Friday, May 30, 2008

A new New School

(Note: This is part 4 of a series)

There are signs of life in the American university though. Quite a few people have written recent books on the topic. Margaret Soltan, whose University Diaries are required reading, is working on a text tentatively entitled Re-animating the American University. If I ever finish this dissertation, the second project (after turning the dissertation into a book) will be an intellectual history of pedagogy from Plato to the present, with an eye on understanding what pedagogy is, how it can exist in a modern state, and what it means to lose it. There are several books out criticizing the steady takeover of universities by corporations and bloated athletic programs. And the most encouraging fires in the wilderness, as always, are those students who simply want to discover things, not for the piece of paper or the future paycheck, but for the sheer joy of it.

It’s interesting: sometimes I will suggest to academics that we need a “new New School”; and invariably they know exactly what I mean. The New School for Social Research was where the blacklisted professors went during the Cold War, but when I evoke a new New School, nobody ever thinks of politics. We all imagine something like an Old School: more open discussions, no laptops or internet, interuniversity athletics without a sports program, students living in various houses, and professors living on campus, available to both family and students at once. It would involve a commitment to giving students the foundation in things like handwriting, grammar, vocabulary, and active literacy that they are not getting in High School, and which I have focused on in my TA work. And, finally, it would be a commitment to a real liberal arts education, with the requisite two to three years of intensive history and literature courses, and a stronger background in philosophy and the arts.

Then, when they actually have a handle on this stuff, they can begin to “critique” it in the senior year. But no more courses in which students are introduced to film through Laura Mulvey, the Enlightenment through Foucault, or literature through Derrida! Trust me: most students hate that approach. It’s unfair to expect them to knowingly comment on things that they don’t know about, and it’s exceedingly arrogant.

What I often see (and it strikes me as weird) are humanities professors taking a very unforgiving critical stance towards the Western tradition in the introductory courses that are just supposed to inculcate an interest in the topic. There are some of them that seem to teach the school of contempt and indifference to the Western tradition, or what I call The History of All Atrocities. Today we discuss the Holocaust, tomorrow we discuss Hiroshima, next week we discuss racial segregation, etc. etc. This goes on for the entire semester. The argument is that it’s necessary to counterbalance the “triumphalist” history that students receive in High School. But I don’t see chest-beating triumphalists in my courses as much as bored indifference and cynicism, so I suspect that High Schools also teach the atrocities quite well. You graduate from youthful indifference to Advanced Contempt, I suppose. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that this gloom about the west is a holdover from the culture wars and that liberal professors associate the Western tradition, unnecessarily, with conservatism, or even reaction.

But we too are part of the western humanist tradition, although most of us have little sense of it. And we don’t convey it; the students who learn the dark side of western history often have no idea why they have to study it in the first place. And they have no sense of how it applies to their lives. We need to go back to the beginning. What students need, as ever, is a sense of where greatness lies, an understanding of what civilization is, what truth and beauty mean, and how to cultivate inwardness. They need a sense of why these things matter, which isn’t chest-beating, but survival for our profession in a culture that is always suspicious of the liberal arts. Our profession is never not at stake.

But, more than ever, inwardness is also at stake. And I suspect that the next generation (after this one) will come to resent the way that they have been stolen from themselves, although not know why or how. God knows I don’t. But when this happens and they come to us, the stewards of all traditions, we will need to know how to approach these questions; not how to answer them, but how to look for the answers to them together. Fundamentally, I believe that a liberal arts education helps us to become human. And those of us who are senior scholars need to be much more aware of the needs- intellectual and spiritual alike- of the junior scholars.


narrator said...

Though Margaret Soltan won't let me comment on her blog when she uses it to bash technology in education, she does have some valuable stuff to say. It too often seems wrapped in that thin American veneer of pseudo-elitism (elitism which comes from credentials, not from knowledge or skills), but no matter. I think, too often, her way of making the argument defeats the argument in US terms.

Because Dr. Soltan will suggest that these things are important despite seeming irrelevant to everyday student life - an American concept. And I would argue that they are important exactly because they are perpetually relevant to everyday life.

So, besides applying to work/study at your new New School, let me tell this story.

In my very first PhD seminar I watched as a room full of mostly white, mostly Midwestern, most American PhD candidates in education (special education! in fact), declared one after another that they themselves had "no culture." "I'm just from here."

Ah. No wonder I have never fit in. These people have been in school continually since they were 5 years old (at least). They have secondary school diplomas, they have university degrees, they have masters degrees, except for me, everyone in the room had been teaching, and yet they have had zero cultural education. They know so little history, so little about language, so little about cultural philosophy, so little about themselves, their community, their nation, and their traditions, that - I got myself in deep trouble by pointing this out that first day - of course they cannot successfully contact any other culture coming into their classrooms. They cannot respond to any other traditions. They cannot interact because they do not actually believe in the ideas of culture or tradition.

Of course western philosophy is imperialist. Western culture is imperialist. Western liberalism is imperialist. Western capitalism is imperialist. Western religion is imperialist. Of course. But at least 18th/19th Century British imperialists knew who they were and where they had come from, and thus had a basis for interaction. Americans, raised in false sense of 'modernism sans culture' are the most clueless people in human history, and the least inquisitive.

This failing penetrates the social sciences even more than the humanities. It is what makes American social science research today worthless. Even the best. When Harvard's Robert Putnam can write an entire book about Democracy in Italy (an early PhD research methods reading) and forget to mention that the boundary of the Holy Roman Empire crossed the Italian peninsula for 800 years, it demonstrates a stunning failure of knowledge and education. It means that a major professor at America's elite university does not know enough western history, enough western philosophy to either support or debunk post-colonial arguments. And because he does not know enough of the canon, he doesn't even know why post-colonial arguments would be made.

Enough of my rant. Liberal Arts education - as you say - helps us to become human. It starts by telling us who we are and where we are. And without that knowledge we move out in the world - if we do move out into the world at all - as blind and deaf wanderers.

It is essential because it is the most relevant thing in the world today. Without it we are as clueless and worthless on the planet as our past 20 years of Ivy League-educated presidents would suggest.

Hiromi said...

Re: New New Schools -- I recently read a piece written by a history prof at Swarthmore proposing a new sort of liberal arts college. It's worth a read.

Rufus said...

Hiromi: Thanks, that is a good piece. He's definitely thought further ahead than I have.

Narrator: I'm more sympathetic to her technology gripes after spending an excruciating semester TAing for a prof who seemingly could only communicate through Powerpoint.

It's funny- the way academia functions sort of forces us to become poseurs. We don't get a handle on any tradition in undergraduate education and then get pressured to specialize or sink. It's maddening.

And I've seen exactly what you described happen before, and actually most often with people who were in our department to get qualified to teach High School history. It's terrifying how many of them both plan to teach history and hate to read books.

I tend to hate my shortcomings with the western tradition, but read all the time, so eventually I'll get there.

As for imperialism, yes, it's that too. But that's not all there is to the western heritage, and you wouldn't believe how many grad students I've met who believe that it really is nothing but imperialism, with a side of racism.

narrator said...

There is a fascinating model out there. St. John's in Annapolis isn't just the Naval Academy's big croquet rival, it is also a "great books" college, with everybody reading the canon, and doing little more than immersing themselves in it.

But, as I say, without a society which prizes this knowledge and which honors those with knowledge, this is a micro-niche thing.

As for technology. PowerPoint is not what I'd call "ICT" - it is a one-way communication system that repeats the worst of blackboard instruction, but without the benefit of instructor motion. (I tend to call PowerPoint "the filmstrip of the 21st Century). But what Dr. Soltan picks on are the interactive technologies, and interactive technologies can really power learning if instructors use them. They also allow many currently excluded from school success to succeed. And sometimes - as I've said on my blog - I think that preventing that success is the motivator behind many tech "opponents."

Rufus said...

I'm definitely warming to technology. What sort of models would work best do you think?

Incidentally, that list is just incredible. I'm speechless. I just can't wait to get the stuff on there that I haven't read yet from the BNF tomorrow.

narrator said...

Imagine that as an undergrad education, yeah, we'd all be in better shape.

As for technology, I'll quickly send you to a couple of my posts... (which contains a Dr. Soltan debate) (on social networks) (on mobiles in the classroom)
and I'll suggest some of the free readings listed here
Anyway, the model is interactivity, outreach, and converting that "back channel" into something everyone can access. But those notions are based in flexible authority, and envisioning the classroom as a community of scholars - and expecting behavior that goes with that.

rufus said...

The problem we have at Mall U is that we really have no authority and we try to compensate by being overly flexible! I don't know how we could meet the students halfway on it. We let them use laptops and, invariably, if I sit in the back of the lecture hall, all but one of them will be on youtube or facebook or whatever. I don't know how we use that technology to get them to read actual course material. We have tried the online blackboard site, which sort of works. And they do seem to like the HBO Rome series. But, again, when we ask them to read five pages for class, it's somehow too much.

narrator said...

The only way to do it is to teach interaction. The same way we try to teach "non-electronic" interaction. I constantly ask people to look things up and email it to the class. Or we've all had a shared Google Doc open. Or I've asked people to text their friends, relatives, whoever and get opinions, or I've asked them to find it on a map for me. If the class requires that the computers and phones be used for the class, obviously facebook time drops.

I see this function in my grad classes. We are constantly finding things, mapping things, looking it up in Wikipedia or Wiktionary, digging through articles, passing the links around, throwing the results up on the big screen. It has become an essential part of the learning process, really helping to solve the issue of differing knowledge bases. So, knowing that it can work, I've had less trouble integrating it into undergraduate classes.

But it also requires an acceptance of the fact that there are disengaged students. Oh well. I really don't think it is any worse now than when I was an undergrad. Yes, more people are on Facebook. But fewer are sound asleep, doing crosswords, reading the newspaper. I'm not sure that's worse in any measurable way. Just different.