The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer 2013)
Resisting Complacency, Fear, and the Philistine: The University and Its Challenges
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.2 (Summer 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
The following essay was first delivered as a lecture at the University of Virginia on February 1, 2013, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.
The first issue I wish to raise is the presence and presumed threat of technology. My position on this matter is simple. Technology, as it is now emerging, is still in a very early stage. As an instrument of university learning, it is a good thing and promising. The error is for scholars and teachers to be against it, in a Luddite fashion. Let us use and integrate it.
No one really knows what the technology or its uses will be like, and there is no reason, from an historical vantage point, to be anxious about it. When sound recording came into being, most informed observers thought it would become primarily an instrument of composition. Online courses are only now beginning to put bad teaching or non-teaching out of business. The larger universities in the United States have been guilty of ineffectual teaching, particularly of undergraduates, for decades. We are responsible for any destructive competition technology has brought our way. We have accepted the large lecture course in, for example, organic chemistry designed to discourage most of the students and to engender not a whit of interest in the subject. We leave the teaching of undergraduates to graduate students whose work therein has no reward to their professional career and no central role in their training. It provides no status. This is worst perhaps in the sciences where the assumption is that if you need teaching, you should not be in the field in the first place. Facility is mistaken for talent. These are grave, commonplace errors.
In one of our most prestigious universities, where I happened to be visiting, I came early to the hall (which doubled as a concert venue) for a rehearsal. A lecture course on Shakespeare was underway, given by a very famous scholar. I snuck in to catch the last ten minutes. There were fourteen hundred people in the hall. When the lecture was over, the undergraduates clapped. But teaching is not a performance art with passive spectators. Five very hardy, ambitious, and probably obnoxious undergraduates scrambled to the front of the auditorium in an effort to ask a question of the lecturer. At that point, a cordon of teaching assistants rose out of their seats to block access to the professor to whom the five hungry undergraduates were seeking to pose a question. One of them broke through the cordon, got to the faculty member, and before her question was asked, the professor quipped, “talk to my assistants.” Such habits and practices will be put out of business, and they should be.
We are largely to blame for the so-called threat of technology. But technology actually will allow us to abandon these nonsensical lecture courses and begin to use some new serious teaching tools with undergraduates. Technology will help renew teaching in undergraduate programs by offering new modes of communication, new materials, and rapid responses.
The university must pay attention to technology and utilize it. It needs to be both aggressive and conservative: aggressive in experimenting with ideas and conservative in investments, since much of technology is still transitional. Remember the mini-computer and the CD-ROM? Technology in relation to university life, in terms of teaching and learning, is generally positive. At worst it is a neutral factor, as in the case of movies and video materials. It is not a major causal factor of change. One has to consider technology in teaching as analogous to the role of the elevator in the history of architecture. The elevator was an important innovation, but it was not transformative. It made for bigger, more efficient buildings—for taller buildings; it was a significant advance. But a technology-centered theory of historical change has never been persuasive. It was not even persuasive as a mono-causal factor in economic history with respect to the emergence and impact of industrialization in the late eighteenth century and the entire nineteenth century.
Another ahistorical analogy for thinking about technology is that the role of technology in learning is similar to the role of technology in sex. Technology may be enhancing, useful, amusing, diversifying, but at the end of the day, it will not replace the basic human transaction. So there is nothing to fear, only something to gain.
The second important issue we must face is the demand that the university be useful. We must not resist, in my view, the idea that the university should be in the business of being of use. We should not be fighting demands to be “useful.” We should not assume that some fields of study are “useless” according to some reductive sense of utility. There is no reason to appeal to something that does not actually exist: “something for its own sake, in itself.” People do not study for the “sake” of knowledge or curiosity alone. I have never met anybody who did so absent emotional pleasure or the search for the confirmation of faith. Denying utility, if utility includes the idea of “happiness” in the eighteenth-century philosophical sense and the idea of pleasure, is not necessary. As Seneca put it, “true joy is a serious thing.” The truth is that everything we teach can, theoretically and actually, be defended as useful, as absolutely useful. The question is how we define that utility. Pleasure and joy are useful, but we can and ought to deliver more.
The study of classics offers a very good example. Classical literature is now used, in a program developed by Bryan Doerries (Theater of War), to help veterans returning from war to come to grips with their reintegration into civilized society. A great foundation of wisdom and understanding is located in those classical texts, which describe warriors returning home who have been abandoned, can’t reintegrate into their families, and can’t reconnect with civilian life. These classical texts hold the attention of veterans, many of whom have never been to college, and engender tremendous engagement. It is not a violation of the sanctity of those classical texts to create such utility. And then there is the general inability to predict utility—that which emerges frequently from the chase: the pursuit of knowledge as a form of life, a source of existential meaning.
The third thing we need to do, in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, is to stop trying to imitate the natural sciences. Let’s forget about achieving comparable institutional criteria and structures on the same terms. The purpose of teaching music in the university is not to produce more musicians. The primary purpose of teaching English (or any literature) in universities is not to produce necessarily more writers or scholars. Training better teachers of literature for high schools would be a good goal. Perhaps our best objective is to educate more readers, more amateurs, more listeners. Why do we have to measure ourselves by the number of graduate students or the number of majors in a field? Why do we have to professionalize our discipline as discrete departments in a way that gives us the sense that we have a professional status comparable to that to which physicists or biologists lay claim? Many of the fields in universities have their primary purpose as service to other endeavors, not as careers in themselves. Too much of the teaching we do in universities derives from our own faculty-based, professionally centered conversation. The allegiance of most faculty members in an American university is not to the university in which they teach, but to an academic profession that transcends the boundaries of all universities and institutions. Careers are made within those professional rubrics by “professionals” publishing for peers, not through teaching.
It is not at all clear to me that undergraduates will respond to the terms of that professional conversation and to the way in which we are accustomed to talking about our subjects, particularly in the humanities. The most egregious case in point may be in the case of literature. Teaching a young person that reading is not just stripping the page for information or a plot, and stopping the reader in his or her tracks in an early stage to figure out possibilities of meaning are good things to do. To discover that Nabokov’s Lolita is not “about” inappropriate sex any more than it is “about” America is a mark of learning how to read. Students require really careful teaching to read, re-read, to go back, think about meanings of words and the use of language. Those things can be taught without letting students as readers think that they are inadequate. We do not need to force on them a command of invented languages that are counter-intuitive, a theoretical language that is absurdly ugly, that is not user-friendly or necessary. In the humanities, as in science, elegance and simplicity are closer to truth. Jargon may sometimes be required, but topics and thinkers that justify it are few. Hegel and Heidegger come to mind as possible rare exceptions.
So we need to think about what we in the humanities do as professionals in ways that are different, in my view, from the way natural scientists think of themselves. Now the truth is, as far as teaching goes in the natural sciences, there is also a tremendous amount of ferment. The boundaries between disciplines are themselves not as rigid as they once seemed. What we call multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary teaching is actually now coming into its own in the sciences as well, as a result of a curriculum that concentrates on problems and issues, not traditional disciplines.
In science undergraduate teaching, one cannot simply delay the contact with the state of research until the student has, over many years, taken the established sequences, such as organic, inorganic, and then physical chemistry. By the time they get to do real science of their own, their curiosity and courage have been destroyed. The problems in chemistry today need to come first as a motivating factor in shaping the need to know. Segmenting chemistry from biology, or segmenting mathematics from biology, is no longer the best approach. An integrated approach to the teaching of science that is problem-based is what actually needs to happen.
We have a lot of reform work to do before we mount a battle in defense of the university as it is in its current form. Let us be honest with ourselves. No matter the outcome of such a conversation, a very important point is that we must make clear that the university will never be an efficient institution. A university is, by definition, inefficient. If one wants a great university, one has to put up with “wasted” time, unproductivity, seeming leisure. Consider the book that never came out, the long project that one is still dreaming of. The university is a place of unpredictability and inefficiency. No one can say ahead of time which faculty member, which graduate student, even which undergraduate student will produce breakthrough work or create work that is memorable and not simply imitative in a routine manner. Not that such work is bad. Even a field that is not fertile ground for new ideas has to be kept alive by imitation, has to tread water. Fields of inquiry do not always maintain over time the same vitality because the way fields change is through shifts in the way people frame questions. The historical context alters the frame in which new questions arise. There is a revival now after many years of low interest in, for example, the so-called Middle Ages. There are many reasons why that may be the case, from Tolkien to Harry Potter and Twilight.
The fact is that an inefficient institution designed to be creative and innovative—which is what universities are—is one for which one has to resist the argument of industrial and bureaucratic rationalization. A university is an irrational place, a messy place; it needs to be defended as such. This seems implausible in the current political context of the United States. It is less than plausible because we have fallen down on a very important task. We have been satisfied to let the public forge its primary allegiance, even among curious students, to the semi-professional sports function of the university. The highest paid employee of most universities is a coach, and the thing that citizens know most about a campus are its teams. Duke University, a great university, is known for basketball and sports-related scandals. This is an insult to the people who work there and study there, and we have permitted it. We have conspired with this and accepted fraudulent arguments that such semi-pro sports are economically productive. We have allowed the American university to be a farm team for professional sports. We have not defended the university by its primary contributions to knowledge, culture, and scholarship—even to the economy.
Small colleges suffer the same disease. We are unwilling to face, in an American democratic, egalitarian context, the public or the politicians, with the real and practical virtues of the university, which appear inherently discriminatory, elitist, exclusive, and judgmental. We hide behind the mask of the university’s populist appeal as an instrument of sports and entertainment.
By that token we are also complicit with most of the problems in governance at a university— the failure to have serious leadership that focuses on teaching and research and that intersects with cultural and political issues. I cannot name a single university president in office today who could possibly approach the moral or political stature of James Bryant Conant or The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh. Not only the trustees, but the alumni and faculty members, have made sure that no such person would ever be appointed president.
The constituents in a university really do not want leadership. Faculty enjoy their own authority. We like the absence of centralized leadership. We want paper pushers and fund-raisers; we do not want people at the helm guiding the major intellectual functions of the university. We love our anarchic independence. In this context, anybody who wants to be a university administrator ought to be disqualified by definition. Shirley Tilghman is retiring from Princeton—she was a fine and great university president because it had never occurred to her to be one. She is a distinguished scientist. Bart Giamatti at Yale was an accidental choice, a scholar and not a professional administrator. We have to decide once again that we need real substantive leadership.
We need to be very honest about this if we seek to confront the issue of the economics of the university. Because we don’t have proper leadership and because we are in bad faith with our obligations to teach, we need now to use the actual intellectual content of the university as its main self-definition (including improving undergraduate life). What remains most memorable to Americans about undergraduate life is not what they learned in class. It is everything but what they learned in class, except maybe for very narrow professional training. Getting into law school or medical school and finding the first job are the focus. In that context it makes it very hard for us as scholars and teachers to defend the costs, since in terms of undergraduate teaching, we are actually not doing the job or defining the experience.
If we really want to defend the costs, we have to say the issue in the United States is not a matter of the cost of higher education, it is the financing. Except for the coach, nobody is overpaid. Given the level of achievement, the level of training, the salary scales for the faculty in the university are modest. Lawyers are overpaid; bankers are overpaid. But university faculty, even university administrators, are not. The overwhelming share of a university’s budget is labor employment. There is no profit being made. Attending universities is indeed too expensive. It is only too expensive because the state and federal governments are unwilling to subsidize the cost to the student. Tuitions are high not because we are inefficiently run or too expensive to operate. Tuitions are high because there is no subsidy for those tuitions. It is not a priority of the public, either in state budgets or in the federal budget. Why should the cost of a research university be calculated on a per-capita basis and passed on to individuals without subsidy? Europe does not do this, for example.
It is our insecurity and shortcomings that make us powerless, in my view, to frame the proper argument against the economic habit of passing the cost on to customers. It is not necessary to segment the costs of university by dividing it among the people who attend. This is not the way to think about it. That there should be some tuition probably makes sense. The Europeans are increasingly going in that direction, and perhaps there is some truth to its necessity, especially in America. People here have so little respect for anything that is free of charge. Under the old-fashioned Freudian view, patients have to put some of their own hard-earned money into learning; that is probably reasonable, but the balance in the United States is wrong. Tuition is not too high because universities are inefficient; it is too high because the nation is not willing to raise the resources to subsidize higher education properly.
The future of the humanities and the basic research sciences rests in the way we create a curriculum of the liberal arts for the college years. The key to our successful defense of universities has to be in the way we construct and develop undergraduate curricula. Graduate and professional education is easier to explain than the liberal arts tradition in the college years. The current undergraduate system, in my view, is dead, and the advent of technology only makes it more obvious. If all it entails is offering an interchangeable lecture course in English Literature in the nineteenth century, you do not have to go to university. I can buy a good Coursera course that is well done by someone who seems to know what she is talking about on the very substance of that same subject.
The real advantage of a residential or classroom-based education comes from the physical reality of the university and the nominal community of scholars, which rarely really exists. Faculty members in a university do not actually talk to one another beyond narrow circles of colleagues or beyond the level of gossip. Curricula that lead students through a really well-thought-out rite of passage of learning are therefore rare. We need to offer an intellectual rite of passage, which helps students define who they are, what career they will take, consider what they do or do not believe and why, and to have a real conversation based in the intellectual tradition that makes a difference to their conduct of life. That curriculum is hard to find today. A curriculum is not an amalgamation of courses put out in a course catalogue, which really is the result of the narcissistic ambitions of various departments. We assign students courses we think are important for them, but those courses arise from our conversation with each other as faculty, not with the undergraduates. There is no consideration of their genuine need to know.
Why should anyone be interested in Dickens or Tolstoy, in Mozart or Raphael? It is a very good question. I can answer the question, but there is not one single answer to it. There are many answers. A curriculum should be designed around how a new generation might ask such a question. How do I make that curiosity germane to an undergraduate today?
In a well-designed curriculum, the teaching material is chosen not because of its political symbolism or fashion, but because of its pedagogical power. Take, for example, the essays of Montaigne. One of the reasons the essays of Montaigne work is because they touch in remarkable ways on common issues, and in very sophisticated, ironic, and challenging ways. In a general education course I teach, I chose to assign the essay on “Friendship” to my undergraduates. They had to write a paper in imitation of the essay, using its strategies. With the advent of Facebook, there are more “friends” in the world than have ever existed. A serious critique of what “friendship” might mean and the uses of that word is counter-intuitive. Without the intellectual traditions of that discourse, students would never be motivated to think in new ways. They need to ask: What do I mean by this word? How do I differentiate it from other relationships with human beings? How do I construct meaning? Is the notion of an idealized relationship with someone that has no advantage or aspect of self-interest even possible?
When a student, coming out of high school in the United States reads Plato’s Republic, he or she discovers that one can really think that, for example, the experience of the senses, such as of sight, is a secondary form of truth. A new light turns on to the origins of metaphysics, which is located in our daily use of language. Students need to think counter-intuitively about things that they have accepted without thought. The brightest students come to us with a pastiche of linguistic habits borrowed thoughtlessly from the environment. We have the tools to enable them to think about basic issues in ways in which they didn’t know they were capable of.
The last time American higher education really worried about a coherent curriculum was a very long time ago. During the First World War, Columbia University decided that if Americans were going to die in France, they should know something about what they might be dying for. As a result of America’s entry into the First World War, Columbia made the first attempt at the common core curriculum. Robert M. Hutchins, Stringfellow Barr, and Scott Buchanan, at Chicago and at St. John’s, put in the Great Books course and designed interdisciplinary courses around issues that fit the historical context of the 1930s. They were worried, in the wake of the Great Depression and of the allure of Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. They sought to defend the cultures and traditions of democracy.
We are in a similar historical crisis about the nature of America, our place in the world, about the structure of society, the nature of work, longevity, inequality, notions of fairness, and the role of government. We have all the materials to begin a serious conversation that is internal to the individual and useful in building our democracy.
The ability to think empathetically about someone who appears not identical to ourselves, who thinks differently from ourselves is crucial. Consider the revival of religion in American society. For those of us who are concerned about the sort of religion that has been revived, the dangers of fundamentalism, we need to design a curriculum that offers a deeper immersion in the theological worldviews of all the great religious traditions. It is hard to get young religious people to think critically about faith, in a way that seems not to violate the idea of faith, without close reading of great theological texts—without reading Augustine, Calvin, Luther, or Aquinas and the Koran and the central texts of other world religions, including Judaism.
Young people come to college eager to be helped. Even if they feign disinterest and boredom, we can demonstrate that everything we have to teach them in the so-called Liberal Arts is intensely useful. Fifteen years ago we were asked to set up a Liberal Arts College inside the leading university of Russia, St. Petersburg State University. We now have such a college, Smolny, with five hundred Russian students. They get a Liberal Arts education. It is eagerly sought after. Why does the Russian government support this? Because it believes that our tradition of liberal arts, the best of seminar and tutorial teaching—close reading, a coherent curriculum, extensive attention to writing, analysis, and debate in a cross-disciplinary context—is key to economic and scientific innovation. They blame their inherited backwardness in the competitive modern economy not on a lack of talent in their scientific establishment, but on the outdated character of their higher educational system.
The public is prepared to hear this sort of argument, but in order to make that argument we have to have a curriculum that makes a difference. For that to happen, faculty have to get together and agree—not on the ideology of content and conclusions—but on questions, problems, materials, skills, and a variety of goals. The solution is not to imitate St. John’s or Chicago; that would be a terrible mistake. A course of study is not about canons; it is not about Great Books. It is about a coherent process of serious education and self-education within a tradition of scholarship and learning.
If we end up serving people who become graduates of business school, schools of commerce, or engineering schools, that would be great. I would love to see lawyers educated in their college years in this way. I would love to see physicians who have been tempered by a close encounter with humanistic pursuits. Before we rise in offended defense of ourselves, let’s make the case for what we do, and that case can only be made with the undergraduates, in the manner of teaching and in the structure of the curriculum.
Faculty members, especially those outside the sciences, have to defend themselves, from ill-informed critics, journalists, and from each other. Unless the faculty get into the debate and control it, the debate will continue to unravel to their disfavor. They will be easily categorized as irrelevant and useless. They will be pushed out in the allocation of resources. They will be easily “replaced” by gimmicks that cannot do what face-to-face teaching can. The only thing to do, I think, is to realize the danger and to collaborate within the context of a given institution and rethink the educational path that we offer. When students come to university, they should come with some idea of the distinctive intellectual journey that they will go through. Not a journey in a catechism—there is always an implicit ideology about evidence, argument, and reason—but a plan by which the traditions of learning are linked to freedom, dissent, curiosity, and discovery.
Let me close with the most obvious plea: that the amount of time in the undergraduate’s life assigned between majoring and nonmajoring fields be rethought. Faculties fight over a very little bit of the time that is allotted to general education, and they hog, for institutional reasons, resources, numbers of faculty, all based on the number of people who are signed up in their departmental enclaves as majors. Those budgetary structures have to be changed. The incentives have to be turned around, and there has to be real credit given for teaching.
I am always amazed that we complain as a nation about the quality of our political discourse, the ads, and what has happened in the last ten years to the ability to have a real debate. We all know there is no presidential debate. There is a presidential debate analogous to a singing contest: one person sings, and then the other person sings and the audience votes. When was the last time we heard a presidential candidate say, “that’s a good point.” I would vote for a person who conceded in a debate, “I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.”
We do not have a real political debate or conversation. Yet we have more people who complete higher education than ever before. There seems to be an inverse relationship between how many people go to university and the quality of American political discourse. What does that tell us? It tells me that we are not doing the presumed job that universities were created to do. They were designed to educate people to function not only as skilled professionals, but as citizens in a democracy in a way that is specifically attuned to the needs and opportunities of America and now those in the rest of the world.