What's Wrong With the Academy?

As Saladin said to Balian when Balian asked what Jerusalem was worth, "Nothing. Everything!"

Nothing. Nothing at all. My colleagues often complain that our students can't write, but I don't see it. What I see is a higher level of literacy in our culture than at any time in human history. Okay, so it's not perfect. But it's a hell of a lot higher than it was even in our own country less than a hundred years ago. Nor am I impressed by the stories of how hard students used to work compared with today. All of the students whom I teach work extremely hard. And so what if I teach at an elite institution? I am talking here about colleagues who teach at the same institution and who say these sorts of things every so often when we are complaining about how bad things have gotten these days. So apples with apples. In my experience, students "these days" write better, work harder and think better than even the students whom I taught sixteen years ago, and those were hardly illiterate.

And then look at our culture. Okay, so not everyone reads. But do you have any idea how many do compared with the number who could even sign their names in the period that I study? Give me a break. We are surrounded with literacy. Every airport sells books. Sure, people watch a lot of videos and play a lot of computer games. So what? They also buy more books in a minute (I'm guessing here) than were even available for the first seven thousand nine hundred and ten years of human history (assuming history goes back to around 6000 BC). We have no idea what we're talking about when we say people don't read and write enough now. Enough for what? And have you read some of the literature and essays and scholarship that people are writing these days? Sure, there are some great works from the earlier period that have yet to be surpassed (e.g. the Bible, Augustine, Shakespeare). But, seriously, can we really think that we are not in a golden age of literary production when we have not only Marilynn Robinson, A.S. Byatt and Doris Lessing to read, but also Terry Pratchett, David Foster Wallace, and Hans Urs von Balthasar--to name a few?

But, you will say, this has nothing per se to do with the academy. Or does it? Would we have the level of literacy and literary production that, as a culture, we most definitely do without the extension of university education more generally that has occurred over the past hundred or so years? Hard to say. Certainly, as teachers of history and literature and philosophy and the other liberal arts, we would like to think we have had some effect at the very least on the general level of appreciation for the works of the human spirit and heart if not in fact on the spirits and hearts of those who have been inspired to produce them.

And yet, everything. Everything is wrong with the way in which we teach, even more so with the way in which we defend the way we teach. Commenting on last night's rant, Luo points to the "democratization" or "industrialization" of our mutual discipline (history) as contributing to the malaise; I think it is central. We are trained--and training others--to produce (note the metaphor). Not create or inspire or think. But produce. And what do we produce? Writing, yes, but writing according to a particular schedule to feed presses that we are at the same time told don't want what we write, but something else (i.e. something that will sell). Perhaps the professors in the business school are happy with this structure, but for those of us in the humanities...well, let's just say that I have read my fair share of works written for the sake of the degree rather than the material as well as my fair share of works written for the sake of a buck. Neither genre is particularly digestible in large chunks. Does that mean that we should have no deadlines, no expectations, no criteria of evaluation? Of course not. It does mean that it might be useful to rethink the way in which we introduce our students to the trivial arts. Plus, as I said yesterday, I think that my colleague Lisa is right: there is something deeply amiss in the way in which we teach our students to read against their own moral and aesthetic responses.

I had some more thoughts on all of this, but now I'm cold and need to catch the Dragon Baby so that we can go inside. Comments welcome.


  1. Flaming! Makes me wish I were a graduate student.

  2. I love this video! It reminds me of both the aspirations that got me into European history in the first place and the other personal motivation, which is to be around by the smartest and most interesting people, like Bear and Millinerd!

    But on the other hand, this sense of privilege has always been at the bottom of everyone's heart however bitterly they are complaining. And I have to say it's exactly this aristocratic sensibility, when it confronts with our peasant's budget or social obscurity, leads to our dissatisfaction.

    As regards Bear's questions, I have only been in this country for two years so it's not really my position to comment. It seems that a literary culture in a very broad sense, including natural/social sciences/mass media, could expand at the cost of a literacy in a much narrower sense. Studies in humanities require a specific kind of "literacy" with its focus on things such as classical languages or philosophy. Today a medieval history student perhaps knows more advanced math than a math professor a hundred years ago. But it's also quite likely that his Latin is much worse than a random parish priest in the nineteenth century.

    About the "industrialization," I absolutely agree that we should follow our own aesthetic and spiritual dispositions!! But usually when I say this, people's immediate response is "Are your parents rich?" Also, there is a trade-off: I guess graduate education in Europe is less "industrialized" than here; the problem is that the quality of their literary/academic produce is massively uneven, covering a wide spectrum from revolutionarily original, eccentrically personal, to simply useless. But "thanks to" the industrialization, American graduate education maintains a relatively high average, discouraging both the unusually original and the unusually lunatic...I start rambling again and better stop here.


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