‘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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Education, the arts, metaphysics, and robber-barons – inspired by “I’ll Take My Stand”

https://i1.wp.com/solidarityhall.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/takemystand1.jpg?resize=202%2C300Here’s another excerpt from Donald Davidson’s essay, “A Mirror for Artists,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), with my thoughts inspired thereby, following:

“Education can do comparatively little to aid the cause of the arts as long as it must turn out graduates into an industrialized society which demands specialists in vocational, technical, and scientific subjects. The humanities, which could reasonably be expected to foster the arts, have fought a losing battle since the issue between vocational and liberal education was raised in the nineteenth century…’

“The more they indoctrinate the student with their values, the more unhappy they will make him. For he will be spoiled for the industrial tasks [and the same could be said of technology, or the “service economy”] by being rendered inefficient. He will not fit in. The more refined and intelligent he becomes, the more surely he will see in the material world the lack of the image of nobility and beauty that the humanities inculcate in him.”

Maybe this is the true reason that so many colleges and universities seem to be trying to re-envision themselves as glorified vocational schools! The proximate cause may be the (arguably laudable, on the face of it) desire by institutions of higher learning to make themselves more “relevant” and help their students get jobs with their diplomas.

But it may be that the ultimate cause is the desire of the puppeteers that pull the strings in so many aspects of society – the globalist, corporatist plutocrats, the vulture capitalists and profiteers, the robber-barons of the 21st century – to suppress aspirations toward the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in favor of their (un)holy trinity of Production, Consumption, and Profit.

It certainly would suit those whose goal in life is to make money by selling “stuff” (whether goods or services) to promote the creation of a society of mindless drones who are numbed by the technological equivalent of “bread and circuses” into a passive existence where getting said “stuff” and being entertained (mostly electronically, which doesn’t even require a person to leave the house) becomes the goal of an otherwise largely futile and nihilistic existence.

They certainly wouldn’t want people to be seriously wrestling with questions like “what is the Good?” or “how do we reach it?” or “what is the proper end of a human being?” Or struggling with attempting to discern the meaning of Truth, or which volitional (self-willed) acts of a human being are ethically virtuous, and which are ethically vicious. Or even grappling with the characteristics of genuine Beauty, and the relationship between and among Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, the classical Three Transcendentals.

Best not to even admit that there might be such a thing as transcendence. Certainly under no circumstances should they be led down trails which might lead them to the consideration that there may be some sort of actual, objective Divine Reality, outside the constraints of our physical-sensory universe (although in significant ways immanent within it) – and especially not one which is personal, concerned with humanity, and which has both plans for, and expectations of, us humans!

Human beings concerned about such matters would be lousy consumers of “stuff,” since they might begin to suspect that there may after all be higher aspirations which are, in the long run, more important…

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!

West Rise Junior School – Teaching young students resilience, in the out-of-doors

“If kids never step out of their comfort zone, how are they going to learn resilience?”

— Mike Fairclough, Headmaster, West Rise Junior School (Eastbourne, UK)

Not sure if I shared this last year, when it first appeared – if not, I should have! If I did, it’s worth a re-share. As I wrote at the time:

What, you mean there’s a school that’s actually teaching children where real food actually comes from – as opposed to magically appearing, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic, at the supermarket? Good heavens! In fact, the whole program sounds absolutely brilliant.

This amazing state school in the UK teaches children from “a varied demographic” – most of whose families are on various forms of social assistance – how to shoot, hunt, dress and cook the game they take, make bows, build fires, and otherwise function effectively in the outdoors.

The video shows them gutting squirrels, plucking pigeons, splitting wood for the fire with a mallet and fro, and cooking and eating the proceeds.

“The most dangerous thing you can do to a child is to not expose them to an element of risk and danger,” says Mike Fairclough, Headmaster, West Rise Junior School, who adds that “if children are excited about coming to school, if they’re being inspired and enthused by being outside, then that has an impact back in the classroom.”

The school gets the best exam results in the area, and won the 2015 T.E.S. Best School of the Year award, according to the video. “Teaching the children to shoot is controversial,” the video notes. “But the school argues it teaches discipline and responsibility.”

“The cotton-wool culture of Britain has got a little bit out of control,” Fairclough comments, referring to the modern desire on the part of many – schools, parents, media, etc. – to wrap children up and insulate them from many of the realities of life. “It’s only really peoples own sort of limiting beliefs, and a few media myths that people have invested in, which have stopped children from having these sorts of activities.”

Here’s an article with more information (despite the rather absurdly breathless style in which it is written).

Kudos to Mike Fairclough and West Rise Junior! You’re doing it right.

Mike Fairclough, head master of West Rise School, just outside Eastbourne. With some of the school's water buffalo
Mike Fairclough, head master of West Rise School, just outside Eastbourne, with some of the school’s water buffalo. Photo: Christopher Pledger

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!

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?