Friday, October 29, 2010

Crisis of the Yawniversity

David A. Bell does not like Mark C. Taylor's new book on the crisis of the University.  He's more appreciative of Louis Menand's and Martha Nussbaum's books on the same subject, but is not fully satisfied with them either.  Bell, however, does offer an alternative diagnosis.  He argues that the "great confinement" era of University education, which began in the late 19th century, may at last be breaking down.  Consequently, Universities should awaken from their specialized slumbers and join Google Scholar, i-Tunes U and the Teaching Company at the open access party.
Why should serious public outreach be marginalized, just because it falls into the gap between traditional definitions of research and teaching?  Is an essay that intelligently guides interested amateurs through the thickets of learning really less valuable to the humanities than a piece of original research?  From a strategic point of view, at least, it is probably far more valuable.  Additional public outreach should not replace original scholarship, but it can complement it very usefully.  Indeed, by helping create a larger, more visible public constituency for the humanities, it will maintain the conditions under which serious scholarship can survive.  It will hardly solve this most recent, and most serious, 'crisis in the humanities,'  But it might, at least alleviate some of the worst effects.
In short, scholars - without forsaking specialization - must become contagions of instruction, habitually and effectively imparting enthusiasm for their subjects to a public that may not assume their subjects' importance.  Or, to put it more succinctly, teach or perish.