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The War Against The Young: Killing College

As American colleges turn into overpriced and badly managed vocational and technical institutes, the ideal of a liberal education falls farther and farther from view.  On the “practical” side many colleges now offer majors in topics like business administration and recreation management.  Fair enough in its way, although this is an incredibly expensive and ineffective way to learn basic job skills. But this is training, not education.

We professors in the liberal arts and the humanities love to wring our finely textured and subtle hands in dismay over this state of affairs, but as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus point out in an excellent piece in the Los Angeles Times, the humanities are also to blame.

[I]n visiting university classes across the country, we were appalled at how the humanities and social sciences — even pure sciences — were being taught. If students are staying away from those classes, it’s not necessarily because they prefer practical training. Many times it’s because professors have subverted the subjects that once held pride of place on most campuses.

The liberal arts have been radically altered, both in format and function. The catalog labels are still recognizable: psychology, comparative literature, English and the like. But what is being taught is no longer attuned to undergraduates looking for a broader and deeper understanding of the world.

Consider Yale‘s description of a course it offered that dealt with how disabilities are depicted in fiction: “We will examine how characters serve as figures of otherness, transcendence, physicality or abjection. Later may come examination questions on regulative discourse, performativity and frameworks of intelligibility.”

Classes like these suggest that professors are using the curriculum as their personal playgrounds.

Quite so.  The young have both a right and a need learn about the great classics and landmarks of human intellectual and cultural achievement.  Whatever fripperies and frills colleges want in their curriculum, the failure to offer students the opportunity to grapple directly with the greats is a gross betrayal of the mission of an educational institution.

Learning from a scholar who is engaged on the frontiers of contemporary debate is also a privilege; there is nothing wrong with colleges offering upper level students courses that are focused on state of the art debates and theories, however arcane these look to outsiders.  But that is a side dish and should be offered in very moderate portions; the main job of an undergraduate college is to introduce students to the foundations — and to give them a lifelong hunger to learn.

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  • rraffals

    How does this entry jibe with one it followed?

    To the extent that colleges are jettisoning the cultural endownments of the english-speaking world — and nowhere more aggressively than in English departments — in what way does it make sense to continue to speak of an english-speaking people?

    Much the same can be said for the other hallmarks of the common tradition that has been thought to constitute our distinctive identity. The common law has been displaced by statutes and regulatory law; federalism by the federal leviathan; and any sense of common cultural, social, or religious identity (i.e., the tenants of classical liberalism) by multiculturalism, with its pieties and penances of self-revulsion.

    And as for Winston, his bust was removed from the White House several years ago.

    What’s going on here and where is it likely to go? Is the anglosphere cooperation a product of interia or the draw down on a rich but dwindling cultural capital? Is there a dissonance between what we claim to believe and profess, on the one hand, and what we do in the real world of politics? Is this dissonance itself, perhaps in a more muted form of self-doubt, -examination, and -questioning, itself a part of our shared idenity?

    Your insights on this would be, I’m sure, illuminating and interesting.

  • John Barker

    Word hash seasoned with philosophical pretensions seems to be the main dish in today’s academia.

  • Jack

    What this is really about is postmodernism. The postmodernist thought of Derrida, Foucault and the like has poisoned the liberal arts.

    The prominence of postmodernism in the academy is symptomatic of the decadence and decline of Western civilization. The liberal arts academy will only recover its once prominent cultural position when it decisively rejects the rubbish of postmodernism.

  • Will

    Priorities within the academy vary greatly from the interests of readers, and that divergence addresses the point above about Mead’s post on the Anglosphere. British history and culture, and Western history and culture in general, have a wide audience, but the hegemony of postmodernism and multiculturalism reject it. The humanities dropped the pilot during the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Scholars and writers operating beyond the assumptions Mead criticizes find an audience, even if academic jobs remain elusive.

  • Eurydice

    In my over 20 years of experience on Wall Street, many of them trading foreign markets, I found my MBA and degrees in economics to be of no use at all (not even in getting my first job – they needed to hire a woman and I was the only one who applied). What turned out to be enormously helpful was studying the language and literature of the countries in which I was involved. Models just tell you how economists think; literature tells you how people think.

  • Corlyss

    Three observations.

    1) Anytime the government, local, state, or federal, gets involved using its money or its regulatory power, things will go to hell. Look around you, at the housing situation, the health care and eldercare situations, and the education situation, from k-college. As particularly federal involvement has increased, with a parallel loss of local control and rise in litigation, passing American traditions and history along to the young, as well as simple basic necessities of the 3 Rs, has become a virtual if not literal nightmare. The young are graduating dumber with each passing year, and the establishment answer is always “more diversity,” “more social engineering,” and their handmaiden, “more money.” The people who understand what’s wrong apparently can’t do anything except get out of the public system and flee to the private system or home-schooling where the impact of brittle government minds can be minimized if not avoided.

    2) A study several years ago found that when women begin to dominate an area or expertise, the social and monetary worth of that area declines radically. One has only to look at lawyerin’ and doctorin’ and teachin’ to see the truth in the finding. All three categories of schools have an enrollment of 51% or above women, and grads enter endangered professions. Salary pressure on those professions have increased as the percentage of women in them has increased. Perhaps correlation is not causation in this case, but it sure looks darned suspicious to me.
    3) The decision in the 60s to tailor high school curricula to the college bound, leaving the technical and shop guys to fend for themselves, educationally speaking, was fateful. We need to revive the pre-60s idea that a non-college profession was just as worthy as a college profession. Back in the 90s I was working as a government lawyer while down the road a few blocks, steam-fitters were earning more than twice what I was. Bet they didn’t need a post graduate education to do their jobs.
    4) The domination of ed schools by anti-American Communist strategists like Bill Ayers has yielded a teaching cadre steeped in trendy 60s leftist propaganda inimical to America, period. In order for anything to change in k-12 pedagogy, ed schools must be reformed, if not ripped out root and branch, and their products discarded or retired. The sooner the better.

  • Kris

    Eurydice, I have no objection in principle to your defense of literature. The problem is that in many of today’s Literature departments, one does not learn the thoughts of people in different times and places, but rather (whatever the purported subject) one learns the thoughts of a very narrow sliver of modern Western intellectuals. Cf Narcissus.

  • Eurydice

    Kris, I agree with you. Fortunately, my exposure to language and literature came at an early age (well-educated and bilingual parents and living in other countries), but I was also lucky to have attended a high school which had a mission to produce fully educated graduates. I won’t say they were totally successful where I was concerned, but the framework they provided has been useful to me even so many decades later.

    You’re absolutely right about the narrowness of liberal arts study, but even more narrow is the study of various specialties which seems to believe that mastering a giant list of technical rules can produce mastery of an outside world full of human beings.

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