decry consumerist education
education must fulfill a higher purpose if it is to remain relevant,
two scholars said in the first event of the Institute
for Advanced Studies in Culture's "What's the University
For?" colloquium, held March 2 in the Rotunda Dome Room.
T.J. Jackson Lears, the Board of Governors Professor of History
at Rutgers University, and U.Va. English
professor Mark Edmundson decried the current culture, in which
they argued that a college education has become a consumer product,
and universities "corporate research labs and job training
centers," to use Lears' words.
speakers advanced a liberal arts education as a way to engage
students in a quest for meaning.
conceded from the outset of his talk that "the academy is
in a hell of a mess," and blamed a market-driven managerial
emphasis. That has led universities to hire fewer tenured faculty
and more part-time lecturers, and to ax entire disciplines due
to low enrollment. The proliferation in the use of information
technology is a means of controlling budgets, he said, in which
online syllabi and distance learning are overused.
"We cannot substitute technology for the human interface
that goes on in the classroom," he declared. "... Distance
learning is to learning what phone sex is to sex. It may be better
than no learning at all, but ..."
traced the history of the current on-campus consumerist culture
to the early 1900s, when the Prussian ideal of productive scholarship
merged with American vocationalism and anti-intellectualism to
spawn the modern American university. The purpose of a college
education, he said, was to establish credentials to enter into
the managerial class. The campus culture became one of "sweeping
War II and the Cold War hastened the rise of the managerial spirit.
The 1957 launch of Sputnik and its challenge to Western education
was a particular watershed, aligning the military-industrial complex
with higher education to turn universities into what Lears called
"a kind of knowledge factory."
counter-culture reaction of the 1960s contained a lot of "intellectual
nonsense," Lears acknowledged, but it also demonstrated the
raw strength of the liberal arts tradition. A popular bumper sticker
of the day -- "I am a human being. Do not fold, staple or
mutilate" -- was an appropriate symbol, twisting the words
found on old computerized punch cards into an expression of individual
immediacy of the Vietnam War forced students to ask themselves
important questions, and the great writers provided the language
for resistance. "Traditionalism proved it had a radical edge,"
said Lears, who earned an undergraduate degree from U.Va. in 1969.
decades later came the end of the Cold War. "The link between
national security and the knowledge factory loosened a little,"
he said, and the private sector leapt in. The market, he said,
has ceased to be a long-term investment, he said, but rather a
vehicle to achieve short-term goals and quick payoffs.
In response to an audience member's question, Lears said that
those within the academy must now articulate a coherent vision
of the value of a life of the mind, and may find a surprisingly
receptive audience. "I think it's a mistake to assume that
there's a vast, hostile public out there," he said. Parents
want their children to come away from education with some sort
of core values.
That segued nicely into Edmundson's talk, in which he argued that
the role of a liberal arts education should be to champion a humanistic
world view, challenging students to thoughtfully accept or reject
"I believe [truth] lies at the crossroads of religion,"
he said. He often begins his classes by assigning students to
write about how they imagine God, because, "religion is likely
to be the place where my students' 'final vocabulary' lies."
He defined "final vocabulary" as that which gives voice
to concepts for which words seem inadequate.
then challenges that final vocabulary through the works of great
writers, asking students to compare the authors' world views with
those of religious figures, for example. He wants students to
identify what they believe, interpret the texts to discover their
meaning, and then decide for themselves if what the writers have
to say offers them any truth. Could they live the writers' philosophies?
goal, he said, is not necessarily to convert students to humanism,
but to force them to confront it. "Frequently, students leave
the class with greater devotion to the final vocabularies with
which they came in," Edmundson said.
admitting a provincial bias toward literary texts, he allowed
that it was possible for the humanistic challenge to be conveyed
through great works in other disciplines, perhaps the music of
Mozart, the art of Cezanne, or the science of Darwin or Einstein.
suggestion that universities attempt to supplant sacred books
with secular texts is "a gamble," he said. "It
is an open question." But it is also a question best debated
at universities, he said, particularly U.Va. He noted that the
Pantheon, Jefferson's model for the Rotunda, was a pagan temple,
and that "books were Jefferson's gods."