Submitted by Jon Wiener on October 19, 2012 - 3:00am
Gore Vidal, who died in July, was one of our greatest novelists and essayists – and yet he never went to college. In a 2007 interview I asked him why not.
"I graduated from [Phillips] Exeter,” he explained, “and I was aimed at going to Harvard. Instead I enlisted in [the Navy] in 1943. When I got out, in '46, I thought, 'I’ve spent all my life in institutions that I loathe, including my service in the [Navy] of the United States.' I thought, 'Shall I go for another four years?'
"My first book was already being published" — it was the novel Williwaw, and it got good reviews. "I said ‘I'm going to be told how to write by somebody at Harvard.’ I said, 'This is too great a risk.' "
The audience of 2,000 at a book festival at the University of California at Los Angeles laughed and applauded.
"But I did go there to lecture," he added. "This was about '47 or '48. There was a big audience, and many of them were my classmates from Exeter, who were overage juniors and seniors in what looked to be their mid-forties. I came out cheerily, as is my wont, and I've never felt such hatred radiating. They’d all predicted my total failure, because I was not to go to Harvard and meet a publisher or an agent -- which is, I think, why they went."
But what about getting a college education? "I graduated from Exeter, and you really don’t need any more education after that," he replied, "unless you’re going to be a brain surgeon. I had read Plato and I had read Milton. I had read Shakespeare. I had had fair American history. And a lot of Latin. That’s all you need."
At another book event, this one on the University of Southern California campus, he arrived wearing a Harvard athletic letter jacket. He opened the event by explaining "I didn’t go to Harvard, but I have gone on, as you can see, to be a professor of Harvard. I was in a terrible movie in which I played a Harvard professor.”
The "terrible movie" was the 1994 film "With Honors." In it, a student finishing his senior thesis — Brendan Fraser -- finds it being held hostage by a homeless man — Joe Pesci — who ends up teaching him "a thing or two about real life." Vidal played the student’s faculty adviser, a conservative professor of government.
Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from?"
Vidal as the professor: "At Harvard we don't end our sentences with prepositions."
Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from, asshole?"
The New York Times reviewer Caryn James called it "a half-baked movie" with a plot that "shouts cliché." However, James, added, "Gore Vidal is absolutely on target as Monty's priggish mentor.”
Two years earlier Vidal had gone to Harvard to give the prestigious Massey Lectures, for which he wrote a memoir about his early love of film. Vidal later recalled that, "When I gave the Massey Lectures at Harvard, I had mostly graduate students in the audience, Very bright. A great many Chinese from mainland China, who know a great bit more about American civilization than the locals know. So it was quite a treat talking to them.
"But I noticed something interesting whenever I took on a class at Harvard, undergraduate, postgraduate, whatever: no one ever mentioned a book, or a poem, or anything to do with literature.
"I finally broke the ice with my Chinese friends. I said, 'Has anybody here seen 'The Doors?’ " (The Oliver Stone film starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.)
"Well the whole room fell apart. Everybody had seen 'The Doors.' I got away with an hour without having to do anything while they told me about 'The Doors.' "
If the student audience wasn’t engaged with the lectures, the critics loved the book of the lectures, which Harvard University Press published in 2004. The Atlantic called it "witty and sweepingly disrespectful." Michael Kammen, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described it as "vibrant" and compared it to Eudora Welty’s "wonderful" memoir One Writer’s Beginnings. And in the daily New York Times, reviewer Herbert Mitgang called the book "a small gem."
"On almost every page there is an observation worth admiring," he wrote, "whether it is about Hollywood and television, politics and history, or the paranoia and hypocrisy of the commercialized American dream."
In the 1960s Vidal had donated his papers to the University of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, at a time when he was working primarily in theater, television, and film But in 2002 he transferred those papers and the rest of his archives to Harvard’s Houghton Library. That collection consists of 394 boxes, cartons, and film reels, and includes "drafts of GV's novels, theatrical plays, television scripts, screenplays, essays, poetry, short stories, and speeches," as well as legal records including files on the lawsuits William F. Buckley v. Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal v. Truman Capote.
So although Vidal did not start out at Harvard, his work, and the record of his life, ended up there.
One-third of faculty use some form of social media as part of their teaching, according to a survey to be released today by Pearson and the Babson Survey Research Group. However, they tend not to do so regularly. Even the most popular form of social media for teaching -- blogs and wikis -- were used more than once per month by fewer than 10 percent of professors in the survey.
Video, meanwhile, has become an extremely popular teaching tool. Nearly 90 percent of faculty members in the survey said they use video for teaching. Use of video was fairly consistent across disciplines except for mathematics and computer science, where only 66 percent of professors reported using video to help teach -- an outlier that might come as a surprise to fans of Khan Academy and the major MOOC providers, all of whom rely heavily on video as a medium for teaching math and computer science concepts. Pearson and the Babson Survey Research Group have conducted versions of the survey since 2010.
In the early 1980s, I became friends with a student from the People’s Republic of China who was in the United States to do graduate work in English. He was roughly a decade older than me by the calendar, but a lifetime older in experience. He started school during the Cultural Revolution, when the curriculum had been “Mao in the morning, math in the afternoon.” Possibly it was the other way around, but that was the combination. As an adolescent, he was, like everyone of his generation, “sent down” to the countryside to “learn from the peasantry.” What he mainly learned, it sounded like, was not to idealize the peasants too much. “Some of them were really mean,” he said, without elaborating.
For there was only just so much he was willing to discuss. There was nothing gloomy about him, but he seemed to be making up for lost time. When we met, he was about halfway through reading every word Thoreau had ever put on paper -- an enterprise he pursued with admirable discipline, although (beginning at some point in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) diminishing enthusiasm. One day he seemed very excited by something, and it wasn’t Transcendentalism. He had been reading about some novels that were stirring up discussion back home. One of them was about some chapter in Chinese military history, which the author had narrated with more realism than certain critics thought healthy.
Others were defending the new spirit in the arts -- taking courage, presumably, from a recent official resolution on the country’s history that seemed to justify criticism and re-evaluation. My friend was on their side, as much as anyone could be while toiling in a grad student carrel for 80 hours a week. The sparks flying over theory in our seminar interested me a lot more than they did him. Even so, I knew that the stakes were a lot higher in the debates he was following. Everything about American literary culture was decidedly small beans by comparison.
Last week, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan, a novelist who began publishing in the early 1980s. It’s possible -- if not likely -- that he was one of the authors my friend was so excited by, almost 30 years ago. The early- to mid-1980s are now sometimes called a golden age or renaissance of Chinese literature. Mo Yan and my friend were born within two or three years of each other, at most, and the novelist describes throwing himself into writing fiction with what sounds like the absolute concentration that his peer was bringing to 19th-century American literature.
In China, Mo Yan's publisher has announced plans to bring out his collected works in 16 volumes. We’ll have a seventh volume of his fiction in English when the University of Oklahoma Press brings out his novel Sandalwood Death in January. Mo Yan is the first Chinese citizen to receive the award; the response within China is an understandable mixture of pride and irritation.
An article from the official news agency Xinhua quotes Chinese academics who identify a number of authors who ought to have won it in decades past. They exhibit a healthy disregard for the Swedish Academy as arbiter of an author’s world-class significance. (The Swedish committee’s choices for the literature award have at times been as dubious as its omissions are criminal.) Xinhua cites the argument of Zhang Hongsheng (dean of the literature department of the Communication University of China) that Mo Yan’s blend of “hallucinatory realism with folk tales … is more appealing to the taste of Western readers than the styles adopted by many of his peers.”
That may be, although Mo Yan has also enjoyed another great advantage over his colleagues that we’ll consider shortly. And whatever the reasons for his appeal abroad – beginning with the international acclaim for Red Sorghum (1987), a film based on his early novel of the same title – the award has only enhanced Mo Yan's reputation at home. After the announcement last week, his most recent novel jumped from 560th to 14th place on China’s Amazon site, and his work is selling out in stores there.
The only book by Mo Yan that I’ve read so far is Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of short fiction, while it’s his novels that are supposed to reveal the author in all his epic sweep. Even so, Mo Yan’s stories do corroborate Professor Zhang’s point about the Nobel laureate’s sensibility. While Mo Yan denies being influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the grounds for comparison are obvious. But it is -- to rework one of Deng Xiaoping’s expressions -- “ ’magical realism’ with Chinese characteristics”: the folkloric elements and supernatural events unfold in a landscape marked by real and recognizable political upheavals.
Mo Yan’s vision has a touch of the grotesque. There are vivid sensual descriptions (smells and textures defined so clearly that they seem real from half a globe away) and surreal twists, sometimes involving elements of visceral horror. A character in one story learns that his mother’s cataracts might improve if treated with the extract of an animal’s gall bladder – though he’s also told that one taken from a human body is much more effective, according to tradition. He is able to perform his filial duty thanks to the state execution of enemies of the people. But the result is something from an O. Henry ending.
But foreign influences or resonances only count for so much. Mo Yan’s tale seems to echo the work of Lu Xun -- perhaps the most canonical of 20th-century Chinese writers -- whose story “A Madman’s Diary” has a similar mixture of dark humor and grim irony. Or so it seemed to me, taking what amounted to a shot in the dark, given that my knowledge of modern Chinese literature is mainly limited to Lu Xun’s prose and Mao Zedong’s poetry. That guess seems confirmed by Shelley W. Chan’s A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan (2010), which its publisher, Cambria Press, calls “the most comprehensive exposition of Mo Yan’s fiction in any language.” It is certainly the only book-length study in English, bringing together enough biographical and historical background to anchor its treatment of Mo Yan’s formal experiments and thematic preoccupations.
She notes that Mo Yan has often been called an experimental or avant-garde writer (even a postmodernist: in one novel, a character named “Mo Yan” hears from a half-crazy Ph.D. candidate in liquor studies who seeks help in publishing his short stories about certain horrific matters) but that he is not usually understood as a satirist. But in keeping with the outlook of satire at its most savage, Mo Yan creates a world in which all the absurd, cruel, or vicious parts of everyday life that we try to downplay are magnified and intensified until they become inescapable.The effect can elicit laughter or disgust, or both. It is a natural means to expressing social criticism, and Mo Yan's use of it calls to mind Jonathan Swift as well as Lu Xun.
Mo Yan combines this satirical outlook with one of “nostalgia for the past,” Chan writes, “complicated by his strong and sometimes scornful criticism of tradition.” Nostalgia is also complicated by the record of carnage left by foreign invasion, civil war, famine, and ideological campaigns. He is left “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present.”
The Nobel laureate must embody everything that worried the conservative Chinese critics whose articles my friend described in the early 1980s. No doubt there are still readers in China who turn away from his work with a sense that it represents the spiritual contamination created by foreign influences. But being “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present” is the default mode for modern consciousness once sufficiently overwhelmed by available information about how things are. If Mo Yan is emerging as a figure in world literature, that may be part of it.
But as mentioned earlier, Mo Yan enjoys one benefit that has certainly helped him find a transational audience: the dedication of Howard Goldblatt, professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame from 2002-211, who has translated a great deal of contemporary Chinese fiction, including a number of Mo Yan’s novels.
A dozen years ago, World Literature Today (an indispensable journal published by the University of Oklahoma Press) published a special issue on Mo Yan that included the transcript of a talk he had given while visiting the United States. “Friends of mine who know both Chinese and English have told me that [Goldblatt’s] translations are on a par with my originals,” he said. “But I prefer to think they've made my novels better.” There may be more to that statement than exaggerated appreciation: an article in Translation Review points out that Goldblatt has, in consultation with the author, sometimes tightened up his novels with judicious editing, which Mo Yan himself has then incorporated into later editions of his work in China. When Goldblatt's translation of Sandalwood Death appears early next year, I hope we can run an interview in this column.
Until then, there is an off-chance that someone out there may know the whereabouts of my friend of three decades back. At last report, he had become deeply involved in support for the student movement in China, which meant that he lost his stipend after the Tiananmen Square massacre while also being unable to return to China. There seems to be no trace of him in the U.S. after 1989. It seems best for me not to give his name, but it would be great to get back in touch. Someone said that he translated "Civil Disobedience," and I'm hoping that's true.
I am a product of my times. Born at the end of the “gee whiz” Eisenhower years; raised in the idealism of the 1960s; lulled into political boredom in the 1980s and disaffected with political conversations ever since. Middle age has allowed me to let politics become the background noise murmuring away on NPR. This ended when I saw how quickly the unemployment numbers issued two weeks ago by the Bureau of Labor Statistics became a political football. We are once again plunged into that world where the apparatus of the federal government that collects and reports data is challenged for political purposes. Wasn’t it just this spring when the American Community Survey was branded as too invasive and threatened with extinction? For some, the current flap over the unemployment rate might be another interesting election story, but for me this is now a deeply emotional issue. For many people, the core of democracy is the freedom to act --- for me, it is the freedom to know.
The federal government of the United States since its inception has been in the business of collecting data. The original purpose of the decennial Census is well-known -- to supply the population counts necessary to ensure political representation is allocated fairly. To me, the marriage of politics to data at the birth of the nation is not a sign that data can be corrupted by political influence but rather that our political forebears understood that the key to good government is information.
The American statistical system, which includes the Bureau of Labor Statistics, grew from these exalted beginnings to be among the most admired in the world. The federal government collects data to inform both policy and science. Knowledge about the government and its citizenry has long been recognized as the key to democracy. The stigmata of tyranny is an unwillingness to collect or share data. The U.S. has surpassed other democracies by declaring data collected by the government to be a free good and by providing open access to microdata (that is de-identified individual records) for almost 50 years. Governments as modern as those of France and Japan have only recently begun to provide minimal access to microdata. The difference between reading aggregate statistics tabulated by the government and having access to the raw data used to create those tabulations is like the difference between looking at a painting of a mountain and actually climbing that mountain. Having your hands in the raw material allows you to discover important and controversial things regardless of your political affiliation.
The scientific, political, and economic engine created by federal data collection is enormous. Others have eloquently recounted the spillover into marketing, store locating, oil and gas exploration, to say nothing of what we have learned about family formation, poverty, residential segregation, income inequality and all the other social issues that dog American society. Conservatives suggest that the free market can generate alternatives to the data collection done by the government. These alternatives are called Google and Facebook.
Data-gathering enterprises such these are on the other end of the continuum from the supposedly invasive partisan data collected by the federal government. Google and Facebook monitor your daily activities and require you to opt out of monitoring, not in. They sell data but do not share. They do not ask if you have a toilet but rather passively track where you bought it, what kind it is, who uses it, and who hates you for having it. Transparent, free, democratic access to data collected under scientific protocols that can be reviewed and replicated using techniques that must pass the rigorous scrutiny of human subjects review is asked to make way for unregulated black box methods to collect data that can only be purchased and only by selected individuals. This feels like a step back from democracy -- not a step forward.
Regardless of your generation or your politics, if you value the right to know as the highest form of liberty, I urge you to go to your closet and find your tie-dyed T-shirt. Tie back your hair, put on your sneakers, and find your bullhorn. While there have always been challenges to federal data collection activities, the threatened loss of the American Community Survey, which in itself replaced the much maligned Census long form, and the unsubstantiated claims of bias in the monthly unemployment numbers suggests that the political heat is once again turned up. The cause of liberty requires knowledge and to generate knowledge we need data. Man the barricades in defense of the American statistical system. And bring data.
Felicia B. LeClere is a principal research scientist in the Public Health Department of NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects. She has 20 years of experience in survey design and practice, with particular interest in data dissemination and the support of scientific research through the development of scientific infrastructure.
Up to half of new graduates, by some estimates, are finding themselves jobless or underemployed. Why? As Andrew Sum, the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University said, "Simply put, we’re failing kids coming out of college." Recent pieces in The Atlantic and The Weekly Standard (claiming that the proponents of the liberal arts have "lost the war" and the liberal arts has been "killed.") and elsewhere place much of the blame on liberal arts programs.
Let it be known, I was a student of the liberal arts (geography, Asian studies) at a liberal arts college (Clark University) and I founded and run a technology company in Silicon Valley. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want our so-called "soft" studies (humanities, social sciences) to show some spine and create a response. The typical defense of the status quo involves spinning the value of a liberal arts education, pitching the curriculum as promoting the ability to problem-solve, learn to learn, and thrive in a knowledge economy. If the curriculum is teaching such skills as adapting to a knowledge economy, why can’t the professors that teach such great skills to thrive in a changing world employ them with some grace and poise? How can the liberal arts, itself, adapt to a changing world?
Simply put, we need to rethink what our students do to demonstrate their understanding. I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching literature and history and economics and psychology – or that students stop majoring in these fields. But we need to ask students to create, to experiment, to be bold and possibly fail with projects and deliverables relevant in today’s world. We’re too limited by Blue Book short essays and term papers -- in which success is easily measured and bell-curved. If we shift the way we ask students to demonstrate their knowledge within liberal arts fields, we can prepare students for employment by advancing the liberal arts.
We can achieve this revitalization by asking students to acquire and demonstrate 21st-century skills as the activities and assessments within the liberal arts curriculum. No longer can we assign formats that are isolated exercises; they need to be projects that communicate with and potentially affect the wider world. While peer-reviewed journal articles and regression analysis may be the way that professors communicate, the rest of the world has updated its formats. Academe, and in particular liberal arts programs, may be on the verge of being left behind.
What skills could we teach and measure in a new liberal arts?
Common ways to communicate now include snappy blog entries, reports, collateral material, diagrams, visualizations, illustrations, and infographics. Even scholarly think tanks that discuss the unemployability of undergraduates, such as the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, publish white papers and reports with distinct efforts in graphic design to be distributed for free on the Internet. The Bain Report that famously said a third of all colleges are in poor financial health was released with an interactive website. The term paper should be a dying artifact, and I’m not sure that it is.
Let’s put it this way: as a businessman I wouldn’t pay anyone for a well-written literature review, but I would pay quite handsomely for a brochure that resonates with the audience I am trying to reach. I’d pay more for someone to code it up into a website. Presentations in the work world now model Steve Jobs’ keynotes and TED talks. The governing book on presentation style, Resonate, is filled with directions on communicating bold ideas with simple story structures. The last presentation I saw by an academic was mind-numbingly complex in research and statistical methods. You know what? Nobody paid attention to the research methods; they wanted to understand the key points they should take away, remember, and discuss with others. They were also confused as to why anyone should care in the first place. People walked away feeling like the academic may be thorough and erudite, but that they forgot to communicate in the process.
Liberal arts programs should start with a course on visual communication, and then develop these skills by requiring they be used and demonstrated across the curriculum. These skills include:
Illustration and animation
Oration, rhetoric and narrative
Sketching and drafting
Numeracy and Data Literacy
There are broad advantages to people who can hold their own with math, and this is no longer just about understanding the basics behind a calculator and being able to do accounting. We need to face facts: we teach mathematics as if we’re preparing bookkeepers for the pre-computer world, analysts for big banks, or math and physics professors. But there’s an explosion of jobs that need advanced numeracy and data literacy, with data storage, management, analysis, and visualization techniques all as fundamental skills.
This isn’t a back-room skill set anymore. The job of "data scientist" is being created everywhere simultaneously. If you think the only careers for mathematics are in finance and academe, you can just read about what Facebook expects people on its research team to know. It’s not just tech, either: The New York Times is increasingly using infographics that connect with readers so much someone made a page devoted to them. There is even a startup called visual.ly that’s entirely devoted to producing infographics at scale. If you’ve met anyone going into policy or business after having "thematic" undergraduate coursework, they’ll likely tell you their job encounters statistics and data in ways that make them wish they’d learned more statistics, spreadsheets, analytical software, and other tools that help generate meaning out of all this data.
The new liberal arts should start with and continually ask students to acquire and practice mathematics as a form of analysis and knowledge creation. The necessary skills include:
Data analysis (statistics) and experimentation
Data storage and management
Applied mathematics and mathematical literacy
Estonia just decided all of their first-graders are going to learn to code, and an article in Venture Beat claims that the country will as a result "win the Great Brain Race." The same article says our education system is described as "running on empty when it comes to tech literacy, leaving too many young adults unprepared to compete in a digitally driven economy." Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Wordpress, openly and repeatedly explains, "scripting is the new literacy." Yet, the degrees awarded in computer science dropped in the last decade, and the recent uptick isn’t happening fast enough.
Alternately, we don’t necessarily need more graduates with arcane knowledge of computer science; we need all graduates to be familiar enough with code to use the computer, the Internet, and mobile devices as tools. Academe and the American public need to quit viewing computer science as a geeky back-room endeavor. It has little to do with science, or even computers. Coding is about manipulating information to create meaning, which is likely how you would define writing. After all, there’s a reason they call it a computer "language." Students should understand how to develop these applications on the Web, on mobile devices, and even native to the operating system.
A Call to Action
If you agree with Brian Mitchell from the Edvance Foundation, that "the value of a liberal arts degree ... must be that it is as vital, dynamic, and complex as the civilization that values it," then one must agree that the liberal arts must ask students to engage in work and produce end products that our newly digitized civilization values. And the liberal arts must be as dynamic and vital as its academic proponents claims it to be. I believe it is.
Many liberal arts colleges require a foreign language – not because they believe their history majors will land jobs in France or Mexico, and not because they are being trained as translators, but because they believe the skills learned in a new
language create global citizens who are open to and comfortable with interacting in a multicultural, multilinqual world. It’s the same with the above skills. They need to be understood not as a way to turn philosophy majors into geeks, but into telling the world that a philosophy major can be open to and comfortable with, daresay even take advantage of and thrive in a technologically changing world.
Students who graduate with a degree in liberal arts should understand the basic canon of our civilization as well as their place in the world, sure, but they also need to understand how to explore and communicate their ideas through visual communication, data manipulation, and even making a website or native mobile app. If they can’t, they’ll just understand the global context of their own unemployment.
Michael Staton is founder and chief evangelist of Inigral, Inc. Follow him on Twitter @mpstaton