Category Archives: ethics

Revolution and Reformation in Higher Education: Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U

It’s a sign of the fast changing times in higher education that I just finished reading Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U and it already feels just a little bit dated–not terribly so, since it is a kind of futurist fiction about higher education written in 2010–and I feel frustrated at the notion that great new ideas and books to consider are solving yesterdays problems by the time I get around to them.  The shelf life for this kind of thing seems to be about a year and 2010 seems like an eon ago in both publishing and in higher education.  This is too bad because I actually think there is some important ethical thinking about higher education going on in the book that gets obscured both by the speed of the author and the speed with which the educational times are leaving even this book behind.

A few examples: the term MOOC, all the rage since the new cooperative ventures of Harvard, MIT YAle, Stanford and others, is barely mentioned as such–there are a couple of notes about it, but the notion that Ivy League schools would start en-mass to give their educational content away for free isn’t given much attention in this book (indeed, institutions of higher education seem largely to be the problem rather than a part of innovative solutions in Kamenetz’s view).  Similarly, the recent scandals and shennanigans in the for-profit sector barely rate a mention in for Kamenetz, and yet their pervasiveness at the present moment casts an inespcapable pall over the idea that that the for-profits are the best or even a good way forward.  Kamenetz offers a few gestures of critique at the for-profit educational industry, but seems more enamored of the innovations they can offer.  I’m less sanguine about the creative destruction of capitalism when it comes to education, and that shades my own reception of the book.

Overall I liked this book a great deal, but I do think the rosy and largely uncritical view of the present suggests a few problems.  The book catalogues the florid variety of things going on in higher education, championing every change or possibility that’s out there on an equal plane without too much discrimination.  There are a few gestures here and there toward critical thinking about these new possibilities, but mostly things fall into the following rough equations:

Current higher education system = exclusionary + hierarchical + expensive + tradition centered = bad

Anything new = good (or at least potential good)

On some level this strikes me as a convert’s story.  Kamenetz went to Yale College, for goodness sake, not Kaplan University.  So it may be that she is a kind of Martin Luther, or at least his publicist.  One well imagines Kamenetz in the reformation glorifying every sect that came down the pike as good because it wasn’t the catholic church and was returning power to the people.  Or the believer who wakes one morning to realize she believes nothing that her parents church believes, and so is fascinated and wildly attracted to the notion that some people out there worship turnips.

Not sure if anyone actually worships turnips, but you get the point;  its difficult in the midst of a reformation to discriminate and figure out who is Martin Luther, Menno Simons, John Calvin, or William Tyndale, and who is just a the latest crackpot televangelist hocking his wares.  Moreover, it takes a lot of discrimination–and probably more distance than we can afford right now–to figure out which parts of Luther, Simons, Calvin and Tyndale were the things worth keeping and which were, well, more like the crackpot televangelists of their own day.  Are Phoenix, Kaplan, and other for profits really helping poorer students in a way that the bad and exclusive traditional university is not, or are they really fleecing most of them in the name of hope and prosperity–something a good many televangelists and other American Hucksters are well known for?

This book is not where we’ll get that kind of analysis and considered attention about what we really ought to do next, where we ought to put what weight and influence we have.  And I admit, to some degree that’s asking this book to be something it isn’t We need books like this that are more provocations and manifestos than reflective analyses.  We also have to have someone that writes the revolution from the inside with all the enthusiasms that entails.

But that means this is a fast book, subject to the strengths and weaknesses that speed provides, one weakness being a little bit of factual sloppiness and a penchant for hasty and oversimplified analysis that sells well to the journalistic ear.  For instance Kamenetz uses a recurrent metaphor of the higher educational institution being a church that the contemporary world increasingly doesn’t need, and she draws an analogy by saying that statistics show that church attendance has dropped from 40 to 25 percent.  The problem is that the article she cites actually says that regular church attendance has remained consistently at 25 percent for the past couple of decades and has declined only slightly since 1950.  Other studies peg that number at 40 percent.  No study I know of (I’m not an expert)–and certainly not the one that Kamenetz cites–suggests its dropped from 40 to 25 percent.

Another annoying instance is a recurrent statement that administrators of higher education institutions are committed to maintaining the status quo.  This is spoken like someone who never actually talked to an administrator, or perhaps is only speaking about Yale College which for the most part really doesn’t need to change.  Nearly every administrator I know of or have talked to is thinking furiously, sometimes frantically, and sometimes creatively, about how our institutions can change to meet the challenges we face and better serve the public with our various educational missions.  Unless it is the case that Kamenetz is arguing that institutions are simply for the status quo because they are institutions and unwilling to pass quietly in to the night.  But this would jejune.  It sounds good to the anti-institutional American ear, but its doubtful policy for advances in higher education.

These kinds of issues individually are small, but collectively they are annoying and to someone who is involved in the institutional side of higher education and is informed about the issues, they are glaring.  What it might mean is that the book won’t get the kind of attention in higher education institutions that it deserves.

Which is too bad since I think the book ought to be required reading for administrators, if only to debate its urgency.  What the book lacks in critical discrimination it makes up for with passionate and detailed pronouncement–a good sermon can be good for the academic soul.  For one thing, it might help us realize that the way things have always been done isn’t even the way things are being done now for an increasingly larger and larger share of the population.  Just as churches change–however slowly–in the face of historical movements and transformations, higher education is and will be changing as well.  Many of the ideas detailed in Kamenetz’s book help us see the extent to which those changes are occurring and lend new urgency to the question of what those changes mean for us in higher education.  There’s even a good deal available that could help us to think about how to best reform our own practices to meet our current highest ideals, rather than seeing this as a war of good and evil over the minds of the next generation.

I was especially drawn to Kamenetz’s notion of a community of practice–something she drew from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger:

Such communities  are defined by shared engagement in a task and shared understanding of goals and means to reach them.  In the classic progression of a community of practice, an appentice presents herself to the community and takes on simple beginning tasks at the elbow of an expert.  Everyone is participating in real-world tasks, not academic exercises., so the learner’s actions have consequences right away.  This stage is known as “legitimate peripheral participation.’  As she progresses she continuosly reinforces her learning by teaching others as well.  In a community of practice it is understood that youare just as likely to learn from the mistakes of fellow beginners, or from people with just slightly more experience, as from wizened elders.  Virtual communities of practice are thriving on the internet, among bloggers, gamers, designers and programmers.  These groups have little choice but to teach each other–information technology has been changing so fast for the past few decades that traditional schools and curricula can’t keep up.”

This last, of course, if very true.  I think the question of time for learning and play in higher education is a big problem, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago.  But even given that, I’m struck by the ways what she describes seems characteristic of the practice already of Digital Humanists as I understand the basics of this particular practice. Something like theHomer Multitext project that includes students from first year Greek classes to fourth year Greek majors is one instance of this.

Beyond this, I am struck by the ethical impulses entailed here and in much of Kamenetz’s work.  She points out that the original meanings of words we associate with universities had to do with something like this notion of community–university and college pointing to the notion of guild or community, a gathering of like-minded people pursuing a common vocation.

This ethical impulse in Kamenetz’s work is what I find most attractive and most usable.  She connects her manifesto to the work of Paul Freire and other catholic priest/intellectuals who were deeply invested in the notion of universal active and engaged education for what my church growing up called “the least of these.”  This is a notion that faculty at my faith-based institution can root themselves in and catch a vision for, and one that I think many other public-minded intellectuals could embrace regardless of the particulars of their beliefs.

What would it mean for us to take advantage of the latest innovations in technology, not because it could take save the institution money and not because it could save faculty time, but what if we could imagine it as a way of taking what we have to those who have need of it?

What if the world were really our classroom, not just the 30 students in front of us who can afford (or not afford) to be there?

What difference would it make to our practice, our politics, our thinking, teaching, and scholarship?

Why students of the Humanities should look for jobs in Silicon Valley

Ok, I’ll risk sounding like a broken record to say again that the notion that humanities students are ill-positioned for solid careers after college is simply misguided.  It still bears repeating.  This latest from Vivek Wadhwa at the Washington Post gives yet more confirmation of the notion that employers are not looking for specific majors but for skills and abilities and creativity, and that package can come with any major whatsoever, and it often comes with students in the humanities and social sciences.

Using Damon Horowitz, who possess degrees in both philosophy and engineering and whose unofficial title at Google is In-House Philosopher and whose official title is Director of Engineering, Wadhwa points out the deep need for humanities and social science students in the work of technology companies, a need that isn’t just special pleading from a humanist but is made vivid in the actual hiring practices of Silicon Valley companies.

Venture Capitalists often express disdain for startup CEOs who are not engineers. Silicon Valley parents send their kids to college expecting them to major in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) discipline. The theory goes as follows: STEM degree holders will get higher pay upon graduation and get a leg up in the career sprint.

The trouble is that theory is wrong. In 2008, my research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent held bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just two percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, healthcare, arts and the humanities.

Yes, gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in was not a significant factor. ….

I’d take that a step further. I believe humanity majors make the best project managers, the best product managers, and, ultimately, the most visionary technology leaders. The reason is simple. Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people. In contrast, humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology. A history major who has studied the Enlightment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire may be more likely to understand the human elements of technology and how ease of use and design can be the difference between an interesting historical footnote and a world-changing technology. 

via Why Silicon Valley needs humanities PhDs – The Washington Post.

Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this sounds like the kind of findings emphasized at the Rethinking Success Conference that I have now blogged on several times.    (I’ve heard theories that people come to be true believers if they hear a story 40 times.  So far I’ve only blogged on this 12 times, so I’ll keep going for a while longer).  Although I still doubt that it would be a good thing for a philosopher to go to Silicon Valley with no tech experience whatsoever,  a philosopher who had prepared himself by acquiring some basic technical skills alongside of his philosophy degree might be in a particularly good position indeed.  Worth considering.

Side note,  the Post article points to a nice little bio about Damon Horowitz.  I suspect there are not many folks in Silicon Valley who can talk about the ethics of tech products in terms that invoke Kant and John Stuart Mill.  Maybe there should be more.

Are writers afraid of the dark?

In a new blog at NYRB, Tim Parks questions the notion that literature is about the stuff of life and instead might be a kind of withdrawal from the complexity and fearfulness of life itself:

So much, then, for a fairly common theme in literature. It’s understandable that those sitting comfortably at a dull desk to imagine life at its most intense might be conflicted over questions of courage and fear. It’s also more than likely that this divided state of mind is shared by a certain kind of reader, who, while taking a little time out from life’s turmoil, nevertheless likes to feel that he or she is reading courageous books.

The result is a rhetoric that tends to flatter literature, with everybody over eager to insist on its liveliness and import. “The novel is the one bright book of life,” D H Lawrence tells us. “Books are not life,” he immediately goes on to regret. “They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.” Lawrence, it’s worth remembering, grew up in the shadow of violent parental struggles and would always pride himself on his readiness for a fight, regretting in one letter that he was too ill “to slap Frieda [his wife] in the eye, in the proper marital fashion,” but “reduced to vituperation.” Frieda, it has to be said, gave as good as she got. In any event words just weren’t as satisfying as blows, though Lawrence did everything he could to make his writing feel like a fight: “whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage,” he insisted.

In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.

(via Instapaper)

I was reminded in reading this of a graduate seminar with Franco Moretti wherein he said, almost as an aside, that we have an illusion that literature is complex and difficult, but that in fact, literature simplifies the complexity and randomness of life as it is.  In some sense literature is a coping mechanism.  I don’t remember a great deal more than that about the seminar–other than the fact that Moretti wasn’t too impressed with my paper on T.S. Eliot–but I do remember that aside.  It struck me as at once utterly convincing and yet disturbing, unsettling the notion that we in literature were dealing with the deepest and most complicated things in life.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the old saw, literature may not be life, but, then, what is?  Parks seems to strike a little bit of a graduate studenty tone here in presenting the obvious as an earthshaking discovery, without really advancing our understanding of what literature might actually be and do.  Parks seems to take delight in skewering without revealing or advancing understanding.  There’s a tendency to set up straw men to light afire, and then strike the smug and knowing revelatory critical pose, when what one has revealed is more an invention of one’s own rhetoric than something that might be worth thinking about.

This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)

I’m tempted to say “What nonsense!”  Parks’s willingness to use his daughter to dismiss a scientific finding strikes me a bit like the homeschool student I once had who cited her father as an authority who disproved evolution.  Well.  The reference to the twitching dog invokes emotion that in fact runs away–in a failure of critical nerve perhaps?–from the difficult question of how exactly the brain processes and models fictional information, how that information relates to similar real world situations in which people find themselves, and how people might use and interrelate both fictional and “real world” information.

Parks seems to have no consciousness whatsoever of the role of storytelling in modeling possibility, one of its most complex ethical and psychological effects.  It’s a very long-standing and accepted understanding that one reason we tell any stories at all is to provide models for living.  Because a model is a model, we need not assume it lacks courage or is somehow a cheat on the real stuff of life.  Horror stories and fairy tales help children learn to deal with fear, impart warning and knowledge and cultural prohibitions to children, and attempt to teach them in advance how to respond to threat, to fear, to violence, etcetera.  Because those lessons are always inadequate to the moment itself hardly speaks against the need to have such mental models and maps.  It would be better to ask what we would do without them.  The writer who provides such models need not be skewered for that since to write well and convincingly, to provide a model that serves that kind of ethical or psychic purpose, the writer him or herself must get close to those feelings of terror and disintegration themselves.  It’s why there’s always been a tradition of writers like Hemingway or Sebastian Junger who go to war in order to get into that place within themselves where the emotions of the real can be touched.  It’s also why there’s always been a tradition of writers self-medicating with alcohol.

Thus, I kind of found Parks’s implied assumption that writers are cowering just a bit from the real stuff of life to be a cheap shot, something that in the cultural stories we tell each other is usually associated with cowardice and weakness, in a writer or a fighter.  The novelists and poets Parks takes on deserve better.

Dreaming of Heaven? Connection and Disconnection in Cathy Davidson’s Commencement address at UNC

Cathy Davidson and I crossed paths very briefly at Duke what now seems ages ago, she one of the second wave of important hires during Duke’s heyday in the late 80s and 90s, me a graduate student nearly finished and regretting that I didn’t have a chance to have what the graduate student scuttlebutt told me was a great professor.  I was sorry to miss the connection.  And its one of the ironies of our current information age that I am more “connected” to her now in some respects than I ever was during the single year we were in physical proximity at Duke:  following her tweets, following her blog at HASTAC, checking in on this or that review or interview as it pops up on my twitter feed or in this or that electronic medium.

I’m sure, of course, that she has no idea who I am.

In the past several years, of course, Davidson has become one of the great intellectual cheerleaders for the ways our current digital immersion is changing us as human beings, much for the better in Davidson’s understanding.  Recently Davidson gave the commencement address at the UNC school of Information and Library Science and emphasized the the ways in which our information age is changing even our understanding of post-collegiate adulthood in the ways it enables or seems to enable the possibility of permanent connection.

How do you become an adult?   My students and I spent our last class together talking about the many issues at the heart of this complex, unanswerable question, the one none of us ever stops asking.  One young woman in my class noted that, while being a student meant being constantly together—in dorms, at parties, in class—life on the other side of graduation seemed dauntingly “individual.”  Someone else piped up that at least that problem could be solved with a list serv or a Facebook page.  From the occasional email I receive from one or another of them, I know the students in that class came up with a way to still stay in touch with one another. 

 In the fourth great Information Age,  distance doesn’t have to mean loss in the same way it once did.  If Modernity—the third Industrial Age of Information—was characterized by alienation, how can we use the conditions of our connected Information Age to lessen human alienation, disruption of community, separation, loss?  I’m talking about the deep  “social life of information,” as John Seely Brown would say, not just its technological affordances.  How can we make sure that we use the communication technologies of our Age to help one another, even as our lives take us to different destinations?  How can we make sure our social networks are also our human and humane safety net?  

via Connection in the Age of Information: Commencement Address, School of Information and Library Science, UNC | HASTAC.

At the end of her address Davidson asked the graduates from UNC–ILS to stand and address one another:

And now make your colleague a promise. The words are simple, but powerful, and I know you won’t forget them:  Please say to one another, “I promise we will stay connected.” 

There’s something powerful and affecting about this, but I’ll admit that it gave me some pause, both in the fact that I think it is a promise that is fundamentally impossible to keep, even amidst the powers of our social networks, and in the fact that I’m not sure it would be an absolutely positive thing if we were able to keep it faithfully.

The dream of permanent and universal connection, of course, is a dream of heaven, an infinite and unending reconciliation whereby the living and the dead speak one to another in love without ceasing.  But there are many reasons why this remains a dream of heaven rather than fact of life, not least being our finite capacity for connection.  According to some cognitive theorists, human beings have the capacity for maintaining stable relationships with at most about 200 to 250 people, with many putting the number much lower.  I am not a cognitive scientist, so I won’t argue for the accuracy of a number, and I cant really remember at the moment whether Davidson addresses this idea in her recent work, but to me the general principle seems convincing.  While the internet might offer the allure of infinite connection, and while we might always be able to add more computing power to our servers, and while the human brain is no doubt not yet tapped out in its capacities, it remains the case that we are finite, limited, and….human.  This means that while I value the 600 friends I have on Facebook and the much smaller congregation that visits my blog and those who follow me or whom I follow on Twitter, and a number with whom I have old-fashioned and boring face to face relationships in the flesh, I am meaningfully and continuously connected to only a very few of them comparative to the number of connections I have in the abstract.  This leads to the well-known phenomenon of the joyous and thrilling reconnection with high school friends on Facebook, followed by long fallow periods punctuated only by the thumbs up “like” button for the occasional post about  new grandchildren. We are connected, but we are mostly still disconnected.

And, I would say, a good thing too.

That is, it seems to me that there can be significant values to becoming disconnected, whether intentionally or not.  For one thing, disconnection gives space for the experience of the different and unfamiliar.  One concern we’ve had in our study abroad programs is that students will sometimes stay so connected to the folks back home–i.e. their online comfort zone–that they will not fully immerse in or connect with the cultures that they are visiting.  In other words, they miss an opportunity for new growth and engagement with difference because they are unwilling to let go of the connections they already have and are working, sometimes feverishly, to maintain.

Stretched through time, we might say that something very similar occurs if it becomes imperative that we maintain connections with communities, with the relational self, of our past to the extent that we cannot engage with the relational possibilities of our present.  In order to be fully present to those connections that are actually significant to me–even those relationships that are maintained primarily online–I have to let hordes and hordes of relationships die or lie fallow, maintained only through the fiction of connection that my Facebook and Twitter Newsfeeds happen to allow.

Of course, I don’t think saying any of this is necessarily earth shattering.  I am very sure that the vast majority of my Facebook connections are not pining away about the fact that I am not working hard at maintaining strong connections with every single one of them.  Indeed, I doubt the vast majority of them will even know I wrote this blog since they will miss it on their Newsfeed.  Indeed a good many of them are probably secretly annoyed that I write a daily blog that appears on their newsfeed, but for the sake of our connection they graciously overlook the annoyance.

On the other hand, I do think there is a broad principle about what it means to be human that’s at stake.  Connection isn’t the only value.  Losing connection, separation, dying to some things and people and selves so some new selves can live.  These are values that our age doesn’t talk much about, caught up as we are in our dreams of a heaven of infinite connection. They are, however, facts and even values that make any kind of living at all possible.

Carmen McCain on the Politics of the Happy African Story

Messiah College had commencement today and it is always wonderful to see so many talented young people beginning their own journey in the world, making it, I am very sure, a better place than it would be without them.  I was glad in that context to get the latest blog from Carmen McCain, and to be directed to her latest article on African literature and culture at The Weekly Trust.  Carmen has a really strong meditation on the difficulties of writing about suffering in Africa, when suffering has been taken by so many in the West as being the only representative sign of African experience.

However, I admit that as I read Evaristo’s comments, I felt a tension between her impatient charge to “move on” past representations of suffering, and the context of currently living in northern Nigeria, where people leave their homes daily knowing that they could be blown up or shot at by unknown gunmen. Only two weeks ago in Kano, an attack on churches that met on Bayero University’s old campus killed dozens of university students and professors, the very cosmopolitan middle class often celebrated by writers abroad, and more bombs were found planted around campus. Suffering is not limited to bombs, as I was reminded when recently attending a church in Jos. Pointing to a dramatic decrease in tithes and offerings as evidence of hard times, an elder sought prayer for those who lost their livelihoods in the Plateau State’s demolition campaign of “illegal structures” and would lose more in the recently-announced motorcycle ban.

Kaduna-based writer Elnathan John wrote in a conversation with other African writers on Facebook (quoted by permission), “When I am told to tell a happy African story, I ask, why? Where I live, EVERYTHING is driven by fear of conflict, bomb blasts, and daylight assassinations unreported by the media. Every kilometer of road has a checkpoint like those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I am a writer writing my realities. […]Our problems in Africa will not disappear when we stop writing about them.”

via The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story.

I’m reminded in this exchange of the tensions that surrounded and still surrounds the literature of African Americans.  During the Harlem Renaissance, the period that I’ve focused on the most in my scholarly work, there were profound debates between those who felt it was the responsibility of artists to present positive and uplifting stories of AFrican American experience and those who wanted to represent the lives of average African Americans that were not always that uplifting.  This was partially the nub of the debate between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston proclaiming that she was not tragically colored and Wright accusing Hurston or more or less writing minstrel shows for white people.

It would be presumptuous of me to try to define what an appropriate answer to this dilemma is.  I’m not sure the representation of suffering necessarily provokes people to change.  I think it was Susan Sontag who argued that the representation of suffering in war photography inured our sensibilities to that suffering and made us more likely to ignore the war that was going on.  Nor am I sure that presenting positive and happy tales of uplift wins friends and influences countrymen.  It may do as much to invite boredom.  Carmen’s own response is as follows, focusing on truth-telling of whatever kind, and on the ways that literature, even and perhaps especially the literature of suffering, can give people equipment for living, can model for people ways to live their lives:

So, by all means let us, as Evaristo appeals, have new genres, new styles, that are “as  diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations” Let us have “thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.” But let us also be true, let us be relevant. And let us not, in pursuit of a global recognition, erase the voices of ordinary people, who so often bear up under immense suffering with grace and humour. For it is these stories of survival that give us the most direction in how to navigate an increasingly terrifying world.

Eloquent

(For any interested, Carmen blogs at A Tunanina)

Interview with Andrew Delbanco: Students, you have saved others, now save yourselves

Following up on my recent posts on Andrew Delbanco (here, here, and here), there’s an interesting interview with Delbanco on the Chronicle of the Higher Education as part of their Afterwords series, speaking further about his recent book:

Andrew Delbanco Interview–Chronicle of Higher Education

Mostly Delbanco covers the same territory here, and again, I admire his ideals.  I remain struck, though, by the way in which he puts the onus on students to resist the commercialization of college life. Again, I wonder, why is it up to students to do this.  Don’t they, most of them, end up working with an overwhelmingly overdetermined system, hopelessly recognizing that a college or university degree is necessary for their success in life, and realizing at the exchange of several tens of thousands of dollars in debt they are being offered a chance at a reasonably secure existence.  How can it be up to college students to resist this commercialization when college and university life is so thoroughly commercialized from the moment of the transaction–through admissions decisions that consider the ability to pay, to financial aid offerings, to debt loads, to student jobs necessary for paying basic expenses.  What student could avoid understanding that there is a deeply commercial angle to the transaction.

Note, I am not saying the commercialization of higher education should not be resisted, but it seems peculiar to me to put emphasis on the need for students to do this.  The question ought to be, how do we change the structures of higher education that are making the commercialization of their education inevitable.

That is a tougher nut to crack than pleading with undergraduates to resist pecuniary interests and take humanities majors anyway.

What College Should Be: Andrew Delbanco’s Errand in to the Wilderness

I finished up Andrew Delbanco’s College:  What it Was, Is, and Should Be last night, swiping to the last location on my Kindle app just as I was finishing up my nightly effort to subdue the flesh on an exercise bike at the Y.  As you know, I’ve blogged a bit about about Delbanco and his investigations of college life a couple of times recently,  here, and here, and here.  Last one, I promise, but since I have actually finished the book I thought I ought to at least make a couple of summary comments.

First,  Delbanco is very good on analyzing and representing the ideal values of the college education as it existed in the past.  Especially, Delbano points out that our current discursive emphasis on an education for jobs–a rhetorical and imaginative virus that affects our president and our Tea Partiers alike–is a new phenomenon.  Or rather, what is new is that a concern with jobs and economic well-being was always leavened by and even tertiary to other values.  Colleges existed to create and shape a certain kind of person, not a certain kind of employee, and so their function was essentially moral and ethical.  Colleges further existed to create public servants, not individual entrepreneurs, people whose goals was fundamentally the service of the public good rather than pursuit of private enterprise.

For Delbanco, these emphases within College life have been all but excised , at least in the rhetoric of their public rationale.  I think he’s right about this in large degree.  My own experience at such colleges gives me some hope that all is not lost:  Messiah College where I work defines its mission as educating men and women toward maturity of intellect character and Christian faith for lives of service, leadership and reconciliation in church and society.  That is the robust language of human transformation and public service that Delbanco eulogizes, and I think by and large we put our money where our mouth in our programming.  At the same time, here as everywhere, prospective students and their parents often choose between us and other colleges on the basis of what they learn from our career center, and students have certainly been choosing majors primarily on the basis of their perceived job prospects rather than on the perception that college life is about the kinds of transformation that can occur.  It is much the same at most faith based institutions that I know of, and Delbanco does a good job of showing how the rhetoric of economic gain rather than public service or  personal transformation has come to dominate even our elite national liberal arts institutions.

Secondly, I think Delbanco does a good job of showing how the actual life of institutions–as opposed to their rhetoric–has never been one of realized pastoral ideals.  In relation to the conflict between the quest for economic gain and the search for personal transformation, Delbanco points out that this has been a long standing conflict in American higher education.

One way of coming at this question was suggested around a century ago by Max Weber, who, not long before Sinclair Lewis invented “Winnemac,” proposed a distinction between two “polar opposites of types of education.” The types he had in mind correspond closely to the terms “college” and “university” as I have been using them. The first, associated with religion, is “to aid the novice to acquire a ‘new soul’  .  .  .   and hence, to be reborn.” The second, associated with the bureaucratic structures of modern life, is to impart the kind of “specialized expert training” required for “administrative purposes— in the organization of public authorities, business offices, workshops, scientific or industrial laboratories,” as well as “disciplined armies.” 1 Many other serviceable terms could be substituted for Weber’s— knowledge versus skill; inspiration versus discipline; insight versus information; learning for its own sake versus learning for the sake of utility— but whatever terms we prefer, a good educational institution strives for both. “The two types do not stand opposed,” as Weber put it, “with no connections or transitions between them.” They coexist— or at least they should— in a dynamic relation.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 1635-1645). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

This particular passage encouraged me to some degree, if only because I feel this tension continuously as a dean of Humanities at a small school.  We are constantly asked to justify ourselves on the basis of the jobs or the security that we can provide and there seems to be no real room anymore for talking about the kinds of dramatic intellectual and moral transformation that occurs with some regularity as a student engages the great philosophical, literary, religious, and historical texts of the past, how much they have done for me in helping me overcome my own prejudices and ill-considered judgements, how they have helped to make me a better person than I would have been without them.  On the other hand, while I think the language of economic self-interest is ascendant and at the moment tipping the scales against the balance that Weber thought important, it is good to know that the tension between these tendencies has always been there, and that purity on either end would probably be unhealthy.  My own college defines itself as a college of the liberal and applied arts and sciences, building that tension in to its self-definition.  Where and how to find that balance is always the question.

I came away in the end being uncertain whether Delbanco’s book actually helped me answer this last question.  Delbanco’s book is best in answering the question of what college was.  As he gets in to an analysis of what college is he is better at showing anecdotally the kinds of things that are happening than providing and analysis of the massive social forces that have brought us to this point.  When it gets to the question of what college should be, I don’t think Delbanco provides a satisfactory answer.  Its clear that he believes we have lost the ethical and public service imperatives of an earlier rhetoric, however imperfectly those ideals were realized.  And to that degree it seems clear that he thinks we ought to return to those ideals.  However, there is no real road map forward , no real plan for how to achieve the values he desires, other than a few random allusions toward things like humanities programs that serve prison populations, or college policies that emphasize degree completion for the common person.  He calls for more collaboration with secondary schools.  All things I too would applaud or call for.

These are laudable instances, but hardly a plan for the kinds of problems that are facing institutions or facing the system of higher education as it exists in the present.  I felt in the end that Delbanco was more than a little like the Puritans whose educational ideals he admires.  The Puritans called for an errand in to the wilderness, but mostly clung pretty close to the coast, seeing the wilderness as dangerous and forbidding.  For Delbanco, the world of higher education is such a wilderness, a place roaring and full of devils, a place for the lost.  I didn’t see a plan here for emptying the forest of its demons, or sufficient directions for how and where to clear a path in the underbrush.