Giving college credit for a massive open online course will devalue degrees, but the moment I write that, a voice in my mind asks, "Why do you believe that?"
Although I don’t think colleges and universities should equate MOOCs with other courses, I’m no Luddite. I’m happy to see digital humanities breathe life into literary studies, and at one point I took an online class to prepare to teach in that format. Since then I’ve taught several courses entirely online, but the results discouraged me: Committed students did well, but the rest did poorly or vanished.
Although some students have problems in my face-to-face classes, I’m able to intervene and provide help earlier in that format, so far fewer disappear. Currently I use digital resources to enhance the classes I teach, but I have no desire to run a course entirely online again. Therefore I assume that instructors who favor MOOCs have taught online classes with quality equal to or better than their face-to-face classes.
My skepticism about MOOCs also comes from the size of the face-to-face classes I’ve taken and taught. I earned my undergraduate degree at St. John’s University, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and I teach English at a similar institution, Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Almost all my experience comes from classes with 25 or fewer students, but perhaps I would champion MOOCs if I had had educational triumphs while taking and teaching face-to-face courses with hundreds enrolled.
Some MOOCs feature lectures by professors at Ivy League and other top research universities. The assumption that the most-esteemed researchers give the best lectures certainly makes great advertising, but the quality standard that I set for undergrad education comes from an Intro to Philosophy class taught by Professor Robert Joyce at St. John’s, who is now retired. Rather than lecture on the great speculations of the ages, Professor Joyce wanted his students to experience philosophy. To accomplish this, he plunged us into the Socratic Method. He might begin a session by asking "What do you think of capital punishment?"
I would say, "I’m against it. Taking another person’s life is wrong."
Professor Joyce would reply, "Why do you believe that?"
I would say, "I don’t know. It just is."
Professor Joyce would ask, "What if a criminal kills a relative of yours? Doesn’t justice require that murderer to die?"
“No. An eye for an eye isn’t always right.”
Professor Joyce would persist. “Why do you believe that?”
“I don’t know.”
These exercises made me realize that I couldn’t defend easily what I accepted as self-evident truths. Could students in a MOOC have a comparable experience? I have a hard time imagining it, but perhaps my pro-MOOC colleagues have found a digital substitute for Professor Joyce’s one-on-one attention and cheerful intensity as he looked a person in the eye and asked repeatedly, "Why do you believe that?"
In high school I believed multiple-choice tests were great because I could guess which isolated factoids would appear on them. When the first Intro to Philosophy exam loomed on the horizon, however, I thought our in-class exercises unlikely sources for multiple-choice questions. We had read several Socratic dialogues, but would Professor Joyce ask me to match the names of befuddled Athenians with the titles of dialogues? I doubted it.
To prepare for the first test, I organized a study group that spent a couple of hours tossing around speculations about how Professor Joyce thought and what he might ask. I concede that a MOOC could provide an experience similar to my study group, especially if the thousands of enrollees were divided into close-knit groups of a couple hundred.
That first Intro to Philosophy test offered not a single multiple-choice question.
No true/false or matching, either. Instead, it required me to construct a dialogue between myself and Socrates, a dialogue asking him to reconsider a belief about forms or ideas existing in a realm separate from earthly matter. From the study group session I’d developed a Dr. Seuss-like image of pink and blue cotton-candy words such as VIRTUE and TRUTH floating in the air above Socrates and his buddies, but the test required me to argue against that image. I dreamed up something about people constructing ideas by contrasting one experience in life to another. I proposed that alternative, but because the professor admired Socrates, I let the ancient Athenian talk me out of it. That shift in direction might confound a computer program for scanning and grading 100,000 essays, but a human being judged my blue book. Fortunately, my answer connected with Professor Joyce’s idea of an A.
According to Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, first-generation MOOCs often rely on multiple-choice tests, but he thinks second-generation MOOCs will “incorporate many of the best practices of distance learning.” I hope that MOOCs improve, but because of the sheer number of students, I fear that many second-generation MOOCs will follow the easy route mapped by the first generation. I also confess that I create exams entirely of essay questions for my own classes, but I might change if someone shows me how to make multiple-choice tests that lead students to construct knowledge involving multiple abstractions.
Legon and others wrestle with the issue of students getting meaningful guidance from an instructor. I have yet to see a proposed model that handles this issue well, especially given that real classes — not picture-perfect imaginary ones — frequently face unanticipated problems. I recall that Professor Joyce once assigned a book that assumed the reader had a large disposable income and cosmopolitan experiences far removed from my small-town Minnesotan background. These assumptions angered me so much that I threw the book against the wall of my dorm room. In class the next day other students voiced similar frustrations with the reading. Professor Joyce set aside his planned lesson and encouraged us to look beyond the specific details and find worthwhile principles behind the discourse. Because the instructor knew and understood his class, he could change the course to match our needs.
I have a hard time envisioning a MOOC designed for the millions that could respond to the needs of students in a specific class and change direction for a teachable moment. Of course, I also have a hard time imagining the algorithms the National Security Agency uses to locate the terrorist messages among the millions of private communications it spies upon, so perhaps someone has developed equally useful algorithms to identify the students among the MOOC multitudes that need to have a lesson created on the spot.
The most important lesson I learned from Intro to Philosophy surprised me. At lunch one day with friends from my study group, I asserted an opinion about some current issue. As I did so, I involuntarily imagined Professor Joyce asking, "Why do you believe that?" I told my friends and even did an imitation of the man, which got a good laugh. I discovered, however, that the professor’s voice couldn’t be laughed away. In fact, the voice stayed with me throughout my formal education, and to this day, about once a week I imagine my Intro to Philosophy instructor saying, "Why do you believe that?"
I associate the voice in my head so closely with the flesh-and-blood individual that I cannot imagine a MOOC having a similar lifelong effect, but I give the MOOCs a pass on this one because they haven’t been around long enough for anyone to determine their long-term influence. Fortunately, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a MOOC Research Initiative.
MOOCs are becoming acceptable in higher education because people richer and more powerful than I am declare them to be good. I still expect MOOCs to devalue the worth of degrees, but having performed the Socratic self-examination that Professor Joyce taught me, I have a better understanding of why I believe what I do.
Brent Chesley is a professor of English at Aquinas College, in Michigan.
There would be no America if Thomas Jefferson cared more about beans and viticulture than the truth that all men are created equal, if John Adams cared more about the legality of contracts for debt than liberty, if Benjamin Franklin cared more about inventing and marketing new technologies than the pursuit of happiness. America arose on a foundation of ideas, dialogue, values, and aspirations that still stand today at the heart of a strong liberal — and liberating -- education.
America is an idea, not just a land or an institution. America is not based, as many countries are, on territory, language, religious sectarianism, class, ethnic history, tribal dominance, blood, or culture. Our founders read carefully and thought deeply about ideas of freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. And so should all Americans, through studies in the humanities and arts.
Yet many Americans seem not to be thinking at all about the need for dedicated liberal education in order to preserve, protect, and advance America’s courageous experiment. Too many leaders — on all parts of the political spectrum — think technical training and job skills are the way to prosperity and security. They are dismissive of the potential power of engaging diverse ideas and thinking through deep immersion in the arts and humanities. Their theory seems to be that we can be successful in the pursuit of happiness, economic justice, and entrepreneurial prosperity without the necessity of thinking and imagining — that we no longer need to examine ideas and values, but only economic results and graduates' financial "return on investment."
And so we see everywhere the present relentless dismissal and marginalization of the humanities and arts -- fundamental fields of study that, by any thoughtful reckoning, provide indispensable resources for enduring prosperity and strong, democratic republics.
These developments are crippling. As Thomas Jefferson warned, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." He knew — and we need to recognize — that studies in the arts and humanities, across both school and college, help secure the future of freedom by fostering capacities essential to self-governance.
Read The Federalist Papers, and you will understand that politics is the resolution of legitimate conflicting interests, and that the goal of governing is to mitigate the violence of factions formed against the common good and the rights of individuals. Questions about these topics abound in our society (and every society). The leaking of the National Security Agency’s glut of information about Americans invites a deep discussion of liberty and security in a democratic republic that knows itself at risk from enemies. The fevered questions surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin and the prosecution of George Zimmerman take us back to core questions of justice, liberty, and community. Yet when we lack the preparation to talk about serious problems and events as our founders could, the deliberations necessary to self-governance too readily devolve into rants and factions.
A new proposal to further deplete the humanities and arts has arrived with fresh and startling evidence that studies our founders saw as fundamental now are considered expendable. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations recommends that federal funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities be reduced by 49 percent in fiscal year 2014. The committee recommends a comparable slashing for the National Endowment for the Arts. In its report to accompany the budget resolution for fiscal year 2014, the House Committee on the Budget states that federal subsidies for NEH and NEA (and other public programs) "can no longer be justified" because "the activities and content they fund are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens."
This conclusion that the arts and humanities are luxuries for those with disposable income misunderstands fundamentally the life of a democratic republic that derives its strength from ideas and values more powerful than factions based on differences in wealth and class. Democracy requires the muscle of ideas and values that we learn to flex in grappling with core texts in the humanities and arts -- our greatest ally in the pursuit of economic and social justice. A liberal education rich in such studies empowers citizens to lead change and solve problems collaboratively and imaginatively with people whose perspectives, histories, and world views may be very different from their own. Democracy and a creative economy depend on these capabilities and falter when they are lacking.
The contemporary dismissal of the humanities and arts weakens America domestically and also undermines brave people globally seeking to build effective self-governing republics based on the consent of the people. Those serious about these goals understand that the ideas of democracy and liberty are stronger than militaries or disbursals of cash. Free societies will not be achieved by technocratic means without a foundation in ideas and values. The humanities and arts are disciplines "basic to democracy" because, while all learning is important to civic inquiry and vitality, the humanities and arts play a distinctive role in developing knowledge and a temper of mind and heart that are indispensable to a free society.
Through the study of history we come to understand the roots, contexts, and complexities of issues we face as citizens. Studies in our democratic heritage confront us directly with fundamental questions about justice, freedom, obligation, equality, and democracy itself. Through philosophy and religion, we explore questions of meaning and value and come to understand the sources of our own and other peoples’ most profound commitments and concerns. Through literature, we develop empathy, imagination, and insight about the varieties of human experience and about shared hopes and frailties.
The combined study of history, literature, arts, and languages empowers us to engage cultures and communities different from our own, while regional and comparative studies hone the dialogue of democracy and economic opportunity at home and abroad. The study of the creative, visual, and performing arts brings us into direct contact with powerful expressions of the human spirit and develops our capacities for creativity, communication, and self-expression.
Together, the humanities and arts take us beyond the known to the realms of the possible. The night Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus to an angry crowd gathered in Indianapolis. He respected the mostly poor and black Americans who came to hear him with a text and ideas revealing the human condition in ways that the House committee does not understand. Although 200 cities erupted into flames that night, Indianapolis did not. Arts and humanities inspire us to dream of things that never were, and ask: Why not? They cultivate, in sum, the kinds of imagination, creativity and inventiveness that give life and hope to a vigorous, flourishing entrepreneurial economy and a vibrant democracy.
The capacity of all Americans to thrive and succeed should be a national and patriotic priority. Far better to expand all students' engagement with the humanities and arts than to deceive less advantaged students with overwrought and shortsighted promises that narrow vocational training is their best choice in a fast-changing economy and all they really need.
But it is not enough just to ensure equitable access to study the arts and humanities. We also need to think deeply about how students engage these disciplines and especially about pedagogies that will most effectively develop their strengths for economic foresight, political empowerment, and the security of our country.
In recent months, there have been intense media and academic controversies over contested textbooks, both the Texas history text and Howard Zinn’s history of the American people. We believe that these debates help focus the question of whether ANY single text or textbook, whatever its merits, ought to serve as the dominant or exclusive lens through which students explore humanistic questions and topics. For democratic communities, no single story can ever be adequate. Our ability to say "we" legitimately comes only when we explore the many in the one, whether domestically or globally. E pluribus unum.
Students reap the full benefits of study in the arts and humanities only when they move beyond repeating a single voice or limiting their ideas to a single text or textbook. Students gain when they courageously engage with multiple voices and artifacts, classic and contemporary, Western and global. When the humanities and arts are studied in this way — exploring significant questions, both contemporary and enduring, through respectful engagement with differing insights, perspectives, and creative works — they build capacities that enable us to secure and enlarge the future of freedom and increase the wealth of America and the world.
Over several decades, our two organizations have enacted together the value of studying diverse primary texts and contested questions. Every summer, the Wye Seminars, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and by Association of American Colleges and Universities, provide rich opportunities for faculty and other academic leaders to explore fundamental questions about liberty, justice, equity, prosperity, and effective citizenship through a collaborative study of often conflicting texts, classic and contemporary. Both organizations have made this commitment to support faculty and academic leaders’ dialogue about citizens’ responsibilities in the American and global polity because we believe that democracy requires deep, thoughtful, and respectful engagement with legitimate difference. Faculty who have experienced this kind of liberal learning re-enact it with their students, to democracy’s benefit.
Our founders gave us a self-governing republic and challenged us to nurture and sustain it. It will be impossible meet this responsibility if the humanities and arts continue to be marginalized in our society or if these essential forms of learning are taught reductively, through the lens of a single text, a single view, or a single faction. These methods diminish the power of ideas and dialogue.
To abandon this common, foundational wisdom is to weaken America and democratic republics across the globe. Leaders who undervalue ideas, arts, and humanities open the door to plutocrats, despots, factions, violence and chaos — all of the ancient enemies of prosperity, freedom, and democracy.
Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. David Townsend is senior advisor for seminars of the Aspen Institute, and director of Wye Seminars on Citizenship in the American and Global Polity. The views offered in this essay are the authors' own.
For thousands of years, the treatment of illness involved some combination of superstition, trial-and-error, inadvertent torture, and just plain dumb luck. A treatment counted as effective if the patient survived.
Whatever doctors were doing before the middle of the 19th century, it’s hard to consider it medicine – certainly not by the standards of the 150 years or so since the advent of local anesthesia. Physicians have understood the principles of antisepsis for about as long, while aspirin was synthesized only in 1897. We are spoiled. Not for us the clinical technique of Theodoric of York -- the medieval practitioner Steve Martin used to play in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch – whose treatment for every condition included the draining of excess blood.
Comforting one patient’s mother, Theodoric reminds her of how far the healing arts had advanced as of 1303: “Why, just 50 years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft,” he tells her. “But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.”
Insofar as Theodoric and his colleagues brought any book-learning to their practice, it came from the pen of the Greco-Roman philosopher and physician Galen, born circa 130 A.D. in what is now Turkey. Susan P. Mattern, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, does not exaggerate in calling her biography The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press). His posthumous career was, if anything, one of almost regal authority.
An earned authority, just to be clear about it. Galen had an ego the size of the Empire itself. He never tired of pointing out the abject ignorance of other physicians, and was prone to quoting tributes by illustrious people to his own erudition and skill. It is not charming. But Mattern shows Galen to have been tireless as both a practitioner and a scholar -- and his output of treatises, case histories, popular textbooks, and editions of Hippocrates and other medical authors was astounding. “The most modern edition of his corpus runs to 22 volumes, including about 150 titles,” writes Mattern, “and is one-eighth of all the classical Greek literature that survives.”
Tireless in his efforts to accumulate, compare, and synthesize the recorded medical knowledge of previous centuries, Galen also conducted a great deal of anatomical research (including animal vivisection) to test the theories of the day. In his 20s, he did the second-century equivalent of a residency as the physician-on-call to the gladiators of his hometown. A standard treatment for open wounds was to bathe them in hot water, followed by a plaster made of boiled flour, which Galen reports as totally ineffective – crippling, when not lethal. By contrast, he “soaked linen cloths in wine and placed the folds on the wounds,” the biographer says, “covering the cloths in soft sponges which he moistened day and night.” Whether or not the technique saved the lives of all the gladiators in his care during his first year (so Galen claimed) he definitely understood the antiseptic property of alcohol.
Opening a practice in Rome, he distinguished himself in the constant, cutthroat battle of reputation among physicians, both for his skill in diagnosis and treatment and his erudition. He seems to have been acutely sensitive to changes in a patient’s pulse and body temperature. “Long before laboratory testing,” Mattern writes, “he examined urine and feces, sweat, sputum,” and “vomit, pus, and blood for color, texture, viscosity, and sediment.” Galen’s case histories show he “scruitinized his patients’ faces for signs such as change in skin color or the shrunken eyes of wasting or extreme dehydration.” And he knew how to interview patients about their history and symptoms with more finesse than you can expect from one HMO that I could name.
Mattern stresses that Galen was also an exemplary product of Hellenistic culture – urbane, deeply familiar with Greek philosophy and literature as well as the medical authors, and capable of writing in either a matter-of-fact or a high-flown style as the circumstances required.
She notes that we have no evidence that Galen bothered to learn the language of the Empire. He wrote in Greek and did not cite Latin authors, and his reputation took root among the aristocracy, for which familiarity with Greek was the sine qua non of intellectual sophistication. Medical science in particular was a fashionable topic, and a number of Galen’s works were composed as memoranda or instructional guides for the amateurs in his entourage.
The audience for Galen’s work was not limited to the scroll-buying public. He had also learned the arts of oratory and debate practiced by the sophists -- and his encounters with other physicians were brutal rhetorical showdowns, as were his lectures on anatomy, during which slaves held down monkeys and livestock as Galen and his opponents cut them open to demonstrate their points.
Much of it was done in the street. At one point while reading the book, I got an image of the Prince of Medicine crossing paths with the adherent of some medical philosophy he opposed -- the Empiricists, say, or the Dogmatists -- and performing dissection battles while surrounded by their respective crews (students, patients, slaves, aristocratic fanboys, etc.) as well as random passers-by. Like break-dancing, in togas, with gallons and gallons of blood.
It did not hurt Galen’s reputation that he had inherited considerable wealth and could refuse payment for his services. He disdained the very idea of practicing the divine art of Asclepius (the god of medicine who had visited Galen’s father in a dream to provide vocational guidance on the boy’s future) for money. This, too, had its rhetorical side: it meant he could cast aspersions on doctors with more worldly motivations than pursuit of the pure good of healing.
In his writings, Galen expressed reluctance at being summoned by the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to serve as court physician. He accepted, of course (it was an offer he couldn’t refuse) and was also retained by the succeeding emperors. Mattern suggests that there may have been more to his professed misgivings than thinly disguised braggadocio. Whatever the boost in prominence, the position also meant less autonomy.
Self-aggrandizing as Galen’s devotion to medicine may have been at times, the biographer calls him “a surprisingly pious man,” fascinated by the “cumulative and overpowering evidence of an intelligence at work” in the animals he dissected in hopes of understanding the human anatomy. This made him one of the more appealing pagan thinkers for adherents of the three major monotheistic religions, who translated them into Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic. A number of his works have survived only because Islamic scholars translated them, although it’s entirely possible that the original Greek texts may yet resurface. As recently as 2007, Galen’s treatise “On the Avoidance of Pain” – long presumed lost in any language – turned up in a Greek monastery.
His biographer points out how unfortunate it is that Galen never challenged the medical value of bloodletting – a practice that continued for so long that historians have wondered if it perhaps have had therapeutic value in treating something, though it could prove fatal when done with a shaky hand.
“While it is perhaps wrong to blame him for failing to break from a tradition that his followers, including the great physicians of the Islamic Middle East and of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment mostly did not question,” writes Mattern, “one wishes he had turned his scorn on this therapy” instead of on the “three-day fasting cure” promoted by some of his peers. “For while Galen did not invent bloodletting, he had the power to consign it to oblivion.”
Maybe he did change his mind, but history lost the memo?
It’s been a few weeks since "The Heart of the Matter," the congressionally ordered report on the state of the humanities and social sciences, was issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And while there is little to object to in the actual text, which brims with veracities on the importance of education and good citizenship, the smarting hasn’t stopped.
In The New York Times alone, we heard from three pundocratic naysayers. David Brooks, a member of the commission, bemoaned the collective suicide of the humanities professoriate, Verlyn Klinkenborg lamented the decline and fall of the English major, and Stanley Fish excoriated the report itself for its "bland commonplaces" and "recommendations that could bear fruit only in a Utopia" (and as a Miltonist, he knows that’s not the world we live in).
There have been valiant attempts to parry this latest volley of gloom regarding the "crisis of the humanities."
But even if "our classrooms remain packed," that still leaves the population at large. And there, a basic contention remains unanswered: the, by now, self-evident truth that the humanities are a "public relations failure" (Fish ventriloquizing Klinkenborg). Humanists are just no good at explaining why their work matters. No wonder, then, that the public has little use for their efforts.
The marketing problem is such a commonplace in the debate, it goes virtually unremarked these days. But to me, it raises a very basic question: why is it the job of a humanist to be her own advertiser? Other creative types have managers, agents, and publicists for that task, to say nothing of film studios, theaters, galleries, and museums – infrastructures, in other words, that allow them to focus on what they do best.
What would such an institution look like for humanists? As it happens, I help lead one. The Chicago Humanities Festival, which I serve as artistic director, is the largest organization of its kind in the United States. In fact, we were name-checked as such in "The Heart of the Matter," praised for our success in "inviting academics and artists to share their passions and expertise with new audiences."
We’re in our 24th year of doing so. Our annual fall festival features about 100 events, always organized around a theme. Attendance is around 50,000, with hundreds of thousands more consuming our content digitally. Not your average public relations failure, we like to think.
But how do we do it? How do we get thousands of people to come out to hear humanities professors lecture?
It’s really quite simple: we treat our presenters as stars and our events as performances.
It’s probably best to think about this mode of operation in contrast to your typical university programming. Sure, those lectures are free and open to the public. But how would that public even know? Dreary leaflets on campus bulletin boards aren’t likely to draw general audiences. Nor would such crowds feel particularly engaged by often dry and specialized presentations. (I should hasten to add that in my other life as a university professor, I can get quite excited about an earnest announcement circulating on a listserv; but then again, I’m already sold on the product.)
Everything we do at the Chicago Humanities Festival is designed to break those kinds of barriers. We write tantalizing copy for our events, place our ads in all the local media, and hustle for coverage in those same publications.
And we make sure that our featured talent appears in the best light possible. We think about stage sets and backdrops and fuss endlessly with our sound systems. Even more importantly, we spend a huge amount of time thinking about the best way to showcase a speaker. Is the great Harvard historian we invited known to go on and on when lecturing? No problem, we feature him in conversation with that gentle, yet firm journalist who has a deep passion for his subject. Is there worry about the density of a speech on continental philosophy? We coach the presenter in the joys of multi-media.
When it all works out, we get big, expectant audiences who, after basking in the erudition of our speakers (and asking sometimes stunningly insightful questions), can’t wait to come back for more.
This isn’t so different from the way other cultural organizations operate. Let me take an example from the world of opera, another domain whose utility could seem suspect in the glare of neoliberal scrutiny. When soprano Anna Netrebko was scheduled to make her Chicago debut in the 2012-13 season, it brought shivers of anticipation to local opera fanatics. But for a good chunk of Lyric Opera’s patrons, she was just a Russian-sounding name. It was the task of the company to create the appropriate excitement for her bow as Mimì, to say nothing of providing her with all the theatrical props needed for an optimal performance. The result: a sold-out run and something approaching collective hysteria (of the good kind).
Why should it be so different for humanists? Sure, in the academy we recognize folks like Julia Kristeva, Frans de Waal, and Maria Tatar as stars (to mention three of the speakers who will join us for this fall’s festival on Animal: What Makes Us Human). But just like your average opera diva, they need a bit of professional marketing and a decent production to find and captivate their audience. As a performing organization in the humanities, that’s our job. And after 24 years, we know how to do it.
Matti Bunzl is artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois.
If you were a casual reader of American newspapers, you would think that the fate of the humanities was in doubt. Polishing off a 30-year-old critique, most famously offered by Allan Bloom in 1987’s The Closing of the American Mind, an acerbic corps of doubters – David Brooks of The New York Times is in the vanguard -- wonders if scholars of literature have lost their way, substituting politically chosen texts for classics, stripping away the basic function of the humanities, defined gloriously as: to help us make sense of our world. Enrollments are down, they note, which means that students are shifting their efforts into the sciences, or business, or technology. The doubters want us to believe that the wonderful dreamers who once taught at Chicago or Penn or Yale are, sorrowfully, gone.
This skeptical cohort is often partnered with another, angrier, and more politically active group, which questions whether a college degree is even worth the money these days. Hack the degree, they say. Take a MOOC. If you have to go, enroll at Stanford, or choose your major based on your starting salary after graduation. This platoon of nail-biters and shouters asks us – the big "us," that is, our fractious national family – to distrust the words of tenured radicals, to seek an end to administrative bloat, to treat higher education, basically, as a commodity.
As many have noted – Michael Bérubé and Scott Saul foremost among them – this is all generally hogwash. The humanities remain popular with students, and the great bulk of student credit hours in the humanities are still generated by courses that discuss Important Events or Great Books or Big Thinkers. Much of the decline in enrollments can be attributed to long-term trends – for instance, changes in the gender distribution of majors as universities open doors into STEM fields for students, or the rise of new interdisciplines that eat away at our notion of what counts as the core of the humanities. Professors still love their subjects, even if they don’t wear tweed and even if some of them are women or people of color, even if they sometimes look different, dress different, talk with accents, come with different histories, and sometimes even use foreign languages in the classroom. Great lectures are still given, by "star" faculty and wandering adjuncts alike. Students are still inspired, even if they read William Faulkner alongside Toni Morrison.
I’m in lockstep with Bérubé and Saul, but I also think we need to continually reframe this conversation, to focus in on the single greatest threat to higher education: the defunding of public colleges and universities and the consequent overemphasis on revenue through student credit hours. The threat to the humanities – really, to higher education comprehensively – isn’t caused by a loss of passion or direction or focus, as Brooks and his chorus of doubters want us to believe. Or about bloat in the administrative middle.
It comes from the transformation of the day-to-day interactions between students and faculty, a transformation that is ensured by an emphasis on vast classes, big draws, and throngs of students. And that emphasis flows – in a straight and narrow line – directly from the declining state contributions to public universities and, more abstractly, from our recent consensus that profit alone is the surest measure of importance. It is great that Harvard University wants to pour more money into the humanities, but such an investment is meaningless, really, if every place that isn’t Harvard, or Yale, or Princeton has to trim and cut in one corner to build and grow in another (let alone to cover the skyrocketing health care costs of employees).
Who am I to contribute to this conversation? I should not be here today. I should be silent, or muted, or fixed in the background, a security guard or a mechanic or a grocery clerk – noble professions, I know, but not generally featured in conversations like this one. There was nothing inevitable about my present social position. Indeed, if you were a gambler, you’d have wagered against me. I am no David Brooks, you see. But I am just as much a creature of the humanities.
I was a screw-up, a wastrel, washed-out and adrift for a long time. And headed to nowhere-in-particular very slowly. A generally lackluster youth from a small, forgettable town, I was a C- student at the end of high school, trending down and not up. I enrolled -- at my mother’s loving insistence -- at a big public university, signed up to major in political science, and bombed out fast and hard, earning a 0.5 GPA in my first semester.
With my failure thus well proven, I moved out to a trailer park at the dusty, quiet, southern tip of New Jersey’s Long Beach Island, and went to work in a used bookstore. I rode my bicycle, drove an old station wagon, grew my hair long, drank Miller Lite in tall, dark bottles, smoked Camel cigarettes, and genuinely enjoyed my early hermitage.
The institution that saved me from this enthralling vagabondage wasn’t a church, or a gang, or prison, or the family. It wasn’t football or baseball or basketball. It wasn’t "America." I didn’t read Kerouac. I didn’t hear an inspirational speech on television. It was a small place, Richard Stockton College, tucked away in the Pine Barrens, perhaps the simplest and most basic expression of our belief in an educated adult citizenry. I signed up – not knowing what I meant to do, really – and then showed up, ready for absolutely nothing.
My saviors weren’t clerics or wardens or coaches. They were teachers. They wore mismatched socks, drank coffee by the gallon, and loved ideas, evidence, and debate. They weren’t generalists but specialists, with hard-earned knowledge about medical science in Scotland, or library readership in the early Republic. I couldn’t tell you anything about their politics, but I could paint you a richly detailed portrait of their presence at the head of the classroom. From what I could see, they lived cheaply, responsibly, and haphazardly, drawing sustenance from the material of their research, which they shared, twice or three times a week, with a group of 35 or so history majors, mouth-breathers all. These strange masters of the blackboard, drove cars just like mine, except that theirs were filled with random slips of paper and wildly strewn books and file folders. They gave extraordinary, dazzling lectures, even though much of the time, I could not understand anything they were saying. They were a live cliché.
I wish I could say that their job was easy, that I turned myself around, figured it out, and bootstrapped my way back to the right track. The truth is, I was hard work, just like everyone else. In red ink, they implored me to rewrite and rethink. In a cascade of office meetings and hallway conversations they pored over my paragraph formation, transition sentences, basic grammar and syntax.
They didn’t see anything special in me, of course, because there just wasn’t anything special to see. They merely believed that this was what they should do for everyone who walked into their classroom. They had seen thousands of people before I arrived, and they would see thousands after I was gone. They weren’t naïve or wide-eyed, and they didn’t imagine themselves as heroic or romantic. They were professional. And, when I look back on the last 20 years of my life, it wasn’t their lecture material that made the difference. It was the time they spent with me outside of class.
Of course, I was lucky. I was born in 1970, at a moment when most states believed in adequately funding higher education. I grew up in a place that had an enhanced system of public universities and colleges, all staffed with well-trained, research-focused faculty, people with published expertise in a specific field, with a dedication to craft. And I went to school and college at a time when professors – and schoolteachers more generally – were respected for their role in civil society, and trusted to patiently instruct and constructively challenge slack-jawed young men and women like me.
Raised in the idyllic world of yesteryear, I honestly never once thought to measure my education – or my intelligence, or my civic worth – by my starting salary after graduation. I had been making $78 a week at the bookstore, borrowing money for college, and charging meals and gas and cigarettes on a credit card. I just assumed that this pattern would continue forever. Even now, I am surprised that I didn’t just keep working at the bookstore, didn’t just keep shivering my way through the cold, lonely winters and hot, busy summers of what is colloquially known as “LBI,” didn’t just keep grifting my way to a full stomach.
When it comes to higher education, I’m not nostalgic for the way things used to be. I’m indebted to those who came before, to those who made this current "me" possible. I’m unhappy that we can’t do the same here and now for others. And I think the problem is quite clearly not about escalating salaries or administrative expansion.
Long after my redemption, I spent nine years teaching at a public university. For most of that time, I was running an interdisciplinary program at the very heart of the humanities. We were charged to grow an "honors-style" major, with small classes, lots of writing, and intense faculty and student interactions. In short, to create the experience of a small liberal arts college -- an experience I know well – within a 35,000-student university. Our capacity to grow was the result of a clever administrator, who – in the face of a statewide budget freeze – added on an additional fee for incoming students, and used that vast pot of money to shift growth toward the emerging interdisciplines. But this "honors-style" dream was chipped away slowly by the annual news reports of state budget cuts. We were pressed to create bigger courses, to put "fannies in the seats." We ended our enhanced foreign language requirement because it kept our major count down. We were encouraged to open up our enrollments, to create a big survey course at the front end of the major, a course that became so large that we had to trim off the writing requirement and give multiple-choice exams. We spent hours on assessment data, all required by the state higher education board, and less and less, as a consequence on students.
Not surprisingly, some of us left, hoping to find somewhere else something rather like what we’d experienced as young adults, some place where we could do for every student what had been done for us.
Wherever we are now, the stakes, for all of "us," in this higher education debate are high. Few students are ready, right at the start, to be inspired by a lecture on Plato. Most need help taking notes, or forming a thesis statement, or just thinking hard about anything. Still, every time a university has to add 500 students to the freshman class to make up for a budget cut without also hiring faculty, and every time an administrator – typically, a good person trying to save an institution – has to ask for a significantly larger lecture class without having the funds to beef up the support structure for students, we make stories like mine less likely.
When we describe the lecture as a delivery mode, as a site for Great Thinkers to Expound on Big Ideas, and not as the public expression of hundreds of miniature conversations in which one or two students work through material, and expression, and form with a single person, and we don’t emphasize the equal importance of those behind-the-doors sessions, we do damage to the representation of great teaching. We make it possible to believe that "big" is better. Without those conversations, it isn’t just the humanities that gets shortchanged – it is all of us.
Today’s jobs might not be yesterday’s, but they still require the ability to write and speak clearly, to analyze evidence and form opinions, to solve problems with research, to reach an informed opinion and to persuade others, through a presentation of logic or facts or material, that your opinion is worth their attention. This is what higher education is supposed to do. Fulfilling this mission requires an attention to scale, and a commitment to making it possible for faculty and students to work together closely. In the big and small publics – the great post WWII laboratories of social mobility, from which Brooks and his cohort are so greatly distanced – we simply can no longer teach these skills or create this scale of interaction. And if these centers of gravity fail, everything else will, too.
This should make ordinary Americans angry. It used to be that my story could be your sons' and daughters' story, but not any longer. Don’t blame the teachers in the classroom, though. They still work as hard as they can – they still drink too much coffee, still drive beat-up cars, still occasionally mismatch their socks – to deliver sparkling lectures, to rouse students to believe in the passionate study of humanity, to expand their intellectual horizons. And they try very hard to work closely with students in need, students with talent, and students who seem to want more. Don’t blame the administrators either. Most of them are simply trying to stave off the very worst consequences of this transformation. Blame the folks with the budget ax. And blame those who vote them in.
Matthew Pratt Guterl is professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University.