Digital Humanities as Culture Difference: Adeline Koh on Hacking and Yacking

My colleague Bernardo Michael in the History department here has been pressing me to understand that properly understood Digital Humanities should be deeply connected to our College-wide efforts to address questions of diversity and what the AAC&U calls inclusive excellence.  (Bernardo also serves as the special assistant to the President for Diversity affairs).  At first blush I will admit that this has seemed counter-intuitive to me and I have struggled to articulate the priority between my interest in developing new efforts in Digital Humanities that I tie to our college’s technology plan and my simultaneous concerns with furthering our institutions diversity plan (besides just a general ethical interest, my primary field of study over the past 20 years has been multicultural American Literature).

Nevertheless, I’ve started seeing more and more of Bernardo’s point as I’ve engaged in the efforts to get things started in Digital Humanities.  For one thing, the practices and personages of the digital world are talked about in cultural terms:  We use language like “digital natives” and “digital culture” and “netizens”–cultural terms that attempt to articulate new forms of social and cultural being.  In the practical terms of trying to create lift-off for some of these efforts, an administrator faces the negotiation of multiple institutional cultures, and the challenging effort to get faculty–not unreasonably happy and proud about their achievements within their own cultural practices–to see that they actually need to become conversant in the languages and practices of an entirely different and digital culture.

Thus I increasingly see that Bernardo is right;  just as we need to acclimate ourselves and become familiar with other kinds of cultural differences in the classroom, and just as our teaching needs to begin to reflect the values of diversity and global engagement, our teaching practices also need to engage students as digital natives.  Using technology in the classroom or working collaboratively with students on digital projects isn’t simply instrumental–i.e. it isn’t simply about getting students familiar with things they will need for a job.  It is, in many ways, about cultural engagement, respect, and awareness.  How must our own cultures within academe adjust and change to engage with a new and increasingly not so new culture–one that is increasingly central and dominant to all of our cultural practices?

Adeline Koh over at Richard Stockton College (and this fall at Duke, I think), has a sharp post on these kinds of issues, focusing more on the divide between theory and practice or yacking and hacking in Digital Humanities.  Adeline has more theory hope than I do, but I like what she’s probing in her piece and I especially like where she ends up:

If computation is, as Cathy N. Davidson (@cathyndavidson) and Dan Rowinski have been arguing, the fourth “R” of 21st century literacy, we very much need to treat it the way we already do existing human languages: as modes of knowledge which unwittingly create cultural valences and systems of privilege and oppression. Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a civilization.”  As Digital Humanists, we have the responsibility to interrogate and to understand what kind of world, and what kind of civilization, our computational languages and forms create for us. Critical Code Studies is an important step in this direction. But it’s important not to stop there, but to continue to try to expand upon how computation and the digital humanities are underwritten by theoretical suppositions which still remain invisible.

More Hack, Less Yack?: Modularity, Theory and Habitus in the Digital Humanities | Adeline Koh

I suspect that Bernardo and Adeline would have a lot to say to each other.

What are the public responsibilities of private education?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about education for the public good and what that must mean. It’s a sign of an impoverished civic imagination that the most we can come up with is that the purposes of an education is to get a better job so you can raise American competitiveness in the global marketplace. I’ve been using Andrew Delbanco as a part time foil in these reflections. In a new interview over at Inside Higher Ed, Delbanco takes on this general issue yet again.

Interview with author of new book on the past and future of higher education | Inside Higher Ed

If a college functions well, it should break down, or at least diminish, the distinction between private and public good. Genuinely educated persons recognize how much they owe to the society that has furnished them with opportunities, and they feel an obligation to give back. This doesn’t mean that a college should teach its students to be ascetics or try to turn them into saints. Personal ambition will always be part of what a successful education requires and rewards. But a good college fosters an atmosphere of public-spiritedness. It teaches its students that individuals depend for fulfillment on community, and that a true community is constituted by responsible individuals.

(via Instapaper)

I like so much of this, but I think Delbanco is only addressing half the question. That is, it seems to me we have a generally compromised sense of public-spiritedness as such in the United States. Our national purposes reduced drastically to a kind of civic consumerism. Students, we, imagine that we are being public spirited by pursuing what it takes to get a job, no longer conceiving of “the public” in a rich complex fashion that can be activated outside the context of warfare and external threats to abstractly defined freedoms. I agree with Delanco, but I wonder whether he is invoking an older notion of public spiritedness that has itself become impoverished. Education as a private good is reflecting a culture that can only image the public through private metaphors and private actions

[Side note: I met Delbanco in the bathroom at the Rethinking Success conference. He seemed stunned that someone had actually read his book. As opposed, I guess, to just reading the excerpts in the chronicle review]

What is an education for? Remembering the American Revolution

History can remind us of just how expansive our ancestors could be, and how foreshortened our own vision has become.  One thing that makes our current discussion of higher education so difficult is the dramatic impoverishment of the range of our discourse about educational purposes: the narrower our frame of reference the more cramped our imagination, the more limited our creative responses to crisis, and the fewer our possible options.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham begins his sixth chapter with a citation from John Adams.

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Of this particular citation and others like it, Harpham goes on to say,

[It] is worth recalling that once upon a time the ruling class–which had also been the revolutionary class–imagined that they were risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in behalf of a futurity where what would come to be called the humanities would dominate the concerns of the citizenry.  They humanities, they felt, would represent the crowning achievement of a nation that, having prevailed in war, would build its new society on a foundation of such economic, political, military, and social security that citizens could enrich their lives by turning their attention to the study and appreciation of material and textual artifacts…Adams, Jefferson, and others believed that a general concern for the humanities represented not only the best possible future for the new nation but also the natural progression of mankind, if freed from fear and want.

 We are, of course, a long way from that vision now, our educational vision cramped by a cultural imagination that extends no further than security, economic security first and foremost, but other kinds of security as well.  The quest for security leads fathers to discourage their sons interest in poetry and philosophy and insists that they study business, or leads other students to declare as education majors so they “have something to fall back on”.  It’s worth noting that Adams spoke in a period far more precarious and insecure for the American Republic than anything we face today, and so our current obsessions and fears that education ought to be about employment first and always seems spiritually and ethically….empty.  In the midst of a national experiment that could still have failed, Adams was able to imagine that work existed for the higher purposes of education, rather than education existing for the “practical” purposes of work.

Not that there was no debate between advocates for what is now called professional education and what we continue to call the liberal arts.  It was, in some respects, ever thus, even if it seems more thus now than ever. Harpham points out that John Locke was a philosopher in favor of what we now call professional education and dismissive of the preciousness of the liberal arts.  Harpham also points out that it is a good thing the Lockes of the world did not win the argument and the Adamses did since no one would now be reading either one were it not for the continuing if weakened importance of a liberal arts education.

However,  I think there’s an irony in Adams’s formulation (and in Harpham’s appreciation of it) since it seems to assume that fear and want are defined qualities that can be addressed, finite needs that can be satisfied.  We live in a society that in some respects makes a living off the generation and regeneration of fear–the beneficiaries being our massive security industries–the prisons, the military, homeland security, gated communities, home security systems, and on and on.  We are also a culture defined by the generation of want rather than its satisfaction.  As much as I admired Steve Jobs, Apple is a company built on the generation of desire for things people never knew they wanted, and the iconic Apple is one small mythic reminder of the infinite allure of the new product hanging like fruit from the lowest shelf.

The irony of Adams’s formulation is that there is never any end of want, and our insatiable desires generate, at a minimum, the ongoing fear that we will somehow lose track of all our baubles or have them taken from us.  And our fundamental fears for our children have to do with the fear that they will have fewer baubles than we have.  And so finally, if want and if fear are potentially never ending–like the wars that Adams feels compelled to study–what room left ever for those higher human ideals that Adams deferred for himself. I think he deferred them unknowingly for his sons and daughters and granddaughters and grandsons as well. Are they not deferred always, if we begin with the belief that security is the means and education is at the end? In the world we have created we will never be secure enough for the poetry and philosophy that Adams at least desired for his progeny.

A couple of years ago I tried to think through my own rationale for the purposes of education.  You can listen to it here as you have interest:  Convocation Address: Education for Praise

Distanced and Close Reading in literary study: Metaphors for love

I am old enough now to begin sentences with the phrase “I am old enough…”  Seriously, though, I am old enough now to feel like I have lived through one revolution, into a new orthodoxy, and now the experience of a new revolution in literary studies.  In the ongoing debates I hear about the digital humanities versus whatever other kind of humanities happens to be at hand, I keep having this vertiginous sense of deja vu, as if I’m hearing the same arguments I heard two decades ago, but transformed in to a key just different enough that I can’t tell whether today’s debates are mere variations on a theme or some genuinely new frame of discourse.

The song that I think is remaining the same is the divide between the proponents of what gets called “distanced reading,”  which in some hands is a shorthand for all things digital humanities (if it’s digital, it must be distanced as compared to the human touch of paper, ink, and typewriters–how the industrial period came to be the sign and symbol of all thing human and intimate I am not entirely clear), and close reading which is somehow taken to be THE form of intimate human contact with the text.

This division is exemplified in Stanley Fish’s recent essay on the digital humanities in the New York times, an argument that has the usual whiff of caustic Fishian insight leavened with what I take to be a genuine if wary respect for what he sees in the practices of distanced reading.  Nevertheless, for Fish, it is finally close reading that is genuinely the work of the humane critic devoted to intimacy with the text:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

Ironically, in an earlier period it was Fish and precisely this kind of close reading (as practiced by deconstructionists) that was descried for its lack of seriousness, for the way it removed literature from the realm of human involvement and into the play of mere textuality .  By contrast, the distanced readers in those days imagined themselves as defenders of humanity (or, since humanism was a dirty word, at least the defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the miserable, the huddled masses).  Historicism read widely and broadly in the name of discourse, and proclaimed itself a liberating project, ferreting out the hidden political underbelly in a multitude of texts and considering literary criticism to be an act of responsible justice-seeking over and against the decadent jouissance-seekers of post-structuralism.

A recent blog by Alex Reid takes up this same criticism of what he describes as the Close Reading industry, arguing for the ways digitization can free us from the tyranny of the industrialized close reader:

In the composition classroom, the widgets on the belt are student papers. If computers can read like people it’s because we have trained people to read like computers. The real question we should be asking ourselves is why are we working in this widget factory? And FYC essays are perhaps the best real world instantiation of the widget, the fictional product, produced merely as a generic example of production. They never leave the warehouse, never get shipped to market, and are never used for anything except test runs on the factory floor. 

In an earlier period, it was again the close-readers who were accused of being mechanistic, dry, and scientific as putatively more humanistic readers accused New Critics of an unfeeling scientism in their formalist attitude toward the text, cutting out every human affect in the quest for a serious and scientific study of literature.

I wonder at root, whether this is the controlling metaphor, the key to which all our tunes in literary and cultural studies are played, a quest for the human that is not merely scientific, and yet an unrepressed desire for the authority of the scientist to say things with security, to wear the mantle of authority that our culture apparently only believes a statistical method can endow.

It is probably a mark against my character that I tend to be a both/and pragmatist as a thinker.  I do not buy the notion that distanced reading is inconsequential, or some how less about truth or less serious than the close rhetorical readings that Fish invokes.  At the same time, I am not too given to the euphoric and pugnacious challenges that can sometimes characterize digital humanities responses to the regnant forms of literary criticism.  At their best, Fishian forms of close reading are endowed not simply with acute attention, but with attention that seems to give birth to a form of wisdom that only attentiveness and close examination can provide, the kind of insistent close reading that led Gerard Manley Hopkins to seek the “inscape” of individual instances beyond categories, rather than simply the ways in which individuals fit into the vast landscapes popular in his post-romantic period.

I was reminded of this need to attend to the close properties of the individual use of language again in a recent article on Chaucer in the Chronicle. The writer attends to the detail of Chaucer’s language in a way that seems to reveal something important about the ways in which we are human.

translating Chaucer is like translating any other foreign language: The words are different from one language to the next. And then comes the third category, the most fascinating and the most aggravating because it is the trickiest: the false cognates, words that look like they should mean what they do in Modern English, but don’t. False cognates are especially aggravating, and fascinating when they carry their Middle and Modern English meanings simultaneously. These are exciting moments, when we see, through a kind of linguistic time-lapse photography, Chaucer’s language on its way to becoming our own.

In Middle English, for instance, countrefete means “to counterfeit,” as in “to fake,” but it also has the more flattering meaning of “to imitate.” Corage has not only the Modern English sense of bravery but also, frequently, overtones of sexual energy, desire, or potency. Corage takes its roots from the word coeur, or “heart,” and transplants them slightly southward. The same is true for solas, or “solace.” The “comfort,” “satisfaction,” or “pleasure” it entails is often sexual.

Lust might seem to pose no problem for the modern reader. Yet in the 14th century, the word, spelled as it is today, could mean any kind of desire or pleasure, though around that time it was beginning to carry a sexual connotation, too. And lest it seem as if false cognates always involve sex, take sely, or “silly.” It most often means “blessed” or “innocent,” as well as “pitiful” and “hapless,” but “foolish” was making its way in there, too.

A sentence like “The sely man felte for luste for solas” could mean “The pitiful man felt desire for comfort.” It could just as likely mean: “The foolish man felt lust for sex.” In Chaucer’s hands, it could mean both at once.

Chaucer was fully aware of the slipperiness of language. He delights in it; he makes his artistic capital from it. He is an inveterate punster. The Wife of Bath, for example, repeatedly puns on the word queynte (eventually the Modern English “quaint”). In the 14th century, the word means not only “curious” or “fascinating” but also the curious part of her female anatomy that most fascinates her five husbands. What’s more, the slipperiness of language gives Chaucer the tools to form his famous irony and ambiguity. If the way-too-pretty Prioress is “nat undergrowe” (“not undergrown”), how big is she?

(via Instapaper)

 These kinds of particularities of language are the worthy objects of our attention as literary scholars.  At the same time,  I do not think we need say that distanced reading plays no role in our understanding of such peculiarities.  A Chaucer project on the order of the Homer Multi-text, might actually deepen and multiply our understanding of Chaucer’s slipperiness and originality.  At the same time, vast database-driven analyses of every text written within a hundred years of Chaucer might allow us to discover the kinds of linguistic sources he was drawing on and manipulating anew for his own purposes, they might show us new creativities we had not imagined, or they might show us things we had taken to be unique were fairly common stock and trade.
These kinds of knowledges could not be derived from a contest between methods, but only from a reading marked by attentiveness, skill and desire, one willing to draw on any resource to understand what one wishes to know, which used to be a metaphor for love.

Is the decline of the Humanities responsible for Wall Street Corruption?

Andrew Delbanco’s view in a recent Huffington Post essay is “Yes”, at least to some indeterminate degree, though I admit that the title of his post “A Modest Proposal” gave me some pause given its Swiftian connotations:

What I do know is that at the elite universities from which investment firms such as Goldman Sachs recruit much of their talent, most students are no longer seeking a broad liberal education. They want, above all, marketable skills in growth fields such as information technology. They study science, where the intellectual action is. They sign up for economics and business majors as avenues to the kind of lucrative career Mr. Smith enjoyed. Much is to be gained from these choices, for both individuals and society. But something is also at risk. Students are losing a sense of how human beings grappled in the past with moral issues that challenge us in the present and will persist into the future. This is the shrinking province of what we call “the humanities.”

For the past twenty years, the percentage of students choosing to major in the humanities — in literature, philosophy, history, and the arts – has been declining at virtually all elite universities. This means, for instance, that fewer students encounter the concept of honor in Homer’s Iliad, or Kant’s idea of the “categorical imperative” — the principle that Mr. Smith thinks is out of favor at Goldman: that we must treat other people as ends in themselves rather than as means to our own satisfaction. Mr. Smith was careful to say that he was not aware of anything illegal going on. But few students these days read Herman Melville’s great novella, Billy Budd, about the difficult distinction between law and justice.

Correlation is not cause, and it’s impossible to prove a causal relation between what students study in college and how they behave in their post-college lives. But many of us who still teach the humanities believe that a liberal education can strengthen one’s sense of solidarity with other human beings — a prerequisite for living generously toward others. One of the striking discoveries to be gained from an education that includes some knowledge of the past is that certain fundamental questions persist over time and require every generation to answer them for itself.

via Andrew Delbanco: A Modest Proposal.

This is consonant with Delbanco’s thesis–expressed in his book College:  What it Was, Is, and Should Be–that education in college used to be about the education of the whole person but has gradually been emptied of the moral content of its originally religious more broadly civic vision, and the preprofessional and pecuniary imagination has become the dominant if not the sole rationale for pursuing an education. I am viscerally attracted to this kind of argument, so I offer a little critique rather than cheerleading.  First, while I do think its the case that an education firmly rooted in the humanities can provide for the kinds of deep moral reflection that forestalls a purely instrumentalist view of our fellow citizens–or should I say consumers–it’s also very evidently the case that people with a deep commitment to the arts and humanities descend into moral corruption as easily as anyone else.  The deeply felt anti-semitism of the dominant modernists would be one example, and the genteel and not so genteel racism of the Southern Agrarians would be another.  When Adorno said that there was no poetry after Auschwitz, he was only partly suggesting that the crimes of the 20th century were beyond the redemption of literature;  he also meant more broadly that the dream that literature and culture could save us was itself a symptom of our illness, not a solution to it.  Delbanco might be too subject to this particular dream, I think.

Secondly, I think that this analysis runs close to blaming college students for not majoring in or studying more in the humanities and is a little bit akin to blaming the victim–these young people have inherited the world we’ve given them, and we would do well to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what kind of culture we’ve put in place that would make the frantic pursuit of economic gain in the putative name of economic security a sine qua non in the moral and imaginative lives of our children.

That having been said.  Yes, I do think the world–including the world of Wall Street–would be better if students took the time to read Billy Budd or Beloved, wedging it in somewhere between the work study jobs, appointments with debt counselors, and multiple extracurriculars and leadership conferences that are now a prerequisite for a job after college.

What does an education for democracy look like?

I’ve been reading a good bit lately about the importance of education for democracy, most recently via the new Patheos post from my colleague John Fea.  As is often the case, John roots his analysis of our current state of affairs in its comparison to the vision of the founding fathers in the early republic.  Broadly speaking, the narrative John sketches is that we have moved from an education for democracy to an education for utility (or for jobs).   Our contemporary discourse is focused almost exclusively on the purposes of education in procuring paying jobs for individuals and securing economic health for the nation.  Of this current state of affairs, John notes the following:

But is the kind of training necessary for a service-oriented capitalist economy to function the same kind of training necessary for a democracy to flourish? It would seem that the study of history, literature, philosophy, chemistry, politics, anthropology, biology, religion, rhetoric, and economics is essential for producing the kind of informed citizen necessary for a democracy to thrive. Democracy requires what the late Christopher Lasch called “the lost art of argument”—the ability to engage unfamiliar ideas and enter “imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them.” The liberal arts teach this kind of civil dialogue. The founders knew what they were talking about.

Some of what John is saying is echoed in Andrew Delbanco’s book, which I discussed a couple of days ago and have made my way through a bit further.  The virtue of Delbanco’s book is to push John’s analysis even further in to the past, noting the high value that the Puritans put on education as a means of developing the whole person.  In other words, the writers of the early republic had inherited what was essentially a religious ideal.  We seek education fundamentally out of an ethical commitment to others and out of a religious commitment to a higher calling.

despite its history of misuse and abuse, there is something worth conserving in the claim, as Newman put it, that education “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character.” 18 College, more than brain-training for this or that functional task, should be concerned with character— the attenuated modern word for what the founders of our first colleges would have called soul or heart. Although we may no longer agree on the attributes of virtue as codified in biblical commandments or, for that matter, in Enlightenment precepts (Jefferson thought the aim of education was to produce citizens capable of “temperate liberty”), students still come to college not yet fully formed as social beings, and may still be deterred from sheer self-interest toward a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 733-739). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Delbanco argues that the uniquely American insight about a college education–a gift as unique and perhaps more important than jazz or Hollywood–is that this ideal of a transformative education is not limited to an elite but should in principle be available to all.  This is why the American system of general education at the tertiary level is nearly unique in the modern world.

The question, however, is whether this ideal has ever been realized in practice.  The answer is obviously no.  College attendance was in fact very limited until very recently, and the kind of education Jefferson and others imagined was primarily achieved through other means than a college education in the populace as a whole–in what we would now call high school or even earlier since even compulsory high school was a post-republican ideal.  Ironically, the very intense conflicts in the United States over the value of college and whether or not college should focus on liberal learning or professional preparation is precisely a consequence of the efforts toward its democratization.  The conflict between “practical” education for the masses and liberal education for the elite is a very long an old argument, one that has animated discussions about education throughout the twentieth century.  Think of the conflict between DuBois and Booker T. Washington  over what kind of education was most likely to secure freedom for the average AFrican American.

The more democratic that American education has become, the more the questions about what exactly we are preparing the average student for has been driven home. This is why both a liberal President like Barak Obama and conservative CEOs agree that what’s most important is education for a job.  Those of us in the liberal arts like John Fea and I disagree.  We show ourselves to be participants in a very old and long standing debate in American education, one as yet unresolved though proponents of a liberal education have been knocked to the mat pretty often lately.

Andrew Delbanco–What are the virtues of a college education?

I’ve begun reading Andrew Delbanco’s latest book, College, What It Was, Is, and Should Be, impressed by an essay in the Chronicle Review derived from the book.  I’ve only made my way through the first chapter, but there are a several things to note immediately.

First, Delbanco dances a little bit with question of what college was. He  shows how all of our current debates and lamentations about college life–students are too often debauched, professors teach too little and too poorly, and the college curriculum isn’t focused well enough on getting students jobs–are all of very long-standing, common to our public discourse as equally in 1776 as in 1976 and on to today.  At the same time he shows how in some very real ways colleges have already abandoned and are ever more quickly fleeing from ideals that they once embodied, however imperfectly.

For Delbanco, the genius of college–as opposed to the professionally oriented university–is primarily to be found in an ethical imperative rather than an economic motive.  It’s main value is to establish a kind of personhood that is necessary for citizenship.  It’s qualities include the following:

1. A skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.

2. The ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.

3. Appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts.

4. A willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own.

5. A sense of ethical responsibility.

These habits of thought and feeling are hard to attain and harder to sustain. They cannot be derived from exclusive study of the humanities, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, and they cannot be fully developed solely by academic study, no matter how well “distributed” or “rounded.” It is absurd to imagine them as commodities to be purchased by and delivered to student consumers. Ultimately they make themselves known not in grades or examinations but in the way we live our lives.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 138-148). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

For Delbanco, these qualities are essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy.  He puts this most succinctly and eloquently, I thought, in his adaptation for the Chronicle Review, referencing Matthew Arnold and saying, “Knowledge of the past, in other words, helps citizens develop the capacity to think critically about the present–an indispensable attribute of a healthy democracy.”  Amen and a mane.

The problem, and Delbanco is, of course, aware of it, is that what college is, and is fast exclusively becoming, is a commodity that is purchased by and delivered to student customers.  The economic metaphors for college life are triumphant, and no more clearly so than in our discourse about whether a college education is “worth it.”  The question of whether a college education is “worth it” is posed and answered these days in almost exclusively monetary terms.  How much does it cost, and how much will you get for the investment?

Over and against this rather ruthless bottom line, Delbanco’s descriptions seem noble, but I’m a little afraid that it is so much tilting at windmills (I reserve judgement until I’ve actually finished the book).  Only today I was discussing these matters with several of my faculty who are going to be attending the conference at Wake Forest, Rethinking Success:  From the liberal arts to careers in the 21st century.  Our career development director described to me parents who come to her asking for job statistics for their children as they chose between our small Christian college and other more well-known universities.  The fundamental decisions are not related so much to the the quality of education we could provide, not the kind of transformative potential that her child might realize in an environment at Messiah College devoted to the development and integration of an intellectual, spiritual and ethical life, but whether in fact our graduates get jobs as readily and whether those jobs pay as much as her child’s other options.  The difficulty for a College less well known than the Ivies Delbanco focuses on, is to find a rhetoric and an educational program that holds up the flame of the education Delbanco imagines, while also speaking frankly and less idealistically to the ways in which that education can pay off in material ways.

It’s not that these are poor questions for parents to be asking;  its just that these questions are unrelated to the kinds of things Delbanco is saying College is for and that many of us have believed that it is for.  Delbanco, of course, is trying to intervene in useful way to alter the national discourse about what college ought to be about.  Without a shift in that discourse, its impossible to imagine College being for what Delbanco says it should be for, except somewhere in the hidden and secret recesses of the academic heart.

What could our educational system learn from Wegmans?

Higher education in general has been almost inveterately averse to the idea that they should take a cue or two from the world of business, seeing our own ideals of educational transformation as going well beyond the utilitarian emphases of the for-profit world and its emphases on the bottom-line.  I think this wariness is warranted, and my own sense is that education in the United States on both the secondary and tertiary levels is being severely damaged by an over-emphasis on pre-professionalism at the expense of comprehensive intellectual and imaginative development.

Nevertheless, I think our wariness of big business suffers from the abstraction of the singular noun.  “Business” is not one thing, but many things, and businesses in the plural can be quite unique and plural in their approach to their own markets, blending bottom-line success with larger cultural and social goals within the culture of their companies and beyond.  Especially, it seems to me, higher education could learn something from the way some businesses have sought to place a premium on higher levels of more informed service as well as the effort to provide higher quality products that in some ways create the need and desire that is necessary for their markets to work, rather than depending on discerning whatever it is we think that people want or markets want or governments want.

I’ve been running across several articles recently along the lines of this one concerning Wegmans:

“Our employees are our number one asset, period,” said Kevin Stickles, the company’s vice-president for human resources. “The first question you ask is: ‘Is this the best thing for the employee?’ That’s a totally different model.”

Yet the company is profitable. Its prices are low. And it is lauded for exemplary customer service.

“When you think about employees first, the bottom line is better,” Stickles argued. “We want our employees to extend the brand to our customers.”

The Wegmans model is simple. A happy, knowledgeable and superbly trained employee creates a better experience for customers. Extraordinary service builds tremendous loyalty.

In a slightly different vein, I think Apple’s attention to providing the highest quality services to customers has paid off as well:

Part of the problem facing the non-Apples of the world is historical baggage. Big phone makers, such as HTC and Samsung, were never computing experts. As for PC makers, in the 1980s and 1990s, when Intel and Microsoft ruled, they had little choice but to focus on cutting costs to eke out a profit after paying the bill for those Pentium chips and Windows licenses.

Kerry Chrapliwy, a former executive in HP’s PC group, says that if a product did not turn into a blockbuster overnight at HP or Dell, it was often killed. “We were always fighting the philosophy at HP of, ‘How do I get this product to market at the lowest possible cost to the highest volume of people?’ There was not enough focus on delivering the right experience to people.”

Apple, by contrast, “had a worldview that said, ‘We’ll suck it up for three or four years and make it happen,’ ” said Roger McNamee, a co-founder of technology investment firm Elevation Partners.

I think both of these are examples of businesses that have succeeded in significant part because they worked in ways that were counter to the tendency in “business” to cut first and ask questions later–whether the cuts came in the benefits of employees, cutting employees, or cutting in to the quality of life of employees (by, say, attempting to deliver more services at the same price by stacking more work in to the lives of existing employees), or by cutting the quality or quantity of services delivered.  The brand of Wegmans and Apple alike is such that it has generated tremendous customer  appreciation and loyalty even when and if people have to pay more for those services and those products.

Our educational system is a different animal, to be sure.  Yet I still wonder whether the assault on secondary teachers and on faculty that is so pervasive in our political culture is really a prescription for educational success.  What if, in fact, we created an environment in which higher levels of performance by teachers was the result of educational environments that placed investment in teachers as job one, and investment in unique and creative educational product (rather than the production of students able to perform on standardized tests) as job one A?

And what would be the trade-off required of teachers or professors in creating that environment?  What if the price were something like loyalty to an institution and its mission and its immediate students rather than the more abstract loyalty that one has to one’s discipline or intellectual interests?

Mark Sandel–The commodification of everything

I’ve enjoyed listening occasionally to Mark Sandel’s lectures in philosophy via iTunes.  He has an interesting new article in the April Atlantic focusing on the ways in which nearly everything in American life, at least, has been reduced to a market value.  Despite the admonition that money can’t buy me love, we are pretty sure that it can buy everything else, and that we are willing to sell just about anything, including body parts and personal dignity, for whatever the market will bear.

Sandel somewhat peculiarly to my mind traces this to a post-Cold War phenomenon.

WE LIVE IN A TIME when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.

As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.

The last gasp Marxists I studied with at Duke had a word for what Sandel sees and descries, commodification, and it didn’t mysterious just come upon us in the 1980s.  Commodification, the rendering of every bit of life as a commodity that can bought and sold, is the central thrust of capitalist economies in the 20th century, perhaps the central feature of capitalism per se.  The essential act of commodification is at the center of Marx’s understanding that the worker in some very real sense sells him or herself through selling his or her labor power.  Thus, human beings were commodified well before people became willing to sell tattoos on their foreheads to advertise products.  So Sandel’s perplexity and astonishment at this state of affairs in our contemporary economy strikes me as the perplexity of someone who has only recently awakened from a dream.

On the other hand, I do think Sandel is on to something.  It is the case that despite this thrust of capitalist economies (and, to be frank, I’m not sure that Marxist economies were all that different), there have been sectors of culture and their accompanying institutions that resisted their own commodification.  The edifice of modernism in the arts and literature is built on the notion that the arts could be a transcendent world apart from degradations of the social world, including perhaps especially its markets.  The difficulty and density of modern art and literature was built in part out of a desire that it not be marketable in any typical sense.  Modern art was sometimes ugly precisely to draw attention to the difficulty and difference of its aesthetic and intellectual properties.  It was meant not to sell, or at least not to sell too well.  Remember that the next time a Picasso sells for millions.  Similarly, the church and in a different way educational institutions retained a relative independence form the marketplace, or at least resisted the notion that they could be reduced to market forces.  Whether claiming to provide access to the sacred or to enduring human values, religious institutions and educational institutions served–even when they were corrupt or banal–to remind the culture that there was a world apart, something that called us to be better than ourselves, or at least reminded us that our present values were not all the values that there were.

Sandel rightly notes that that residue has all but disappeared, and the result has been an hollowing out of our public life, and a debasement of our humanity.

In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for market triumphalism, and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.

Sandel wonders about a way to connect to some kind of moral discourse to inform public life, something that will reach beyond the reach of markets, but he clearly despairs that such a connection can be found.  I think there’s good reason.  Rapidly our educational institutions have become factories that shamelessly advertise themselves as places where people can make themselves in to better commodities than they were before, and which build programs designed to sell themselves to the highest number of student-customers possible.  Our religious institutions are floundering.  Only today I read in Time magazine that the rise of so-called “nones”–people who claim to have no religious affiliation–is one of the most notable developments in our spiritual culture.  Such people often seek to be spiritual but not religious on the grounds that religions are dogmatic and inflexible.  I have come to wonder whether that dogmatism and inflexibility points to the hard won truth that it is not good enough to just go along to get along.

One wonders, in fact, whether a spirituality based on getting along really provides a hard point of resistance to the tendency to see everything in life–whether my beliefs or my ethics–as an investment that must pay off if it is to be worth keeping.  I wonder, too, whether our educational systems and institutions are up to the task of providing an education that isn’t just another instance of the market.  As for art, writing, and literature.  Well, who knows?  Modernism was not always commodified, though it very quickly became  so.  I do find it intriguing that this point of hyper-commodification is also a time when there has been an explosion of free or relatively free writing and music on the internet.  There is a small return to the notion of the artist as a community voice, with musician and poets producing work for free on the internet, and making their living through performance or through other jobs–escaping or at least partially escaping the notion that we produce work primarily to sell it.  This is a small resistance, but worth thinking about.

I wonder if there are other ways our culture is equipped to resist in a larger collective fashion, the turning of our lives in to the image of a can of soup?

The purpose of intellectual work in a democracy–Tony Judt

I discovered Tony Judt very late, only really attending to his astonishing mind a year or so before he was stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He is a man much further to the left than am I, but I was convicted by his conviction and convinced by his belief that the intellectual life should serve a purpose larger than itself–what might have once been quaintly called something like the realization of the Good Republic.  The most recent NYRB has an excerpt from his new book, Thinking the Twentieth Century.  What I admire in the excerpt is the recognition that “democracy” is not a word that signifies an inherent good.  Like all things human,  “democracy” may be used for good or ill, may work to enhance human decency and community, or may work to corrupt it.  Most recently, in my own view, I think we have seen the ways in which our “democracy” in both its electoral and legislative practices, debases rather than enhances our sense of our humanity.   In a succinct summary from Judt:  “Democracy has been the best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives, but it is not a defense against its own genetic shortcomings. The Greeks knew that democracy is not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or oligarchy; it’s much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself.”

Given this fact, Judt is suspicious of intellectual work that aligns itself in favor of grand abstractions like “democracy” or “freedom”, favoring instead a concrete and particularistic practice of nurturing and protecting the institutions and practices that make democracy possible:

I see the present century as one of growing insecurity brought about partly by excessive economic freedom, using the word in a very specific sense, and growing insecurity also brought about by climate change and unpredictable states. We are likely to find ourselves as intellectuals or political philosophers facing a situation in which our chief task is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones. And that’s a slightly different sort of situation, where the kind of intellectual who draws big pictures of idealized, improvable situations may not be the person who is most worth listening to.

We may find ourselves asking how we can defend established legal or constitutional or human rights, norms, freedoms, institutions, and so on. We will not be asking whether the Iraq war was a good or not good way to bring democracy, freedom, liberty, the market, etc. to the Middle East; but rather, was it a prudent undertaking even if it achieved its objectives? Recall the opportunity costs: the lost potential to achieve other things with limited resources.

All this is hard for intellectuals, most of whom imagine themselves defending and advancing large abstractions. But I think the way to defend and advance large abstractions in the generations to come will be to defend and protect institutions and laws and rules and practices that incarnate our best attempt at those large abstractions. And intellectuals who care about these will be the people who matter most.

This seems to me to be true in cultural life as a whole, not only in our politics in a democratic society.  What are those institutions and practices that are most worth defending and nurturing that speak to our best efforts to incarnate large abstractions like “goodness”, “justice”, and “beauty”?