Tag Archives: higher education

An Academic Haven Under Fire

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University. Camera Obscura via Flickr.

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University. Camera Obscura via Flickr.

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, I was (to my parents’ despair) an undecided teenager. I wanted to be a writer. I loved physics and cosmology.  I wanted to get involved in several forms of activism. But  when it came to college, I had to make a decision. So I decided to study journalism, hoping it would help me develop skills for writing and activism. During my first semester, however, I took a mandatory philosophy course. I had never studied philosophy before, and it changed everything. In philosophy I could pursue all of my interests: literature, science, activism, art. So I transferred to a philosophy program at a different university, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ).

The philosophy program, however, did not allow me to work with literature. So after graduation, I pursued a master’s degree in literature. Now I could write about any topic related to literature and art—but was forbidden by my advisor to speak or write about science. My job, he said, was to pick an author and write about his work, keeping my own ideas out of the way. So I wrote a small book on Jorge Luis Borges, got my degree, and told myself I would never do graduate work in literature again. Instead, I pursued another master’s—this time at Tufts University, in philosophy, hoping things might be different in America. But there, too, the general atmosphere discouraged students from pursuing their own ideas.

By the time I’d left the PUC-RJ, I had over ten notebooks filled with thoughts about the interrelation between science and literature. By the time I left Tufts, I had lost all desire to pursue an academic career. I found a part-time job at a telemarketing company and decided to do my writing and research on my own time. Around this time, however, a friend told me about the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins. The next year, I arrived in Baltimore for my first semester. Continue reading

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Two Cultures, At Least

Imposición del Birrete doctoral Universidad Complutense (Anonymous), via Wikimedia Commons.

Imposición del Birrete doctoral Universidad Complutense (Anonymous), via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this year, connoisseurs of higher-education horror stories were introduced to Simon Newman, the erstwhile president of Mount St. Mary’s University. Descending on this small, Catholic liberal-arts college from the world of private equity, Newman made a few things clear: It was too Catholic and too “liberal arts.” He referred to some students as “Catholic jihadis” and—according to one tenured faculty member he’d fired—proclaimed that “Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell.”

That’s not why Simon Newman made the news. He landed there because he’d tried to weed out students who could turn out to be low-performers—before those students had a chance to perform well or badly. Because Newman illustrated his thinking by comparing students to bunnies that needed to be killed, and because he responded to public criticism by firing tenured faculty, he found himself national news.

How does a small Catholic liberal-arts school end up with someone so unsuited to its particular mission? Why was someone from the world of private equity presumed to be so immediately suitable to the task? The answer lies in the kind of people who made up the board of Mount St. Mary’s. They, too, came from that kind of world. It is, to them, the real world of sensible people. Less important: Catholic education, the institution of tenure, the mission of a liberal-arts college, or the obligations an institution has toward struggling students.

But it’s also a truism, even to people who disapprove of Newman’s actions, that his is the real world of sensible people—that (as a friend said to me while the story was unfolding) in dismissing liberal-arts education, Newman wasn’t saying anything untrue. Even if the liberal arts (or tenure, or Catholic education, or students) are the important things, they can’t survive on their own. They require a sensible overseer. And that overseer cannot come from within the university. Continue reading

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College Degrees or College Education?

A college diploma. Our Lady of Disgrace via flickr.

A college diploma. Our Lady of Disgrace via flickr.

The much-awaited, much-debated Obama College Scorecard has just been released. Some reports have described it as a retreat by the administration, with President Obama caving to pressure from a chorus of college and university leaders. But if the failure to include a numerical ranking of the evaluated schools is a compromise, it is an insignificant one. Close examination shows that the Scorecard effectively supports the administration’s broader effort to redefine the purpose of higher education as the preparation of young Americans for high-paying jobs. The real question, of course, is whether we should be happy about this administration victory.

To be sure, the Scorecard provides Americans with some useful information on schools’ average annual costs, graduation rates, and graduates’ incomes. For example, despite posted tuitions, many private universities and colleges offer significant discounts and financial aid, making them much more affordable than their sticker price would suggest. Revealing this fact may inspire more applicants to consider schools that they thought were out of reach. It may even inspire more schools to devote resources to financial aid.

Still, the clear implication here is that the point of a college degree is to get in and out as cheaply and quickly as possible in order to secure a job with a big salary. And let us not pretend that colleges won’t respond to these incentives.

The Obama administration, for its part, knows the power of this kind of nudge. They want parents and potential students to be make choices based on those bottom-line criteria. Given how colleges and universities responded to US News and World Report’s highly influential rankings, the risk that colleges will begin to change themselves is real. If this means emphasizing accounting over literature, so be it. Continue reading

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Culture, Authority, and the University

"Scholars at a Lecture," William Hogarth (1736).

“Scholars at a Lecture,” William Hogarth (1736).

Even the title—“What’s the Point of a Professor?”—makes it clear why Mark Bauerlein’s recent op-ed in The New York Times struck such a sensitive nerve. Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, observed that in an era when “when college is about career more than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes.” Students no longer seek to converse with professors, or even to learn from them. They want to get a grade and move on. The situation isn’t hopeless, Bauerlein argues. If professors would only devote more time to engaging with their students, some of these students might be changed.

The reaction to Bauerlein’s critique has been sharp. As L.D. Burnett points out in her important column, Bauerlein does not acknowledge the extent to which budget cuts have transformed universities. And as others have rightly noted, many hard-working professors still care deeply about and devote significant amounts of time to teaching well.

Below structural changes lie deeper cultural shifts. Bauerlein blames students for not caring and professors for not devoting enough care, but perhaps what is really at stake here is the shifting nature of authority in American life. The real issue is that administrators, the faculty, and students do not accept the authority of the university itself. In an age when growing old is unacceptable, acting as young as you feel is obligatory, and adulthood has lost its moorings, authority too is adrift.

Signs of this lost authority abound: First, universities have been thoroughly consumerized. They offer the courses and programs students want. As demands of the students shift, universities make accommodations—which suggests that there is no academic core that defines a college education. Second, universities invest their resources in building beautiful college campuses and providing student amenities, while cutting the tenure-line faculty. And third, universities have cut back on general education programs and invested in online programs to offer students what they want, how they want it, and as fast as they can get it—rather than offering what the faculty (as authority figures) think students need. Have it your way.

Many of these changes are being imposed by well-paid administrators (whose ranks steadily swell). But the faculty, too, have become uncomfortable with their own authority. Faculty members do not see themselves—or, rather, too few faculty members see themselves—as engaged in the moral and intellectual formation of young people. This does not mean that professors do not care or devote too little time to thinking about how to help students learn the material. It does mean that they are reluctant to assume the role of authority figures or be charged with contributing to the intellectual and moral formation of their students. Focusing on only the narrowest conception of student achievement, intellectualism without a soul, they reveal their uncertainty about the moral foundations of their work.

Ironically, the decade of the 1960s that Bauerlein looks back to with fondness was part of the problem. It inaugurated what Daniel Rodgers has called the “age of fracture,” an era in which anti-institutionalism replaced thinking institutionally, in which free choice and free markets mattered more than participating in shared social institutions.

Until we come to terms with what the loss of authority in our culture means—a loss that is clearly evident in our universities—students will only be reinforced in their view of themselves as consumers, empowered to study whatever they wish. So long as university administrators cater to the student-consumer; so long as professors are unwilling to see that the formation of students is both a responsibility and an opportunity (and not an exercise of coercive power); so long as students think they have to go to college, whether they truly want to or not—so long as these things are true, the challenge will be even greater than Bauerlein imagines. Professors matter a lot, but a good university education requires more than a good professor.

Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University, is a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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Media Excess, Disruption, and the Future of the University

In his new book, Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University, literary historian Chad Wellmon, a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, argues against those who claim that the research university is an outmoded, bureaucratic institution ripe for disruption. Recounting the emergence of the research university in another era of media excess, this one driven by print, he focuses on what has always distinguished the research university—an ethics of knowledge. And this, he claims, is needed now more than ever. Here is an excerpt from the afterword of his book:

Misgivings about specialized science and disciplinarity have returned in recent jeremiads about the research university from within its most elite ranks. Harvard professor Louis Menand writes that the “structure of disciplinarity that has arisen with the modern research university is expensive; it is philosophically weak; and it encourages intellectual predictability and social irrelevance. It deserves to be replaced.” Similarly, CUNY professor Cathy Davidson has criticized the research university as an “archaic, hierarchical, silo’d apparatus of the nineteenth century.” Our institutions of higher learning have “managed to change far more slowly than the modes of inventive, collaborative, participatory learning offered by the Internet” and other online and digital technologies. Unlike some of the more general critiques of the university’s disciplinary structure, however, Davidson’s critique is more focused on what is actually at stake. Our universities are “stuck,” she writes, “in an epistemological model of the past.” Our digital age entails not just new and better technologies but an entirely different notion of what constitutes true knowledge: how it is produced, authorized, and disseminated. The disciplinary organization of knowledge is antiquated and dispensable. The very structures and forms of knowledge are changing, and, for Davidson at least, the disciplinary research university is being left behind.

In her more recent work on the future of education, Davidson embraces the potential of digital technologies to undo the authority structure of the research university and spur “collaborative” forms of knowledge production. And yet, in what she describes as a “field guide and survival manual for the digital age,” her Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Change the Way We Live, Work, and Think, she relies on that same authority structure she seems eager to escape. She bases her “guide” for the digitally perplexed on what she calls “the science of attention.” She grounds her argument in the authority of modern, disciplinary-based science as she cites study after study, all of which are legitimated by the authority of the disciplinary order of the modern research university.

Davidson’s bad faith is a testament to just how enduring a system the research university ethic is. But it has endured not because it was a rigid, hierarchical system, a Weberian iron cage, a Foucauldian panopticon, but rather because it has sustained communities of people engaged in a common pursuit. Research universities have never overcome the fragmentation of knowledge or realized anything like a universal knowledge. But what they have done is organize intellectual labor, traditions, and desires more effectively over the past two hundredOrganizing Enlightenment Cover years than any other technology. To dismiss the research university as an antiquated bureaucratic “apparatus” defined by constraint and enforceable standards is to overlook the ways in which its continuity and stability depended on the transformation of actual people….

At this particular moment of technological and institutional change, we need motivating ideals to orient our institutions and ourselves. The idea of the research university is more than its bureaucratic structures. However haltingly, the research university embodies ideals and virtues that scholars both inside and outside the university hold dear. This is where primarily structural accounts of the research university as simply a bureaucratic system, seemingly lacking human agents who endow it with meaning and life, can offer no compelling vision for a future research university. These cool, distant accounts of the research university, so redolent of Weber’s description of any other modern, rational system, see nothing at stake, just the inexorable logic of another modern bureaucracy. They overlook the persons and norms that have always been the core of the research university. Anthony Grafton describes this attitude best: the “loss of patience, or faith, or interest in specialized knowledge” is ultimately a capitulation to the absoluteness of the bureaucratic system of the contemporary research university. Such an attitude belies a thoroughly structural account that omits the research university’s most basic feature: its underlying ethic. These more radically functional accounts, however descriptively illuminating, can never answer a basic question: why would anyone choose to devote herself to specialized knowledge and an institution such as the research university? The research university reproduces itself by forming people into its culture. Its survival relies on the decisions of actual people, not simply on the abstract totalizing mechanisms of an institution. Advocates of the contemporary research university need to recognize and embrace its most central feature: the fact that it embodies a set of norms, practices, and virtues central to modern knowledge. Whatever its myriad failings and bureaucratic functions, the research university sustains what scholars hold in common and commit themselves to—an ethics of knowledge.

You can read the introduction to Organizing Enlightenment here.

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The New Class and The New Republic

The SS Pendleton sinks into the sea (1952).

The SS Pendleton sinks into the sea (1952).

At first, Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes seemed like The New Republic’s savior. He said that he valued its peerless tradition and that he was worried about the future of long-form journalism. He gave the publication much-needed financial security, and he even brought back esteemed editor Franklin Foer. But the honeymoon proved brief. Hughes became impatient with Foer and longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier. It was the kind of impatience peculiar to tech moguls, a sort of Silicon Valley itch: If it ain’t broke, break it. In Silicon Valley, the goal is disruption, not mere innovation.

In his first meeting with The New Republic staff, Guy Vidra, Hughes’s recently imported CEO, wasted no time in sharing that West Coast wisdom. “We’re going to break shit,” the former Yahoo News executive said. He was serious—except for the “we” part. He ran off (or pushed out) Foer and Wieseltier, and most of the senior staff and corresponding editors have left with them. Apparently they do not want to play a part in turning The New Republic into a “digital media company.”

That The New Republic has been undone by a tech billionaire is grimly fitting. From its founding onward, The New Republic has made room in its conversations for critics such as Randolph Bourne, Lewis Mumford, Christopher Lasch, Jackson Lears, and even Wieseltier himself, who are suspicious of techno-utopianism. They have all been  wary of our tendency to conflate technological change with progress, especially when those changes result in greater economic centralization. In a 2013 commencement speech at Brandeis University, Wieseltier claimed that “we live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience”:

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

Culture elites have a cozy relationship with Silicon Valley cash, but it is only recently that they have had to reckon with Silicon Valley disruption. Continue reading

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“What is Liberal Education For?”: A Conference Postmortem

Charles Dickens at a reading, Charles A. Barry (1867).

Charles Dickens at a reading, Charles A. Barry (1867).

The liberal education conference has now come and gone. My own panel went well (Inside Higher Ed has a brief write-up here), though I think I left with the same question I had going in, namely: Are there any truthful instrumental arguments to be made for liberal education?

Inevitably, an event like this involves some preaching to the choir. When asked if he considered any arguments against liberal education worth taking seriously, for instance, Andrew Delbanco said: “No.” Well, that’s a problem. Even if it were true—and I’m not sure it is—it plays well only in an audience full of people who have set aside three or four days to go to a liberal education conference. And in the repeated declarations that liberal education is every positive superlative—the most useful, and so on—the meaning of the term begins to become a little obscured.

This is why instrumental arguments continue to interest me. If I stand up and say, for instance, that no true instrumental arguments exist, and the Vice President of St. John’s College tells Inside Higher Ed that I am wrong (as she did), it’s clear that despite going through basically the same motions and reading the same materials in the same structured program of study, she and I have emerged with very different conceptions of what we’re doing and probably are talking about very different things.

In other words, if you’ve assembled the choir, it might be good to focus on the internal philosophical disagreements that are coming into play. There was never, so far as I could tell, a panel that meant to address head-on what a liberal education was at all. But someone who has a Straussian perspective on liberal education will disagree with someone who has a Catholic perspective, even if both of them are willing to quote Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University. The programs at St. John’s College and Thomas Aquinas College are in many ways identical, but do the schools consider themselves to be doing the same thing? Continue reading

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“What is Liberal Education For?”: A Preview

Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great, Charles Laplante (1866).

Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great, Charles Laplante (1866).

This week, I’ll be presenting a paper at “What is Liberal Education For?,” a conference being held at St. John’s College, Santa Fe.  Lasting three days, it will have some twenty-eight panels and include presentations by scholars such as Boston University’s Christopher Ricks, Institute for Advance Studies in Culture fellow and author Matthew Crawford, and philosopher Roger Scruton, whose lecture “Architecture and Aesthetic Education” will close the proceedings.

Here is the conference’s statement of purpose:

We raise this question [What is Liberal Education For?], recognizing that liberal education and the great tradition of the American liberal arts college have been put on the defensive of late. Small colleges across the nation have to make their case to students, to their parents, and to the public more urgently than ever. The causes of this crisis have been analyzed extensively: there is an emerging consensus that the rapid growth of consumerism amidst new economic challenges, and the fragmentation of general studies driven by professional training and specialization in the universities, have led us to undervalue drastically the humane goals of liberal studies. These causes are themselves symptomatic of a deeper crisis in our time, a crisis of uncertainty and disorientation affecting every field of human endeavor—scientific, social, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual. Precisely in response to this crisis, liberal education can reaffirm its relevance and purposes.

My own panel, “Liberal Education: Changing Conversations,”  is focused on the rhetorical arguments for liberal education. My paper, “Liberal Education in a Specialized Age,” considers the case that can be made for unspecialized education in an economy that—on the surface at least—demands specialization and views education as job training.

There are reasons to suspect that this narrative is untrue, or at least extremely incomplete—witness the rise of the service economy. But I think it is true that we take for granted that specialization is a good and that education ought to accommodate the marketplace by helping students to specialize sooner and more adeptly. We take these things for granted even if the facts around us aren’t bearing them out. Continue reading

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