Sunday evening, as a part of the kick-off to the new academic year, we had a talk by Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia and the author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. This was intended as a sort of affirmation of the importance of the sort of educational experience Union offers, but ultimately, I found it pretty frustrating.

Admittedly, a lot of that was because the talk was at an inconvenient time, 5pm on a Sunday evening being a point when I would normally be home making dinner for the family. Sunday is a school night, to boot, so I needed to get home for dog-walking and baths, which meant that I had to leave before the Q&A period. Given that Delbanco really didn’t say anything in his talk that wasn’t in the book (other than some strained over-analysis of a couple magazine cover photos to open the talk up), the Q&A was really the only thing that might’ve been interesting, but twenty minutes of miscellaneous faffing about delayed the start of the talk, and I was feeling guilty by the time he finished his prepared remarks, so I had to bolt.

More than that, though, it was frustrating because he didn’t say anything that wasn’t in the book, and I found the book pretty frustrating in its own right. Most of it is a perfectly interesting history of the peculiarly American institution of college (as distinct from a research university), from its origin in the education of Puritan clergy in the early colonies up through the modern era. There are two points where it falls flat, though, and they pretty much spoiled the entire book for me.

One of these is sort of endemic to the genre– as I said when I wrote about Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites, the genre of cultural commentary is chock full of books that do a great job laying out the history of some complex issue and how that history causes modern problems, and then offer a solution in the Sidney Harris “Then a Miracle Occurs” sort of vein. Sadly, this is no exception. Despite having a chapter titled “What Is to Be Done?” there’s really nothing in terms of practical advice for the future.

The only concrete suggestion in the chapter is that we ought to take the teaching mission of college faculty more seriously, and offer formal teaching training as part of graduate education. Which is sort of superficially sensible, other than, you know, the vast problems of the current overproduction of Ph.D.’s and the adjunctification of higher education. I’m all for valuing education more highly, but the notion that we need to double down on the pretense that everyone in grad school is headed for an academic position is just a tiny bit problematic.

Beyond that, there’s some vague nods toward the notion of broader community outreach, but precious little about what form that might take. There are some brief heartwarming anecdotes about programs at Stanford and Bard College to bring liberal education to recovering addicts and convicts, but again, we’re kind of missing Step Two. While such projects are good PR, they don’t seem like a sustainable path to anything in particular, other than a warm sense of having done right by the wider community. Which is all well and good, but it’s not exactly going to turn around the dire Federal funding situation facing higher education, or reduce the cost of college for people who aren’t residents of the institutions where Stanford and Bard do their good deeds.

That is, as I say, sort of endemic to the genre, though. It’s frustrating, because I’m a practically-minded guy, but books on far more practically-oriented subjects than this fail in the same general manner, so it’s not really surprising.

The deeper source of frustration, for me, was basically the entire reason Delbanco was brought in to speak to the Union community. He was the second annual speaker in the “Common Curriculum” series (a name that gets scare quotes because we don’t actually have anything all that common about our curriculum, but leave that aside for now), the purpose of which is to talk up the virtues of liberal education. And while he was better than most about paying lip service to the idea of including math and science as part of the project of liberal education, that still primarily means singing the praises of studying literature and the arts (commonly grouped together as “humanities” subjects, but given the whole subject matter of my book-in-progress, I sort of resent that term for its implication that science is inhuman, and thus will derive some petty satisfaction from refusing to use it). And thus the whole project runs smack into Two Cultures land.

The specific thing that I find frustrating about this whole business is the constant refrain– not just from Delbanco, but from basically everyone who writes on this subject– about how the literary disciplines are important because they “Ask the big questions” and “grapple with what’s really important” and dozens of similar soaringly vague descriptions. Delbanco was particularly frustrating in this regard, because he took pains in both the book and the talk to reject the whole notion of progress in human knowledge.

The general argument starts off with the usual token praise for science and technology– antibiotics and vaccines are great, modern transportation and communication technologies are awesome, etc. He uses an anecdote about his father’s lifetime, which spanned most of the 20th century to talk about the rapid pace of change, and how knowledge in the natural sciences has increased dramatically over the last hundred years.

But then he pivots to talk about the bad side of things, specifically the mass deaths caused by the mid-century wars, and claims that those call into question the whole notion of progress. And that the questions that “really matter” are the same as they’ve always been, that we still need to study The Iliad to learn about honor in warfare, and Plato to think about the meaning of a good life, and so on.

Which, you know, sounds great. And I’m all in favor of people reading the classics. But I also find this frustrating (even beyond the part where we just sort of forget about modern medicine because we still have wars) because it’s a weirdly self-abnegating notion of scholarship (if nothing has changed since Homer, what the hell are all those scholarly monographs for?), but more than that because it’s trivially untrue.

I mean, the very example that he uses as a pivot kind of gives the whole thing the lie. Warfare is qualitatively different than it was in Homer’s day. While the Iliad has some lovely bits in it, quite a bit has changed since then. I’m not convinced that hearing the Muses sing of the wrath of Achilles really speaks to the experience of modern war in the same way that, say, The Things They Carried does, and even that’s nigh on fifty years out of date. I suppose you could make an argument that the experience of firey death from above via remote-piloted drones could in some sense be parallel to the arbitrary and capricious wrath of the gods, but if you want mortals being randomly dicked over by petty gods, you want the Odyssey not The Iliad.

Delbanco tries to distinguish literary and philosophical studies, which are in his telling neither cumulative nor progressive, from the sciences by saying that when it comes to the Big Questions of how to live life and all that, “there is no laboratory test but applying them in our own lives.” Which is a lovely image, but again, I don’t see how that really cuts against the idea of a continued increase in human knowledge. It’s true that the question of what constitutes a good life has been asked since ancient times, but the range of possible answers has expanded enormously since the days of ancient Greece. If you’re trying to decide what philosophical system to experiment with, you need to consider not just Plato and Socrates, but Kant, and Mill, and Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, and on up into the 21st century with Rawls. Each of those philosophers offers a slightly different take on the same Big Question. More than that, each of them has had to address the philosophies of all their predecessors, so there really is a kind of cumulative element to the whole process.

There’s even an element of irony in this whole business, in that the whole line of argument Delbanco is pursuing is a relatively recent invention. Another of his examples of the ineffability of literary studies is a protracted hypothetical about two roommates who see a performance of “King Lear.” One of them is bored, the other is deeply affected and moved to reconsider his own relationship with his father, etc. This, he argues, shows that the experience of great literature is wholly subjective, unlike mere science, and thus requires some more mystical sort of class experience.

But, really, the whole notion of literary experience as subjective is an outgrowth of postmodernism. Fifty-odd years ago, if someone told that story, the lesson would’ve been that one of the two students attending the play was an asshole who didn’t pay attention and take away the clear and obvious point. The notion that these experiences are subjective, and more importantly that both are equally valid, is the main benefit of the last fifty-odd years of literary scholarship. That’s a way of looking at literature that is different than what came before, and in fact builds on the experience of previous generations of scholars.

Now, you can argue about whether any of this constitutes progress in any meaningful sense, but it’s unquestionably change, and cumulative change at that. None of it is as clean as the cartoon version of science as a relay race, but then science isn’t as cleanly progressive as that, either, as any number of historians of science will be happy to tell you at great length.

So, as I said, I find this intensely frustrating, because his own examples seem to cut against his argument. And in the end, it’s not really an argument for anything in particular. It’s especially not any kind of defense of modern scholarship in the arts– if anything, it reads a bit like an argument for a “Canon” sort of model where students read Great Books from the distant past, a model that most academics in those fields these days would vehemently reject. If the whole benefit of liberal education is to glimpse the occasional Eternal Verity in a dusty old book, that doesn’t really sell the necessity of active scholarly faculty with tenure and academic freedom and the like, as opposed to a MOOC with recorded lectures from some full professor at Harvard leading to essays graded by underpaid adjuncts with no health benefits. But they received teacher training en route to their Ph.D.’s, so, you know, profit. Or something.

I say all this not because I view these subjects only with disdain– if I felt that way, I wouldn’t’ve gone to a liberal arts college, and I wouldn’t be working at one. I love books, and history, and art, and wish I had more time to spend with those subjects. And I would love to see an argument that was really a full-throated defense of the worth of what scholars in those subjects do. Instead, we get one book after another full of soaring vagueness about grappling with Big Questions. And somehow, they all manage to avoid ever answering any questions, even simple ones.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    September 23, 2013

    Instead, we get one book after another full of soaring vagueness about grappling with Big Questions. And somehow, they all manage to avoid ever answering any questions, even simple ones.

    My high school calculus teacher gave exactly this reason for not pursuing the philosophy major he had been considering. Which, if my impression of his age is correct, means that this problem was around circa early 1960s. Postmodernism seems to have made the problem worse, but it’s not the cause of the problem.

    The best argument I have ever heard for doing scholarship in literature and other such fields is that some people find it fun. I’ve encountered people who are doing or have done Ph.D. research basically as a hobby. I think I’ve mentioned before that the guy who replaced my roof a few years ago is one of them.

  2. #2 Alex
    September 23, 2013

    I’m also not sure that humanities and social science are the only fields that ponder Big Questions. STEM certainly does, and I’m not just talking about God Particles and Big Bangs. What does it mean to say that the universe is (or isn’t) deterministic? What is the information needed to make a new living being? Can we understand the functioning of a living organism in engineering terms? Is there such a thing as absolute motion? How robust are ecosystems? These are just a small selection of the Big Questions that STEM folks ponder.

  3. #3 thm
    September 23, 2013

    That Delbanco’s book presents a decent history of the American college does make me add it to my “to-read” list. I’ve formed some speculations about American higher education, mostly the result of reading Paul Fussell’s Class. (Perhaps the two books would be good parallel reading.)

    The arguments about the unique ways in which study of the Humanities allows one to address The Big Questions sound to me like a bit of desperate cognitive dissonance. At root, I believe, is that the liberal arts tradition is largely a reflection of upper-class values and interests, but actively working to perpetuate the notion of upper class cultural superiority is anathema to the progressively minded folks who constitute the modern liberal arts faculty.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    September 23, 2013

    I’m also not sure that humanities and social science are the only fields that ponder Big Questions. STEM certainly does, and I’m not just talking about God Particles and Big Bangs.

    In my more cynical moments, I suspect that the distinction is that STEM people try to answer their Big Questions, while literary scholars just ponder theirs.

    The arguments about the unique ways in which study of the Humanities allows one to address The Big Questions sound to me like a bit of desperate cognitive dissonance. At root, I believe, is that the liberal arts tradition is largely a reflection of upper-class values and interests, but actively working to perpetuate the notion of upper class cultural superiority is anathema to the progressively minded folks who constitute the modern liberal arts faculty.

    There’s definitely a sort of tension there. I also think it’s not entirely unexpected that as the college population has expanded beyond the idle children of the rich, there has been an increased interest in education as an investment and all those results-oriented goals that make a lot of academics twitch. There’s some complicated class stuff going on there that’s kind of difficult to articulate, and I don’t really have time to devote to getting it right.

  5. #5 marciepooh
    September 24, 2013

    “we ought to take the teaching mission of college faculty more seriously, and offer formal teaching training as part of graduate education.”
    I agree with the idea of formal (or semi-formal) teaching training but not as a part of grad school (per se). I’m not sure how to actually do it but maybe some kind of 1-week new faculty boot camp. I had one professor in particular who did not seem capable of writing a test that actual tested what he’d taught in class or was covered in the readings.

    On the rest of it – I love reading; I find history interesting; I think whether ridge-push or slab-pull or some combination these and other forces is/are the driving force of plate tectonics is a “big question” (as are numerous other scientific pursuits); and it ticks me off that science and math illiteracy is OK for educated people but God forbid you haven’t read [insert name of pet classic here].

    As you said, Chad, we might be actually be able to answer sciences questions and then come up with new ones.

  6. #6 Alex
    October 2, 2013

    Chad,

    I’m reading Delbanco’s book right now, and I like it because I’m a traditionalist who feels threatened. Maybe it’s just preaching to the choir, but even choirs need to hear the occasional sermon.

    Anyway, since you critiqued it, I’d be curious to hear what books in this general genre (reflections on the past and future of higher ed) you like better than Delbanco’s.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.