It’s the beginning of another academic year — my 25th. I’ve often said to students who ask how and why I do what I do that the day I start looking over my shoulder and second guess myself and wonder about purpose, it may be the beginning of the end.
I’m feeling that I’ve been totally unsuccessful and that I’ve done nothing, nothing at all to leave this place we all live in a bit better. Certainly within the institutions where I have worked, I’ve been totally unsuccessful at inspiring any meaningful change focused on what Edward O. Wilson calls consilience. This is very difficult for me to say. It’s very difficult to admit that I’ve been totally ineffective at teaching college students; that I may have done more harm then good. Added to the emptiness.
Take a look — corruption, graft, violence, intolerance, a lack of dialog, little to no communication in a world completely “hooked” in and “linked” and the ongoing competition to get ahead by any means necessary define the malaise we’re all feeling. This is profound evidence that education has failed humanity. It’s evidence that the books and ideas and essays and conversations I’ve been involved in over 25 years have made no impression on the students I’ve had.
For the most part, the work has been solitary. Feelings, ideas, the search for meaning is done with no one. When we do gather in this ivy world where nothing ever seems to be at stake, we gather to hear ourselves talk, to pontificate on how wonderful we are at attracting students, when in reality it’s a sellers market everywhere in higher ed — the blind leading the blind. Parents looking for status for their children — better lives or at least lives equal to theirs.
But the world has changed — it has been changing. And no one is really safe anymore and there are absolutely no guarantees, especially when we think about tomorrow. We are still grasping at old models, the models that have gotten us to this lost point.
It’s not surprising that colleges and universities, today, begin their 2009-2010 academic year in debt, having lost millions from the economic downturn, primarily because for the past 10 to 15 years, we have competed with each other at the surface level — gyms, restaurants, new buildings, extensive IT; the look and feel of schools prevailed over purpose. The importance of the US News and World Report list, which we deny, but rush to immediately upon publication. Now we begin the year wondering about the “future of education” and the “future of the humanities” and “the future of the liberal arts.”
But the real question is this: Why are we asking this question now when this conversation began as early as 1996 when Bill Readings published University in Ruins? Where have we been? Is it a bit late?
“It is no longer clear what the place of the University is in society nor what the exact nature of that society is, and the changing institutional form of the University is something intellectuals cannot afford to ignore,” wrote Readings 13 years ago. We ignored his call. We built buildings, invested in wild economic vehicles and now we’re wondering where we are. The academic year begins in ruins and we’re charging more for it.
I look at my syllabi and wonder what the purpose is to what I’m doing. We wonder what students are doing too. I heard a talented student give advise to students the other day. She said that there are at least 3 readers in every course with every book. The student who skims for facts and ideas; the teacher who lectures and highlights and points to facts and ideas and themes; classmates who lend their reading, perhaps helping you adjust — maybe you missed something. This method is survival, not learning; it is a denial of the most fundamental aspect of a meaningful education, which is contemplation, necessary for ensuring that students — and the teacher — spend time realizing how what one reads and learns “enters” or is synthesized with one’s life.
I worry that I’ve been part of an assembly line. I feel responsible for the world I’ve helped create. I can’t help but think that, like global warming (we have to reduce CO2 emissions), education has likewise contributed to the privileging of larger, fatter, richer lives founded on more voracious competition that inspires callousness. Should we, in education, not be asking what we’ve done?
In the next few postings, I hope to re-examine how I got here, using this space as a mirror that might help define how I got to this uncanny place.