Learning From Cats

Rob Weir nominates eight academic fights to give up in '08

January 17, 2008

Academic squabbles are often compared to cat fights, but as one who has owned cats for several decades, I’ve come to believe that such analogies are unfair to felines. Cats, for instance, instinctively know to terminate a chase when they would consume more calories than their prey would provide. And even the pugilist tabbies I’ve owned eventually learned to give wide berth to rivals who consistently bloodied them. All of this suggests that cats may be more evolutionarily advanced than a lot of academics. In the spirit of all those What I Learned from My Cat books now moldering on remainder shelves, here are eight academic debates left over from last year that aren’t worth the calories, let along the anguish.

1. What Do We Do About Poorly Prepared Incoming Students? How about teach them? It seems like I’ve been hearing the same tape loop since I was 18 and was told my generation was ignoramus-ridden because it had no training in Latin. Let’s just admit that each generation comes to the table with different skill sets and move on. This is the ultimate lost chase. What students ought to know is irrelevant when faced with a classroom of those who don’t know it.

2. The Great Books versus Multicultural Readings: This is another tired horse ready for pasturage. We’ve been fighting over the canon for so long that it has escaped the debaters’ notice that the passion for books has fallen from fashion. I, for one, am grateful when students read anything and get excited. If they want to declare Neil Gaiman graphic novels part of the canon, that’s fine with me if it helps us talk about myth, archetypes, and culture.

3. Should the Academy Operate According to a Consumer Model? If you answered “no,” prepare to be boarded; your ship has been vanquished. The high price tag of higher ed makes it a market-place commodity and it’s as naïve to assert that a college education is its own reward as to believe that the Olympics are a still bastion of amateurism. Whether we like it or not, kids shop for courses just like they hit the mall. Profs and departments can assume the crusty purist’s demeanor, or they can start making course offerings jazzier and sexier. The latter path leads to the vitality, the first to extinction. If you don’t believe it, ask a classicist or a labor historian.

4. Why Should Faculty Be Forced to Be Tech-Savvy? Because it’s the 21st century, we’re educators, and we need to communicate with students. Every campus has a few cranks who wear electronic illiteracy as a badge of honor. They walk about in crumpled garb, wax eloquent about the glories of their old Olivetti, and brag they don’t use e-mail. The rest of us tolerate them as if they were an eccentric aunt, and defend them when students grouse about them. Here’s a better idea: Give students the e-mail addresses of the department chair and the academic dean. Just in case they wish to register their complaints.

5. Should Colleges Be Required to Dip Deeper into Endowment Funds? Yes, but this debate is really not worth having as the future is clear: Either everyone will follow the preemptive lead of those well-endowed schools that have begun spending a higher percentage of their endowment, or Congress will act and impose the same 5 percent standard with which foundations must comply.

6. How Can We Improve Our 'U.S. News & World Report' Rating? Unless you’re a member of an embattled admissions department, who cares? The battle worth fighting would be a campaign to put all such Miss Congeniality-modeled guides out of business. I’d happily don armor for a federated effort to do that.

7. Are Campus Conservatives the Victim of Discrimination? Does anyone have any spare crocodile tears for the group that pretty much runs the country? What a silly debate. There’s a difference between being a minority and being a victim, just as there’s a difference between free speech and the guarantee that others will agree with you. When stripped to its basics the brief is that neo-cons feel uncomfortable in places like Amherst, Berkeley, Cambridge, and Madison. Well, duh! That’s like a vegetarian complaining about the menu at a Ponderosa Steakhouse. Oddly enough, one seldom hears pleas for more feminists at faith-based institutions, pacifists at military academies, or evolutionary scientists on the Mike Huckabee campaign staff.

8. Ward Churchill or David Horowitz? Neither please! If nothing else, can we resolve that in 2008 we will uphold the principle that propaganda of any sort has no place in the college classroom? That would also solve the conservative complaint above. Best of all, it would relegate the boorish Churchill and Horowitz to the obscurity they have so richly earned.

Everyone altogether now: Meow!


Rob Weir is the author or editor of five books. He recently gave up a senior faculty position to pursue part-time teaching, involvement with professional organizations, and freelance journalism.


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