Sunday, February 3, 2013

Teaching Liberal Arts is for Losers

The liberal arts ideal is dead in the American university beyond, perhaps, major research universities with their significant graduate programmes and the research college. Those of us who teach at colleges that are not either one of these should, I suppose, give up the ghost, give up the idea and the ideal that an education should be more about bettering ones mind than making lots of mammon, the notion that seems to motivate so many of the young people who come to college these days. Perhaps we who treasure a liberal arts education simply need to give ourselves over to that teaching method that originated out of the big business mania for measurable outcomes during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era and which is today pedaled by conservative education reformers like Michelle Rhee, a teaching method that argues that teaching, regardless of the discipline, should be judged solely on the basis of whether or not students are able to put the correct answer down on a multiple choice test. It is not like most students who matriculate into college these days are going to make the broader economic, political, cultural, demographic, geographic, and theoretical connections a liberal arts education strives or should strive for anyway. Most students, if remarks on teacher "evaluations" are a guide, apparently just want to be entertained--"here we are now, entertain us". They don't, to use their "critical" term of choice these days, want to be "bored". Apparently, if student "evaluations" are again a guide, most students find the standard liberal arts education of how to tell rot from not rot "boring" these days.

Speaking of the term "boring", I am not sure what the uncritical use of the term "bored" and "boring" by so many college students in their teacher "evaluations" says about the impact of twelve years of a public and private education on them. Something very sad and tragic I suspect. I am, however, sure, that it says something not so good about how prominent and influential bread and circuses consumerism with its electronic opiates has become particularly on America's young people these days. What is a pity here, and this shows how the liberal arts education has failed in the US, is that so many student "critics" who use words like "boring" as a term of "critical" "analysis" don't appear to have really thought about whether the "concept" "boring". They don't seem to really think about whether "boring" is in the eye of the beholder, about whether history classes and the history documentaries I assign them to watch for my histor class, both of which many student "critics" often claim to be "boring", are inherently and universally "boring". They do not appear, in other words, to have really contemplated the empirical fact that one persons "boring", is another's "interesting" and "fascinating", a comment, if a minority one, that shows up on student "evaluations" as well.

Not only do some student "critics" these days appear to regard history as inherently "boring" they also, and this I find truly astounding--call me gobsmacked--claim on their "evaluations" that they don't see the relevance of a documentary on imperialism I assign them to watch or the relevance of a documentary on the industrial revolution and the change it brought I ask students to watch for my class on the history of the Modern Western World since 1450. When I read responses like these I invariably wonder about what is being taught, or not taught, to students in middle school and high school. I wonder whether teens and twenty somethings have the capability, developmentally speaking, to make connections between Western history, Western power, Western industrialisation, Western imperialism, and economic and political theory. I wonder about the impact nationalism has on our understanding or our misunderstandings of reality. I wonder about the impact teaching for the test is having on young people, particularly on their ability to make theoretical connections and their understanding of what history really is and how it actually works. I wonder whether an education that treasures critical engagement with the stuff of human life and its analysis can survive in a world where electronic gadgets spew out bits of unconnected and uninterrogated "information", much of it, particularly that surrounding the antics of "celebrities", mundane if not banal, to consumers who, while they may view these things as askew, don't really have the critical ability to analyse them because they find the tools which would give them the ability to critically analyse them "boring".

On a related but somewhat different matter, I have generally preferred adjuncting to a full-time position within a university particularly in the New York state where those of us who adjunct in the state university system can, thanks to our union, get excellent health and retirement benefits. The reason I prefer adjuncting is because I am not sure I could handle, on an everyday basis, the bureaucratic realities that are so much a part of the modern American university these days. I find bureaucracy and the repetitiveness of work within a bureaucracy, deadly to the intellectual soul. On the other hand, making ends meet on an adjuncts income is tough. Even tougher is the fact that we adjuncts generally get stuck teaching introductory general education classes to mostly non-majors with a limited interest in the subject but who have to take the course because it is a requirement because tenured and tenured wannabees don't want to do them. They realise that the generally poor to middling "evaluations", a I term I use advisedly, those of us who teach introductory gen ed courses generally get from students are hazardous to them moving up the ivy towered hierarchy ladder. There are times when I would really like to teach liberal arts classes to students who are really interested in taking them. But hey, adjuncting and teaching introductory classes to undergraduates is better than working in retail for minimum wage with no benefits, jobs that seem to dominate good old neo-liberal Ebenezer Scrooge America these days.

One thing I have learned during my life is that in Ebenezer Scrooge America a a liberal art isn't going to get someone with my limited or non-existent cultural capital much beyond a rather tenuous economic existence on the margins of American society. It certainly isn't getting me a bunch of academics banging at my front door wanting to hire me for Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Berkeley, or even Fort Hays State University or Sienna College. I guess in the end it is me, the bloke who thought that a critical and questioning intellect was the highest and greatest goal of an examining life, who is the real looser because virtually no one and virtually no institution in modern America really values the critically examined life. Funny how I used to believe that education could liberate humankind from ignorance, superstition, and dominant or hegemonic discourses. This notion seems naively quaint now, rather like the Quaker belief in the inherent goodness of humankind and my former belief that the academy was the only place on earth in which the ideals of the critical beloved community had been made flesh. R.I.P.

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