Not too long ago, Hollywood released a movie called Accepted–a lowbrow beer and boob college comedy. I was given the assignment to go see the movie and use the story and themes as springboards to do some musing about nonfiction college.
Accepted‘s main character, the charming Bartleby Gaines, gets rejected from Harmon College, and all the real colleges he applies to. To save face, entrepreneurial Bartleby creates the South Harmon Institute of Technology (you can spell out the acronym for yourself) by using a website, an abandoned psychiatric hospital and “a little elbow grease.”
The website attracts hundreds of other “rejectees,” and overnight South Harmon combusts into impromptu courses ranging from “Skate Ramp Building” to “B.S.ing 242″ to ogling busty girls in bikinis—”Anatomy.”
Bartleby’s charade is exposed, and with a “Hail-Mary” tactic he lands at a State Board of Accreditation hearing and delivers a sappy, off-the-cuff speech about how education should really be about expressing personal truth, and freedom from restrictions and convention. The board agrees and authorizes the South Harmon Institute of Technology as an institution of higher learning.
Here’s the bad news: the college in Accepted is pretty ridiculous—but it is more similar than you might think to its non-silver-screen counterparts. Bartleby’s accreditation speech is strikingly similar to pearl from sociologist Abbott’s freshman orientation speech bestowed upon entering freshmen at the prestigious University of Chicago: “Since nobody in fact agrees on what the canon is—even in the broadest terms—the system definitionally does not have a canon. In fact, there is a common culture of examples and rhetorical figures in America today. But most of it comes from sports, entertainment, and current events.” Whereas Bartleby looks within himself for knowledge, Abbott digresses even further to celebrities in People Magazine. So much for higher education. Since the university seems to have given up on any idea of central truths to impart, or even aims to lend cohesion, it is really no wonder that many college curricula bear uncomfortable resemblance to the South Harmon course catalog.
The schools that I attended offered “Explorations” classes, taught by seniors, on topics of their choosing, such as Harry Potter seminars. Faculty at places like Wesleyan University make it policy “not to get in the way” of students (may I ask what it is they are paid TO do??) In light of some of the actual “intellectual fare” out there, South Harmon’s classes become less facetious and more like projections of what students may find at real universities.
Here is a real list of college courses:
1. Georgetown – “Philosophy and Star Trek” asks “Is Data a real person?”
2. Brown – “Seeing Queerly: Queer Theory, Film and Video” asks “can film empower people to see queerly?”
3. UCLA – “Cultural History of Rap”
4. UCLA – “Death, Suicide and Trauma”
5. U of Minnesota – “Language and Sexual Diversity” deals with the use of language in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.”
6. Maine’s Bowdoin College—“Women’s Studies 348” asks “Is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony a marvel of abstract architecture culminating in a gender-free pean to human solidarity, or does it model the process of rape?
7. Carnegie Mellon – “ Sex and Death” deals with the question of “whether we need to liberate death now that (maybe) we have figured sex out.”
8. Georgetown – “The Bible and Horror” answers the question, “What might religion and horror (or the monstrous) have in common?”
9. University of Maine – “Conspiracy Theories” has students trace “odd occurrences” like unusual deaths, rumored government intrigue, and extraterrestrial sightings.”
10. University of Florida – “Ecofeminism” addresses the notion that “Western tradition’s naturalization of women and feminization of nature, drawing the conclusion that the domination of women and the domination of nature are intimately connected and mutually reinforcing.”
11. University of Texas - “Rave and Sport in African American Life” is concerned with “how sports have been used to justify and promote antiquated, eugenic and ultimately racist notions of blackness.”
12. Male Sexuality class at UC Berkeley. Students watched their instructor have sex on stage at a strip club, and then participated in an orgy (the orgy was extracurricular in this sex-for-credit class). When journalists exposed the “educational event,” many parents snapped out of complacent comas and began to worry what their children were up to at school!
When universities do not regulate the excesses of self-expression, the “liberal arts” education deteriorates into license for an expensive four-year free for all. Bartleby Gaines may as well be the spokesperson and planner for the current trajectory of the modern university.
Another gem from Andrew Abbott’s University of Chicago speech: “the phrase ‘aims of education’ is nonsensical…it has no aim other than itself…Education is an invisible creativity that radiates from within…it is something you are.” I can just see the student body of South Harmon whooping with joy as Abbott trumpets the relativism they so eagerly embrace. And according to Abbot, the non-aim model of education produces just the dubious outcome that one might expect from the lackadaisical academic structure in academia. He argues that students not only forget the particular content of the courses that they take with alarming speed—but that the ubiquitous argument that the real retained value is in the form of acquired skills such as advanced reading, speaking, reasoning and critical thinking, doesn’t necessarily hold water. Abbot argues that “evidence that college learning per se actually produced these skills is pretty flimsy (Abbott Welcome Address). He argues that the observed skill-growth in collegiates might have more to do with pre-existing intelligence, habits, simple maturation, and keeping company with other intelligent people than it does with coursework.
The challenge that he raises is worth taking seriously—especially given the amount of time, money and honor that colleges command. I will offer my own experience for what it’s worth. I have asked many college-grad comrades (in all seriousness and with a straight face) whether they feel like they are smarter and more knowledgeable on this side of higher education. The responses without exception have taken one of 2 forms:
1) Long silence and furrowed brow followed by a loose stammering answer driving toward the affirmative.
2) Burst of laughter ranging from disgusted to lighthearted. This often followed by something to the effect of: “Well I hope I didn’t get dumber…I really think high school was more challenging and informative.”
The black hole yawning in the space that used to be the “body of knowledge of an educated person” has been a source of personal frustration and embarrassment for me personally on many occasions. I must confess that I have always been a bit of a perfectionist/ obnoxious teacher’s pet sort of student (you could always count on me to put the crayons in rainbow order and sit with my hands folded in my lap in hopes of receiving the approving smile and sour patch piece of candy promised to the “good kids” at the end of a kindergarten day). So on trips home from school and after graduation I would invariably bump into somebody who would ask with interest about what I thought about some classic ‘scrap of higher knowledge’ or another. Often the question about this or that Shakespeare play, economic theory, historical reference etc. would leave me flat-footed and panicked—trying to keep the baffled ignorance from showing on my face. Give me a list of the “great books” and I will be lucky to point out 1 or 2 that I could have a legitimate discussion about. And I would categorize myself as a relatively motivated and diligent student.
At the end of college I must admit coming away thinking ugh…what DID I learn? On top of that the loose time structure and minimal daily demands of the college academic schedule left me lazier and softer at the end of four years than when I began. It was difficult getting back to the fulltime work schedule after living a four-year “summer vacation” compared with high school and life after college! Do I think I am smarter than when I went to college? Well, not necessarily. Ouch..I still have student loans a ‘plenty to pay every month. I suppose that is part of the reason I am spending my hours after work and weekends in a coffee shop with my laptop trying to get these questions into peoples thoughts and conversations.
I have a friend named Matt who graduated from the University of California Berkeley. He is now an EMT in Paramedic school taking steps to become a fire fighter. A good student with a degree in sociology, Matt reports that he has acquired more of a valid, cohesive body of knowledge from his short stint so far in Paramedic school than he did in college. Matt commented that being successful in school was more about “feeding the monkey” than learning (I guess feeding the monkey bears a little more explaining—especially since it names something that Matt is far from alone in experiencing).
Feeding the monkey is learning to play the academic game—reading professors and their political leanings, preferences and test-making tendencies. When you know how to feed the monkey you land yourself in good graces and good grade territory by regurgitating the right type of response at the right time with minimal actual reading, writing and studying. This is not just a lazy way out that some students take—if you want to get a good GPA you have to buy in—the monkey there demanding to be fed.
Matt learned very quickly that wearing his Cal baseball paraphernalia to class could be a fatal mistake in courses taught by GSI’s (graduate school instructors) or professors who harbored resentment for student athletes. In other classes this was no problem at all. I had a class with a professor who happened to hate the state I’m from, my church denomination, and the socio-economic milieu I grew up in. I had to hide in the back of his lecture and hope that he wouldn’t put me together with my midterm paper before he assigned grades.
Moral of the story—the hungry monkey is fickle and energy-absorbing….and once the monkey is satiated and GPA’s are in, the student didn’t necessarily learn much of anything substantial at all.
My friends and I are not the only ones alarmed at what we are taking (or not taking) away from college. National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart, who spent time at Dartmouth as a professor, tried to ignore that there was something wrong in higher education. His analogy doesn’t have a monkey, but a “corpse on the tennis court.” In his article, “How to Get a College Education,” he explains some of his observations. One day he conducted an impromptu quiz with his class of super-brain Ivy League darlings. He asked the students if they could shed light on any of the following topics: the Mayflower Compact, John Locke, James Madison, the Magna Carta, the Spanish Armada, William James or the Tenth Amendment. The response: silence, squirming, and ashamed red cheeks.
It seems that the non-aim model of education has its roots firmly established and is producing ignorance apples at Dartmouth. Hart reflects that students at Dartmouth face near academic chaos as they choose what counts as valid coursework and maybe check in flippantly with an often-uninterested faculty “advisor” and expect to fall out of the rear end of college accidentally having stumbled across something worthwhile.
In an article published by the Independent Women’s Forum entitled “Freshmen Shortchanged,” Melana Zyla Vickers examines the course offerings at top liberal arts colleges like Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore. The sad fact that she discovers is that freshman at many of these institutions “can attend classes all year without being introduced to the underpinnings of philosophy, history or English literature.” (Maybe they are taking Explorations classes like I did where we spent our time watching the great “drug movies”—Pulp Fiction, Trainspottting, Scarface and Requiem for a Dream.) Consider Vickers findings from her investigation of the US News and World Report’s highest-ranked liberal arts colleges:
• A freshman at Bowdoin cannot take a course in Shakespeare.
• A freshman at Amherst isn’t offered an American of European history overview.
• A freshman at Williams will find that what few courses review U.S. or European history focus on “race, ethnicity and gender,” rather than the given period’s main developments.’
• A freshman at Wellesley will find that the few broad English courses offered to freshmen focus on gender and not the books’ themes and styles.
I know that my own Shakespeare class focused heavily on gender bending (cod pieces, male make-up) and sexuality. My Italian Renaissance Art History class had a gender subtitle and emphasized hopped on the same bandwagon. The only class in college that let me study Jane Austen was entitled “Women, Fiction and Romance.” The course was a feminist deconstruction of the romantic tradition culminating in the study of a dark satirical romance spoof with a twisted Nietzschean heroin and a blubbering, insipid man-baby. I can tell you that I don’t feel very enlightened about the Italian Renaissance, Shakespeare or romantic literature. On a trip across Italy the art went 99% over my head and I whined about sore feet through many a museum…and throw a Shakespearean allusion my direction and I am likely to stare back at you with a look of puzzlement. Lucky for me the romance class couldn’t damp my Austen flame.
Pieter Friedrich, an undergraduate student and member of the U.S. air force wrote a scathing review of his educational experience in college—angry that he thinks college has taught him next to nothing and that ultimately his advice is: “Don’t attend college to get an education.” He offers a litany of reasons for his frustration—from American History courses that neglect to discuss anything apart from slavery, few teachers who actually “have much to offer in the way of tutelage”…and blatant political and ideological agendas coloring the content that is taught. Friedrich actually echoes one of Matt’s observations, noting his EMT course was the most informative of his college career at the time he wrote the article.
Whereas many colleges, in their foundational charters, held unified truth and character formation as defining objectives, university authorities are now washing their hands of such “antiquated relics” altogether. With unified truth and shared morality discarded, universities are spiraling into a full-blown crisis of meaning.
How did this happen? Sociologist, Julie Rueben, sheds light on this question in her book, The Making of the Modern University. Reuben examines reform that has transformed American higher education since the turn of the twentieth century. There has been a movement trying “to recreate higher education by institutionalizing the ideal of open inquiry,” moving away from reliance on any sort of classical canon or emphasis on conveying time-transcending truths from teachers to students. This movement was part of the genesis of the research trend that idolizes the cutting edge and the new. The idea that there is enduring Truth began to go out of fashion—seen as limitation on the freedom of questioning and discovery.
With a new “bible” called scientific method, university reformers rallied under the “banner of freedom” and instituted changes: “electives, laboratory training, seminars and lectures, and support for original research.” Independent departments began to proliferate and professors scattered in every which way, driven to publish or discover something “new and different” in order to secure tenure and new-guard prestige.
In this transition from the classical college to the modern university, the older ideal of the unity of truth was largely gutted. The ideal lingered on in educational rhetoric: universities boasted that they offered instruction in all areas of knowledge and educated the “whole” student. The old triad—the good, true, and beautiful—was updated as service and character, research and objective knowledge, and culture and art” (267).
Along with this process of reform came a movement away from truth and substance—after all, “facts, data, principles even, are constantly changing.’ Instead of being taught established truths, reformers maintained, the students of the new university should be taught to question, test, and judge.” They seem to have gotten their way. (Rueben 64)
Some critics of this movement maintained that the trend toward more department fragmentation and elective-based curricula that “there was no longer any particular body of information that distinguished the educated from the uneducated” (67).
These long-emerging trends explain the enfeebling and scattering of college curricula that are too pronounced and alarming to be ignored (even by the upper echelons of the offending institutions’ administrations themselves)! When “Truth” falls by the wayside in education and is replaced by an obsession with the latest, the result is something akin to herding cats—bloody, hectic and fruitless.
Doctor Dallas Willard, a seasoned professor author and speaker addressed offered some insight into the “cat-herding frenzy” in academia in his opening address at the “Redeeming Reason” conference. He posed the problem that academia has lost confidence in “reason, truth and knowledge” and turned instead to research and prestigious professional status. With reason, defined as “human capacity to discover by thinking” or bringing things before the mind and dwelling on their properties and relations, out the door, foundational aspects of education crumble. It is no longer clear that schools know “what to aim at (the good) and how to achieve the aim (means to ends).” Instead of truth and knowledge, much of the academic world now regards “social and professional environment” as the “ultimate horizon” guidance.
Donald Kagan raises challenging questions in his article, “As Goes Harvard.” He calls Harvard’s curriculum a “vacant vessel.” He points out that nobody even pretends that undergraduate education is really a primary interest for the crème de la crème faculty of the “gold standard” institution. So when professors teach class their energy is likely focused elsewhere, and in reality “a significant number of courses in Harvard College are taught by graduate students, not as assistants to professors but in full control of the content.” On top of that “core values” problem, Kagan draws attention to a major ‘Core Curriculum’ crisis, arguing that “what is laughingly called the Core Curriculum…is distinguished by the absence of any core studies generally required.
These problems are pressing enough that “Harvard’s former dean is castigating the curriculum produced by the Harvard faculty—a curriculum that, he believes, exposes Harvard as ‘a university without a larger sense of educational purpose or a connection with its principle constituent.’ And it is equally intriguing that Derek C. Bok, a former president of Harvard, should have released his own troubled look at the same subject.”
Derek Bok’s book that Kagan refers to is Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should be Learning More. Bok criticizes the current epidemic of faculty “in a haze of unwarranted optimism,” assuming that “taking a variety of courses—any courses—in several different fields of knowledge will be enough to produce broadly educated, intellectually curious adults” (Bok 45). This mess of courses that students pick with less care and intentionality than they use at the freshman dining halls produces no such admirable result. Bok goes on to point out that “concentrations [or majors] receive too little collective scrutiny” as well. The result is that “the major in most colleges is little more than a gathering of courses taken in the department, lacking structure and depth” (46).
It is no wonder, with lack of structured curriculum and professor engagement that key skills increase far less than one would hope during the college years. A national study of college students found that in two-thirds of college students “substantial improvement” in analytic skills did not take place during college. Another study conducted by two professors, Ibrahim Halloun and David Hestenes, showed “clearly demonstrated” that “students can pass courses and even earn high grades without truly understanding the material or how to apply it to problems different from those covered in class (Bok 115-116).
These problems are not intractable, but they are certainly complex and needful of focused attention from the best and the brightest of university and college faculty. Therein lies the connected and compounding problem—the current stance of many professors.
Dr. Daniel Robinson, a professor of philosophy at Oxford describes the current professoriate in three categories in his article, “Three Faculties Under a Leaking Roof.” The first camp he euphemistically calls the ‘Faculty of Indignation’ is comprised of ideologically-driven has-beens who resorted to burning down buildings in the 60’s in order to be heard, and now take pleasure in lecturing to captive audiences. Robinson notes that in many cases the efforts of this group are relatively harmless on account of their transparent agendas tendency to fall upon contempt or giggling in the peanut gallery. Nevertheless the learning environment in the classroom of a member of this ‘Faculty of Indignation’ is far from the most conducive to intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm.
The second group of professors and the “one far more numerous, far less visible and equally alien to traditions and purposes” is the “Faculty of Fashion” (3). These are the over-achievers in the ‘gotta publish and get tenure’ race. For these professors undergraduates are worse then gnats—they take up more space and you can’t smash them without consequences. Robinson calls the “careerists, living off grants since their doctoral years, and still measuring their worth in the metric of ‘extramural support’” (2). One of the problems with this contingent is the power that they wield in light of the new values in academia described by Julie Rueben. When the latest discovery, publication or controversy becomes the ultimate standard in education, the Faculty of Fashion member interested in advancing ‘MY FIELD’ in the direction pointed by the “highest bidder” trumps the lowly writing professor who actually spends laborious hours sitting with a student essay trying to help with the painful and fruitful process of articulation. These careerist professors become darlings of faculty and bureaucracy since they make everybody feel like “funds are well spent,” and “thereby enjoy respect and attention in measures utterly unrelated to anything of consequence in the academic world” (2). They certainly don’t do much good for undergraduates.
The third camp of professors Robinson calls “with suitable hesitation” the Remnant. These are the Dallas Willard, Robinson himself and Allan Blooms of the world (among many others I hope and assume). Robinson defines the Remnant as those who “entered academic life as a calling, a vocation, drawn to a world of thought and inquiry as moths to the flame; those who needed no lengthy period of reflection to understand that learning is acquired for the express purpose of giving in away” (3). These professors light up with each student’s “aha” moment, and sparkle with delight when classroom discussion intensifies as people begin to be invested in the topic at hand. Why are there not more of these professors? Why the word “remnant” that seems to imply a breed on the endangered list? Robinson points out that these persons of distinction and inestimable value are the “least likely to demand more space, more funds, special treatment” (3) therefore they land on the sidelines while the Faculties of Indignation and Fashion elbow their way to center stage. The Remnant crew doesn’t “feed the monkey” like the others are sure to. With this marginalization the brunt of the loss falls to students. Robinson warns that the danger in this pattern is clear: “Once the Remnant has abandoned the campus to Indignation and Fashion, there will be nothing left in education that is ‘higher’” (3).
Allan Bloom, a good example of a “remnant” professor who taught Political Philosophy for many years observed another important contributor to the downslide of educational quality and effectiveness: books no longer play much of a role in students’ thinking or even education.
In the time since Bloom wrote, I think that the trend he describes has increased dramatically. With just about everything you could think to want (or never even imagine wanting) readily available online, sometimes walking into a library full of books is a bit like walking into the natural history museum full of reconstructed dinosaur skeletons. Bloom reflects that the characters and stories in great literature have, for many years been companions for people—inhabitants of the imagination that color the way one looks at the world—adds vibrance.
Just in the last few weeks I have had a lot of hard things happen in my work and personal life. It has been a time full of crossroads, challenges, growth and loneliness. Last weekend I looked at my apartment bookshelf that generally receives neither dusting nor any other sort of attention. For some reason my eyes fell upon my hardbound set of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I pulled out The Horse and His Boy and began to read. All of a sudden I was far from alone. The words, the images, the story and the characters transport and feed me on more levels than I could have anticipated. First of all, the familiarity of the story binds me to fond memories of when I first read the books with my parents—in a time when the world to me was small, safe, and made perfect sense. Secondly the turns of phrase and Lewis’s sparkling wit are tucked like treasures into every paragraph. As a “grown up” I find that the prose draws me into a conversation with the brilliant mind of a man who I will never be able to meet face to face on Earth. His insights convict me; his sense of humor brings me delight, and the fruits of his labor come alongside me and truly bring companionship.
Bloom illustrates that “it is a complex set of experiences that enables one to say so simply, ‘He is a Scrooge.’ Without literature, no such observations are possible and the fine art of comparison is lost” (64). When education no longer includes the great works, Bloom saw that students seek for “enlightenment wherever it is readily available, without being able to distinguish between the sublime and trash, insight and propaganda.” Ultimately the “failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is” (64).
“The quest begun by Odysseus and continued over three millennia has come to an end with the observation that there is nothing to seek” (143).
The truth is that I think during my “education” I spent less time in “conversation and friendship” with great books than I do now in my few hours of daily spare time. I had forgotten how rich such “friendships” can be as they transcend literal comings and goings of daily life and span centuries and millennia. (I know that may sound very nerdy and anti-social and I feel the need to note that I am not suggesting that books adequately substitute for real flesh and blood friends and experiences). But sometimes the interactions and routines of the day-to-day can use the infusion of a little “deeper texture.” I must also confess that part of the reason why I picked up one day and drove to Barnes and Noble in search of some “good classic literature” to dive into was that I read the above quotes from Allan Bloom and felt that he was speaking directly to my “worthless MTV-watching lazy mind.” I regret that I did not get this perspective until after college was ended—but maybe I will learn more now in these non-academic years. At least I am trying to keep from watching reruns of “Real World” episodes that I have already seen…one step at a time.
At first it seems just about ridiculous to ask the question, “does college really make you smart?” Isn’t this supposed to be a foregone conclusion? Isn’t that the main reason why parents and students send their piggy bank pennies to the coffers of higher education? These days people do look at the “college experience” as a rite of passage for the elite and aspiring elite of our culture, and ascribe value to more than just the intellectual and academic aspects of college. But as far as I can tell from the way colleges market themselves, reading, and conversations with many college-bound students and families, people have not given up on the idea that a student may emerge from college having made positive strides with regards to intellect and knowledge.
So the question remains: does college education—time spent inside the classroom and out—fulfill its promise? I have to say that I wonder if the average American college student is likely to get much more out of school than Bartleby at the South Harmon Institute of Technology.
In founding a fake school Bartleby’s resume boasts: starting a “business,” leasing and developing property, creating promotional materials, problem-solving, galvanizing a group of people and maneuvering through red tape. The average college student from (insert school name here) may wind up with the following accomplishments, for all the university seems to care: paying tuition, going to class, sleeping, drinking, paying tuition, cramming, testing, paying tuition, post-test mental purging, paying tuition.
I am not just referring to the frat boys who attend class quarterly when the kegs are empty and it’s too cold to sit on the porch all day—this is part of the contingent that I would bet a small fortune actually come out of college less intelligent than when they entered. I haven’t actually found a study that has addressed this with hard data (I don’t know who would be willing to partake in this possible very disheartening sort of study). But even for students whose drive to learn and achieve is “in the black” college doesn’t necessarily provide the stuff of smarts—truth, coherent worldview, mastery of subject matter or body of knowledge, or familiarity with the great works, breakthroughs and thoughts of our own or other cultures.
I remember my first visit to Tufts. I was elated, with the highest of hopes. At the end of graduation day when everyone began to wander off in separate directions I felt a troubling anti-climax. Perhaps it was the realization that the end had come, and after four years of “non-aims,” all of a sudden the school didn’t owe me anything, while I still owe them tens of thousands of dollars.