writerly creativity, his playfulness with language image and authorial personae, never let me believe that critical writing was the inherent inferior to fiction, even if it is often practiced poorly.

In honor of Kierkegaard’s birthday yesterday, I took down some of my old SK from the shelf and blew the dust off.  The old Walter Lowrie paperback editions that were 3.95 back in the day.  The rapturous and pious annotations that fill the margins are now cringe-inducing, but I am reminded of the passions an intellectual engagement deeply felt can arouse.  A lot of the passages are marked over in four or five different colors of highlights and underlining, a way of trying to keep track, I suspect, of the many different readings I gave those book back in the day, a way of tracking the different person I was becoming.  And if I now have moved a long way from those Kierkegaardian roots in to other hipper modes of thinking, I’m also of an age where I’ve started realizing that the newest thing is not necessarily a mark of the best thing, maybe only showing you what you already knew without realizing it rather than what you need to know.

I still think The Great Dane wears well.  His comments on sectarianism, as well as his more general clarity about easy piety, say something to our own age as equally as his.  And, I still wonder sometimes, deep down, whether my first love was not the best.

From Fear and Trembling:

The true knight of faith is always absolute isolation, the false knight is sectarian. This sectarianism is an attempt to leap away from the narrow path of the paradox and become a tragic hero at a cheap price. The tragic hero expresses the universal and sacrifices himself for it. The sectarian punchinello, instead of that, has a private theatre, i.e. several good friends and comrades who represent the universal just about as well as the beadles in The Golden Snuffbox represent justice. The knight of faith, on the contrary, is the paradox, is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections or pretensions. This is the terrible thing which the sectarian manikin cannot endure. For instead of learning from this terror that he is not capable of performing the great deed and then plainly admitting it (an act which I cannot but approve, because it is what I do) the manikin thinks that by uniting with several other manikins he will be able to do it. But that is quite out of the question. In the world of spirit no swindling is tolerated. A dozen sectaries join arms with one another, they know nothing whatever of the lonely temptations which await the knight of faith and which he dares not shun precisely because it would be still more dreadful if he were to press forward presumptuously. The sectaries deafen one another by their noise and racket, hold the dread off by their shrieks, and such a hallooing company of sportsmen think they are storming heaven and think they are on the same path as the knight of faith who in the solitude of the universe never hears any human voice but walks alone with his dreadful responsibility.

The knight of faith is obliged to rely upon himself alone, he feels the pain of not being able to make himself intelligible to others, but he feels no vain desire to guide others. The pain is his assurance that he is in the right way, this vain desire he does not know, he is too serious for that. The false knight of faith readily betrays himself by this proficiency in guiding which he has acquired in an instant. He does not comprehend what it is all about, that if another individual is to take the same path, he must become entirely in the same way the individual and have no need of any man’s guidance, least of all the guidance of a man who would obtrude himself. At this point men leap aside, they cannot bear the martyrdom of being uncomprehended, and instead of this they choose conveniently enough the worldly admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and therein lies his deep humanity, which is worth a good deal more than this silly participation in others’ weal and woe which is honored by the name of sympathy, whereas in fact it is nothing but vanity. He who would only be a witness thereby avows that no man, not even the lowliest, needs another man’s sympathy or should be abased that another may be exalted. But since he did not win what he won at a cheap price, neither does he sell it out at a cheap price, he is not petty enough to take men’s admiration and give them in return his silent contempt, he knows that what is truly great is equally accessible to all.

Either there is an absolute duty toward God, and if so it is the paradox here described, that the individual as the individual is higher than the universal and as the individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute / or else faith never existed, because it has always existed, or, to put it differently, Abraham is lost.

Unemployed Philosophers Abounding; Or, It’s Much Less Fun to Talk About Unemployed Business Majors

Philosophers are in the news these days.  By what I can tell from the media, un-and-underemployed philosophy majors are sprouting from the sidewalks, infesting Occupy America movements, and crowding the lines for openings in the barista business.  I am reminded of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland where he witnesses the hordes of urbanites crossing London Bridge and imagines them as an original infestation of the walking dead:

Philosophers, so many, I had not realized unemployment had undone so many.

The proliferation is further astonishing since my own Department of Philosophy begs borrows and steals students from other departments to make a living.  From what I can gauge in the news media they are not looking the right places because every news reporter living seems to find them easy pickin’s right at hand at every street corner.

A few days ago I posted on a peculiar opinion piece from Frank Bruni at the New York Times, wherein philosophers and anthropologists were given as examples of what’s wrong with the American educational system, graduating as it does hordes of unemployable thinkers with their heads too far in the clouds to realize the damage they are doing to themselves by reading Immanuel Kant.  This morning in my local newspaper I was treated to Nate Beeler’s editorial cartoon, featuring an unkempt and bewildered looking philosophy major on a street corner begging for food, his sign suggesting that he will “epistemologize for food.”  Finally, my day was topped off by an NPR story on the grim prospects for this year’s college grads.  The story finished with an interview with the ever omnipresent philosophy major, and noted, mockingly, that the student intended to pursue medical school after finishing his philosophy degree.  Good to see at least some philosophy major has some sense. I was actually thinking about how wonderful it was to find a student who was so accomplished in both the sciences and the humanities.  More fool I.

How philosophers came to represent the ills of recent college graduates is beyond reckoning.  Though I did do some reckoning.  According to Stats from the Department of Education    between 2006 and 2011, American colleges and Universities graduated approximately 117,891 philosophy majors.  In the same time period these same colleges and universities graduated 1,687,105 business majors.  Give or Take.

According to a Georgetown University study, recent humanities majors unemployment rate is about 9.4%, which means that we probably have about 11,081 unemployed philosophy majors running around loose and unattended.

By comparison, according to the Georgetown study 7.4% of recent business majors are unemployed.  Which means that 126,532 business majors are running around loose and unattended.  Give or Take.

I think the outcome of this entirely off the cuff analysis is that the average person crowding into line for barista openings at Starbucks is probably not a philosopher.  I’m wondering why there are no interviews with business majors on how they feel about the fact that their educational choices did not prepare them for the job market.

We shouldn’t laugh off the difficulties of these figures in general.  Recent college graduates are desperately hurting, whether they majored in philosophy or business;  they are loaded with debt and many are not finding jobs.  And while philosophers are struggling marginally more than some others, the point is that philosophy majors are not hurting in some extraordinary fashion because they have chosen to major in philosophy.  This is a generational problem visited on this generation of student through political, economic, and cultural decisions that were not of their doing or making.  To trash philosophy students as if they were witless is a snide form of victimizing victims of  a system and culture these students did not create.  It relieves us of responsibility to the many who are struggling and enables us to imagine that it is all their fault because of the poor educational choices they’ve happened to make.  Ironically, it enables us to ignore the plight of 128,000 unemployed business students as well, since they have all come to be represented by unkempt and irresponsible philosophers.

I don’t buy it.  A student thoughtful enough to read and think through Kant is thoughtful enough to be aware of what she might be getting herself in to as a philosophy major.  Such students deserve better than mockery and contempt.  They deserve our gratitude in reminding us that an education is about more than just the bottom line.  That we do not give them this is to our discredit, not to theirs.

Should we have college majors at all?

As I’ve suggested before, One of the more startling pronouncements at the Rethinking Success conference last month came from Stanton Green at Monmouth University, in my memory pounding the table and saying that the college major was the worst thing to happen in higher education in the past 150 years.  I’ve thought for a while that a real negative of our current system is the emphasis we put on students selecting a major even before they get to college–a practice driven largely by the need of large professional programs to get students started on their careers from the first semester.

Jeff Seligo at the Chronicle has an interesting blog post this morning on what exactly students think about all the revolution and transformation talk that’s going on in higher ed.  He picks up on this question of the importance of the major, finding anecdotally at least that students are less convinced of the importance of the major than we are:

Majors don’t matter. Perhaps a better question is why we force students to pick a major at all. The number of majors on campus has proliferated in the last two decades, but some academics, such as Mark Taylor or Roger Schank, think we should abolish our traditional notion of majors and build the undergraduate curriculum around broad ideas or problems we face, like water and food production.

Sure, some of the students I talked with were focused on pursuing a specific profession (marketing, for instance) and wanted a degree that would give them a skill set to secure the right internships that eventually would lead to a full-time job. But most of the students said they were less concerned with picking the right major than they were with choosing the classes that would expose them to new subjects or help them connect ideas across disciplines.

via Did Anyone Ask the Students?, Part I – Next – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Of course, getting rid of the college major would require a massive transformation of what it meant to be a college, not just a college student, and moving away from a narrowly defined research or professionally oriented definition of your major.  There’s no sign yet that we would be willing to do that or that prospective students would respond well to a college that did away with majors entirely.

Even Seligo seems inconsistent on this point since just prior to this point about the unimportance of majors, Seligo says we need to have much more intense levels of career preparation in college so that students can not waste time figuring out what they want to do and what they should major in.  How these two assertions get in paragraphs that sit next to each other, I’m not entirely sure, but it may just signal the confusion we have over recognizing that except in some very specific circumstances majors don’t matter as much as we think they do, but we still somehow can only imagine a college education as a preparation for a specific career.

Maybe if we would think of college as preparing students to blaze a trail for their own professional and personal journey instead of following a career path that is predetermined, we’d be able to relieve ourselves of the belief that students need to figure out what they are going to do with their lives when they are 17 and forever after their fates will be determined by a choice made in ignorance by students who cannot possibly know the kinds of people they will be or the opportunities they will have when they are 22, much less 32 or 52.

So I wonder whether readers of this blog think its possible to imagine a world of higher education in which majors don’t exist?

How Do Blogging and Traditional Modes of Scholarly Production Relate?

In the latest edition of the Chronicle’s Digital Campus, Martin Weller makes some strong claims about the significance of blogging.  Recognizing the difficulty of measuring the value of a blog in comparison to traditional modes of journalistic publication, Weller believes that blogging is ultimately in the interest of both institutions and scholarship.

It’s a difficult problem, but one that many institutions are beginning to come to terms with. Combining the rich data available online that can reveal a scholar’s impact with forms of peer assessment gives an indication of reputation. Universities know this is a game they need to play—that having a good online reputation is more important in recruiting students than a glossy prospectus. And groups that sponsor research are after good online impact as well as presentations at conferences and journal papers.

Institutional reputation is largely created through the faculty’s online identity, and many institutions are now making it a priority to develop, recognize, and encourage practices such as blogging.For institutions and individuals alike, these practices are moving from specialist hobby to the mainstream. This is not without its risks, but as James Boyle, author of the book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008), argues, we tend to overstate the dangers of open approaches and overlook the benefits, while the converse holds true for the closed system.

The Virtues of Blogging as Scholarly Activity – The Digital Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The claim that an Institutional reputation is largely created through the faculty’s online identity startled me when I first read it, an index no doubt of my deeply held and inveterate prejudice in favor of libraries.  But I have been trying to pound away with the faculty how utterly important our online presence is, and the internet–in many different modes–gives us the opportunity to create windows on humanities work that are not otherwise easily achieved–at least in comparison to some of the work done by our colleagues in the arts or in the sciences.  Blogging is one way of creating connection, of creating vision, and I think that with a very few exceptions like the ivies and the public ivies, it is very much the case that your online presence matters more than any other thing you can possibly do to establish your reputation in the public eye and in the eye of prospective students and their parents.

That is fairly easy to grasp.  The value of the blogging to scholarship in general, or its relationship to traditional scholarship remains more thorny and difficult to parse.  I’ve had conversations with my colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and we both agree that in some sense scholars still have to have established some claim to speak through traditional modes of publication in order to give their scholarly blogging some sense of authority.  People listen to John about History because he’s published books and articles. [Why people listen to me I have no idea–although I do have books and articles I have nothing like John’s reputation;  it may have something to do with simply holding a position.  Because I am a dean at a college I can lay claim to certain kinds of experience that are relevant to discussing the humanities].

I am not sure it will always be thus.  I think the day is fast approaching when publishing books will become less and less important as the arbiter of scholarly authority.  But I think for now and perhaps for a very good long time to come, blogging exist in an interesting symbiosis with other traditional forms of scholarship. Weller quotes John Naughton to this effect:  “Looking back on the history,” he writes, “one clear trend stands out: Each new technology increased the complexity of the ecosystem.”

I’ve read some things lately that say blogging may be on its way out, replaced in the minds of the general public, I guess, by Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.  But for now I think it remains an interesting and somewhat hybrid academic form.  A forum for serious thought and reasonably good writing, but not one that claims to be writing for the ages.  In some respects, I think the best blogging is more like the recovery of the eighteenth century Salon, wherein wit that demonstrated learning and acumen was highly valued, and perhaps a basis of academic life that stood unembarrassed next to the more muscular form of the book. Blogging is one clearly important addition to the scholarly ecosystem, playing off of and extending traditional scholarship rather than simply replacing it.

In my own life right now, as an administrator, I have too little time during the school year to pursue the writing of a 40 page article or a 400 page book–nor, right now, do I have the interest or inclination (however much I want to get back and finish the dang Harlem Renaissance manuscript that sits moldering in my computer).  I do, however, continue to feel the need to contribute to scholarly conversation surrounding the humanities and higher education in general.  Blogging is one good way to do that, and one that, like Weller, I find enjoyable, creative, and stress relieving–even when I am writing my blog at 11:00 at night to make sure I can get something posted.  Ever the Protestant and his work ethic.

Is it irresponsible to advise undergraduates to major in the Humanities?

I am not usually given to screeds about the press.  I advised the newspaper here at Messiah College for several years, I sponsored a recent overhaul of our journalism curriculum, and I continue to have broad if now somewhat indirect responsibility for student media here at the college.  And, secretly, in my heart of hearts I think we need a lot more professors in the humanities looking for how to have second careers in journalism, communicating directly with the public in accessible terms about the thorny difficulties of their work.  So I appreciate journalists, thinking they have a hard job that is mostly under appreciated.  The only world that is worse than a world with a free press is a world without one.

That having been said, today’s piece in the NY Times by Frank Bruni is opinion, and it strikes me as thoughtless opinion, mostly just sounding the cant notes about a liberal arts education that are increasingly becoming the common nonsense of the American public at large.  Although I agree with Bruni that a great deal needs to be done to address the job prospects and job preparation of American College students, the wisdom in his prescriptions is scant and would likely result in an educational program less helpful to students not more.  Says Bruni after lamenting the job prospects of anthropology and philosophy majors (there are hordes of them out there, have you noticed):

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

via The Imperiled Promise of College – NYTimes.com.

I can’t get past the irony that Bruni was an English major in college and has a degree in journalism.  Real growth industries.  I realize the ad hominem, but frankly, Frank ought to know better.

My overriding concern is that these bromides about channeling students in to areas where there supposedly will be jobs rests on multiple assumed grounds that are shaky at best, sand at worst.

First, it is terribly misguided to believe that what a student thinks they want when they are 17–or what we think they ought to want–is an adequate index of what they will want or what they will succeed at.  College is first and foremost a time of exploration and development, a time of discovery.  Most students change their major after entering college, most end up doing something after college that is not directly related to their fields of study, and most will change fields and go in different directions during the course of their lives.  When I was 17 I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and possibly go in to politics;  I began as a major in History and Political Science, then shifted to English because I enjoyed the classes more.  I had a conversion experience at the hands of T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Joe McClatchey–not the poet, the Victorianist at Wheaton College where I did my undergraduate work, the best teacher I ever had–and decided to go for a degree in creative writing in the hopes that I would be the next Walker Percy.  It wasn’t until my second year of graduate school that I decided I loved higher education and wanted a PhD, and it wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that I decided administration could be a noble calling. (Others still doubt).  A long way from my early dream of being a congressman or a Senator, a long way from the dream of being a William Faulkner or a Hemingway.

It is secondarily irresponsible to believe that we can know what the hot jobs will be in the 2020, much less 2030 or 2040, despite our prognostications.  Five years ago Finance majors were littering the coffeeshops of Camp Hill (ok, there’s only one), having graduated from the best colleges only to be back home living with their parents.  In my own case, I am very sure that whatever the hot jobs were in the 1970s, novelist and Senator were not among them. But whatever we thought they were, I’m sure they aren’t all that hot any more. We do not, in fact, know what turns the economy will take, though we can know that we need students who are broadly educated, in whom creativity has been inculated and encouraged, and who possess the flexibility and the skills that can be adapted to a rapidly changing job environment.  There’s nothing about majoring in philosophy or anthropology that prevents students from having that kind of “portfolio”–indeed, their majors do much to produce the skills they will need, and in combination with a general education and elective choices that can develop their skills and knowledge base in technical field or in business, such a student could be extremely desirable for a wide range of jobs in the economy of the future.

Thirdly, WHY PICK ON PHILOSOPHY?  It makes up less than one half of one percent of all college majors in the country and anthropology majors not too many more.  Does Bruni really believe this is a solution to our economic difficulties?  GET RID OF PHILOSOPHY MAJORS.  There’s a political slogan with legs and an economic program with brio.  Why even pick on humanities majors as a whole–depending on which set of majors you take up, they make up between 8 and 12 percent of the nationwide student population and have for a very long time.  Their unemployment rates are somewhat higher that the nation as a whole–though not so drastic as the doom sayers suggest–but there are so many fewer of us it is laughable to believe that the unemployment problem is going to be solved by getting those who remain to drop what they are doing and become unhappy engineers.  Bruni was an English major so I will forgive his weaknesses with statistics.

Finally, is it really healthy for the nation to believe that we are going to be better off creating an educational system in which all students are wedged in to jobs for which they are ill suited, for which they have no personal gifts or desires, and through which they have fewer and fewer options.   Is this really what education for a free society will look like?  When I was young, we descried the fact that the Soviet Union forced students into narrow frames of life in the names of the Soviet five year plans.  We now do this in the name of markets and call it “incentivizing.”

It is not irresponsible to believe that colleges should do more to prepare students for the job market that will await them, but it is irresponsible to believe we will solve the problems facing students by forcing them all in to preprofessional or technical majors.  Indeed, if I can be forgiven one more point, it is bizarre that Bruni thinks a student’s portfolio is made up of his or her college major.  A student brings or ought to bring an entire panoply of experiences associated with college life, in and outside the classroom, and through internships and other forms of learning as well.  Believing that we can solve students’ problems by channeling them in to a major demonstrates a poor understanding of both how education works and how the job market works.

We need to do better, but doing what Bruni suggests will be doing disaster, not doing better.  We need to remember, first, to paraphrase Andy Chan down at Wake Forest, that we are in the education business not the job placement business, even if students getting jobs is important.  We are not a job shop, we are a culture and community that touches the whole of student lives–including their preparations for a career after college.  When we are at our best that is for their individual good and their individual portfolios, but also for the good of the nation as a whole–not just its economy.  That is what responsible education looks like.

What is an education for? Remembering the American Revolution

History can remind us of just how expansive our ancestors could be, and how foreshortened our own vision has become.  One thing that makes our current discussion of higher education so difficult is the dramatic impoverishment of the range of our discourse about educational purposes: the narrower our frame of reference the more cramped our imagination, the more limited our creative responses to crisis, and the fewer our possible options.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham begins his sixth chapter with a citation from John Adams.

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Of this particular citation and others like it, Harpham goes on to say,

[It] is worth recalling that once upon a time the ruling class–which had also been the revolutionary class–imagined that they were risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in behalf of a futurity where what would come to be called the humanities would dominate the concerns of the citizenry.  They humanities, they felt, would represent the crowning achievement of a nation that, having prevailed in war, would build its new society on a foundation of such economic, political, military, and social security that citizens could enrich their lives by turning their attention to the study and appreciation of material and textual artifacts…Adams, Jefferson, and others believed that a general concern for the humanities represented not only the best possible future for the new nation but also the natural progression of mankind, if freed from fear and want.

 We are, of course, a long way from that vision now, our educational vision cramped by a cultural imagination that extends no further than security, economic security first and foremost, but other kinds of security as well.  The quest for security leads fathers to discourage their sons interest in poetry and philosophy and insists that they study business, or leads other students to declare as education majors so they “have something to fall back on”.  It’s worth noting that Adams spoke in a period far more precarious and insecure for the American Republic than anything we face today, and so our current obsessions and fears that education ought to be about employment first and always seems spiritually and ethically….empty.  In the midst of a national experiment that could still have failed, Adams was able to imagine that work existed for the higher purposes of education, rather than education existing for the “practical” purposes of work.

Not that there was no debate between advocates for what is now called professional education and what we continue to call the liberal arts.  It was, in some respects, ever thus, even if it seems more thus now than ever. Harpham points out that John Locke was a philosopher in favor of what we now call professional education and dismissive of the preciousness of the liberal arts.  Harpham also points out that it is a good thing the Lockes of the world did not win the argument and the Adamses did since no one would now be reading either one were it not for the continuing if weakened importance of a liberal arts education.

However,  I think there’s an irony in Adams’s formulation (and in Harpham’s appreciation of it) since it seems to assume that fear and want are defined qualities that can be addressed, finite needs that can be satisfied.  We live in a society that in some respects makes a living off the generation and regeneration of fear–the beneficiaries being our massive security industries–the prisons, the military, homeland security, gated communities, home security systems, and on and on.  We are also a culture defined by the generation of want rather than its satisfaction.  As much as I admired Steve Jobs, Apple is a company built on the generation of desire for things people never knew they wanted, and the iconic Apple is one small mythic reminder of the infinite allure of the new product hanging like fruit from the lowest shelf.

The irony of Adams’s formulation is that there is never any end of want, and our insatiable desires generate, at a minimum, the ongoing fear that we will somehow lose track of all our baubles or have them taken from us.  And our fundamental fears for our children have to do with the fear that they will have fewer baubles than we have.  And so finally, if want and if fear are potentially never ending–like the wars that Adams feels compelled to study–what room left ever for those higher human ideals that Adams deferred for himself. I think he deferred them unknowingly for his sons and daughters and granddaughters and grandsons as well. Are they not deferred always, if we begin with the belief that security is the means and education is at the end? In the world we have created we will never be secure enough for the poetry and philosophy that Adams at least desired for his progeny.

A couple of years ago I tried to think through my own rationale for the purposes of education.  You can listen to it here as you have interest:  Convocation Address: Education for Praise