Friday, May 23, 2008

What John Says (The University Today, Part 3)

Ok, I've no more meetings to rant about. But I've got one more thing to say about Professor X's article, and about class and academia and the meritocracy, and about all the other issues tied up together in what universities are doing today. Or rather, fellow Wichita blogger (and community college professor) John Buass has something to say about it. Several somethings, in fact. First of all, commenting a little slyly on my "fit of communitarian pique" over much of globalist, progressive, "new world"-techno-speak thrown at us Friends University faculty as part of our "strategic planning" last week (expressed in Part 1 of this series), John casually observes that, well, some folks like Thoreau were saying the exact same things over 150 years ago:

"But," says one, "you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?" I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life; -- to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar.

Reminding us also that the writer of Walden was himself "Harvard-educated and a child of privilege," John makes clear what I probably only reluctantly acknowledged in passing in both of my "university today" posts: namely, that the localist/traditionalist/populist/communitarian critique of much of the language and baggage brought to us by the modern liberal order and the universities which serve it--as true and needed as I think much of it may be!--is, in the end, as Michael Walzer noted long ago, a "recurring critique" at best...if only because the fundamental conditions of critique in America today happen on the terms of liberal individualism, on the terms of choice and growth and progress. Those of us worried about all that--whether inside academic or outside of it--have been worrying about it for a long time, which at the very least needs to give some pause to those of us who spin out long thoughts on the socio-economic struggles and assumptions of students and the institutions that teach them today. So ok, point taken.

Secondly, but more importantly, John uses Professor X's article, and the dilemmas of mass education (or is it just "mass credentialism"?) today, to think about his own student experience, as one stumbled into a college education that he originally didn't think he was prepared for, and who--by his own account, at least--continued to benefit from other lucky accidents and unknowing choices, all the way through graduate school. This has left him with good deal more wonder for the happy happenstance which is the process of education for so many of those he teaches--more at least than Professor X, who at least owns up to his own "paranoia" in the classroom in the Atlantic essay which started all this. John writes:

I'm not at all arguing with Professor X's contention that many (most?) students in colleges and universities are not "college material" or, at least, don't need to be there--I certainly see my share of such students where I teach....However, in my own experience as both a student and a professor, I know that predicting who will do well and who not is no sure thing. It's like when students ask me if a school is "any good": I tell them that the only way to know for sure is to enroll and go through it. I too know very well, many times over, the sinking feeling Professor X describes feeling during his/her interactions with Ms. L., but I've also seen some--not all, but some--of the students with whom I've had those conversations pull off minor miracles of freshman-level scholarship. One can know certain things only in retrospect....This semester a student thanked me for granting him an Incomplete for the semester rather than failing him; he said he wasn't accustomed to people troubling themselves on his behalf and so he was grateful. After telling him that it was no trouble, I said that education, no matter the grade level, in its essence is the offering of a chance to the student. It's not a promise or a gift or a guarantee of anything. It's the offering of a chance. It's up to the student to do with it what s/he will.

John also discerns in Professor X's piece an echo of the confused bitterness which characterizes many graduate programs in America--a reminder that frustration is hardly the sole property of those who struggle with the meritocracy; those who are earnestly climbing it can indulge in the same as well. But anyway, read the whole thing (and wait anxiously for his own Part 2 next week).

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