The Woe-Is-Us Books
By Stanley Fish
Last week, as I was preparing a presentation for still another conference on the fate of the liberal arts in our time, two things happened.
The first was that I read or re-read a bunch of recent books (mostly short and punchy) on the subject — “Crisis On Campus” (Mark C. Taylor), “Not For Profit” (Martha Nussbaum), “Youth in a Suspect Society” (Henry Giroux), “Why Choose the Liberal Arts?” (Mark William Roche), “Debating Moral Education” (Elizabeth Kiss and Peter Euben), “The Marketplace of Ideas” (Louis Menand), “Educating Citizens” (Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, Jason Stephens and Lee S. Shulman), “Reforming Our Universities” (David Horowitz), “No University Is An Island” (Cary Nelson), “Save the World On Your Own Time” (Stanley Fish) and “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It” (Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus). (The list could easily be doubled.)
Hacker’s and Dreifus’s book sometimes falls into the right-wing-quickie-demolition mode — course descriptions from Stanford and Yale are made fun of (in fact, they sound like great courses), and the decline of Western civilization occurs when Derrida (supposedly) replaces Dickens — but it touches all the bases and therefore has the merit of displaying in broad form the characteristics these books share: a few anecdotes from which very large conclusions are drawn, dramatically rehearsed statistics pointing to the precipitous drop in liberal arts enrollments, lists of good schools and bad schools, charts and diagrams that breathe (specious) authority, a roster of heroes from the educational past, coy celebrity name-dropping and a series of recommendations.
Some of the recommendations the books offer are specific — end tenure, restore mandatory retirement, reduce presidential salaries, get rid of departments. Some are more general and unexceptionable — make students use their minds, cultivate the mind and heart, encourage reflection and self-scrutiny. Some are grandiose — Taylor thinks that the president of the United States should give the “highest national priority” to a national teaching academy, housed in Chicago and presided over, I presume, by Taylor.
The books vary widely in style and political inflection (the range is from Giroux on the left to Horowitz on the right), but they all have the same bottom line: things are really bad and will get worse if we don’t do something. There is, however, no agreement on just what the bad things are and what we should do about them.
Nussbaum and Giroux complain, from very different perspectives, that the university world has gone too far in accommodating the corporate model, with its emphasis on profit and bottom line efficiency; Taylor complains that that it hasn’t gone far enough. Roche, Hacker and Dreifus plump for a liberal arts education “unconnected to a specific career” (Roche) or any practical goal; Giroux and Taylor deplore (again from different perspectives) an undergraduate experience unconnected to the needs of contemporary society. (Menand is in the middle of this one; he wants to “break down the walls a little”). Horowitz and Fish argue that universities are in bad public odor because they have become too political; Nelson and Giroux argue that they aren’t political enough. Hacker and Dreifus believe that tenure is clogging up the system and standing in the way of innovative change; Nelson believes that the benefits of tenure “cannot be easily overstated” and that its erosion will bring only more “contingent “ (adjunct) faculty and the corrosion of academic values. Nussbaum, Kiss, Euben, Roche, Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont, Stephens and Shulman worry that the university is not doing enough to produce a democratic citizenry; Fish asserts that producing citizens is not the university’s job.
There is unanimity on the question of money; everyone says there isn’t enough of it. But here again the solutions suggested are different — raise tuition, enmesh the university in the world of patents, technology transfers and venture capital partnerships, more on-line teaching, raise more private funds, cut out athletics and fancy student centers, drop departments, ration disciplines (not every Ivy League college needs to have a philosophy department), grow a new crop of presidents who will “man up” and not kowtow to legislators and trustees. The different suggestions correspond to very different, and somewhat unacknowledged, notions of what a university is for. Each book comes with blurbs saying everyone must read this and do what it says before it’s too late. They can’t all be right.
Curiously enough, in the midst of all this gloom and doom and sounding of various alarms, the high-humanist conviction that liberal arts education can fashion good character and alter outcomes in the world persists. Roche thinks that paying respectful attention to authors in an academic setting teaches “generosity of spirit” and a “level of modesty.” (I see no evidence of this, on campus or in these books.) Nussbaum asserts that “an education process can strengthen the sense of personal accountability, the tendency to see others as distinct individuals, and the willingness to raise a critical voice.”
And, most surprising, Taylor, the tech guru and hard-eyed apostle of the most up-to-date university one could imagine, declares that “I would bet my retirement that if Wall Streeters had read and understood Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence Man,’ Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Gold Bug,’ William Gaddis’s ‘JR,’ Georg Simmel’s ‘The Philosophy of Money’ and Karl Marx’s ‘Early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,’ we would not find ourselves in this economic mess.” (In short, if they had only taken my course.) I would take that bet in a heartbeat and so would Hacker and Dreifus, who observe drily (and correctly) that “the verbal fluency students attain will [not] necessarily led them to lead more selfless lives”; the most we can say is that “holders of bachelor’s degrees tend to be . . . more adept at crafting paragraphs to justify what they want to do,” but what they want to do might very well be bad.
While I was trying, and failing, to make sense of all this, the second thing of the week happened. I received a visit from Stephen Blackwood, a young man fresh from receiving his doctoral degree , who told me — can you believe it? — that he is starting from scratch a new liberal arts college, Ralston College, to be located in Savannah, GA. Either blissfully unaware of the obstacles rehearsed in the woe-is-us books or wrapped in the armor of faith and innocence like a modern St. George, Blackwood, without very much experience or money, has so far managed to secure a promise of buildings to house his new enterprise, gained the moral and honorific support of Harold Bloom, Hilary Putnam and Salman Rushdie, and applied for a tax status that will allow him to recruit and admit students, all of whom will receive full tuition scholarships paid for by the funds he plans to raise in the near future.
When they get to Savannah, the students of Ralston College will find that the school year is the entire year, 12 months, that they are expected to dine together and wear academic gowns, that they will all be reading the same texts organized around a yearly theme (in successive years, the Self, God, Nature, Community and the Beautiful), that the texts will be “supremely difficult” and begin with Greek and Roman authors, many of whom will be revisited the next year under the aegis of a new theme, and that they will also be receiving instruction in the visual arts, mathematics, the sciences and foreign languages (at least two).
“We believe,” declares the college’s Web brochure, “that the goal of general education is to produce a person who can draw on different fields of knowledge and at the same time grasp the whole of which each field is a part.” This means that “Ralston is fundamentally about reading books, thinking about them, and talking about them.” No on-line instruction, no departmental structure, no professorial ranks, no athletic programs, no teacher evaluations (student-centered education but not on the customer model) and no tenure. Back to the future! Plato and students under the plane tree in Savannah.
It is as if Blackwood had been reading the same books I had been reading, noted, as I have, the staggering number of problems liberal arts education apparently faces, and said, “Why don’t we just start all over again?”
Now, that is hardly an option for struggling state universities with enrollments from 30,000 to 70,000, millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, hostile and withholding legislatures, union contracts and weak academic leadership. But the very fact of Ralston College, if it gets off the ground, might stand as a reminder of what the enterprise has always been about and might serve as a beacon, however dimly perceived, to those who value the liberal arts enterprise for what it is rather than for what it might contribute to the bottom line, to the strengthening of democracy, to the fashioning of citizens, to the advancement of social justice or any other worthy but academically irrelevant aim. (I here lay my cards, which were already exposed, on the table.)
My hope for Mr. Blackwood is that he will get on with it and not pause to write a book, although, no doubt, the book will come later.
Originally posted to the NYTimes.com web site. Used here with permission.
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