Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hast thou philosophy, shepherd?

It was my father who went to college, but my mother whom I always remember absorbed in a book. Mom did not go to college until she was in her 30s. Dad was intelligent and well-spoken, but for him, the purpose of knowledge was to learn useful things or guide his thoughts in the right paths. For mom, reading was a key to asking why things were this way instead of another.

That difference appeared again a few years ago when our new Memphis Public Library building was dedicated, and local citizens were outraged to discover that among quotes from famous authors etched into the pavement near the Library's entrance, there were some from authors of whom they didn't approve, including Marx. One outraged citizen wrote to the local newspaper in protest, declaring, with perfect sincerity, that a library was supposed to be "a place of indoctrination."

For all I know, the person who wrote that absurdity held a college degree, though it didn't save him from completely misunderstanding the whole educational enterprise. Indoctrination is instruction in a prescribed set of norms that are not meant to be disputed; training is the impartation of facts, principles, and techniques meant to be mastered by rote, though that mastery may eventually lead to insights over and above the mere body of material that the student originally learned. Education, to be sure, builds on facts—there's not much point in discussing the effects of European discovery of the New World if one doesn't know when Columbus came over—but it is more than that. Education takes facts and teaches students to think. And that is really the problem.

This has nothing to do with whether most people could cultivate contemplative and analytical habits of mind if they wished; it is to reflect, instead, on the fact that the willingness to sift, to compare, to ask "why" and "what if" often causes discomfort not only to others but to the questioner himself. Philosopher James P. Carse was right to comment that "Many people read to have their views confirmed; the educated person reads to be surprised."

It may be that just about anyone could benefit from wrestling, at some point in his life, with the insights of Plato or Shakespeare; the question is whether he should pursue this as a private interest or be forced to pay thousands of dollars to do so as a requirement for obtaining the most ordinary employment. Charles Murray, of the American Enterprise Institute, made this point in an excellent article in The New York Times last Sunday:

My beef is not with liberal education, but with the use of the degree as a job qualification.

For most of the nation’s youths, making the bachelor’s degree a job qualification means demanding a credential that is beyond their reach. It is a truth that politicians and educators cannot bring themselves to say out loud: A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work.

If you doubt it, go back and look through your old college textbooks, and then do a little homework on the reading ability of high school seniors. About 10 percent to 20 percent of all 18-year-olds can absorb the material in your old liberal arts textbooks. For engineering and the hard sciences, the percentage is probably not as high as 10....

But I’m not thinking just about students who are not smart enough to deal with college-level material. Many young people who have the intellectual ability to succeed in rigorous liberal arts courses don’t want to. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons. They are bothersome time-wasters.

A century ago, these students would happily have gone to work after high school. Now they know they need to acquire additional skills, but they want to treat college as vocational training, not as a leisurely journey to well-roundedness.

Lest this seem like another dyspeptic rant on "today's good-for-nothing youngsters," a similar perspective was provided in the June Atlantic by an anonymous professor teaching English 101 and 102 in a "college of last resort" to classes made up mostly of forty-somethings who must complete a degree for job advancement:

Some of their high-school transcripts are newly minted, others decades old. Many of my students have returned to college after some manner of life interregnum: a year or two of post-high-school dissolution, or a large swath of simple middle-class existence, 20 years of the demands of home and family. They work during the day and come to class in the evenings. I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.

My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses. For many of my students, this is difficult. Some of the young guys, the police-officers-to-be, have wonderfully open faces across which play their every passing emotion, and when we start reading “Araby” or “Barn Burning,” their boredom quickly becomes apparent. They fidget; they prop their heads on their arms; they yawn and sometimes appear to grimace in pain, as though they had been tasered. Their eyes implore: How could you do this to me?

The goal of English 101 is to instruct students in the sort of expository writing that theoretically will be required across the curriculum. My students must venture the compare-and-contrast paper, the argument paper, the process-analysis paper (which explains how some action is performed—as a lab report might), and the dreaded research paper, complete with parenthetical citations and a listing of works cited, all in Modern Language Association format. In 102, we read short stories, poetry, and Hamlet, and we take several stabs at the only writing more dreaded than the research paper: the absolutely despised Writing About Literature.

The author relates the heartbreaking story of Mrs. L., a mature student assigned to do a research paper citing both sides of a historical controversy. Not only could she not write a coherent paragraph; she was never really able to understand the nature of the assignment in the first place. This has nothing to do with socio-economic status; I remember an article in The American Scholar some years ago remarking that for a certain sort of 60-something member of the country club class, taking graduate courses was seen as an interesting alternate form of recreation.

I overheard half of a telephone conversation once, in which one of my fellow students tried to reassure her caller that she would give her the help she needed in writing a comparison-and-contrast paper, a concept that the caller seemed unable to grasp. After the call was over, my fellow student chuckled merrily and said "Oh, that Anne! What a character! She just loves education. She has got herself two Master's degrees, and she has come back for more!" And if she continued to pay fees, no doubt the school saw no reason not to collect them.

A college degree has become a sort of űber-high school diploma in the minds of many employers and for no good reason. While I agree that a study of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is probably one of the best introductions ever to office politics, I see no reason to require a clerical worker to learn it as an indispensable step to promotion, unless she simply wants to, and if she does, more power to her. Meanwhile, I have a step-cousin, a very sharp individual who has contributed computer code to NASA's missions to Mars, who cannot get permanent positions in the private sector for want of a college degree.

Once, it was assumed that a college degree was undertaken only as preparation for the ministry or a teaching career, and I agree with that archaic standard to the extent that everyone who sought it knew exactly what they were after and why. Again, to admit that college is not for everyone has nothing to do with misanthropy or invidious social distinctions. In 1983, 30-year-old Robert Martin was found living near Rossville, Tennessee, barefoot, with half his teeth missing, in a shack with no electricity or running water, with his elderly grandmother. He owned a Bible and a copy of Milton's works, and he knew both very nearly by heart. Taken to Vanderbilt, he amazed the professors with his knowledge. He had a hunger to know, and to think consequentially about what he had learned. I think it's time to leave liberal arts educations to those constituted like Martin and let the rest of the workforce demonstrate their competence through certification exercises that actually have something to do with their occupations. If they discover, at some point, that they have an urge to learn what Chaucer's pilgrims were up to and why, then I hope they find a willing teacher who can make those characters speak once more.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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