All this we can do. All this we will do. (And some of it is well in hand.)

“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.

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5 thoughts on “All this we can do. All this we will do. (And some of it is well in hand.)

  1. if all i did was consume relevant skills for my life in my four years there, then why am I working retail? Or is there more to retail than I thought?

    Plus, Oona re:discovery, I refer you to a dialogue on one of my favorite television shows (cancelled, duh).

    Buster: I’m learning cartography, the study of uncharted territories.

    Michael: Hasn’t pretty much everything already been discovered by Magellan and the like?

    Buster: Yeah, they did a pretty good job I guess.

    The university has nothing left to teach us, we’ve figured everything else out and now we just need to meddle around with science until we get things right. We still need the social sciences, I guess, but humanities are right out.

  2. “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” — my classroom in no way teaches respect for all opinions. what i’ve taken to saying is that we must find strategic ways to engage opinions we do not respect at all, and that sometimes that looks like good manners. a lesson i also committed myself to learning. but then the feminist classroom is its own bag of bones….

    mwa! i miss you!

  3. It’s unfortunate that people tend to get all Allan Bloom-y when confronting this problem. That is, the only acceptable position defending the importance of humanistic inquiry is one that assumes the primacy of the old canon — and the importance of reviving that canon — in the face of cultural decrepitude. This just seems to fuel the fire, though, as it becomes easier and easier for the technocrats to whine about the irrelevance of old-style humanistic inquiry. The revived humanities department, if it’s coming at all, will be one that reads Harry Potter, Michael Bay movies, and Rumsfeld speeches. Otherwise, it’s not revival; it’s just an ideological supplement to objectionable conditions out in the world. Go to the mechanic to get your car fixed, go the church to offer your penance, go to college to get some dilettante-ish exposure to the ‘big questions’ (which should, of course, be subsequently cast aside if you hope to do anything practical). This outcome may be worse than outright non-existence.

    And don’t worry, Oona. I’ll carry on your legacy as I advise dictators about the legality of their escapades. We won’t all be sleeping in tents.

  4. The Fish Op-Ed piece was right on, and depressing.

    There is a fundamental disconnect between the people who see a college education as a commodity, and those that see it as an experience. Will it get me a higher-paying job? Will it help me to better understand the world (both the exterior and the interior)?

    I hold both a BA and a BS. Neither prepared me to make a living. Come to think of it, my PhD didn’t teach me marketable job skills, either. Yet, they all made me richer in an intangible way.

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