At least one reason why Republican governors and legislators dislike higher education (particularly selective liberal arts colleges and flagship universities) is that they tend to be liberal to progressive in thought. Conservatives charge that colleges are a hostile environment for their thought, and many surveys have found that most faculty do, indeed, self-identify as liberal. (Surveys of incoming first year students over the years have shown that more entering students would classify themselves on the liberal side than on the conservative side, but only by a few percentage points.) Which brings me to one fascinating point in our reading from last week in the Delbanco book. In it he cites James McPherson who pointed out that "In a sample of 250 antislavery leaders, nearly 80% had either been graduated from, or spend some time in, a college -- and this in a period when less than 2% of the overall population was college educated." I found that striking, and some indication that the purpose of college is indeed an expansive one including the ability to expand the mind, the sensibilities, and one's empathy. Is this something that politicians should oppose?
In his short history of Oberlin's founding, Geoff Blodgett (how many of you knew him or took a class with him?) points to the "big three" innovative pillars on which the college was built: the admission of blacks, co-education, and "learning and labor." As we all know, it was the latter which disappeared, and he points out how quickly it went by the wayside. The practice, however, lives on at Berea College in Kentucky, which was founded by teachers who migrated south from Oberlin. The relationship between learning and labor, it strikes me, has been one of the tensions within the university (if not Oberlin College) for most of its history, and (as we'll talk later), it continues to be so: should we be about the life of the mind...or about training people for useful (gainful) employment? Do you learn by reading...or by doing. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an Essay titled "The American Scholar," argued the importance of labor to learning. Writing 4 years after the founding of Oberlin, and speaking in the gendered terms of the 19th century, he observed:
If it were only for a vocabulary, the scholar would be covetous of action. Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town, – in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day.
He was a strong believer that the scholar was one who combined thinking with doing, ideas with action:
Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action... Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not. [...] I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructers in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. It is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products.
And now? Should Oberlin return to "Learning and Labor"? What's the current relation of action to thinking? What do you think?
In a response to the William Deresiewicz article that we read last night ("The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold Its Soul to the Market,"), Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College took the author to task for, well, let's let Rosenberg say it himself: "The only things missing from Deresiewicz’s argument are an awareness of history, an accumulation of evidence, and a clear strand of logic." Other than that, all is well. He sums up Deresiewicz's argument (fairly accurately, I think) as lamenting that higher education has "sold its soul" to neoliberalism. I'm OK with locating "neoliberalsm" as a category that must be examined as a context in which to understand contemporary problems in higher education, but I often wonder about the character of the "soul" of higher education that was present prior to the neoliberal epoch, say, the 1970s, when the Fordist economy was still in place.
Andrew Delbanco, our second author, is much less sanguine about the idea that there ever really was a golden age of higher education in the United States, a least one that brought in more than a tiny fraction of the potential population and in which "all" students and professors did what they were "supposed" to do. His comments are delightfully drawn from past examples of students who were (then as, perhaps now) more interested in drinking and carousing than in "cracking the books." What he worries about (and I would share this) is that colleges, particularly those with the greatest resources, fail to "fulfill their obligations" to either offer students a "coherent view of the point of a college education" or any help in thinking about their (the students) purpose in life.
I agree, but (as with my concern with Deresiewicz), was that ever a task taken to heart by colleges and universities? What do you think?