Saturday, February 26, 2011

what education is for

I'm in two faculty reading groups this semester. One is reading a history of the CSU, written by a long-time administrator and CSU president, and has precisely the kind of perspective you'd expect. When that group gets together, we're awfully cranky about the book, the author, and CSU administrators.

The other group will be meeting for the first time Wednesday to begin to discuss a book by Louis Menand on colleges and the need for reform of higher education. So far, it lacks the conceit of "evidence" of that wretched screed I was reading earlier, but it also just seems to lack any solid reasoning. So, I'm getting cranky with Louis Menand now. It appears I can't read anything about higher education at all without getting cranky.

Menand's first chapter deals with general education, which he thinks is higher education's bastard. He compares Harvard's various attempts at a core curriculum, with Columbia's early general ed program, with various others at small, elite cross-section of US colleges. (It's nice that he's not pretending to be making a general survey of the whole field, but that's about the nicest thing I can say about it so far.)

He makes one point, in the rather offhand, vaguely insinuating way he has, that I do think is worth pondering further: What, really, is the purpose of general education? And that question, I agree with him, is really about what we think a college-educated person should look like.

In my freshman year, I took a course in the honors program called "The Culture of Education." It had 8 students in it, was team-taught, and one of the faculty had a TA for the course. (In a large bureaucracy, such mistakes in resource-allocation decisions are bound to occur.) We read some Plato, some Rousseau, we read a bunch of illegally photocopied articles, and we read Allen Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, the 1985 book that is, I believe, the granddaddy of stuff like Menand's book.

This morning, I couldn't help recalling a conversation in that class about the purpose of education. Bloom, thinking that he was following the true cultural heritage of the West that started with Plato, argued that education is for the development of moral, political, and aesthetic values. At 18, I resented him telling me which values, and as a clever 18 year old, I suspected his argument of a whole bunch of special pleading. We started getting into it: Who the hell is Bloom to say this is the purpose of education? But then, what else could it be for?

One of the students in the class was an Education major - that is, a future grade-school teacher. She offered the common-sensical view that, for her, education was preparation for her future career. I saw this as begging the question. Maybe the purpose of education for her, and according to her view of things, was career preparation, but what was the purpose of her career? Well, she said, to educate children. To what end? So that they could go on to college.

I didn't like Bloom's strategy, which prescribed a specific political end of education. I didn't like her reasoning, which seemed obviously circular. Plus, I was already referring to the university experience as "higher indoctrination." This is a basic hazard of being a college student by default, and having no life or career plans. I had a funky kind of disinterest - maybe disaffection is a more accurate term - that made me hyper-critical of anything anybody said was a purpose for education, or even a goal for education. (Now that I'm telling this story, I have to admit that I was way more cranky back then.)

It was also hypo-critical of me, since there I was taking up space and haunting the nastier parts of the library. And now, I think that what a college-educated person should look like is approximately either me (college philosophy instructor and rabble-rouser), or my loveliest (semi-gainfully-employed amateur polymath and bricolageuse), or maybe my friend Imj (aka Bobo the Wandering Pall-bearer; intentionally-unemployed amateur poet and casual roller-derby official).

Friday, February 25, 2011

temporal anomaly

Late last night, as it started to drizzle, I stood looking out and down on the townhouses that form our complex. Newly wet, in the orange-yellow haze of the dim streetlights, they looked very little but enough like the condos my friend Doug lived in in Northern Virginia almost 20 years ago. The feeling of looking down through the rain was not significantly but sufficiently like my Card Lane, Pittsburgh pastime, peeking out the big front windows of our second-story apartment. I felt very strangely as though all this time hadn't passed, and this wasn't Turlock, California, or 2011.

I've gone through a hell of a lot since leaving Pittsburgh in 1998 - several career crises, three major depressive episodes, an ugly divorce, involuntary home-ownership, an unpleasant number of feline deaths, the entire freaking Presidency of G.W. Bush. How can it feel as if nothing has happened, as if I'm still back there, back then?

The feeling was so strong, it was very hard to accept that I actually am here, or that any of that time really has passed, or even that I was around for its passing. My sweetest tried to help me shake it off, looking straight at me, touring me around the apartment to show me the guitars, the kitchen, the rooms we sometimes call the Room of Requirement and the Chamber of Secrets, finally pointing out that Alexander and Arthur, die Überkätschen, the Flying Kittois Brothers, 35 pounds of compressed silliness, have only been here three years.

So I guess the date on the calendar means that it really isn't 1998 anymore, nor 1992. Where the hell have I been?

Friday, February 11, 2011

moral offense and moral response

I have two classes this semester that are focusing on justice, morality, and freedom of speech. We're looking at the First Amendment, exceptions to it, and the difference between the legal right to free expression, and the moral question of what one should or should not say. Later, we're reading the Republic.

But for now, I'm presenting them some material on obscenity. In addition to being a big fan of obscenity, I've also done a little stuff on the legal and moral issues, in particular about pornography. Although I don't plan to present them any porn, I am going to play them George Carlin's "Dirty Words" routine, and a couple snippets of a Lenny Bruce bit that got him arrested for obscenity.

My take on it is that there's a difference between obscenity and offensive speech, both legally and morally, and it's important to sort out what's what to that extent. Obscenity, we restrict. Offensiveness, we can't. By which I mean, in my view, it's not terribly compelling to claim a right not to be offended, and one key reason it's not compelling is that offense is subjective.

I had the classes read an article by a guy named Robin Barrow on what he calls the duty not to take offense. He attempts (and, my class yesterday and I believe, fails miserably) to distinguish what merely feels offensive to someone in particular from what is quintessentially offensive, and hence morally wrong. His example of such a quintessentially offensive display is, very unhelpfully, public beheading of a non-combatant. His initial example of what merely feels offensive is, also unhelpfully, his calling a colleague a "stupid bitch."

In class, I suggested we could write him a letter. "Dear Professor Asshole," I said we could begin.

Anyway, he does make one provocative point that has made me wonder further. He claims that we have a moral duty not to take offense, which he says is based on the "true moral principles" of freedom and toleration. Taking offense, he says, in the sense of making some formal action, based on a moral judgment in response to what has offended you, is intolerant. (So, as the class saw pretty clearly emerging from the paper, he wasn't wrong to call his colleague a "stupid bitch," or at least, not as wrong as she was for filing a formal complaint about it. Because, see, he apparently has the right to call her a "stupid bitch" and she hasn't the right to take offense at it. Um, yeah. Whatever. This, obviously enough, isn't the part that provoked me to think further.)

For instance, when we take offense in the context of someone joking, we are being humorless and overly "self-regarding." The context is the crucial thing here, and is the reason why nothing someone says can be "quintessentially offensive" in the way he points to. The class came up with a number of examples: "nigga," "faggot," "fat cow," etc.

The fact of the matter is, we get offended, and sometimes we are right to be offended, even if our taking offense is also self-regarding (is it always wrong to be self-regarding? Egyptians in the streets have clearly lost their sense of humor about Hosni Mubarak, but I would not want to say they are wrong to take offense...). It's a question that I come back to every so often about moral judgment: What is the right thing to do in response to what we find to be morally objectionable? If we have the right to make moral judgments of other people, what is the moral thing to do about it?

I think that most of the people I make moral judgments against are people I don't have a lot of respect for in the first place, and so, sorry to say, I don't worry very much about how I treat them, or what I say about them: "That guy is an asshole." "That chick is shit-crazy." "He's a deranged sociopathic monster incapable of seriously holding any belief or telling the truth." Because I'm not too concerned to be good or well-intentioned toward the deranged sociopathic monster, I don't worry about whether I'm doing something morally right or wrong when I treat him contemptuously or disdainfully.

In my cooler moments, I admit to myself that this is probably wrong of me. I should be better than that, I guess. But suppose that he really is a deranged sociopathic monster (and oh, he is!). Does my moral judgment against his behavior lead to any appropriate response?

And here, I mean something beyond protecting myself or others against him, I mean something directly responding to his morally condemnable behavior, something that is corresponding or seeks some kind of moral equilibrium. Kant, for instance, seems to believe that certain violations of the moral law can be met with reciprocal responses: hence, capital punishment for murder.

In the case in question, I try to let everyone I care about know what he's up to. Is that enough? Is that even a moral way for me to behave?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

analytically adrift

This will likely be my second and last post on Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's recently heralded critique of higher education in the US, Academically Adrift. I've about had it.

Psychologists used to employ the term idée fixe to name a certain mania for constantly repeating or returning to the same word or concept, regardless of its relevance to the situation. It's a kind of mental illness, a psychopathy, if you will, that people like Freud would have ascribed to childhood psychosexual traumas.

So much the worse for Arum and Roksa, who monomaniacally return to the same themes throughout this badly-argued book. Through the first 60 pages or so, I had thought that I was seeing just another politically-motivated screed against the academic establishment, or tenured faculty, or both, buoyed by cherry-picked empirical evidence. Would that it were so, at least for their sake. Instead, what I'm finding are lengthy red herring tangents of absolutely no probative value, subjected to analysis and critical reasoning that, ironically enough, would earn you a very poor grade in my critical reasoning class.

One example, of many, lest I be considered cruel: After dismissing the value of student-faculty contact outside of classrooms as having limited academic value, they spend several pages documenting that of the 9% of sophomore students in their sample who never talked with a faculty member outside of class, there were great over-representations of certain under-advantaged socioeconomic and cultural groups. Their conclusion: those students (9%) are losing out.

Okay, okay, one more. (I insist this is for demonstrative purposes only.) After beating to freaking death the evidence that many students, especially in non-selective institutions like community colleges, don't write a 20-page paper or read 40+ pages per week in any class as freshmen, they conclude, without a shred of argumentative support, that therefore these students lose out on development of critical reasoning skills. I don't mean to claim that reading and writing are irrelevant to developing those skills, but they haven't shown why 20 pages or 40 pages are relevant measures, at all. Not. One. Whit. Of. Argument.

Lauren's take: these are two people who were forced to write 20-page papers as freshmen, and are pissed off that they were, while their own kids now out-argue them, despite going to a mere CSU for a year.

That's nice to think, but I've read ahead to the exciting conclusion, where they say what their "mandate" for reform includes (and with that, I won't even bother), and repeat, for the bajillionth time in the book, the initial claim that they promise they will justify and never do: that There Is Something Rotten In The State Of Academia, and they know this because so few students report having been required to write a 20-page paper or read 40+ pages per week in a freshman college class.

It's a classic case. I'm thinking lack of breastfeeding, aren't you?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

iphone, apple, evil, etc.

I'm getting flak for buying an iPhone. Some of it is because it's an Apple product, and Apple is considered a purveyor of evil in some circles - of which more anon. Some of it is because the two networks you can use with iPhone are both supporters of neo-conservative political groups. AT&T infamously gives money to the Tea Party, for instance. The rest of it is just because of the in-crowd, poseur, pod-people kind of behavior ascribed to Apple users, especially iPhone users.

As for money going to the Tea Party, from a progressive standpoint, the power of the Tea Party among the GOP isn't entirely bad news, if you think about it. If Michele Bachmann runs for President in 2012, it's going to be very obvious to many more people just how insane she and her political ideas are.

The reason I went for the Apple smart phone is because I'm an Apple user and wanted the greatest possible integration of the various gizmos in my life. There is also a particular kind of user experience that Apple products provide, that I'm comfortable with and used to.

Here's the thing: the iPhone is what we got instead of flying jet cars. Of the futurist notions of technological changes in how we travel, communicate, and so on, the one that's actually come true is right there in that little bitty shiny black device.

And Apple is, indeed, evil. They have a market strategy that can only be the result of dealing with Satan. Their target is, approximately, me. Yesterday I was on customer support several times, trying to work out an upgrade to Leopard for my old iBook G4. Every time I was on hold, I mean every time, the music was exactly pitched to flatter how hip I still manage to be, despite being of a certain age when hips become more a concern than hipness.

The machines are cool. The store is cool. They go out of their damned way, with regard to every aspect of everything they do, to make it just that bit more cool: layout of the sales floor, down to the spacing of the units apart from each other, how staff approach you, that whole Genius Bar silliness. It's strangely exhausting. (We went through a phenomenological and ideological analysis of the store Friday night and unpacked this whole shebang, but I neglected to take notes. Maybe I'll recap it some time.)

So, yep, evil.

Friday, February 04, 2011

academically adrift

I've begun this widely-discussed book which claims that colleges don't educate and college students don't learn. I'm deeply suspicious.

For instance, the second chapter begins by noting that in the last 30 years or so, access to higher education has been extended (the data they cite include the number of people with plans to attend college). They turn to discussion of data about high school students' efforts, aspirations, and their understanding of the link between their future career plans (if any) and their educational needs for reaching them. They say that almost half of high school students believe that they can reach their life goals even if they don't put a lot of effort into high school, and that many incoming college students are not planning for their lives.

It is this unique point in time - when access to college is widespread, concerns about inadequate academic preparation are prevalent, and drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent - that serves as the historic context for our observations of the lives of students as they unfold at twenty-four four-year institutions. (p. 34)

First, anecdotally, I would have told anyone who asked me, at age 17, that I didn't make much effort at all in high school, and that even less was required of me. I also had no life plans, let alone college plans. I didn't plan to go to college at all, and only ended up starting that fall at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte because my dad brought home an application one June day and told me I was going to fill it out and go to college.

I don't think being "adrift" in that way is necessarily a bad thing. Most of my friends in college spent some time adrift - changing majors, changing career goals, taking classes that ended up not being related to either, etc. From a certain perspective on the purpose and value of higher education - one I would think is far more narrowly and crudely utilitarian than my own - I suppose that might support the view that such people and experiences are not fulfilling the purpose of education. Among the purposes I believe drifting does serve are exploration, self-reflection, and the critical capacity to distinguish between different visions of self and future. (I anticipate, based on the first chapter, that the authors will, instead, connect such drifting to a "collegiate culture" of partying and recreation.)

Secondly, what they've demonstrated is not that anyone is and remains adrift "through college," only that they begin without certainty of what they plan to do.

That kind of slipperiness between premises and conclusion is found throughout the first chapter as well. It's crafted very carefully to make the slippage difficult to see and to work out through logical analysis.

But, as someone told me, the main problem is that everyone's talking about it but no one's read it. (I disagree slightly. Every article I've read about the book cites two factual assertions, from pages 4 and 18, so I conclude that the media heads writing about it have read those two pages, at least.)