Monday, January 19, 2009

The Coming Dark Ages

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:

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.


  1. Robert Bates Garber has an essay, Valuing Useless Knowledge, which is a delight and expresses your sentiments in a more gentle manner. It is availble on the web. And the late Beill Reddings' volume, The University in Ruins approaches this arena different than the usual academic screed full of ullulations and breast pounding.

    That having been said, a basic education so a person can have a job is a prerequistie. No job, no money and one can't live on poetry. The fact that we need a post secondary degree is, in part, a result of a more sophisticated world and a failure of our K-12 system through dilution and negligence. Most countries have students in K-12 well advanced in their career focus before college and still, as my old German mother pointed out, had a well read and intellectually active and engaged life.

    That means that a four year liberal arts degree is not necessary for one to engage in all those humanities and liberal studies areas that Fish and the conservative, great books, advocates lament are lost to the current generation and every other generation previously. In a way we are revisiting the Jefferson/Madison debates as who should rule, those of money who have the time and resources to engage in such study and thus in government, or the citizen worker/soldier- the other 95%. Without that "other" Obama would never have won.

    Emmanuel Todd in "After the Empire" notes that there is concern that with the increase in education that we will see a financial and political split and that the US will be run by intellectual oligarchies where we may be closer to this than one might think. This, of course, is the fear of George Orwell and Ayn Rand and the concervative think tanks where the intellectuals represent the liberals, or as they call themselves today, the progressives.

    I am not as sanguine as the intellectual conservatives that people aren't reading. Only what they read may not be delivered in the pages of books. But read they do, otherwise and other book sellers would be out of business quicker than the burnings in Farhenheit 451. As the show on NPR says, remember that all music was once new. And that holds for ideas published by contemporaries who do not deny they stand on others' shoulders.

    In the US there is a push for STEM education-science, technology, engineering and Math. The claim is that we need great quantities of these or we will become a second rate power. Yet, it is obvious that we are ahead becuase we are very clever. We can never outproduce the Chinese in the long run. The same with intellectuals. How many philosophers do we really need? Ask our outgoing president who can read a report and find non-existant wmd's.

    The issue is more complex as Fish well knows.


    tom a.

  2. I believe we need a capacity to integrate various pedagogical models. This trend toward the business model is something I've witnessed too. But I don't necessarily see it as a bad move.

    Granted, it would be unfortunate if critical thinking completely disappeared in favor of academic political correctness. An educational organization - such as a university - is a place where one should be able to think without fear but also, in my view, make an honest living.

    Although there will always be ‘acceptable’ structures in any organization, I try to allow for the maximum degree of intellectual freedom at |, keeping in mind that as editor I do have to edit or reject the odd submission.

    Editing and rejecting is never easy. But as C. G. Jung once put it, “I cherish the anxious hope that meaning will… win the battle.”

    And sometimes this means making tough decisions.

  3. A very interesting read. Makes me wonder about your thoughts with regards to general access to post secondary education. In other words, is it too easy to get into college? I have had this discussion with others and from my 7 years of experience with Rio and others, I am still shocked at the intellectual ability of some of my students. Honestly, my 4th grad daughter can write better than some of these individuals.

    Generally, I agree with the premise of the article, which is college is now a business with a bottom-line.

    As I tend to teach in the the humanities area, I am equally appalled by the lack of understanding of other cultures and how this can influence perspectives on any given historical event. Many students are very narrow minded and more focused on getting an "A" than the topic at hand.

    Just my two cents. I know I don't normally reply to you but I do read everything you send and I found this article very much representative of my experiences in academia.

  4. I believed the dark ages you mean here is the deterioration of our educational system not imparting the real knowledge for knowledge sake but a packaged solution to education for the sake of professional work and profit.I was thinking abt the collaspe of civilisation due to this new educational mindset and practice that will bring us to the dark ages of the 500 to 1100 AD,obviously it will not happen unless a comet hit us or hundreds of bombs exploded on us.
    America today success depend so much on its superiority in education esp in science and technology as we can see all around us such as the advent of computer,tv,www,new power source,advancing cures for diseases etc etc and also internationally many of the world leaders have some sort of training in America 'U' so America shld take the lead in exporting Education to the confused world.
    To do that i think we shld address 3 concerned issues: 1. Decision on what to teach. 2 How to teach it 3. The delivery mechanism of the content. I had the idea that since internet offers the the most opportunity of reaching the audience and provide everyone with the same opportunity/possibility it will then be the most suitable medium to ride on.Learning by doing is not so difficult to implement on the net but the bigger issue is what to teach? I guess this is very much up to the curriculum designer as traditionally education is more for the elite but now with the internet it can reach to all people.
    Broadly speaking education shld cover the issue of living in the real world(like getting along with people,raising children and family etc etc),help to train basic skills,solving problems,preparing for job besides learning how to think and be critical besides the more academic subjects like litterature,history,and math etc etc
    So i guess for us in the 21 century we shld ask ourself what do we mean by eduacated?Do our curriculum prepare us for what or do it bears any relationship to the finished products we seek.We need to think what we mean to be educated and start formalising ways and mean for new ideas and new concept to address our 21 century problems.
    Change is the key word nowadys,is a word of the day where globaloisation,corporations,religions,explosive growth in science and technology,global warming,rich and poor,disconnect btw high school and 'U" etc etc we may need really to ask ourself abt the future of education in the 21 century.
    21 century is a time for personalisation so is not surprising that the off the rack education may be out of place as we know we all different in our ability and capacity.Our brain size are all different,so is our short term memory as wel as our long term.our brain efficiency are so different,we do not soak up all the info' pumb to us rather we decide what we want to learn or focus,so will we learn better when we are motivated,that imply tha teaching in the 21 century shld be tied to the research in cognitive or neuroscince.So it may be that the traditional notion of education may have to change to suit the 21 century.For example in my country the education is more adminstrative,worrying abt sizes,teachers,budgets etc but nothing abt the process of education,how the events of the class affect the mind of the students.So maybe the aim of the education shld provides the necessary cognitive skills to prepare for the modern world.
    Education shld help to change the brain and influence our genes to take advantage of the environment,and hence configure the brain so that the brain and the environment is not as separate as we think and in this way we will continue to evolve.

    Thks for hearing