The title of Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd (1960) has taken on a life of its own -- mimicked or alluded to so often (e.g., Growing Up Amish, Growing Up Digital, and Growing Up Dead) that it seems familiar to people who not only haven't read the book, but have no idea there ever was one by that name. As for the subtitle, "Problems of Youth in Organized Society," it named one of the decisive questions of the decade that followed. One of the people interviewed in Jonathan Lee’s "Paul Goodman Changed My Life" -- a documentary released by Zeitgeist Films and screening around the country over the next couple of months -- recalls that for many years it was the one book found in every dormitory. Another says that you couldn't pick up a major magazine without finding Goodman mentioned, or as author of an article.
Within the limits of exaggeration-for-effect, that is actually a fair way to indicate how of a public presence the author had during the Kennedy administration, and he remained in great demand as a speaker, especially on campuses, for some while after that.
Goodman's political stance was unusual -- “anarcho-pacifist communitarianism” about covers it -- and certainly kept him on the sidelines during the 1950s. But his approach to social criticism was only occasionally that of declamatory denunciation. His approach, much of the time, was to make helpful suggestions toward the public good, in a spirit of responsible citizenship. Imagine the benefits of banning cars from Manhattan, for example, or ending the arms race immediately. Of course, trying to do most of the things he proposed would involve radical change, but so what? A famous piece of graffiti from the 1960s said "Be reasonable, demand the impossible." That might as well have been his slogan.
Goodman was anything but a one-book author, and social commentary was by no means his primary concern. The huge audiences he drew after Growing Up Absurd became a bestseller meant that publishers could not wait to re-issue his earlier work -- his novels and poetry, his University of Chicago dissertation on neo-Aristotelian literary criticism, his volume of psychoanalytic reflections on Kafka, you name it.
Ditto for anything new he wrote. Between 1960 and his death in 1972, he published three or four books a year. He was easily one of the best-known and most-read figures in the country, and "Paul Goodman Changed My Life" is an excellent tribute to his memory and reminder of his influence. It should go a long way toward generating more interest in him than has been evident over the last two or three decades -- when nobody, nobody at all, has been reading him.
An exaggeration for effect, of course. I've been reading him for most of that time, for one. Presumably a few other people have, as well. But still, close enough. Considering the scale of public response to Goodman’s work in final years of his life, the eclipse has been astonishing and all but total. The output of scholarly and critical literature on him has been thin in quantity -- and, for the most part, quality. The most important exception is Here Now Next: Paul Goodman and the Origins of Gestalt Therapy by Taylor Stoehr, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, who is Goodman's literary executor. It was published by Jossey-Bass in 1994, and is more far-ranging than the title may suggest. Before fame overtook him, Goodman was involved in a number of academic, psychoanalytic, artistic, and political circles, and Stoehr's monograph is the only attempt, so far, to chart some of his webs of influence and affiliation, at least to my knowledge.
And here is where Jonathan Lee’s documentary gives hope. It does an excellent job of evoking Goodman’s peripatetic and ramshackle career -- the stints teaching at Chicago and Black Mountain College, the years as a lay psychotherapist, the role he played with the off-Broadway Living Theater group, both as playwright and house philosopher. The composer Ned Rorem recounts setting his friend’s poems to music. We get a glimpse of how contemporary students respond to one of Goodman’s essays in a class taught the by adjunct English instructor Zeke Finkelstein at the City College of New York. And, best of all, there are numerous clips of Goodman being interviewed or speaking.
While not charismatic, exactly, he is certainly fearless, an admirable quality in an intellectual and particularly valuable for its scarcity. The interview on William F. Buckley's show "Firing Line" in 1966 is a case in point. The documentary begins with Buckley introducing his guest as “a pacifist, a bisexualist, a poverty cultist, an anarchist, and a few other distracting things.” Before responding to Buckley’s first question, Goodman objects to how he has been described. “I’m not a poverty cultist," he says. "I do think it's a sign of a good society that it is possible to live in decent poverty, especially if you so choose, that is, if you have more important things to do than to make money.” (He goes on to correct Buckley for misusing the word “axiomatic,” as the host concedes.) But what Goodman doesn’t respond to at all -- noticeably enough -- is the reference to his sexuality. He was candid about it to the point of losing at least a couple of teaching positions. It also got him beaten up.
Goodman could be prickly, egocentric, and not shy about communicating the assumption that he was a genius. Plus he made passes at everybody. He must have been difficult company at times. Some of this comes through in the documentary, and it serves as needed balance to any hagiographic impulse. On the other hand, there was never a valid criticism of Goodman that he hadn't made about himself in a poem or essay somewhere.
The film ends with a suggestion that Goodman's influence and example might revive. Fair enough: some of his work has been reprinted of late, and The Paul Goodman Reader, edited by Stoehr and published by PM Press, is a representative sampling of his work in several fields and genres.
But the possibility of a revival does not explain why his influence and example waned in the first place. During an e-mail discussion with Lee, I asked him why he thought Goodman's star had faded. One thing the director stressed is that Goodman “wasn't a specialist,and therefore did not become a star in any specific academic discipline. His brother Percival told me that if he had written only in one discipline, he would have become famous as an author in that discipline, say psychology, for example, and there would have been an academic constituency to carry him forward.”
At the same time Goodman’s work “is more intellectual, more rationalist, than say a Jack Kerouac, whose [On the Road] is in print. Paul Goodman challenges the reader to think, to act, and reading him is not a dumbed-down experience. I think that we've been continuing a dumbing-down of our public life -- certainly what's available and popular in the mainstream media -- and Goodman is too smart to satisfy the demand for easy, non-challenging material.”
Valid points, as far as they go, though they don’t exhaust the question. Not all of the failings are on the side of the public. The range of subjects in Goodman’s work is great, but so is the range of quality. You have to read a great deal of his work to see how parts of it hold together. He seems to have cobbled together a kind of intellectual framework from elements of Aristotle, Kant, Freud, Dewey, and Kropotkin -- an interesting list, but a slightly odd one. And Susan Sontag’s description of Goodman’s prose is exactly right: “What he wrote was a nervy mixture of syntactical stiffness and verbal felicity; he was capable of writing sentences of a wonderful purity of style and vivacity of language, and also capable of writing so sloppily and clumsily that one imagined he must be doing it on purpose.” (Then again, only a mediocrity is always at his best.)
But there is a passage from the introduction to his book Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (Random House, 1962) in which Goodman explains himself as clearly anyone could want, and with a kind of eloquence.
“As my books and essays have appeared," Goodman wrote, "I have been been severely criticized as an ignorant man who spreads himself thin on a wide variety of subjects, on sociology and psychology, urbanism and technology, education, literature, esthetics, and ethics. It is true that I don't know much, but it is false that I write about many subjects. I have only one, the human beings I know in their man-made scene. I do not observe that people are in fact subdivided in ways to be conveniently treated by the ‘wide variety’ of separate disciplines. If you talk separately about their group behavior or their individual behavior, their environment or their characters, their practicality or their sensibility, you lose what you are talking about. We are often forced, for analytic purposes, to study a problem under various departments — since everybody can't discuss everything at once, but woe if one then plans for people in these various departments! One will never create a community, and will destroy such community as exists.... I make the choice of what used to be called a Man of Letters, one who relies on the peculiar activity of authorship -- a blending of memory, observation, criticism, reasoning, imagination, and reconstruction -- in order to treat the objects in the world concretely and centrally.”
There are worse models of intellectual activity than this, and Jonathan Lee has done a useful thing by reminding us what it looked like in person.
Scott McLemee is an essayist and critic and the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed.
A good colleague of mine here at school shared with me a report titled "College of 2020: Students," which describes the future of university life. One of the initial claims in its executive summary — a common argument turning up these days in similar report -- struck me as fascinating:
The traditional model of college is changing, as demonstrated by the proliferation of colleges (particularly for-profit institutions), hybrid class schedules with night and weekend meetings, and, most significantly, online learning. The idyll of four years away from home — spent living and learning and growing into adulthood — will continue to wane. It will still have a place in higher education, but it will be a smaller piece of the overall picture.
I love claims about the future — I am still waiting on that rocket-powered backpack I was promised in 1962. Still, I find most talk about outsourcing learning and extracting profits from the education of our citizens highly troublesome. When the social good is turned into consumable goods, democracy is in trouble.
Still, because I am a faculty member and department head, it makes sense for me to keep an eye on developments inside higher ed, including the flailing attempts to technologize teaching and learning. I know a bit about keeping up with the iJoneses. I use an iPad to grade student papers, I illustrate concepts I teach on a Wacom tablet, I teach in "smart classrooms," and I can SurveyMonkey a rubric with the best of them.
But what troubles me about the whole-hog exodus to online learning is the failure to account for what most traditional undergraduates really want out of college, and that is getting out of the house and away from the folks. I would venture to guess that it's the No. 1 reason students go to college. Not to get a good job or a good education or even to find themselves. But to get up, up, and away. To escape. To join another team. Graduate to new logo wear.
I like that. I think that's just fine. Students discover soon enough where they are and where they need to head. It takes time, and it can be expensive. But that's what many academic futurists and state bureaucrats forget. Students go to college without a clear idea about what college is or what they are going to do there. Using the most recent coin of the realm — the discourse of assessment, college is formative, not summative. That's why persistence rates are so low. That's why so many students change majors. It's the messy necessity.
Still, if the higher ed wizards really believe their crystal balls, then a new kind of university campus is going to have to appear out of the fog. And here’s what I see. Let’s call it the Faculty-Free University.
Let's locate it in the mountains near good skiing, rock-climbing, fishing, hunting, rafting, good trails for hiking and biking and running and hang-gliding. Let there be comfortable dorms and coffee shops and lots of WiFi. Let there be expert IT support with 24/7 chat. Cubicles with academic advisers in headsets. Virtual and f2f intramural sports. Sports bars and restaurants and clubs and good parking and Zipcars and triathlons and film festivals and yoga classes and pizza delivery and the best damn college football stadium and coaching staff and team in the country. And financial aid out the wazoo.
But no faculty or departments or department heads or deans or provosts or vice-provosts. No offices. No secretaries. No classrooms or lecture halls or laboratories or studios. No paper. No printers. No library. No books. No paperclips. No copy machines. No faculty senate. No shared governance. No healthcare. No retirement contributions. No tenure. No promotion. No faculty appreciation dinner. No fuss.
Just students and the latest in instructional technology and lots and lots of learning on the fly or in bed or in the subscription cloud. E-mailing and tweeting and apping all the way to graduation.
Or not. Come and go as you please. Whatever. We’ll talk more after you finish texting.
As you know, the movement is already afoot. The future of Faculty-Free University is growing up all around us. It may be the only growth industry left. Why not break ground today? Jobs is jobs, right?
And green. It has to be green.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and head of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Angelo State University, where he teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. He blogs at www.theillustratedprofessor.com and draws at www.cartoonranch.com. He is also the author of Handmade Thinking: A Picture Book on Reading and Drawing.
Recently, a fellow junior faculty member informed me that she had been asked by a senior colleague not to teach a class that she had signed up to teach a year prior, and which she had been busy developing for the previous several months. Her course drew on media from multiple disciplines in a rarely studied world area. Because she taught in a relatively obscure area, my friend hoped to attract students by reaching out to different disciplines. She only realized that she had overstepped her turf when a senior colleague in one of the disciplines her courses included requested that she not teach the course.
The reason? "You will steal our students," the senior faculty member warned his junior colleague. "We have to be considerate of each other during these times of budget crises and higher enrollment expectations," he added. Simmering inside, but maintaining a polite exterior, my untenured friend agreed to cancel her course so as not to "steal students" from her senior colleague's department.
This anecdote illustrates one effect of high enrollment expectations in public universities across the country: fomenting hostility and resentment across departments. Rather than strategizing across departments to increase enrollments or to channel them in new directions, faculty members threatened with inadequate numbers are commonly expected to take matters into their own hands and to resort to whatever means necessary to find — and keep — students.
Deemed accountable for the number of students in their classrooms and left without administrative means of adjusting this number through course requirements, professors turn against each other, against their departments, and, ultimately, against their mission of teaching, if not quite how to live, then how to think about living, the examined life. Recently at the State University of New York at Albany, low enrollments were cited as the rationale for the destruction of programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater. When it was alleged that faculty were unable to sell their product, no attention was paid to the administrative factors preventing faculty from selling their product. The cancellation of these programs at SUNY Albany prompted literary critic and public commentator Stanley Fish to proclaim in The New York Times that the crisis in the humanities had officially arrived.
Viewed superficially, the focus on high enrollments that increasingly dominates public — and not only public — institutions of higher education makes good financial sense. The more students, the more tuition dollars flow into the system. The more tuition dollars flow into the system, the more flexibility universities have to expand programs and make new hires. Everyone benefits, it would seem. But viewed from a longer-term perspective, making high enrollments the dominant measure of faculty success without attending to the impact of course distribution requirements on enrollments leads to disaster, financially as well as in other ways.
Prioritizing enrollments ignores the root of the problem, and turns students into consumers of a product they by definition do not fully understand (if students knew all they needed to know, they would have no reason to be at a university). Colleges used to see it as their mission to teach students how to determine what was important in life: to give them not just knowledge, but the critical thinking skills that enable distinctions between the important and the insignificant. This mission necessitated high requirements for the attainment of undergraduate degrees. It also ensured high enrollments in courses that today are viewed by many institutions as expendable. (As in Texas, where half of the physics programs in the state are in danger of being eliminated on grounds of low enrollments.)
At many institutions, rigorous core curriculums used to function, and in some cases still do, as mechanisms to guard against the erosion of humanistic knowledge in liberal arts educations. Here as elsewhere, high enrollments are essential to economic stability, and they should be facilitated by reflexive course distribution requirements. Both Columbia University and the University of Chicago require students to take a series of humanities courses that bridge literature, philosophy, and political thought. When I taught one of these courses as a Columbia graduate student, many entering freshman reported that they chose to attend Columbia on the basis of its core curriculum. Far from scaring student away, Columbia’s strong core insured high student enrollments.
While some faculty members at Columbia and Chicago complain about the contractual requirements that all permanent faculty teach in their university’s core, this expectation promotes an equal distribution of labor among the faculty and effectively addresses the low enrollment problems that appear endemic to the liberal arts. Additionally, it ensures the economic viability of all the humanities departments that have a place in the university’s core. For students who wish to learn about the civilizations and literatures of the past, there needs to be a structure in place not only to encourage such learning, but to make it mandatory for a degree. In the absence of such requirements, a university is little more than a vocational school. More effectively than team sports or fraternities and sororities, core curriculums create a community among students, who all read and discuss the same texts in their freshman and sophomore years.
In short, enrollments are not facts of nature, or even transparent barometers for undergraduate enthusiasm for or indifference to certain subjects. They are the direct consequence of undergraduate degree and major requirements, of policies that are eminently changeable and should be subject to constant debate and revision. The power to determine who signs up for which courses should not be vested exclusively in the hands of students, who after all are attending colleges and universities in search of intellectual guidance. Neither departments nor faculty should be faulted for attracting students unless the degree requirements that make certain courses more popular, because more necessary for graduating than others, are not similarly placed under critical scrutiny.
The erosion of core curriculums, particularly at public universities, needs to be considered in connection with the increasing importance of high enrollments. Stories abound of courses being canceled in recent years because too few students signed up, and, even worse, of faculty being denied their contractually guaranteed sabbaticals, or being rejected for promotion from associate to full professor, on the basis of their low enrollments. Universities cannot survive without students, so the stress on enrollments, as far as it goes, makes sense. What does not make sense is isolating discussions of student enrollments from the intimately related questions of degree requirements and core curriculums.
Enrollment-based promotional decisions are being made at research universities that had previously never resorted to such algorithms for measuring the worthiness of disciplines, departments, or individual faculty. When faculty are held exclusively responsible for the empty seats in their classrooms, administrators abdicate their own responsibility to ensure that courses necessary for living the examined life and for furthering the boundaries of human knowledge are valued, or at least supported financially, by the student body. Students cannot be expected to know what kinds of classes they most need before they have even signed up for them. Degree requirements and robust core curriculums are needed to guide students in the right directions.
If the new stress on high enrollments in public education is to be made consistent with the value of liberal arts education, the task of increasing enrollments should be a collaborative effort between administrators and faculty. This job of finding students should not be outsourced to professors exclusively. When the burden of ensuring high enrollments is shouldered onto the faculty, teachers become at once the producers and sellers of knowledge. In worst-case scenarios, faculty are left without administrative support, forced to teach only those courses that sell, and denied access to the administrative means of making their courses count towards degree requirements.
There is nothing new in the logical need to ensure high enrollments in every course. What is new is the disappearance of an administrative support system for keeping enrollments high through rigorous humanities distribution requirements and core curriculums. If students were required to take courses in literature, premodern history, and non-European civilizations, in cultures and world regions they might otherwise not be able to locate on a map, faculty’s mandate to maintain high enrollments would be fully compatible with their even more important task of teaching the examined life.
A revival of the core across American public universities — perhaps with each university working in collaboration with its peers to streamline a humanities-based core — would effectively address the enrollment problem that is frequently at present currently outsourced to faculty and thus left entirely to students’ discretion, even as teachers are deprived of the ability to actively intervene into the system, and to ensure through course requirements that the humanities flourish at higher institutions of education of the future.
The need to restructure core curricula is not limited to public universities. Both public and private universities continue to overwhelmingly privilege European intellectual and literary traditions in their core, with Homer and Ovid, Augustine and Benjamin Franklin, topping the required reading lists, and, even more troublingly, deemed to constitute a single homogeneous and foundational canon of "Western" civilization. Such homogeneity neglects the fact that Homer’s geographical provenance was Asia Minor and Augustine was born in Africa. Columbia’s Global Core requirement that requires students to take two classes engaging with the “variety of civilizations and the diversity of traditions that, along with the West, have formed the world and continue to interact in it today” is a step in the right direction. But, when compared to Columbia’s more rigorous requirements for courses in European traditions, the imbalance between the administrative support for undergraduate study of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East on the one hand and American and European civilization on the other is still starkly apparent.
This imbalance between the support for European legacies and for global knowledge means that it would be retrograde to argue for a return to an age when students were required to study Greek and Latin in order to receive their degrees, and when these were the only classical languages they were able to study or which would help them in their paths towards graduation. The change that is needed is two-pronged, with the first prong reaching into our diverse pasts and the second reaching into our global futures.
This may means adopting a flexible core, along the lines of what Dan Edelstein has described at Stanford University. We have much to learn from an age when university requirements guaranteed that humanities courses would be valued, and where student choice alone did not determine what faculty were allowed or encouraged to teach. But we need to transform the obsolete curriculums made normative by prestigious and non-prestigious universities alike, which propagated Euro-American exceptionalism while doing little to instill in students an awareness of the world’s diversity or to infect them with enthusiasm for the relevance of the humanisms of all cultures to their responsibilities as citizens of the world.
A core curriculum that is accountable to the world, and not just to American or European civilization, that reaches out to students while requiring them to answer to the highest intellectual standards, is both feasible and necessary at any public or private institution. The needful changes will take courage and imagination to implement, but they could not be timelier. A revised core is also the best solution, intellectually and economically, to the fear of numbers that has come to dominate higher education, and that has made it all the more likely that students will walk away from the podiums where they receive their diplomas never having internalized the Socratic maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living. In the absence of such changes, one fears that faculty who have lost their ability to communicate the intrinsic value of the pursuit of knowledge to their students will also lose the ability to communicate this maxim to themselves.