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.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, like many other colleges, sponsors a "Summer Reading Program" for incoming students. Participating students all read the same book and, in the days before classes begin, meet with faculty members to discuss it in small seminars. Each year the university asks for recommendations, and each year I’ve suggested a book. Actually, I’ve suggested the same book every year: Tolstoy’s late novella, Hadji Murat. Four years on, the choice looks ludicrous, but the first year I suggested it some combination of arrogance and naïveté convinced me it would be picked. The book was supposed to be "intellectually stimulating," "enjoyable," capable of provoking "interesting discussion," and "appropriate for the level of incoming students," and to "address a theme applicable to the students themselves." In my submission proposal, I don't think I even made a case for the first four. Intellectually stimulating? It's by Tolstoy. Enjoyable? Capable of provoking interesting discussion? No problems there. Appropriate to the level of incoming students? I took this as code for "not too long," and, in my experience, Hadji Murat is about the briskest hundred-or-so pages I've ever read.
But what about the last criterion – "a theme applicable to the students themselves"? That, too, was easily met. Hadji Murat is, after all, about a morally-suspect empire’s attempt to suppress a guerrilla campaign waged by besieged Muslim Chechens. This alignment of forces was eerily contemporary. It was especially so in 2007-8, a year the fathers and mothers of some students might have spent waging a counterinsurgency campaign against a Muslim enemy in a land not so distant from the Caucuses – Iraq. And if not their parents then perhaps their high-school peers, particularly in a state with a rich military tradition like North Carolina. Hadji Murat is about dying for and against empire. That seemed "applicable" to the students themselves, who could participate in a summer-year reading program because someone else was waging a counterinsurgency campaign on their behalf.
But I still had an ace in the hole. I had heard enough complaining from colleagues about how poorly students fared with fiction, and I had witnessed quite a lot of it myself. I figured that the selection committee must have experienced much the same, and would fall over itself to find a novel that fit the bill. Here was a chance to teach fresh, unformed minds about fiction’s difficult riches. I honestly thought the book was a lock.
It wasn’t picked. The winner that year was Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, by Kenji Yoshino. I was disappointed – not because my selection lost (I’m not that competitive), but because this just didn’t seem like a very good choice. The selection committee wrote that "Kenji Yoshino’s book forces readers to confront important issues relating to what we mean by equality and social justice, important themes indeed during a time when many mistakenly believe we live in the 'post-civil rights era.' It is both rigorously put and beautifully rendered. This book offers an excellent introduction to what rigorous critical inquiry is like at the university level. And the central topics treated – identity and self-expression – are central to most 18- and 19-year-olds."
I am sure that this is all true, but I couldn’t help feeling that the students had been done a disservice by asking them to read a work of nonfiction. Nonfiction was what they would be reading for the next four years and, though the students needed to learn about "rigorous critical inquiry" at the university level, all indications were that they needed far more to learn about the rigorous critical inquiry of fiction. Yoshino’s argument, I have no doubt, was subtle. But protecting civil rights is not an argument many students would find either surprising or objectionable. So for all the rhetoric about "confronting important issues," I wonder if a book like this doesn’t confront them in too cozy a manner. I cannot say for sure. But should it really be the first book an undergraduate meets? Just look at the description above, which notes that its central topics are "identity" and "self-expression." The selection committee was right – those are central to most 18-year-olds. So why give them exactly what they already know, in exactly the nonfictional form with which they are most familiar?
That question has nothing to do with Yoshino’s politics, about which I know nothing for certain, though I suspect they’re vaguely liberal. And this is where last year’s report from the National Association of Scholars, which also took issue with summer-reading programs, misses the mark. The report concluded, disapprovingly, that the "preponderance of reading assignments promotes liberal social causes and liberal sensibilities." Only 3 books of the 180 surveyed promoted a "conservative sensibility" and none promoted "conservative political causes." There is something methodologically dodgy about this sort of accounting, and I actually suspect the balance is much more equitable than this lets on. But it only occludes a more serious issue. The NAS’s challenge could be met, I take it, by substituting a conservative defense of civil rights (or limited government or what have you). But why would this be any better, since students would still be denied the intellectual and affective exercise that comes with clambering around the rock terrain of dense, difficult, and distant fiction? The NAS has no interest, so far as I can tell, in fiction as such. (Or just not a very good eye for fiction – it described The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a "not very challenging text," which makes me wish that the NAS reread Huck Finn next summer.)
Enough colleges and universities now run a first-year reading program that Princeton University Press has a section of its catalog specifically dedicated to books that fit the bill. I probably should have looked at it before suggesting Hadji Murat. Had I done so, I would have known it never stood a chance.
Here are four representative selections:
Diane Coyle’s The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters; George Akerlof and Robert Schiller’s Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism; Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates; Joel Waldfogel’s Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents; Lawrence Weinstein and John Adam’s Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin..
Also included are books on the Tea Party, UFOs, and an edited volume of Lincoln’s writings on race and slavery. There is not a single novel. One novelist, Amos Oz, is represented, but instead of a novel, the catalog suggests his essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, How to Cure a Fanatic.
The books form a distinct but difficult to define family. Begin with the titles. Many of them have that format that publishers are keen on nowadays – a made-up word (Scroogenomics Superfreakonomics, Guesstimation) or a pun (Souled Out, Cop in the Hood), followed by a colon and, depending on the title, something appropriately sober or comically gee-whiz. More importantly, they are almost all nonfiction, are mostly concerned with contemporary American political and economic life, and, suitably compressed, would not be out of place on the opinion pages of the Sunday New YorkTimes. Most earned warm reviews, and their authors are responsible for some wonderful writing (and some Nobel Prizes). But there remains something distastefully topical about them all: the Tea Party, piracy, the religious right, how soulful economists really are. (For all the NAS’s griping about the absence of "conservative" titles, it might take some comfort in the fact that the "market" is warmly represented). And, again, not a single work of fiction on the list. Princeton is not primarily a publisher of fictional titles, but, in its extensive back catalog, could it not find one bit of fiction worth suggesting?
I do not know how many universities have turned to this list to stock their first-year reading programs. But a quick search shows what universities have turned to this past year: Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change; William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope; Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man; Steven Levitt and Stephen Deubner’s Superfreakonomics; Reichen Lemkuhl’s, Here’s What We’ll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out, and the U.S. Air Force; and Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel To Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America. This reads like a somewhat-less distinguished version of the Princeton list. Again, topicality is the order of the day – climate change, alternative energy, economics-as-the-solution-to-everything. Close behind are stories of identity and self-expression, topics so dear to 18-year-olds.
All of which is difficult to say without seeming to cast aspersions on the quality of these books. That could not be further from my mind. I haven’t read most of them (though my own garden-variety left-wing blog reading makes me think I’ve got the gist of just about every one). I’m sure some are excellent.
But do incoming students really need to be told that the world is facing a climatic Armageddon? Probably not. Do they need to be told that economics is the master discipline, ready to solve the world’s problems? Probably not. Do they need to be told that it is difficult to be gay and that gay rights should be protected? Again, probably not. Of course some students need to hear all of this – the last especially – and I hope that they leave college less bigoted and more humane than they arrived.
But I hope more ardently that they don’t leave thinking that these topics are at the center of a collegiate education. A collegiate education can, of course, be taken-up with thoughts of the timely – climate-change, the Tea Party, financial markets, and piracy. But there would be something defective about that, precisely because it ignores the way an education must be about the disinterested pursuit of the permanently untimely. And that is what these books, and these first-year reading programs, miss so egregiously. College becomes a kind of intensified continuation of blog- or opinion-page reading. Worse, it becomes training for a life in thrall to the market. (A point forcefully made by Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. It is a cruel irony that her book is also included in Princeton’s first-year catalog.) How else to understand the preponderance of glowing titles about economics? The idea that something utterly, irremediably foreign ought to confront the students seems nowhere in sight. That is part of the reason why I suggested Hadji Murat, and part of the reason, I think, that students have such a difficulty with imaginative literature. They simply do not confront much that they have not already encountered.
I didn’t sign up to lead a seminar on Yoshino’s book. My participation in the university’s first-year reading program was limited to my hopeless suggestion of Hadji Murat, my version of a write-in vote for Nader. And I had informally vowed not to participate until the committee selected a novel. I had given up on Hadji Murat. (Maybe it will be selected to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Sunni Awakening). But then, this year, the committee selected Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. It, like Yoshino’s book, violates the strictures that had kept me from participating: nonfiction, topical, and, suitably compressed, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the Atlantic. But I happened to be college friends with Safran Foer, and the bonds of friendship were sufficiently strong that I got my copy of the book, and signed up to lead a seminar.
In the course of reading Eating Animals I reflected upon my earlier reluctance to participate in the program. And I began to doubt that it was as well-grounded as I thought. I am a vegetarian, and I find Safran Foer’s book – despite his disavowals – a resoundingly clear case against eating meat. And I was secretly quite thrilled that a few thousand students had been invited by the university to read this book – secretly thrilled, that is, that few thousand students would be confronted with a powerful case for stopping the slaughter of billions of animals. “Would it have been better if they were reading Hadji Murat?,” I asked myself. I wasn’t so sure. And, during the positively gut-wrenching pages of Safran Foer’s book, pages filled with unspeakable acts of cruelty, I was absolutely certain that I couldn’t care less if no one ever read Hadji Murat again. Twenty vegetarians – or, really, five – were better than two converts to Tolstoy. If I wanted to stop the slaughter of animals for food – a slaughter that Safran Foer shows is more gruesome than I ever imagined – what could be better?
And I thought differently about all those other books I castigated for their overly parochial concerns – with climate change, the Tea Party, civil rights, or gay identity. As strongly as I felt about the slaughter of animals, weren’t these books nominated, and selected, because their supporters believed just as fervently in their causes? I’m certain they were. I was able to see, in a way I had not before, that these books were selected because someone thought the threats to our civil rights, to the environment, or from Tea Party were as urgent as I found the threat to animal life. My own parochialism had been shown up, and suitably shamed. I was sorry for my arrogance and ignorance.
As it happens, Eating Animals seems not to have made much of an impact on the students. None of the 20 who came to the seminar became a vegetarian. The best I got were vague professions about more ethical eating. "I’ll only eat free-range," said one student. "I’m only eating chicken from now on," said another. These sound like good outcomes, consistent with the aims of a program designed to get students to "think more deeply" about the topic at hand. But they are incoherent things to say after reading Safran Foer’s book, which memorably demolishes the meaningless moniker "free range." And if there were one animal you would not want to eat after reading the book, it is the chicken. That chicken’s miserably short life was spent in a warehouse with thousands of equally miserable, equally doomed birds. It moved only a few feet in the entirety of its unnatural life, and then only to escape the aggression of its crazed neighbors. Its last moments were spent in a slaughterhouse, caked in defecation and dirt, where its neck was severed by a machine of truly medieval cruelty. How had they missed those pages?
I've spent the last few weeks trying to understand why so many students got the book so wrong. There were all sorts of good reasons. Maybe they read it in the beginning of the summer and had forgotten the details. Or maybe they just didn’t read it. Either of which would have been understandable and, for first-year students who spent the summer on the beach, forgivable. But with one or two exceptions, all professed to have read the book. They just had no idea what Safran Foer had written.
And so the more I thought about the conversation the more difficult it became to resist the conclusion that students simply aren’t very good readers. This is not news. Becoming a good reader, after all, is one of the things that happens in college, not before it. But until this seminar, I had assumed that their difficulties were limited to fiction. I assumed that they all knew how to follow the argument of a piece of nonfiction, especially one as linear as Safran Foer’s. There are some subtle arguments in the book, but the overriding claim simply cannot be missed. And miss it is just what these students had done.
I was disappointed that no one had become a vegetarian – just as, I suppose, the recommenders of Yoshiro’s book would have been disappointed had someone left the discussion convinced that our civil rights were safe. But I was more disappointed for the students, that they were so inexperienced in the ways of reading that they were lost even in a book like this. I tried to see their inexperience as a reason for excitement. Just think, I tried to tell myself, how much room they have to grow as reader. But I didn’t really believe this. Sure, they would become marginally better readers. But the kind of reader I wanted them to become – the kind of reader I myself want to be – is the kind of reader one becomes only after years of reading fiction.
Others have made the case for fiction more persuasively than I ever could. And if these first-year reading programs contained a smattering of fiction and nonfiction, there wouldn’t be much reason to gripe. Fiction some years, nonfiction others is a good enough outcome. But the paucity of fiction in these programs is stunning. My university has chosen fiction once (Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake) in 12 years, a ratio that seems fairly typical of colleges nationwide. (It also bravely selected Approaching the Quran in 2003. Though obviously not a work of fiction in the sense I have in mind, it poses interpretive challenges not unlike the best imaginative literature). I was heartened to see Knopf issue its own catalog of first-year titles. Although it mostly resembles Princeton’s in its emphasis on economics and gee-whiz science, it includes nearly 20 novels, some of them, like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, supremely beautiful and difficult. Sadly, I couldn’t find a college that chose it.
Tolstoy makes a brief appearance in Safran Foer’s book, which has a laugh at the Russian’s fatuous suggestion that the end of slaughterhouses would mean the end of war. This just goes to show that reading fiction doesn’t inoculate you against bad ideas. It doesn’t make you a more moral person either, many "save-the-humanities" cases notwithstanding. But reading fiction makes you a better reader. Somehow, administrators of these programs seem to have lost sight of that. And so the next time some college thinks about selecting Safran Foer, I’d ask them to think about the famous Russian vegetarian instead. I’ll be sorry to take away the sales from my friend, and sorry that his book won’t be read. But I’m sorrier to see his book read poorly, and, as the author of some wonderfully imaginative fiction himself, perhaps he won’t mind losing to Tolstoy.
Brendan Boyle teaches in the classics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.