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Against the Grain
July 27, 2007 - 5:57pm



"The idea that you almost forgot about the world you came from, and the job market you're about to enter...that [college is] a period of self-exploration and intellectual discovery, has faded," says Rick Pearlstein in an interview about an upcoming New York Times piece of his about college. He laments an "internship culture," in which students scramble from the outset of their college years to accumulate vocational goodies.

Yet only a few college students in any given year are going to be serious about intellectual discovery. (Forget self-exploration -- self-exploration is the problem to which intellectual discovery is the solution. Plenty of non-serious college students are engaged in self-exploration -- they're the ones taking Creative Writing.) Serious colleges will be set up to accommodate these happy few -- the colleges will offer coherent curricula and professors who double as intellectuals.

And actually, despite Pearlstein's pessimism, there are more and more colleges in the United States with a serious component -- an honors program, an Intro Civ sequence -- for students who want to think in a disciplined, unworldly way.

Students will no doubt notice, though, that the greater the intellectual element of a course, the less esteemed it is by the institution. The student's philosophy professors will be a tattered bunch, while the undergraduate business major instructors will dress almost as well as the assistant football coaches.

Speaking of football, you can understand the divide here in terms of scramble, in terms of speed and slowness. Serious thought is a practice akin to lectio divina, the slow reading of significant texts; college as job prep is a race to the goal posts. Most Americans, in whatever college setting, are in a hurry, and find speed in itself an attraction (you need to accumulate lots of AP exams so you can place out of college courses and graduate earlier, etc.). Again, colleges that see themselves as very intellectually serious can do a lot, not merely in terms of curriculum and professors, but in terms of physical setting, to inspire students to slow down, to ruminate about things.

But this sort of thing has always gone terribly against the American grain.


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