The fiery debates about Sarah Palin's capacity to lead - the quality of her intellect, the nature of her academic and political preparation - focus national attention on a theme dear to UD: Higher education. Why do we call it higher? Does it matter whether one has this rather obscure, somehow elevated, experience?


September 7, 2008

The fiery debates about Sarah Palin's capacity to lead - the quality of her intellect, the nature of her academic and political preparation - focus national attention on a theme dear to UD: Higher education. Why do we call it higher? Does it matter whether one has this rather obscure, somehow elevated, experience?

Does Palin's spotty, undistinguished college career matter? A communications major, she probably had little exposure to history, philosophy, languages (Obama doesn't speak any language besides English, but UD assumes that as a political science major at Columbia University, specializing in international relations, he had at least to study one for a few years), and what we used to call civics. Communications, after all, is radically present-oriented: It's about public relations, television, advertising, radio ...

Here are a couple of course descriptions from Idaho's current catalog:

JAMM 468 The Advertising Agency (3 cr). Functioning of an advertising agency, including management, accounting, creative and media buying systems, government regulation, account management, and creative strategies in the marketplace. Field trips. Recommended preparation: JAMM 466.

JAMM 376 Digital Animation in Mass Media (3 cr). Creation and animation of both video and graphics in the digital realm for television, film, and interactive multi-media. Production fundamentals through individual projects will be emphasized as a means to help stimulate viewer attention and to improve the processing of information and content. Prereq: JAMM 275.

I put the link to the University of Idaho page over "a means to help stimulate viewer attention" in order to highlight the point of a lot of these courses. They're about very helpfully keeping us awake while we stare at screens. Or, as the first example suggests, they're vocational.

Obama's course of study ( here's the current political science course list for Columbia University) incorporated history, theory, global politics. Many of the courses (Classical and Medieval Political Thought) are almost purely intellectual, having no immediate vocational utility. Recall, too, Columbia's Great Books undergraduate curriculum, which would have given Obama an exceptional exposure to general civilization courses.

Like a lot of people whose lives are changed by excellent educations, Obama describes himself - a wild kid - finding mental focus at Columbia: "I decided to buckle down and get serious. I spent a lot of time in the library. I didn't socialize that much. I was like a monk."
Does it matter? Does it matter that unlike Obama - who seems to have had a transformative intellectual experience at Columbia - Palin completed an undistinguished vocational undergraduate degree?

No. In the scheme of things, if a politician has a lively, curious intellect anyway, and a lot of political experience, and good political judgment, a substandard college experience, while a pity, isn't a campaign-ender.

We won't know whether Palin possesses these qualities on a presidential level until she has her first serious press conference. Until then, it's worth reminding ourselves why all over the world people cherish a good education. It's not just about jobs. It's about expanding your consciousness in a way that profoundly enhances the quality of your life.
But that's still pretty obscure, isn't it? Consider this excerpt from Errata, George Steiner's account of his undergraduate years at the University of Chicago:

A worthwhile university of college is quite simply one in which the student is brought into personal contact with, is made vulnerable to, the aura and the threat of the first-class. In the most direct sense, this is a matter of proximity, of sight and hearing. The institution, particularly in the humanities, should not be too large. The scholar, the significant teacher ought to be readily visible. We cross his or her daily path. The consequence, as in the Periclean polis, in medieval Bologna, or nineteenth-century Tubingen, is one of implosive and cumulative contamination. The whole is energized beyond its eminent parts. By unforced contiguity, the student, the young researcher will (or should be) infected. He will catch the scent of the real thing. I resort to sensory terms because the impact can be physical. Thinkers, the erudite, mathematicians, or theoretical and natural scientists are beings possessed. They are in the grip of a mastering unreason.

What could, by the lights of the utilitarian or hedonistic commonwealth, be more irrational, more against the grain of common sense than to devote one's existence to, say, the conservation and classification of archaic Chinese bronzes, to the solution of Fermat's last theorem, to the comparative syntax of Altaic languages (many now defunct), or the hairs-breadth nuances in modal logic? The requisite abstentions from distraction, the imperative labors, the tightening of nerve and brain to a constancy and pitch far beyond the ordinary, entail a pathological stress. The 'mad professor' is the caricature, as ancient as Thales falling into the well, of a certain truth. There is something of a cancer, of autism in the necessary negations of common life, with its disheveled inconsequence and waste motion.

In the critical mass of a successful academic community, the orbits of individual obsessions will cross and re-cross. Once he has collided with them, the student will forget neither their luminosity nor their menace to complacency.

...Once a young man or woman has been exposed to the virus of the absolute, once she or he has seen, heard, 'smelt' the fever in those who hunt after disinterested truth, something of the afterglow will persist. For the remainder of their, perhaps, quite normal, albeit undistinguished careers and private lives, such men and women will be equipped with some safeguard against emptiness.

The aura and the threat of the first-class. Americans, with their complacent preferences for politicians who are just like them, are particularly keen on the threat part ...

But Steiner has in mind a different sense of threat: When you've been, at some point in your life, seriously inside higher ed (to coin a phrase), you're forever unsettled by the possibility you've glimpsed of existence pitched very high, dedicated daily to as much lucidity about the world within and without as humanly possible.


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