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Is “Higher Education” an Oxymoron?


ISSUE:  Winter 2004
Clueless in Academe. By Gerald Graff. Yale, April 2003. $29.95
Why Education Is Useless. By Daniel Cottom. Pennsylvania, May 2003. $26.50
Letters to Dalton: Higher Education and the Degree Salesmen. By John R. Turner. Word and Image, November 2002. $12
The Art of Humane Education. By Donald Phillip Verene. Cornell, September 2002. $19.95
Liberal Education and the Public Interest. By James O. Freedman. Iowa, January 2003. $29.95


Some forty years ago I faced my first class as a teaching assistant in the English department of a large public university. It was (what else?) a required course in composition and I brought equal measures of enthusiasm and trepidation to the task. Reading the names on the class list—gussied up in my new corduroy sports coat (with the then requisite leather patches on the elbows), blue button-down shirt, rep tie, and crisp pressed khakis—I must have oozed earnestness. After ticking off such perfunctory matters as how many themes would be required and why attendance was important, I took a long breath and addressed what I thought was the real business of English 101: “I certainly hope that this course will teach you how to be more effective writers and speakers,” I began,”but even more than those things, I hope you will get a large frame of reference.”

Thus instructed, and then dismissed, the class filed out into the hall—with the exception of one student, probably more nervous than I was, who stayed behind to tell me, first, that she hadn’t done well in her high school English classes and, second, that she hoped to make a better start in this one. So far, so good. Then she told me about her willingness to get an extra-large frame of reference and asked me if she could buy one at the university bookstore. No doubt Gerald Graff would call me “clueless,” a word that hadn’t yet entered the vocabulary but that would later come to stand, in Graff’s mind, for everything that academics like myself do when we sail bits of in-house jargon over students’ heads.

Even more to the point Graff keeps making in Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, most academics don’t care a fig about whether their courses are “relevant,” a term I haven’t heard being bandied about since the countercultural 1960s. Graff knows the academic landscape and he’s a smart cookie but he’s also something of an operator. For the last few years he has made a considerable reputation by advising English professors to “teach the conflicts” when they talk about works of literature. For many (though probably not for Graff himself) this has meant spending lots of class time distinguishing feminist criticism from a neo-colonist reading, or the benefits of queer theory from those associated with deconstruction. In the worst-case scenarios (which, alas, happen all the time), the literary work presumably under discussion doesn’t get so much as a mention. But no matter—plucking the heart out of Hamlet’s mystery no longer requires that a student actually read Hamlet.

In his latest effort, Graff is convinced that we could raise the number of genuine students on our campuses if we would just agree to change what we mean by learning. Instead of trying (cluelessly, as it were) to teach them what they don’t know, teachers should concentrate on asking them about what they care about: films, television shows, music videos, comic books, and everything else that travels under the wide umbrella of popular culture. The result, Graff argues, would be lively discussions and engaged students. Perhaps, but there are important differences between a dormitory bull session and classroom discussion, just as there are important differences between a course in classical music and one in rap or a course in Renaissance art and one in TV sitcoms.
Some of the books under discussion seem ready to consign the business of higher education to the ash heap, while others remain convinced that its strengths outweigh the weaknesses. This is as it should be, for American education, like the country itself, is always trying to close the gap between how things can be and how they are. A dean once told me that when parents asked him how many students attended the college, he would tell them “around 1,700.” That was roughly the number they wanted to hear, but the truth of the matter, he confided—for our college as well as for Harvard, Yale, and everywhere else—is probably more like one out of ten. The others fill seats in classrooms and the football stadium, and pay tuition. The last item is especially important because tuition dollars make it possible to pay the utility bills and my salary.

John R. Turner’s Letters to Dalton: Higher Education and the Degree Salesmen is an extended rumination about the state of higher education that takes the form of thirty-six epistles written to Dalton Olivier, a physician who was for many years a trustee of Norwich University, where Turner taught from 1984 until 2001. Looking back on the shambles that higher education has become, Turner is not afraid to roll off one disturbing truth after another. As the economy sours, students flock to courses in finance and marketing rather than to the liberal arts, and their parents couldn’t be happier—especially if they land a job after graduation. Small wonder that many college administrators have become corporate managers rather than educators (“They don’t think of education as enrichment of life because they scarcely think of education at all,” Turner quips.), or that students train themselves in specific tasks that will likely have a short shelf life. As the old saw would have it, “One ‘trains’ a seal; but you educate a person.” Turner thinks that universities such as Norwich can do better (“There’s no sense trying to give what’s called a Harvard education,” many tell him; his response is, “I hate that attitude.”), but he is well aware that his effort at educational reform is akin to plowing the sea.

John R. Turner’s hard-hitting, plain-speaking letters paint a sobering picture (“Students are getting gypped,” he fairly shouts at one point), and so does Daniel Cottom’s Why Education Is Useless, a book that begins by ticking off the worst that can be said about higher education (it is useless because it “destroys common sense. . leads us away from practicality,” and a handful of other complaints, including some that playfully contradict each other: education is useless because it “makes us slaves,” but also because it “makes us rebels”) and then proceeds to confront the despair rather than surrendering to it.

About one thing Cottom, David A. Burr Chair of Letters at the University of Oklahoma, is right: the case supporting the uselessness of higher education is easier to make (I would argue that it always was). At the same time, however, his wide-ranging references—to Sappho and Socrates as well as to Timothy McVeigh and George W. Bush—demonstrate the wide frame of reference my freshman student was so perplexed about. The same thing is true of Donald Phillip Verene’s gracefully written The Art of Humane Education. The Charles Howard Candler Professor of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy at Emory University, Verene represents a classicist and humanist tradition that many will find off-putting: too old-fashioned, too fuddy-duddy. But he wields a sharp pen when it comes to beating back assaults on the canon or exposing misuses of the classroom. The times, he realizes all too well, have long been a’changin’, but the humanities are still part of the curriculum—rather like “a beggar who will not quite leave the premises.” I was struck, perhaps most of all, by the unmistakable tones of resignation and sadness in his words, almost as if to imply that humane education will pass away entirely when he does.

James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth, is well aware of the arguments made about the futility, the uselessness, and the sheer impossibility of getting a “higher education” under the present circumstances. As the president of an Ivy League college he has faced parents who worry about where the hard cash for the next, ever-rising tuition payment will come from, and he surely must have had to deal with recent graduates who figure that Dartmouth did not adequately prepare them for a rough, uncoddling world. But to his credit, Freedman retains his belief in liberal education and why it matters, perhaps matters even more, in a world that often seems random and unfair. In the seven essays collected in Liberal Education and the Public Interest, Freedman moves easily from the history of higher education—its formative presidents and institutional changes—to the present crisis, always emphasizing the importance of learning to read critically and to write clearly, and why the public interest depends not on dull-witted middle managers, but on those equipped to discover what is not yet known rather than to merely tick off what is.

Liberal learning has been variously characterized, but a good enough definition might be that it emphasizes the importance of pursuing the truth wherever it might lead and that it does this knowing quite well that the “truth” might never be found. This, I hasten to add, is not the same thing as saying, as many academics now do, that truth is a bankrupt word. Add an agreement that what we do at a college or university is question our unquestioned beliefs, and the groundwork is set for the sort of education that will allow a person to know when somebody is speaking rot. It will also allow people to acquire the intellectual scaffolding they will need to become lifelong readers, thinkers, and public-minded citizens.

I have no idea if the befuddled freshman who wanted to buy her extra-large frame of reference ever found it. Ironically enough, she was not entirely wrong to wonder if she should head toward the bookstore, just as I was not entirely wrong for hoping that my composition students would join in the “great conversation” that Robert Huchins, the president of the University of Chicago, liked to talk about. The sad truth, of course, is that most of the graduates from our country’s nearly 4,200 colleges and universities graduate without becoming “educated.” An even sadder truth is that the eloquence everywhere on display in the books I’ve discussed is becoming a rarity—not only because academic prose has become so muddy,. so un-reader-friendly, that one wonders how today’s teaching assistants can possibly teach freshmen how to craft clear, effective paragraphs, but also because they, like my poor picked-on freshman, don’t have proper frames of references. True, they know about celebrity intellectuals and those theorists who can blather on about the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” but they don’t know much about the books which shaped the Western consciousness.

Indeed, that’s why efforts to mount courses in the Great Books kick up such a fuss—not for ideological reasons, no matter how many are dutifully ticked off, but because most faculty members haven’t read the Great Books and they don’t want to struggle with them as tenured professors. This, as much as anything, is why my title argues that “higher education” is an oxymoron. Institutions can, and will, continue to market their degrees (Turner is right about that), but as for genuinely educating students, I’m afraid my dean is right: the success rate remains about one out of ten.

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