Administration in the Wilderness: Academic and spiritual leadership

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the role of spirituality in professional life, and especially in the life of an administrator.  Because I work at a faith-based institution, it might seem natural to assume that we talk a lot about the spiritual aspects of what it means to be an organizational leader, a department chair or dean, or that we are regularly conducting conversations about the role faith plays in how we organize our lives together.  In fact, like any other organization or institution of higher education it is extremely easy to be caught up in the grinding day to day, to be focused on how I’m going to get the next e-mail (or 100 e-mails, no lie) answered, or fret about how late I am to the next meeting or whether I have too many priorities for my school or too few and whether they are the right ones and whether I have any budget to have any priorities at all.

While we expect our faculty to be able to understand and articulate a cognitive relationship between faith and their disciplines, and while we have learning objectives for students that are related to character and Christian life, and while I think our educational program does a pretty good job or reaching these expectations, we don’t often pause to think about what role spirituality might have in the mundane business of meeting or cutting budgets, organizing and running meetings, setting policy, formulating workloads, and the like.  In the busy context of the day to day its very easy to imagine that spirituality is something I need, but it’s something that I get mostly after work, gassing up, so to speak, in the morning or the evening for the long road ahead where there aren’t many gas stations on the horizon.

I’ve come to doubt this. And I’m a bit bemused that I’ve come to doubt this even more seriously since my experience at the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education, Harvard having some time since lost its reputation as a bastion of the faith or faiths.

But as I discussed in my last post, I was surprised at how much of the MLE experience focused on how leaders needed to practice forms of self-care and seek to be more fully human and humane in what can easily become an inhumane job.  Beyond this,  some of that attention was on what could only be called spiritual care, spiritual care of the self to be sure, but also the spiritual care of others.  Lee Bolman, in his concluding sentences of what I found to be three outstanding two hour sessions, declared that “administrative work is God’s work.”  My caps :-).  This could only mean, to my ears, that administrative work necessarily entailed spiritual attention and spiritual work and that, whether they wanted to be or not, administrative leaders are spiritual leaders and ought to recognize and embrace and take that role seriously in thinking out who they want to be and how they imagine the work of their department, school, or institution.

I think this must have meant many different things to every person in the room at the MLE. For it to have any useful meaning to the diversity of religious and spiritual experience represented in the room and in higher education generally, Bolman’s understanding of spirituality was capacious enough to cover about everything from those of use who were Christians in a traditional sense of embracing the Apostle’s Creed to a more generic and Tillichian sense of having an Ultimate Concern that centers one’s being and sense of self in the world, however secular or divine that Ultimate Concern might be.

Regardless,  it focused me in a new way that I had and have some kind of spiritual responsibility for the health of my institution and the people in it, and that I needed to be sure my own spiritual house was in some state of repair.  Moreover, it meant to me that I have to figure out ways that spirituality is something that imbues what I do as an administrator and how I understand the issues that I and others in my school or facing, and to encourage a spiritual sense in our life together, rather than assuming we should mostly draw our spiritual life from elsewhere and deplete it during the days (and too many nights) of administrative and educational labor.

I’m still, to be frank, not exactly sure what this looks like.  One small step I’ve taken is that I’ve renewed my practice of the Daily Office for Individuals and Families found in the Book of Common Prayer, my home tradition now being among that ragtag group, the Episcopalians.  The Daily Office happens throughout the day and requires only a few minutes of prayer, meditation, and reading, leaving me almost guilt-free about the time I am taking away from the latest policy memo or the letter of evaluation I should be writing.

It’s a small thing, but the pause that it entails refocused my mind and heart, and reminds me simultaneously that email is a small thing, but that even the small things we do need to be of God.  A Buddhist colleague at another institution once told me that Buddhists believed attentive states of awareness could and should be achieved in the most mundane of settings, even in the produce aisle of the grocery store.  If that’s true, it may be possible, strange as it seems to say it, to experience and live out one’s sense of spiritual vitality in the midst of a department meeting or in the reading of a policy memo.

I am not sure, right now, where else to go with this.  To be sure, I think this kind of spiritual attentiveness is not something an administrator could mandate in others, however much it could be encouraged.  That, in itself, could become destructive and oppressive.  However, I’m increasingly convinced that in the crises that are facing higher education, and that so many of us are feeling in our workaday lives, that we actually need more of this kind of thing and not less.

Along these lines, I concluded our school meeting with a meditation on Psalm 81, the evening Psalm in today’s lectionary, a privilege afforded me in my location at a faith-based institution:

Sing aloud to God our strength
shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our festal day.
For it is a statute for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph,
when he went out over the land of Egypt.

I found this passage unusually helpful today.  The people of Israel in this poem of are told to worship, not because they felt good, not because their budgets were flush, and not because they had everything that they wanted.  Indeed, quite the opposite, they are told to worship as they leave the land of Egypt….and set out in to the wilderness for forty years as the story goes, subsisting on manna, beset by enemies, and lost to uncertainty, until most of them had died in the desert.  (I also especially like this passage because although my reading of the daily office has waxed and waned over the years, and more often waned than waxed, my spiritual life has been sustained by singing and my very deep conviction with St. Francis that he who sings prays twice.)  Although the commandment to worship in the midst of difficulty seems perverse, it rings true to my sense that in the midst of difficulty, we are sustained and healed when we understand those difficulties in relation to and connection with a reality larger than ourselves.  In pausing to remember that there is no thing beyond the care of the Creator, we are sustained in the effort to care for one another.

As I say, I think we may need more of this in higher education and not less, whatever the framework of our own spirituality may be. Along with our depleted budgets, we need to be wary of our depleted spirits, since the greatest policies and the most well-conceived programs will only live as fully as the people who live in to them.

Majoring in the Extreme Humanities

Playing Scrabble the other day I looked up the word “selvages” online and in the process discovered the sport of extreme scrap quilting.  I still don’t have my mind around the concept since I thought that scrap quilting was by its nature designed to be the opposite of extreme, but apparently it is a “thing” since it calls up 750000 hits on google in one form or another.  I can’t quite figure out the difference between extreme scrap quilting and regular scrap quilting, but I’m sure that if its important to my happiness someone will let me know.  Or even it’s not.

I take it that extreme scrap quilting is on the order of extreme eating, extreme couponing, extreme makeovers, and extreme other things.  Indeed, it appears that in order to be noticed as something special and different it is important that it become extreme, unusual, and call attention to itself.

I’ve concluded that this is one of the problems with the Humanities. We are not extreme enough.  We need to shake off the image of the sedate professors in elbow patches and figure out new ways to make our disciplines sufficiently life threatening to attract interest. If we were more extreme we could have sexier advertisement in college brochures and more positive coverage in the national press.

I struggled to come up with a few examples, but I wonder if others could come up with more.

“Extreme Hemingway 101”–Read Hemingway on a safari to Africa.  You will be injected with a form of gangrene and a rescue plane will fly you in to the side of Mount Kilimanjaro.  If you make it out alive your grand prize will be a a year for two in an isolated cabin in Idaho.  By the end of this course you will truly understand what it meant to be Ernest Hemingway.  Because we will spend so much time flying around the world, we will only have the time for the one short story.  But lots and lots and lots of experiential learning.

“Extreme Poetry 302”–competitors will rack up debt and be given jobs as baristas.  The competitor who is willing to go without health benefits and adequate housing the longest will be rewarded with a publishing contract with 2000.00 subvention fees for the cover art. [Oh, wait….we already do that one for real].

“Extreme History 291”–Students will be put out in sod houses on the Kansas Prairie without electricity, food or running water in order to relive America’s westward expansion. Students from the extreme archery team will provide realistic attacks on settlers in an effort to help students better understand the responses of the colonized to their colonizers.  [I think this was actually some kind of television show already, but why not steal a good idea]

“Extreme Philosophy 479”– an extreme version of Aristotle’s peripatetic school, students will be required to run a marathon on a treadmill while wearing specially designed headsets that allow them to watch all Slavoj Zizek videos currently posted on Youtube [because we realize students are not professional marathoners, we believe there will be sufficient time to actually accomplish this assignment].  Final exam focused on actually reading Zizek is optional.

I’m sure there must be other possibilities.  I’d love to hear of them.

[True story, in writing this blog post just now I googled “extreme humanities” and came up with several Indian sites for hair weaves made of real human hair;  I kid you not. Judging from the web site I looked at, it appears there’s an unnerving desire for “virgin human hair.”  I had not really realized this was a consideration in the baldness management industry.   “Extreme Higher Education”, more grimly, starts out with several pages of mostly news stories focusing on extreme cuts to Higher education]

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

Do Humanities Programs Encourage the Computational Illiteracy of Their Students?

I think the knee-jerk and obvious answer to my question is “No.”  I think if humanities profs were confronted with the question of whether their students should develop their abilities in math (or more broadly in math, science and technology), many or most would say Yes.  On the other hand, I read the following post from Robert Talbert at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It got me thinking just a bit about how and whether we in the humanities contribute to an anti-math attitude among our own students, if not in the culture as a whole.

I’ve posted here before about mathematics’ cultural problem, but it’s really not enough even to say “it’s the culture”, because kids do not belong to a single monolithic “culture”. They are the product of many different cultures. There’s their family culture, which as Shaughnessy suggests either values math or doesn’t. There’s the popular culture, whose devaluing of education in general and mathematics in particular ought to be apparent to anybody not currently frozen in an iceberg. (The efforts of MIT, DimensionU, and others have a steep uphill battle on their hands.)

And of course there’s the school culture, which itself a product of cultures that are out of kids’ direct control. Sadly, the school culture may be the toughest one to change, despite our efforts at reform. As the article says, when mathematics is reduced to endless drill-and-practice, you can’t expect a wide variety of students — particularly some of the most at-risk learners — to really be engaged with it for long. I think Khan Academy is trying to make drill-and-practice engaging with its backchannel of badges and so forth, but you can only apply so much makeup to an inherently tedious task before learners see through it and ask for something more.

via Can Math Be Made Fun? – Casting Out Nines – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This all rings pretty true to me.  There are similar versions of this in other disciplines.  In English, for instance, students unfortunately can easily learn to hate reading and writing through what they imbibe from popular culture or through what the experience in the school system.  For every hopeless math geek on television, there’s a reading geek to match.  Still and all, I wonder whether we in the humanities combat and intervene in the popular reputation of mathematics and technological expertise, or do we just accept it, and do we in fact reinforce it.

I think, for instance, of the unconscious assumption that there are “math people” and “English people”;  that is, there’s a pretty firmly rooted notion that people are born with certain proclivities and abilities and there is no point in addressing deficiencies in your literacy in other areas.  More broadly, I think we apply this to students, laughing in knowing agreement when they talk about coming to our humanities disciplines because they just weren’t math persons or a science persons, or groaning together in the faculty lounge about how difficult it is to teach our general education courses to nursing students or to math students.  As if our own abilities were genetic.

In high school I was highly competent in both math and English, and this tendency wasn’t all that unusual for students in the honors programs.  On the other hand, I tested out of math and never took another course in college, and none of my good humanistic teachers in college ever challenged and asked me to question that decision.  I was encouraged to take more and different humanities courses (though, to be frank, my English teachers were suspicious of my interest in philosophy), but being “well-rounded’ and “liberally educated”  seems in retrospect to have been largely a matter of being well-rounded in only half of the liberal arts curriculum.  Science and math people were well-rounded in a different way, if they were well-rounded at all.

There’s a lot of reason to question this.  Not least of which being that if our interests and abilities are genetic we have seen a massive surge of the gene pool toward the STEM side of the equation if enrollments in humanities majors is to serve as any judge.  I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who recently pointed out that genius has a lot less to do with giftedness than it does with practice and motivation.  Put 10000 hours in to almost anything and you will become a genius at it (not entirely true, but the general principle applies).  Extrapolating, we might say that even if students aren’t going to be geniuses in math and technology, they could actually get a lot better at it if they’d only try.

And there’s a lot of reason to ask them to try.  At the recent Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest, one of the speakers who did research into the transition of college students in to the workplace pounded the table and declared, “In this job market you must either be a technical student with a liberal arts education or a liberal arts major with technical savvy.  There is no middle ground.”  There is no middle ground.  What became quite clear to me at this conference is that companies mean it that they want students with a liberal arts background.  However, it was also very clear to me that they expect them to have technical expertise that can be applied immediately to job performance. Speaker after speaker affirmed the value of the liberal arts.  They also emphasized the absolute and crying need for computational, mathematical, and scientific literacy.

In other words, we in the Humanities will serve our students extremely poorly if we accept their naive statements about their own genetic makeup, allowing them to proceed with a mathematical or scientific illiteracy that we would cry out against if the same levels of illiteracy were evident in others with respect to our own disciplines.

I’ve found, incidentally, that in my conversations with my colleagues in information sciences or math or sciences, that many of them are much more conversant in the arts and humanities than I or my colleagues are in even the generalities of science, mathematics, or technology.  This ought not to be the case, and in view of that i and a few of my colleagues are considering taking some workshops in computer coding with our information sciences faculty.  We ought to work toward creating a generation of humanists that does not perpetuate our own levels of illiteracy, for their own sake and for the health of our disciplines in the future.

Teaching Humanities to digital natives who may know more than we do.

I remember a story about the advent of the New Criticism where one of those famous critic/scholar/teachers–I forget which one, but I want to say Cleanth Brooks or perhaps John Crowe Ransom–admitted to rushing home at night to read feverishly ahead in the texts he was teaching so that he was ready to go the following day.  On the one hand, this is a familiar story to any new (or not so new) professor who’s trying to stay one step ahead of the onrushing train.  On the other hand, its also the case that part of this was demanded by the fact that Brooks and others were trying to do something totally new for a literature classroom, the close perspicacious reading whose minutest detail nevertheless resulted miraculously in a coherent organic whole.  That kind of textual analysis was the meat of my own education, and to be honest, it hasn’t really changed all that much despite all the new (and now new old theories) that came in with the advent of deconstruction and its descendants.  We still, more or less, on the undergraduate level do the close reading, even if we now look for the way things fall apart or for hints and allegations of this or that cultural depravity.

But I am intrigued by just how hard Brooks/Ransom (or whomever it was) had to work to stay ahead of his students, in part because he really didn’t know entirely what he was doing.  He wasn’t building on the secure  corpus of knowledge that previous literary scholastics had received and passed on.  Despite the mythic and quasi-priestly status that some New Critics projected–turning the critic into an all-knowing seer, and thus setting the stage for the later assertions that critics were really the equals or superiors of the novelists and poets they read and critiqued, knowing what those poor souls could only allude to and  evoke–there was a very real sense in which the New Criticism was much more democratic than the literary scholasticism that preceded it.  (I am sure Frank Lentricchia is exploding about now, or would be if he ever actually would bother to read me).  While it may not have been more democratic in the sense that the New Critics seemed to cast a mysterious aura about all they did, developing a new and arcane ritual language to accompany it, it was more democratic in the sense that the method was potentially available to everyone.  Not everyone could have the time to read all the histories and all the letters and delve in to the archives and read the vast quantities of literature required for the literary scholasticism that characterized old style literary history .  But everyone could read the poem or the novel set in front of them.  And potentially a smart undergraduate could see a good deal that the prof had missed, or point out the problems in particular interpretations.  When the evidence of the poem was simply the poem itself, all the cards were on the table.  No longer could a professor say to the quivering undergraduate “Well, yes, but if you had bothered to read x,y, and z you would understand why your assertions about this poems place in literary history are totally asinine.”  The average undergraduate is never in a place to dispute with a professor on the place of this or that figure in literary history, but they could, in fact, argue that a professor had gotten a poem wrong, that an interpretation didn’t hold up to a closer scrutiny of the fact.  The feverish late night work of my Brooks/Ransom avatar, like the feverish late-night work of many a new and not so new professor, is sometimes cast as a noble inclination to truth or knowledge, or the discipline.  It is in truth, very often the quest to avoid embarrassment at the hands of our smarter undergraduates, the quest for just enough knowledge or just enough preparation to make sure we justify our authority in the eyes of our skeptical younger charges.

I was thinking about his again while attending the Re:Humanities undergraduate DH conference at Swarthmore/Bryn Mawr/Haverford Thursday and Friday. Clearly, one of the biggest challenges to bringing DH fully onboard in Humanities disciplines is the simple fact that undergraduates often know as much, and often know a great deal more, about the tools we are trying to employ.  On the one hand, this is a tremendous challenge to mid-career academics who understandably have little interest in abandoning the approaches to scholarship, teaching, and learning that they have developed, that they understand, and that they continue to use effectively given the assumptions and possibilities of those tools as they are.  It was ever thus and to some degree colleges remain always one step behind the students they are attempting to educate, figuring out on the fly how our own education and experience can possibly apply in this day and hour.

However, I also wonder whether the democratization of the technological environment in the classroom isn’t a newly permanent state of affairs.  The pace of technological change–at least for the present, and why would we assume that should stop in the near or mediate future–means that there is some sense in which we are entering an period in the history of education in which educators will, in some sense, never know any more about the possibilities of the tools they are using than do the students that they are teaching.  Indeed, given the nature of the tools, it is quite likely that collectively the students know a great deal more about how to use the tools available to them and that they are likely to be more attuned more quickly to the latest technological developments.  What they don’t know–and what we as educators don’t know either–is how to best deploy those resources to do different kinds of humanistic work.  The teleology of learning used to be fairly, if undemocratically, straightforward.  The basic educational goal was to learn how to do what your teacher could do–with reading, with texts, with research.  In our current age that teleology is completely, perhaps appropriately, disrupted.  But that doesn’t alleviate the sense that we don’t know entirely what we should be teaching our students to do when we don’t entirely know what to do or how to do it ourselves.

Mortimer Adler famously wrote a book on “How to Read a Book”  and though people bemoaned Adler as an elitist and a snob, the basic idea was still important.  Some people knew how to read books and others did not.  I still think its the case that we take a tremendous amount for granted if we assume an undergraduate actually knows how to read an old-fashioned codex well.  They don’t.  On the other hand, we have no equivalent book that tells us “how to read….”, in part because we don’t know how to fill in the blank, though perhaps “digital artifacts” comes as close as anything.  We’re not even sure what tools we should be using to do whatever it is we are doing as humanists in this day and age.  No wonder most professors choose to continue to use books, even though I think the day is fast approaching when students won’t tolerate that, anymore than an ancient would have tolerated the continued use of scrolls when a perfectly good codex was available at hand.  What the current technological changes are doing is radically democratizing the classroom on the level of the tool.

I did have a couple of signs of hope this past week at the Re:Humanities conference at Swarthmore. In the first place, if the educational system in the humanities is becoming radically democratized at the level of structure, I think it is safe to say there are many, many, many people using that democracy well.  The students at the conference were doings stunningly good and creative work that was clearly contributing to our knowledge of the world around us–sometimes pursuing these projects independently or, most often, in partnership with and in mentoring relationships with committed faculty.  (It is, of course, also the case that people can use democracy poorly, as I’ve suggested elsewhere;  this would be true in both the classroom and the body politic, so we should ask whether and where the democratization of our educational system is being used well, rather than assuming that because we use the word democracy we have named a substantive good).

Secondarily, one of the chief insights I drew from the different speakers was that if we put the tools on the table as possibilities, students will surprise and amaze us with what they can manage to come up with.  What if we found ways to encourage students to get beyond the research paper and asked that they do serious creative and critical work with the tools that they have everyday at hand on their iPhones, laptops, and etcetera.  What is we encouraged them to say we have to find the best way to answer the kind of questions humanists have always asked, and to identify the new questions and potential answers that new (and now not so new) technologies make possible.  We will have to do this regardless, I think.  The age demands it.  And I suspect that there will be many many more frantic late nights for faculty ahead.  But I think those frantic late nights will be built less and less on the belief that we have to get on top of “the material” and “stay ahead” of our students.  When they can bring in material we’ve never heard of with the touch of a finger on their iPhones, we have no hope of being on top of the material or staying ahead in a meaningful sense.  Perhaps what we can do is inspire them to charge ahead, guide them to the edges of the landscape that we already know, and partner with them in the exploration of the landscapes that we haven’t yet discovered.

Digital History of the Brethren in Christ; writing in an age of distraction

I’ve been spending the last couple of days at the undergraduate conference on the digital humanities at Swarthmore College, getting a feel for what might be possible at the undergraduate level. Yesterday’s keynote by Alexandra Juhaz, whose book Learning from YouTube created a splash a couple of years ago, emphasized that in our writing now we have to write in an environment in which we know people will be distracted, and it may not be a feasible goal to overcome their distraction. Her own work is trying to account for what that might mean for multimedia writing, for either scholars or undergraduates. What does it mean to write for the distracted and know that they will remain distracted. I don’t quite have my brain around that rhetorical situation yet.

I’ve especially been excited to see the real world possibilities for digital humanities project and imagining the kinds of things our undergraduates might do. My colleague John Fea over at The way of Improvement Leads Home directed my attention to a great new digital history site by one of our graduates from Messiah College, Devin Manzullo-Thomas on the history of Brethren in Christ and evangelicals. Devin’s now a graduate student in digital history at Temple. I’d love to see our undergraduates working with our faculty on a project like this

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.