“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil,” said Obama on Tuesday, “to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”
When it comes to harnessing the sun, all I can do is wish him luck with a hearty “you go girl!” But about transforming the universities, I can do much more. I can put his mind at rest. Because the job is almost done. Higher education, in North America, is good and transformed. For even in my school, a bastion of traditional academic learning, I am increasingly being encouraged by a nebulous ethos to:
• think of students as consumers and myself as providing a consumer service,
• teach respect as a primary “learning outcome,” and to this effect validate all opinions expressed in class as long as they are tolerant of and respectful of competing opinions,
• teach material that is relevant to my students’ lives, and
• use bullet points.
And what’s wrong with that? The first is anathema to any concept of discovery: the student as consumer knows what she wants and wants to get what she knows. The second backfires: the goal here is to create responsible citizens, but people who can only validate – who are shocked and distressed when they hear others making judgments – are not citizens; they are sheep. The third would seem to make more sense, except that it’s impossible to tell what might be relevant to a particular student until the learning is well underway; therefore in practice this becomes a matter of teaching ideology – presumably relevant to everyone — rather than facts, expressions, ideas, and questions – no doubt relevant only to a few and even then only in the long run. About the fourth I’m joking, thank goodness. Or mostly joking. My school doesn’t make me use powerpoint or clickers, and I’m still allowed to ban computers in class. For now.
There is only one way to fix the trend: to make the mission of the university inutility, or knowledge for its own sake. As soon as you put knowledge to the service of something else – as soon as you harness it – you define the task by the goal, cutting off avenues for curiosity; you predefine what is “new” and therefore preclude novelty; in short, you do what used to be called begging the question (though god knows that phrase is never used anymore with its old meaning, and that’s something new I suppose).
But it won’t happen. My new best friend Stanley Fish has recently reviewed a book arguing that the mission of the liberal arts in America has become entirely instrumentalist: they make their profit imparting only skills that are useful, said skills imparted by overworked, untenured people too busy to have time for curiosity or any real criticism, let alone originality. I find the argument convincing, declare this battle lost, and shift further towards cynical humour. I’m thinking of therapy to get better in touch with my Inner Bozo.
One last word. Stanley Fish, charming as he sometimes is, offers an inadequate analysis. Look for a devastating critique of his Save The World (love that short form!) in a new post.