Sunday, February 05, 2006
Paid with Interest
For those with (or with friends with) online access, a new issue of American Literary History is available.
In “The Post-Welfare State University", Jeffrey J. Williams “follows the money trail” to capsulize American higher education:
The features of mass attendance, of federal and foundation funding, of technological development, and of faculty provenance directly articulate with the welfare state; and, in turn, they define our horizon of expectation of the university. Our present dismay at the state of the university has a good deal to do with our tacit expectation of the postwar university, which is the horizon on which we judge current events, rather than on the full and mixed history of American universities (for instance, when academic freedom as we know it did not exist). [...] Like most other social institutions over the past two decades, the university has seen the erasure of the legacy of the New Deal and its vestiges—notably, socialized tuition and the goal of full employment.
He ends with a cause I’d gladly rally to:
The death of the humanities and the disciplines that promote “thought"—the majors in which have declined in real terms to less than 10% of college majors, with business expanding to 22%—results not from a loss of interest in the humanities but from the material interests that confront students.
The policy of debt is a pernicious social policy because it places a heavy tax on those who wish a franchise in the normal channels of contemporary American life. It is also pernicious because it is counterproductive in the long term, cutting off many possibilities and domains of human production. Finally, it is a pernicious social policy because it perverts the aims of education, from enlightenment to constraint. Especially as teachers who have a special obligation to our students, debt is a policy that we cannot abide.
In “The Virtues of Heartlessness", Deborah Nelson describes the curious affinity of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt as a (strictly coincidently) shared commitment to Paying Attention: the ethical practice of aesthetics in an anti-sentimental politics of particularity.
[McCarthy] explored the problem of newspapers in the following passage from a BBC broadcast, which was excised from the later essay based on these comments: “Newspapers, which appear every day, seemed to be the repositories of ‘everydayness’.... This, in fact, is not true; neither a tabloid like the Daily News nor a dignified paper like The New York Times gives a faithful picture of the life of the average person in New York (still less, the Parisian newspapers of Paris), and the reliance on the newspapers imparted to realism, very early, a curiously sensational flavor, slightly canned-tasting misery, a flavor of crime and low life and disease.” [...] In its uniformity and blandness, canned misery indicates not the necessary disruptiveness of the fact but the reassuring predictability of statistical reality. [...] “Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a peculiarly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome."
The element of chance is, therefore, a component of her optimism, rescuing the possibility of change in even the most “realistic” view of history. In her view, like Arendt’s, one had to tolerate, even embrace, the pain of unpredictability in order to preserve one’s optimism. If optimism grounded in uncertainty seems rather feeble, it is helpful to remember that when many of their fellow New York Intellectuals retreated from political engagement in the 1960s, McCarthy and Arendt remained involved in political battles to the end of their lives. They understood that a just world was also a painful world, though always painful in new ways.
Linked on approval: “Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty" by Max Cavitch.
I want to second Ray’s nomination of Williams’ essay as well worth a read. If it’s not available online, I have a e-copy Jeff forwarded to me. I can email him and ask whether he’d mind making it generally available, if anyone’s interested.
I commented on DeLong about the Williams quote. I don’t think that it applies to DeLong, but a lot of economists and others think of the humanities as erroneous forms of misrecognition which have been superceded by social science. They value it the same way they value basket-weaving and aromatherapy, as an optional form of entertainment not worthy of public subsidy, suitable only for women going for the M.R.S. degree. Reducing humanities students to 3% would probably be OK with them.
Eventually people point out that English and History are helpful for law students and technical writers, that History and Anthropology can provide insights for people working internationally, etc., but the idea that the humanities (riddled with postmodernism and leftism as they are) are intrinsically valuable is not widespread.
Humanities education via, say, Voltaire and Jefferson deserves our respect; yet Biff and Bunnies are better off with the biz boys than in humanities via Arendts, McCarthys, Sontags, postmods, etc.
X, do we know you?
We? are you the Valve union representative?
Assuming that the humanities are inherently worthwhile is about equivalent to assuming that the economics dept. is inherently corrupt. Anyways, I doubt there is any data (based on some type of quantitative tests, SAT/GRE scores etc.) demonstrating that English or Philosophy majors are smarter across the board than econ. or biz majors. There are reasons to question the assumed benefits of literary types of studies: they may require and develop verbal skills and knowledge, yes, but in terms of analytical or quantitative skills (both sort of essential to technocracy now, aren’t they) English studies do not generally match say an econ. degree or the sciences. However, I would agree that there exist a few new-school types of humanists and scholars--sort of the school of Pynchon, if you will, or maybe it’s CP Snow-- who are willing to devote themselves to understanding at least some modern scientific concepts--quantum physics, technology, evolution, etc.--but they are greatly outnumbered.
X, what are you trying to say? That there are no verifiable hypotheses in Shakespeare? That English professors are not sharp on statistics? That historians are not good physicists? Please specify.
X, your claim—“Assuming that the humanities are inherently worthwhile is about equivalent to assuming that the economics dept. is inherently corrupt”—is logically unsound. A claim for the inherent value of studying the humanities is a meta-claim, a claim about the general value of a discipline, not about the value of any given professional work done in any given historical manifestation of the humanities as a discipline. A claim that economics departments are corrupt would be a claim of a different order, a claim about actually existing agents in actually existing professional situations.
And the simplest defense of literary studies is that they study one of the weirder things humans do: tell stories and play with language. And any human who is not curious about what humans do is a pretty sad creature.
That’s not entirely accurate. A claim that studying the humanities is inherently good would be seem to be meaningful only in comparison with the good that other types of studies are assumed to produce. If you define, say, glibness and rhetoric as ends in themselves, then Shakespeare has value; if valid claims/knowledge about the physical world, or physiology or even about psychology are more valuable that mere glibness, then one would tend to place more value on biochemistry than on Shakespeare. (a person with sick children would unlikely call an English professor).
And that math majors generally score higher on standardized tests than English majors is not simply coincidental. Rhetorical and verbal skills are important, but less so than quantitative and analytical skills. Most English-lit. people seem to think that glibness or grammtical knowledge is an end in itself.
I have heard that Shakespeare’s combined SAT score was only 1260, whereas Isaac Newton got 1573. Couldn’t ask for a clearer proof than that.
Also, Shakespeare could couldn’t do plumbing, because pipes do not respond to the glibness for which Shakespeare is famous. But there was a mathematician down the street who could plumb like a sonofabitch, and Shakespeare always ended up calling him in.
As an undergraduate history major and an econ minor pursuing graduate work in a heavily quantitative political science program while working in computational research, here’s where my experience tells me the impact of sidelining the humanities lies: Critical thinking.
Critical thinking is a skill set that can be acquired and nurtured in non-humanities fields, but it takes a grounding in the humanities for it to truly flourish for most people. I run into students on a daily basis (a preponderance of whom are business and education majors) who simply are not equipped to think critically about their own studies, their lives or wider social issues they may/will be engaged in after college, issues like politics, child-rearing and their jobs.
They know how to craft a lesson plan or how to run a marketing campaign, but their skill sets are essentially bounded by their vocation...and they have an almost blanket lack of curiosity about anything beyond what they have to do to get their degree. We should all hope that our institutions of higher education are doing a proper job of vocational education, but at the same time there are plenty of fine vocational education institutions where you don’t have to mess around with those messy core competencies and get straight to your electronics certification or your air conditioner repair certification. There is something implicit in the idea of higher education that is being marginalized and reduced to where it resembles a more prestigious version of vocational training with nothing extra to add.
It’s my opinion that if you don’t have a good grounding in history or literature or philosophy or some kind of humanities field, you’re most likely not going to be curious and you’re most likely not going to develop the facilities to reason critically. If you don’t gain even a basic ability to reason critically with a higher education degree, in my estimation, you’ve missed the basic point of the endeavor.
As a quant guy, I’d love to follow this up with a longitudinal survey of coursework and career outcomes, but alas, the NSF has other priorities for funding. My guess is that the impact x and other are talking about above is quantitatively demonstrable, but expensive to demonstrate.
A mathematician who plumbs? I’d sooner believe in a horse that plays chess.
This was several hundred years ago, before the profession went all downhill and shit.
I was a math major and I can’t plumb worth a tinker’s damn.
Old-school marxists often debated the worth of various types of knowledge or art vs. material necessities--if you were poor you’d probably wish for a new pair of boots rather than a sublime painting (unless the painting had acquired some value): a family in the slums of La Ciudad de Mexico would most likely prefer indoor plumbing to a deluxe leather-bound edition of Shakespeare, or to a calculus text; tho’ the calculus text might prove more useful in the long run, assuming they read it and understood it.
Culture is a luxury and historically an aristocratic indulgence. Plumbing-- like food, shelter, decent employment, transportation--is a requirement. And the universities’ traditional Platonic animosity to trades such as plumbing or electricity, construction is itself part of an aristocratic culture.
Ray, we don’t hold that against you. Society is to blame.
X, there are actually lots of poor people who spend a lot of their time and energy on song and dance and various artsy fripperies, but utilitarians of every political persuasion despise them.
I’m just glad the Globe Theatre was always full of aristocrats. How could an Italian-Jewish nobleman like myself have stood in awe at the Bard’s Work had there been mere trademen in the audience! ‘Zounds!
X, I’m also glad you and I are living in the same fantasy 18th century world. I thought my cod piece and I were the only ones.
Now, if you forgive me, my fellow noblemen—Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and W.E.B. Du Bois—and I are off to the African high life club, to meet all the other aristocrats who make up the entire dance and music audience at these things.
Yes, give them Moby Dick para desayuna: Herein are collected the great thoughts of a great man: i.e. after a few hundred pages, one realizes the great man has provided you with his great cetacean metaphor which seems to suggest that life is pointless, nature is demonic, reason is a farce, and people are essentially mad, violent, and doomed. Yet (that’s not to say MD is not preferable to Dickinson and Whitman dreck)
X, we may have come to an important turning-point in your treatment. Are you indeed of the opinion that madness is a bad thing, and something to be avoided? Because recognizing the problem is the first step tpward dealing with it.
John & Luther, don’t you have better ways to have fun than taunting a fool? Or am I playing Malvolio again?
Ray, I think it’s about that “venting” thing you said you found overrated in your first comment on The Thread that Buried the New Left. When one is confronted every day with sentiments such as fill this discussion (the comments bit), one sometimes welcomes an opportunity for playful venting at an easy target.
That said, everyone should have a chance at “playing Malvolio” too. And I think Emerson’s being unfair to Mill, Bentham, and Sedgwick --in other words, there’s gotta be a better term than “utilitarian” for the prudish perspective on display.
Better things to do? No. This is my equivalent of TV. This particular fool has succeeded in making himself very obnoxious and annoying at times. If my comments are deleted along with his, happiness will be mine, in a very small way.
Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.
When a person claims Melville is mad, or that there are things more important than Shakespeare, count upon the belle-lettres unionists to call him a fool. Yet there exists nearly as much traditional writing and philosophy opposed to the view of “literature as knowledge” as there is in favor of it, from Plato to jesuits to Marx and Bertrand Russell. I am not qualified to offer some sweeping assessemnt, but I do think students are better off knowing the specifics of 19th-20th century history, or economics, math/science etc. than spending months memorizing all the ins and outs of Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg, etc. or the methodist-sapphic hymns of Emily D.
....and to counter that literature may not be history or logic or psychology, but that it is art, and arts do impart a type of knowledge, I say, fine, but as art Moby Dick, yea, even King Lear fall quite a ways short of the abstract splendor of a Chopin or Beethoven.
Ho hum. Many of us think that literature should be taught in the university, whereas others disagree. We seem to be at impasses, however.
Come on, you know pragmatism a bit better than that. There’s a limited amount of funds for PU. Administrators want to fund a new biochemistry research lab; others want a Renaissance lit. building. Data shows that the bio.chem. majors get better jobs and are smarter than Ren. lit. majors do, and that bio chem leads to new pharmaceuticals, medical discoveries. What does the Ren. Lit scholarship result in? Superb rhetoric, Latin skills maybe, and so forth. Is the greatest Pound poem equal to the discovery of Penicillin? I think not. Of course to have both, ala a WC Williams maybe or Richard Seltzer would be great, but that is rare.
In the old Communist world, many of the poets actually did have technical degrees. But who would have guessed that X is an old communist?
That sort of avoids the entire issue, which is really about a hierarchy of knowledge; the old debate betwnee TH Huxley and Arnold remains relevant, and I think most reasonable people will conclude, if they thought about it enough, that Huxley was correct--modern science does sort of relegate the classics and theological learning to museum status. THat doesn’t imply Marxism, but I think in some ways marxist ideas are in principle closer to empiricism, the physical sciences than well, the teachings of the Catholic church are (or Islam, or Judaism) . Show me where I advocated communism anyhoo. Reading and critiquing Marx does not a communist make. A bit more Kropotkin or Fabian soc. than Marx.