In his column on education for the NY Times in last Sundays edition, Stanley Fish, noted academic and author, reviews a new book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, by Frank Donoghue, in which the author argues that higher education is not the same as it used to be and never will be again. It is no news that that liberal arts education in general and the humanities in particular face a crisis; many lament the trend towards what amounts to pre-professional training and away from a focus on turning out well-rounded students with a broad understanding of their cultural heritage, let alone the ability to think critically and write a coherent sentence. As Fish pioints out, in all but a few private wealthy universities, "healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished." We can round up the usual suspects for this development, from the focus on delivery of learning through the cheapest and most convenient method possible (and hence most profitable for the institutions); to the preponderance of what Fish calls "itinerant teachers," those hard-working and low-paid adjuncts who make up an increasing percentage - up to 65% - of the teaching staff at colleges and universities; to a general devaluing of the idea that higher education should expand students' minds. Rather, universities and colleges have embraced a business model that sees only one imperative for higher education: to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment, and if that can be accomplished with a disc, Internet hook-up, and a computer screen, so much the better. So much for learning for learning's sake, a value that goes back all the way to Aristotle. Fish's article can be accessed here: http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/the-last-professor/?emc=eta1
I couldn't help thinking about another article I had read earlier in the week about a school for girls in Afghanistan. Several students at this school have been attacked in recent weeks by men on motorcycles armed with containers of acid. Several young women have been disfigured. These men "want us to be stupid things," one young woman said. In defiance of such brutal tactics, the parents, administration, and the girls themselves have refused to bend. The school has stayed open. Contrast this with the indifference to learning in this country. School is seen as a chore, as something to be "got through." Those who do go on to post-secondary education, for the most part, value only the piece of paper at the end which will enable them, supposedly, to make more money. Knowledge, as opposed to a practical skill, is not what it's all about.
What all this bodes is what some have called the "coming dark ages." We may be on the brink of an era in which all that stands between the preservation or loss of the accumulated knowledge of millennia is a dedicated enclave of brave and enlightened intellectuals - our professors. Their adversary is twofold; both are anti-intellectual in nature. One sees education as a business with profit as the bottom line in any decision-making process. Not only are earnings the overriding consideration for the school but the only knowledge that counts for students is that which will translate into a higher salary in the job market. The other adversary, and one which is related, is the tendency towards superficiality and triviality in American society. This adversary comes not with sword and gun but with Wii and YouTube and MySpace. This enemy offers no ideology or philosphy for life other than the superficial one of "fun and games." It is a mode of being that requires no effort, no thinking and repays the time spent with simple amusements that distract and deliver momentary and paltry pleasures. This adversary is arguably the more insidious of the two; whereas the first at least advocates the training of minds for a pragmatic purpose, this one wants to eat the minds of our young. As Neil Postman put it in Amusing Ourselves to Death:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumplepuppy.”
Now that Huxley's fears seem to be borne out by our social reality, my hopes are not high that the tide will turn, that educators will get the respect and esteem - and the institutional support - they deserve. The election of Barack Obama to the presidency registers one small advance, perhaps, toward redefining who our heros are along intellectual lines. But we have a long way to go before "intellectual" as a quality ceases to elicit more than a contemptuous, or at the very least, a dismissive response.