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Speakers decry consumerist education

By Dan Heuchert

Higher 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.

Both 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.

Both speakers advanced a liberal arts education as a way to engage students in a quest for meaning.

Lears 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 ..."

He 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 utilitarianism."

World 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."

The 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 sovereignty.

The 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.

Two 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, became God-like.

Education 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 the concept.

"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.

Edmundson 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?

The 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.

While 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.

His 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."


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