Friday, May 30, 2008

academy bashing

Declaring what's wrong with higher education is as an industry. Books and articles on the subject appear like the trustworthy rising of the Nile, annually fertilizing the world's least justified case of bitterness: that of the graduate student.

Still, the process can be helpful. Ross Douthat (The Great Higher Education Debate) helpfully collates discussion around the current soil deposit. I am indebted to one commenter who provided the exact quotation from The West Wing that has been long lodged in my brain as a breathlessly facile example of what Charles Murray calls "Educational Romanticism." Education as the silver bullet? A silver bullet that had no effect on one of the 20th century's most horrifying secretions: The cultured Nazi.

Perhaps there will one day appear a German pope who, arising from such a context, understands the need for educators to also focus on student volition. Information, after all, cannot make people good. Perhaps such a pope (after shrewdly critiquing the American tradition of pragmatism) would say something like "while we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will." Perhaps.

In the meantime, I can't resist a little academy bashing of my own. Here's a quote from Wallace Stegner's poignant little novel, Crossing to Safety, that charts two couples tested by the tenure process. The one who succeeds, towards the end of his life, says this:
"Though I have been busy, perhaps over-busy all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards - the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees - have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with."
And then there's this bit of dialog from the (somewhat saucy) film We Don't Live Here Anymore, also chronicling the lives of two academic couples:
Terry: Hank, people who know you like your work, you're being published. It doesn't get much better than that, does it?

Hank: It's a poem, Terry. It's really not that important.

Terry: No, Hank, it isn't. You want important go work in a cancer ward with people who are puking from chemo or teach math to a kid who has brain damage from fetal alcohol syndrome.

Hank: Those people generally aren't that much fun to be around.
Alright, enough bashing. Education is important, and uncertain as the path may be, the surprise ending to this clever piece should put things into perspective. I learned my lesson about complaining when, after murmuring about some funding to a grad colleague at a museum reception, a waiter mozied up to me with some hors d'ouvre, only to say, "Salmon truffle?"

Back to work.