19 January 2009

Humanism Ends With a Whimper

Yes, after 800 years of education as a process for the liberation of the soul, a new way of considering education has come to dominate: the training of students for standardized jobs. Contemplative thought is out, problem-solving and rote repetition of tasks is in.

(Of course, in a sense this is nothing new: education almost always serves the needs of the society footing the bill for it. If you think education isn't working or that the schools are crappy, it's not a bad idea to start asking why we have chosen that such should be the case.)

Anyway, here's Stanley Fish on a new book by a student of his, Frank Donoghue (called, incidentally The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities):
How has this happened? According to Donoghue, it’s been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “ fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”

The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold’s conviction that poetry will save us could not be more stark. But Donoghue counsels us not to think that the two visions are locked in a struggle whose outcome is uncertain. One vision, rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.

The best evidence for this is the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty and the corresponding rise of adjuncts, part-timers more akin to itinerant workers than to embedded professionals.
I've ranted here before about the ascendancy of the corporate model for increasingly large shares of our world. By this I don't mean the corporate takeover and "privatization" of more and more of economic life. Rather, I'm referring to the adoption of an efficiency-obsessed, profit-fetishizing, model for non-business pursuits such as law, medicine, and yes, academia. Market pressures make an operation leaner; it's true. More efficient, sure. But one loses the point of pursuing law, medicine, or deep study of a subject. It's just not the right model for these things (or many others). I'm not going into it further here.

The main purpose of some (though increasingly few) pursuits is not the generation of profit.

So, even those who hoped to escape the god of efficiency by going into medicine or, say comparative literature, are reduced to "service delivery" cogs in an enormous profit-generating machine. And the profits are generated, no doubt there. But if you can deliver service without the doctor-- or with only 4 minutes of a doctor's time, or by eliminating tenured professors in favor of podcast lectures-- then that's efficient. But medicine is harmed. As is education. Fish and his student are right. I'm hoping against hope I don't end up in a miserable adjunct job for the rest of my life. Increasingly it's the kind of hope one generates on buying a Powerball ticket.

To repurpose a quote by Gov. Edwin Edwards: "A Ph.D. program is tax on people who are bad at math."

More from Fish
The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment.

In this latter model , the mode of delivery – a disc, a computer screen, a video hook-up – doesn’t matter so long as delivery occurs. Insofar as there are real-life faculty in the picture, their credentials and publications (if they have any) are beside the point, for they are just “delivery people.”

Those ideas have now triumphed (Carnegie and Crane are victorious), and this means, Donoghue concludes, “that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.” And as a corollary “professors will come to be seen by everyone (not just those outside the academy) as unaffordable anomalies.”
In other news: in an effort to save the state a couple of bucks, Gov. Jindal has proposed cutting health care (never medicine, now) and higher education. One of the departments on the chopping block?