June 14, 2010

Where language goes to die

Valiantly defending the value of a liberal arts education in the pages of the New York Times (i.e., dog bites man), David Brooks argues that

Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion . . . . [E]conomics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology . . . are useful in many circumstances. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling.

It's not clear to me how institutions so reluctant to admit that there is a non-relativistic human nature or that there are non-relativistic universal truths will do any better. Brooks wants secular liberal arts programs to do the one thing they have been laboring valiantly for the past century to not do--preach that old time religion.

You don't need a humanities degree from Harvard to understand why "a governor of South Carolina suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator." It's covered in the Bible (for starters), the part about David and Bathsheba. Nor do I find the utilitarian argument any more compelling. Stating the obvious, Brooks says that

[s]tudying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

Brooks overwhelms me with his low expectations for higher education. Writing a "clear and concise memo" is a subject that should be tackled in high school, or freshman English at the very latest. And according to Oxfordian Helena Echlin, attending graduate school in the U.S. may have exactly the opposite result. No one in her English and American literature classes

mentioned enjoying a book. Analysis is practised completely free of evaluation. Manifestly, analysis is more important than the texts themselves. In a class on The Canterbury Tales, the secondary literature dwarfs the Tales. We are asked to review books on Chaucer, and even review reviews of books on Chaucer. I see an infinite sequence of mirrors into which Chaucer has disappeared.

As far as Echlin is concerned, the study of literary criticism in the Ivy Leagues "is a hoax." She was not allowed graduate credit for a writing workshop taught by novelist Robert Stone ("Having Stone teach literature is like having a gorilla teach zoology"). So she audited the class and learned more from him "than from all my other professors put together."

Yale, she concluded, is "the place where language goes to die" (after emptying your pockets).

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# posted by Blogger Joe
How does "[s]tudying the humanities improves your ability to read and write." Seriously.

Education seems to be yet another field where you don't have to establish an actual causative effect for claimed benefits.

As near as I can discern there is nearly no value in studying the humanities. Steven Pinker wrote a fantastic essay on this--his point being that studying something makes you better at that one thing and this is provable. Point being that studying the humanities makes you better at studying the humanities and not much else.

I've long concluded that outside of targeted practical programs, universities exist to perpetuate universities and not much else. (Moreover, they are surprisingly inefficient at teaching most practical programs. As but one example, does a person going into contract law really need three years of law school?)
6/14/2010 7:47 PM

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
Brooks overwhelms me with his low expectations for higher education. Writing a 'clear and concise memo' is a subject that should be tackled in high school, or freshman English at the very latest.

You'd think.

Unfortunately, Brooks' low expectations are right on the mark. Very few of my freshmen composition students can write a clear and concise memo without excessive grammar mistakes, and I'm one of a minority of freshmen English teachers who care. (We do exist!)

I do think it is odd, however, that Brooks associates studying the humanities with learning to write a "clear and concise" memo. As far as writing a "clear and concise" memo is concerned, studying the humanities is completely useless.

I recently had a student say to me, "Your class is very . . . informative." She seemed a little uncomfortable with the idea. Her other English classes were all about discussing what the textbook's essays meant: analysis ("What is the writing trying to tell us?") rather than review ("Is this writing any good?").

I don't care what the textbook's essays mean. I just care how they are written. And I only use the essays that help me be . . . informative. If you can't write what you want to say clearly, then your writing is useless. End of story.

Having said that, I kind of know where Brooks is coming from. So many of my Freshmen comp students seem so culture-less. I don't expect them to be culture-ful; I really just want them to write what they mean and get good jobs. But it sure would be nice to be able to make allusions now and again and have people get them.

Interestingly enough, students in my folklore elective do get my allusions and make their own. But that brings up an interesting conundrum: the students in that elective choose it because they already are interested in fairy tales, New England writers, and horror movies. They come to class with their allusions ready.

Still, on my crotchety days, I think, "What culture can possibly be created by people who endlessly text 'How r u?' on their obnoxious technological devices?"

They do listen to tons more music than I do. This, I admit, is my own symptom of cultural barrenness.
6/16/2010 11:05 AM

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
Just to clarify: When the majority of my students call something I do "informative," what they really mean is "boring," and there are plenty of students who find English Composition boring.

In the case of the student I mentioned, however, she really meant "informative." The weird thing about it was her uncertainty that information was a good thing to be getting. In a college class. It's the sort of thing that makes you think, "What is education for?" I know what I think it is for: for me to tell people stuff that maybe they don't know (or to put stuff they think they know into context). That's why I went to college. I certainly wasn't paying to have relativistic discussions about the meaning of life. Actually, I suppose I was, but I had those with my roommates. (Actually, I don't think I had a game plan when I went to get my B.A. I just couldn't think of anything else to do.)

On the other hand, I do think I have a broader understanding of the world because I went to college? because I was the kind of person who would go to college? Not sure. And my "broader understanding" could just be the confidence that comes with going to college. So many of the secretaries I worked with were in awe of the professionals (lawyers, doctors) they worked for. I never was. Is that the result of a college education? Or is it that my parents qualified as white-collar professionals and they knew how to live off canned soup on a makeshift stove when the power went out and you're telling me you don't know how to work a fax machine? Seriously?
6/16/2010 11:52 AM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
Was it not Nibley who opined that a university education was wasted if the sole outcome was to make money? I suppose that is the purist attitude - a university education should be about the pursuit of knowledge and the humility of realizing just how little one does know.

I suggest that the dynamics of the university changed for good in the 1990s when 2 things happened. (1) The economic value of a diploma became real and undeniable and (2) competition for entrance to the top schools became so intense that it no longer mattered who the Ivy League admitted or what they taught - the top 5% of the population will be successful no matter what so acceptance became the hurdle that mattered, not graduation.

One of the ironies about upper education is that while many tenured liberal professors impugn the free market they enjoy a nice salary and many luxurious perks in their job precisely because of the workings of the invisible hand. And they know it which is why they support any and all government expansion of student loans. More credit = more customers. Banks selling subprime mortgages may be reprehensible but it is also the perfect business model for a college looking to increase its enrollment and its tuition. Perfect model until it collapses…

The natural vector of modern liberalism is to supplant the old wisdom with the new. Add the profit motive and the old school values don’t stand a chance. Why preach the classics when there is so much more money and ego massaging to be had selling the reinterpretation. Shakespeare is in the public domain anyways. Better to publish something new where there’s a copyright and a royalty stream.

The more of the past one ignores the less one has to rationalize new theories against conflicting data. The liberal economist can build an entire career on the sophist interpretation of the last 50 years, completely ignoring the economic realities of the previous 4 millennia. Paul Krugman’s Keynesian model is built on 1001 faulty assumptions that are cracking as we speak. Meanwhile Walter Williams looks at the world as it is and draws conclusions that are just as valid today as they were when Pharoah was building his pyramids.

So students buying what the modern universities are selling are getting a bad bargain. They are also starting to know it and it will be interesting to see what changes to correct the imbalance.
6/17/2010 7:01 AM

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
I started writing a VERY long comment and decided to post my thoughts to Votaries instead! You can read my thoughts about the future of higher education there.
6/21/2010 12:16 PM