Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Can we please eliminate the damn liberal arts? Right now?

As one can imagine, I have been thinking a lot more about education and the miserable state of affairs that contemporary higher education has become.  And then I read this in the New York Times that a growing number of elected officials want to nudge students toward more job-friendly subjects like electrical engineering.  Ah, yes, if only I had known that the world needed electrical engineers and not ditch-diggers!

In my case, misery does not mean drowning in alcohol, though I wonder if that might help!  Instead of carrying my water bottle to class, maybe I should take with me something clear and water-like gin or vodka ;)  Oh well, all I know is to drink coffee and to then read essays that really smart people have authored.

As comforting as this exercise is, well, it is equally depressing that the issues that I worry about now were the same set of issues that were talked and written about even a few years ago, and the situation has only worsened.  For instance, in this essay from almost sixteen years ago!  Jackson Lears writes:
The contemporary academic crisis is not about job security any more than it is about how many classes are online or which departments get the most resources. It is about the attitudes we take to our most important audience, a non-academic audience. Professors are constantly berating themselves and being berated for withdrawing into the insular  world of scholarship, for not connecting with the real world. The real world is right in front of us, in the classroom; it is composed of students, 99 percent of whom have no intention of entering the academy themselves. They are a non-academic audience; they require us, however implicitly and imperfectly, to become public intellectuals.
The attitude towards students and their learning is appalling, to put it mildly.  Increasingly, colleges see students as nothing more than warm bodies who bring in monies, which they can use to build Taj Mahals and create more "student-services" administrative positions.  Faculty, too, are only happy to be active participants in fashioning revenue-maximizing strategies.  Thus, the higher education industry keeps charging ahead at full speed, consuming the monies students, taxpayers, and philanthropists keep throwing its way.  Are we surprised then at all with the following sentences from Jackson Lears?
Prussian productivism melded with American vocationalism and anti-intellectualism–the love of the practical, the demand for cash value now. The result was the accentuation of a fundamental conflict in the university’s mission, between furthering the pursuit of truth and serving the needs of established power. The modern American university was to continue to preserve a place for the free play of ideas, but also to provide technical expertise for government and business elites. 
In that same issue of the Hedgehog Review, Russell Jacoby writes:
Driven by academic discontent and boredom, professors might want to reinvent themselves as public writers. ... 
But, simultaneously recognizes the challenge when we have:
institutional imperatives that reward technical rather than public contributions.Will they be successful? It is not clear.
It is a lot clearer now, sixteen years later, that only technical contributions matter, even if they are less than third-rate.  Public contributions, well, who cares!

Jacoby worried then about specialization, well before the introduction of gerontology as a major in a small time public university where I teach!  Jacoby wrote:
it should be possible to raise the issue of insular specialization without pledging fealty to progress and industrial society. The incarceration of specialists and a return to bloodletting or phrenology is hardly the goal; nor is the point to foster anti-intellectual populism or half-educated generalists. Specialization inheres in industrial society. We need specialists. No one wants to hear a cheery announcement that today your airline pilot will be a family therapist. Nevertheless this truth does not justify every micro-field or subdiscipline or new jargon. Specialization can also be obscurantism, turf building, careerism, and regression, as well as a simple waste of talent and resources.
So much has been said in the years past by intellectuals that there is very little for this pseudo-intellectual to contribute, it seems like!  May I have a martini, please?  On second thoughts, make that a double-shot cappuccino ;)


Ramesh said...

Going off on a tangent - if there is a genuine belief amongst lots of people that specialisation is not a good thing and purely job related courses do not serve a student well, then in the free market that is, there must be colleges that come up catering to your (our) point of view. In the long run, if the alumni of such colleges have done significantly better in life, then surely students will come flocking in. Why aren't there many such colleges ? Granted that the benefits are seen in the long term and therefore difficult to pin down to cause and effect. Still, there must be more than a few colleges which practice this.

What have you got against gerontology by the way considering that you might be a beneficiary of this field in the not too distant future :):)

Sriram Khé said...

There are too many ifs built into your comment. And all those ifs completely distort higher education.
We can add more ... (and all these I have blogged about, and written op-eds about)
If high schools offered vocational ed ...
If college were not shoved down as the only option ...
If higher education were really about education ...
If employers invested in job training as they used to in the past ...
etc., etc., etc.

All these distortions mean that while in the past years a diploma from a state university like mine had real value, now the vast majority of college diplomas have become meaningless pieces of paper, even as students spend gazillions of dollars to earn their diplomas ...

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