Edge.org – Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century

Read the complete roundtable discussion at Edge.org


I should only be so articulate and engaged in my own 8th decade. As always, Gardner ties together many disparate threads in his quest for a more humanely driven society. Education could certainly play a significant role.

My fear, confirmed over the past two years since I took a position as a professor at a public university, is that our political economy is becoming the sole determinant of how education works, what students expect, and what they ultimately learn. Even looking at education as something that occurs between learning and “employment” accepts employment as some inevitable stage of life—when we know it is really just an artifact of chartered monopolies and the intentional repression of guilds and small businesses.

When we accept employment as a worthy goal, we have undermined the humane project from the get-go. Employment is a passive response to opportunity, not a critical or active approach to creativity. Recruiters come to campus and even meet with department heads and college presidents in order to “help” them prepare the competent employees of tomorrow. This is the very opposite of what the humanities are for, which is—as Gardner explains—to develop new ways of asking questions.

This same political economy then undermines the funding models of universities as well. Students are not consumers, and tuitions are not fee-for-service. These are research institutions much like teaching hospitals, not MOOCs promising technical skills. Indeed, anything with ready answers is more easily learned by reading the right manuals or doing internships. The classroom, the seminar table are not for the dissemination of fixed knowledge but the modeling of disinterment and interrogation.

It is meant to be unsettling. But students leaving a classroom in a state of confusion, pondering an ambiguity, are now bound to rate the professor and course as ineffective. At least in the short term. As most professors I know now agree, we teach one way before tenure—in order to get good student evaluations—and then another way after tenure. No, it’s not that we’re more lazy after tenure. It’s that we’re willing to give them lessons that they’ll only realize are valuable a few years from now.

Such long-term thinking—this notion that a college education may be something that’s immune to an expiration date—is why our university campuses were built to look the way they do. Their architecture is not an homage to the past, but to the enduring human values they support.