‘The Great Shame of Our Profession’ | The Chronicle of Higher Education

How the humanities survive on exploitation.

Source: ‘The Great Shame of Our Profession’ – The Chronicle of Higher Education

I am not, generally, a big fan of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I have soured significantly on “the academy” – as it is now constructed and run, not as it once was and has the potential to be again – in recent years and decades. The linked article is a good explication of why. Here is just one brief excerpt:

“The abysmal conditions of adjuncts are not the inevitable byproducts of an economy with limited space for literature. They are intentional. Universities rely upon a revolving door of new Ph.D.s who work temporarily for unsustainable wages before giving up and being replaced by next year’s surplus doctorates. Adjuncts now do most university teaching and grading at a fraction of the price, so that the ladder faculty have the time and resources to write. We take the love that young people have for literature and use it to support the research of a tiny elite.”

As much as I love writing, and as much as I respect those who write well and on worthwhile subjects, when I was dreaming of becoming a professor, I did not want to write, primarily and as a major end of my professorship: I wanted to teach. I wanted to share such knowledge as I had, by God’s grace, managed to acquire with young (mostly) people who were hungry for it, in some cases whether they knew it or not. The old saw, “publish or perish,” stuck in my craw, as I knew that would take time and energy away from actually teaching – actually professing, the theoretical job of a professor (a.k.a. “teacher of the love of wisdom,” philosophiae doctor, the meaning of Ph.D.).

Clearly, the situation has not improved in the decades since the mid-1990s, when I pretty much laid that dream to rest. “Adjuncts now do most university teaching and grading at a fraction of the price, so that the ladder faculty have the time and resources to write.” That pretty much says it all. Don’t get me wrong, I (of all people) am not knocking writing, per se! But when it takes so much time away from actual teaching that the only way to maintain the educational function of an institution of higher learning is to hire underpaid, easily-fired adjuncts to do the “dirty work” of actually teaching – because the “ladder faculty” are so busy writing they don’t have time to actually interact with students – something is badly wrong.

The problem is not limited to higher education, of course; non-profits, and even county- and state-funded agencies, rely on low-paid or non-paid interns, volunteers, or seasonals to do the majority of their work. I have written before of the bitter irony that volunteers are considered to be “worth” $24.14/hour (as of 2016), based on their value to the organization, according to Independent Sector – while those same organizations pay their part-times and seasonals (which describes just about everyone except the director) $9 or $11 an hour. The situation clearly is not much improved if you’ve spent years of your life and many thousands of dollars getting a doctorate. That is appalling.

The writer of this article is a literary critic, but the same is true throughout the humanities. He goes on to add, “This is the great shame of our profession. We tell our students to study literature because it will make them better human beings, that in our classrooms they will learn empathy and wisdom, thoughtfulness and understanding. And yet the institutions supporting literary criticism are callous and morally incoherent.”

That is indeed – or should be – a source of great shame. Surely we can do better. Surely we must!

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History isn’t a ‘useless’ major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of | LA Times

History isn't a 'useless' major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of

Why are college students turning away from studying history as preparation for a future as citizens and workers?

Source: History isn’t a ‘useless’ major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of | LA Times

The humanities strike back!

Of course, the author feels that he has to defend history (and the humanities generally) as being excellent preparation for “real-world” careers such as business and technology – which they are, without question – rather than pointing out, except obliquely, their necessity for constructive thought and good citizenship in the polis, the public square, especially in a representative democratic-republican society which absolutely requires an informed citizenry. Nonetheless, this is an encouraging article.

While currently an almost minuscule proportion of degrees awarded – as this article points out – I am seeing the beginnings of a stir of push-back, as more and more people begin to realize, or promote, the idea that the humanities do, in fact, have value, both in themselves and for the way in which they teach people to think critically and constructively. I will never forget one of my favorite college professors noting that “the most important thing a college education can give you is a good crap detector.” He was and is correct!

With respect to history in particular, however: it does indeed teach critical thinking, and is valuable for that reason; but it also teaches vital content. As the inscription literally graven in stone above the entrance to the National Archives puts it, “What is past, is prologue.” Learning our history provides us with the tools to make sense of the present, and to shape a coherent and constructive course into the future. That we seem all-too-often incapable of doing either is an indictment of our willingness to abandon historical knowledge!

And of course, failure to learn our history cuts us off from our roots. As I have commented previously, a society is very like a great tree, in that if it is separated from its roots, it is far more likely to wither than to blossom and bring forth fruits and new growth. Indeed, one can say that that withering is absolutely inevitable – the question being not “if,” but only how quickly!

There is evidence that the pendulum is beginning to swing back in a more conservative / traditional direction, with respect to socio-political matters. Let us hope and pray that it swings back in the academy, as well.

Medieval Schools – Wrath Of Gnon on Twitter

“Far from what we imagine today, schools were available to many children in medieval England, as long as the family could spare their labour. Apart from monastic schools, there were free standing private grammar schools in many parishes. Here is the medievalist Nicholas Orme…”

“So much for the ‘Dark Ages’… Modern education in England (and indeed the world) has the early medieval schools to thank for almost every aspect of what we today take for granted…”

As an academically-trained, as well as avocational, medievalist (my B.A. is in medieval studies, and my Master of Theological Studies was focused primarily on early and medieval Christianity), “so much for the Dark Ages” is a pretty good condensation of my own conclusions! The “Dark Ages” were not nearly as “dark” as most people think; there was a good deal of scholarship, and quite a lot of creative thought, going on in them, and while some elements of the knowledge of late Hellenistic antiquity were lost to the West until the Renaissance, thanks to both monasteries and cathedral schools, much survived.

What I had not fully realized was the extent to which that knowledge was available outside of the cloister and the University. I should have! I was aware of private tutors, as well as the vast number of “clerks in minor orders” who were not, properly speaking, clergy, but who were the recipients of academic training in the aforementioned monastic and cathedral schools, and later the Universities, and passed that knowledge on – for a fee! – outside the walls.

What I hadn’t realized, but should have, was that then as now, education began young: for how could older youth be beneficiaries of knowledge without the seeds of learning being sown in their younger years? Latin is not learned overnight, nor is philosophy, nor yet the trivium and quadrivium. The existence of parish grammar schools is not something I had thought much about, one way or the other, but it is certainly not surprising.

Most interesting, though. Most interesting indeed!

History isn’t a ‘useless’ major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of.

History isn't a 'useless' major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of

Why are college students turning away from studying history as preparation for a future as citizens and workers?

Source: History isn’t a ‘useless’ major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of | LA Times

Unfortunately, history – and other humanities majors – are not being “sold” to students / prospective students (or anyone else, for that matter) because they do not appear to have an immediate, direct “practical” application. The extreme push to channel everyone into “higher education” – regardless of temperament or aptitude – has exacerbated the problem, while cheapening (as I have discussed many times previously) the value of the degree received.

Unfortunately, I fear we are turning out a passel of graduates who may well be prepared to work in the IT, health-care, or other “STEM” fields, but have little-to-no breadth or depth of knowledge in the areas – history, literature, philosophy – that are necessary to function effectively (learning from history in order to make sense of the present and intelligently plan for the future) in the polis: the public square, as citizens of a functioning representative republic.

Trade schools would be the more appropriate venue for those who want skills alone, but a working republic needs a core of critical thinkers, and persons well-grounded in the wisdom and experience of the past. Instead, we are turning out, as others have commented on many occasions and in many fora, a herd of sheep, easily swayed by demagoguery: whether you consider the demagogue in question to be Trump or (for instance) Hogg is immaterial.

Of course, adding to the problem is the fact that, in the words of one commentator, “the history curriculum at most schools [teaches] indoctrination instead of critical thinking.” I was fortunate to have received my undergraduate training at a time when, despite inroads from the late ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, the humanities were still being taught with a strong sense of passing on worthwhile traditions (and, yes, cautionary lessons) and teaching critical thinking.

That is less true, now… to put it mildly!

Largest Christian university opens ‘sophisticated’ gun range for students | Fox News

The Liberty University shooting team holds their first competition vs. James Madison University on at the new Liberty Mountain Gun Club on February 3, 2018.

Liberty University does it right: “As schools nationwide debate on how to keep firearms away from their campus, Liberty University opened a multimillion-dollar gun range Monday for student activities and hosting competitions.”

Source: Largest Christian university opens ‘sophisticated’ gun range for students | Fox News

As I have commented elsewhere, the best way to deal with gun violence is precisely to train citizens, from childhood and youth on up, in the safe, legal, and responsible handling of firearms. It might be worth considering the wisdom of the Scriptures, here:

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

The passage – found in Proverbs 22:6 (KJV) – is referring specifically to religious and moral training, of course, but it applies quite well in this case (particularly since decisions on how and when to use firearms are, in fact, moral decisions).

The lure of the forbidden, combined with the very negative and irresponsible examples of firearms use portrayed in the media (including movies and video games), makes it all the more important to provide youth and young adults with appropriate training and role models to counter the pernicious influences of a culture which has, in may respects, lost its way.

[It’s a bit of an aside to this, but I do find it interesting that many if not most of the celebrities – actors and musicians – who are most vociferous in their opposition to firearms would probably be indignant or worse at the idea that we should tone down those elements of, say, rap “music,” video games, or movies that glamorize the amoral or immoral portrayal of firearms violence by “heroes” and anti-heroes.]

Liberty U. is certainly going about this in a big way:

“The lower part of the 600-acre, state-of-the-art gun range has rifle, pistol, and three-gun ranges in a valley located on the other side of Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre, a year-round ski and snowboard slope, and at the top has shotgun venues, which include skeet, trap and sporting clay facilities…

“Liberty is now the only campus with a venue fit for all Olympic shooting sports and it hopes to be one of the most luxurious facilities in the world once the project is fully completed.”

Brad Butler, planning coordinator for the University, quotes current university president Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his father, founder Jerry Falwell, Sr., as considering it axiomatic that “if it’s Christian, it ought to be better.” In this, I am reminded of my mother’s saying that we should strive to “put our best foot forward” in all that we do.

So kudos to Liberty Christian University for its stance, and its accomplishment with this! They’re doing it right.

Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today – with musings on the implications for our culture and its future

Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today

“I recently dug up a 1908 curriculum manual in the Minnesota Historical Society archives. It provided instructions on everything from teacher deportment to recommended literature lists for various grades…”

Source: Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today | Intellectual Takeout

Writer and educator Annie Holmquist compares 7th & 8th grade readings lists for 1908 Minnesota with one from 2016. What she found may not surprise many readers of this blog, but it may sadden us: the idea that the curriculum has been “dumbed down” over the last century appears to be all too true.

Noting the disparity in age of the literary works on the 1908 list compared to the 2016 one, she points out,

“Older is not necessarily better, but the books on the first list suggest that schools of the past were more likely to give their students time-tested, classic literature, rather than books whose popularity may happen to be a passing fad…

[Nota Bene: C.S. Lewis had some good things to say on the subject of reading old books.]

She then goes on to add,

“A second striking difference between the two book lists are the themes they explore. The first is full of historical references and settings which stretch from ancient Greece (Tanglewood Tales) to the Middle Ages (Harold, Last of the Saxon Kings) to the founding of America (Courtship of Miles Standish). Through highly recognized authors such as Longfellow, Stevenson, Kipling, and Dickens, these titles introduce children to a vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built.”

I would like to highlight her statement, quoted above, that the books on the 1908 reading list “introduce children to a vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built,” because that is a big piece of what we have lost over the last hundred years, in my opinion.

Education nowadays seems to have as one of its core values the elevation of the wonders of multiculturalism… and a subsequent, and consequent, devaluation of “the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built.” Is it any wonder that our children are graduating from grade school, and later college or university, with little knowledge and less appreciation for America, and Western civilization?

And it it any wonder that the foundations, left thus untended, or even undermined, are becoming more than a little shaky?

Moving along: to be honest, she is a bit too generous in many aspects of her assessment of the contemporary list for my tastes. But you can read that on your own, and make your own judgements. However she is square on the money, I think, when she writes,

Unless we give our students challenging material to dissect, process, and study, how can we expect them to break out of the current poor proficiency ratings and advance beyond a basic reading level?

Quick answer: we can’t.

Or as they say in computer lingo, “garbage in, garbage out.” That is not to say that everything our children are being taught today, literature-wise or otherwise, is garbage. But the percentage of low-quality selections is too high. As in so many other areas of life, the concern is more for making sure that students are exposed to works that are contemporary and multicultural, rather than time-tested and substantive.

Anyone who is paying attention cannot help but notice an overall decrease in literacy and erudition over the past century. But what really brought it home to me was the opportunity I had, some years ago now, to pore over a stack (actually a shelf) of old yearbooks at my alma mater, the former Western Maryland College (now “McDaniel College”), that went back at least to 1912, that I recall.

Some years were missing, and I didn’t have time to skim through them all, but the decline (dare I say, degeneration?) was clear to see – and particularly in the years following World War Two. The early ones were indeed erudite! And that at a level one would never even think to expect of a yearbook, nowadays. Articulate, polished, witty, and replete with plays on words and classical references, they were an embodiment of what college education used to stand for, back in the days of its glory.

There hadn’t been too much slippage by my mother’s time there (she graduated in 1949), but they still weren’t quite up to the standard set by those earlier volumes. By the time of my brother’s college years (he graduated in 1975) the rot was well on – the references weren’t to classical heroes and classical philosophy, but to football, beer, and girls.

And by my time – I entered in 1983, left in 1985, and returned to finish up from 1989-91 – it was about what you’d expect: the “Animal House” approach to the college experience (with a side of incipient political correctness, even at the beginning, and especially during my second tour there). I don’t know what they’d be like now, and I’d almost prefer not to imagine…

But of course, college doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The seeds are sown at home, naturally, but the sprouts are tended and watered (or not) in grade school. If the early school curriculum is dumbed down, it’s no wonder that colleges and universities must spend so much time remediating that lack, to even get students up to where they can function at the “college level” – and why so many seem to have given up on academics and what used to be called “higher education,” being content to function as glorified (and expensive) trade schools.

It’s really quite sad, and one of the many factors (whether symptom or cause being one of those chicken-and-egg questions that may not be wholly answerable) in our overall cultural and societal decline. If there are two institutions which have done the most to preserve, foster, and transmit Western culture and civilization over the last millennium, they are the Church and the University. If both are failing, as it appears they are – whither the West?

Students learn more effectively from print textbooks than screens, study says | Business Insider

Books and Tablet

Our work has revealed a significant discrepancy. Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.

Source: Students learn more effectively from print textbooks than screens, study says – Business Insider

“Teachers, parents and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded in kind. We’ve seen more investment in classroom technologies, with students now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks…

“Given this trend, teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.

“As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.”

This doesn’t surprise me a bit. There is something… superficial, for lack of a better term… about pixels on a screen compared to printed words on a page. They don’t stick in the mind – never mind sink down into the heart and soul – the way actual, physical, tangible books do.

And I had to chuckle at the comment that, “it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.” Ya think? Given a choice, most school-age kids – and even many adults – would prefer ice cream or candy over solid, nourishing foods, but if health and well-being is the goal, that preference is a poor predictor. Our preferences, as humans, are not always to our own benefit, in a whole range of scenarios!

That said, the person who shifts over from a steady diet of soda-pop, fast food, and sweets to a steady diet of nutritionally beneficial foods generally will eventually come to prefer the latter, even wondering how on earth they could have ever stood to eat and drink the junk they’d eventually given up. And a person who shifts from a relationship pattern of one-night stands and superficial hook-ups to the love and commitment of a steady relationships is usually glad they did.

I suspect a shift from screens back to books, as a general rule, might have a similar effect. This is not to say the shift should be 100%! Even the most nutritionally-aware eater enjoys an occasional sundae, or slice of birthday cake. And screens aren’t likely to go away, in our larger society, short of a major X-class solar flare zapping our technology back to the 19th century, and students need to know how to use them.

Besides, as this article points out,

“One of the most consistent findings from our research is that, for some tasks, medium doesn’t seem to matter. If all students are being asked to do is to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there’s no benefit in selecting one medium over another.”

However, “when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print.” This is a distinction which should be kept in mind, in my opinion, both in school and in life! I have noticed the phenomenon myself, in my own reading, although I had not attempted to articulate it prior to reading this: I read faster on-screen, but engage the text – and the ideas behind it – better when I’m reading from a physical print medium.

And generally feel better and more satisfied after having completed the reading task, as well, which ties into another of the study’s conclusions:

“There may be economic and environmental reasons to go paperless. But there’s clearly something important that would be lost with print’s demise. In our academic lives, we have books and articles that we regularly return to. The dog-eared pages of these treasured readings contain lines of text etched with questions or reflections. It’s difficult to imagine a similar level of engagement with a digital text.”

There are both tangible and intangible benefits to directly, physically engaging with specific, individual books: their look, both the design of the book itself and the wear-and-tear it has received over the months, years, or decades; their heft, in which even the difference between a mass-market paperback, a trade paperback, or a hardback book can be significant, not only in weight but in the feeling of permanence and solidity it engenders; and even the scent: for many of us, the smell of old books is a part of their appeal, reminding us that they have been around, cherished and re-read, for in some cases a very long time. Conversely, the smell of a new book can be exciting in a different way, carrying with it the sense of beginning an adventure. Many of these benefits are substantially reduced, or lost entirely, if our reading is mostly or entirely on electronic screens.

You will have noticed that I’ve several times alluded to the permanence / impermanence issue. Pixels on a screen are fundamentally transient, impermanent. They can be changed or deleted, either individually or en masse; they can be rendered inaccessible for a myriad of reasons ranging from running out of battery, to not having the right operating system (Kindle vs Nook vs ….?), to forgetting your password, and the list could go on.

Yes, physical, printed books can have issues, too. They are vulnerable to fire (though that is rarely an issue) and water (I suppose you could drop yours in the toilet, or the lake, and you wouldn’t want to read it in the rain – but the same could likely be said of your tablet); you could forget it, or lose it… but again, the same applies to your e-reading device. There are simply not so many things that can go wrong with a physical book, as with an e-reader.

There is another concern, too: it is way too easy to get rid of electronic “books.” We humans have evolved, over the centuries, a protective attitude toward physical books, and an aversion to damaging, destroying, or discarding them. Many or most of us would prefer to give old books we don’t need anymore away, or take them to the library for a sale, or donate them, than simply throw them out. And the idea of burning books, or even banning them, carries connotations of police-state totalitarianism.

But what if those books can simply be deleted, or their text changed – quietly, unobtrusively, unnoticed – with a few strokes of a keyboard? What then for the preservation of ideas, the evolution of human thought? At this point, the practical considerations, and even the educational ones, shade over into philosophical and moral concerns. I am not sure anyone has sufficiently addressed these implications of the digitization of our written media.

Of course, the argument so often raised in favour of digital media is that you can carry a hundred (electronic) books in an e-reader the size of a paperback. A veritable library in your pocket, purse, backpack, or messenger bag! And that is an undeniable advantage – at certain times, and for certain reasons. Travel, for instance… if you’re sure you’ll have regular access to an electrical outlet, for charging. If not, you may be better off with one or a few well-chosen actual books.

Otherwise, it is at least arguable whether high capacity is a “feature,” or a “bug”! Distraction, and/or merely superficial attention, is one of the major issues with reading on-screen as opposed to in actual, physical, print media. Carrying a whole library with you in a single, compact device sounds great on the surface, but it may well serve to increase the tendency to engage the text(s) only superficially – and if, as many e-readers do, you have the ability to also go online, there is another two-edged sword.

It’s great to be able to easily look up obscure references or background information for a passage you’re reading. But it also increases the temptation to “just check my email (or Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever) while I’m online,” and before you know it, you’re down the rabbit-hole. As one comment I like (albeit in a rueful sort of way) puts it, “With the internet, we have immediate, 24-7 access to the wisdom of the ages. But most of us use it looking at pictures of cats.” Distraction is a thing.

This has gotten a bit far afield from the specific issue of using screens for reading in an educational context. But it is worth raising the question of whether encouraging students to use screens – whether computers, laptops, tablets, smart-phones, e-readers, etc. – as their primary information source is really serving them all that well, with respect to either their current educational task, or their future.

Like a lot of other forms of technology, screens are useful, but not entirely benign. They are, as the old saying goes, “useful servants, but bad masters.” The problem is that so many of us are allowing them to dictate our lives, rather than the other way ’round. Gotta check my email. Gotta check my Facebook. Gotta check my Instagram. Gotta check my messages. Gotta check, gotta check, gotta check… and respond, of course. And then look up something else. Scan articles. Scan blog-posts. And on an e-reader, scan books… or the electronic facsimiles thereof.

Now, I am aware of the slight irony of composing this objection to excessive use of online devices, online! If my goal was to bash technology entirely, I should be writing it on parchment, with a quill pen… or pressing it into damp clay with a wooden stylus. But I am not. As I said above: “useful servant, bad master.”

I am writing this online because I can reach far more people this way than by mailing it out in letters to people I think might be interested – and even if I were going to print it out and distribute it that way, I’d still type it on the computer, because I can type much faster than I can print or write longhand. Taking advantage of certain aspects of technology for its benefits does not, or should not, immunize us from also considering its problematic elements.

Nor am I limiting myself to electronic media. Before I started this essay, I was re-reading – for the nth time – J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (specifically, the second volume, “The Two Towers”)… using an actual, physical book. Earlier still, I did an online broadcast of Morning Prayer – again, because I can reach more people that way – but using a decades-old copy of The Book of Common Prayer 1928, and reading a meditation from another book originally written in 1858 (the edition that I have was printed in 1890).

It’s one thing to use a variety of appropriate technologies, depending on your needs and intentions. It’s another thing to become so fixated or dependent on a particular one – particularly one with the limitations of electronic screens, as described above – that you don’t end up using anything else. As the authors of the linked essay put it,

“we realize that the march toward online reading will continue unabated. And we don’t want to downplay the many conveniences of online texts, which include breadth and speed of access. Rather, our goal is simply to remind today’s digital natives – and those who shape their educational experiences – that there are significant costs and consequences to discounting the printed word’s value for learning and academic development.”

Indeed.