13 May 2012

Can the Faculty Be Saved? Some Thoughts on Anthony Grafton's Essays in the New York Review of Books

Changing the world always takes time, and the way in which a book can be the agent of change needs a fair amount of explaining. 
Anthony Grafton (here)

Anthony Grafton's books are brilliant. His writing is beautiful, clear and provocative. For me, his history-telling falls somewhere between Marc Bloch and Carlo Ginzburg, with an historiographic twist of R. G. Collingwood. In any case, it is impossible to imagine him as anything but an inspiring teacher and mentor. And he possesses an incredible ability to gut books; to reveal their nuance, to identify their spirit, unpack their deficiencies, and then, finally, to aim his readers towards their possible futures. These are rare qualities, and inspiring ones too.

In two recent essays in the New York Review of Books, Grafton has turned his eye towards a seemingly emergent genre: works of analysis dedicated to analyzing our universities and to explaining "why they are failing" (here) and, more hopefully, how they might be saved (here). In the former essay, he observed that perhaps there was a different kind of crisis taking shape, one of empathy and society:
After all, as many observers have pointed out, this is the way we live now, and room remains for exceptions and for hope. Still, the dark hordes of forgotten students who leave the university as Napoleon’s army left Russia, uninspired by their courses, wounded in many cases by what they experience as their own failures, weighed down by their debts, need to be seen and heard. Perhaps some of those who write seriously about universities could stop worrying so much about who gets into Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and start worrying about the much larger numbers who don’t make it through Illinois and West Virginia, Vermont and Texas.... Polemics about the death of the humanities, however eloquent, won’t remedy the inhumanities that thousands of students encounter, predictably, year by year.

I suspect that the allusion at work in Grafton's reference to Napoleon's army was not the actual historical events of 1812 but the rather more urgent historical questions central to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace: Could any individual have changed the course of this history? In what ways were all people products of their historical circumstances?  What choices did they have? Were alternatives available to them? Did they have any impact at all on the way in which events and transformations took place in their worlds? Did they see their world clearly? These are the questions we really seem to be asking now about the purpose of the humanities and social sciences as well as the status of our universities.

Indeed, in many respects, the suffering that Grafton directs our attention towards - those forgotten and wounded students of non-elite institutions - conjure up rather starkly the ironies and contradictions of Russian aristocratic society. Our world is not so different. A reader of War and Peace is always aware that underpinning the tragic moments of Andrei, Nikolai, or Natasha is a huge, unwieldy and intricate social system of peasants, Christian orthodoxy, inevitable industrialization, conspicuous consumption, nepotism, desperate poverty, cultural - at any rate French - imperialism, to say nothing of deep indebtedness and falling productivity. Like I said - not so different from our contemporary moment.

Although we live in a different age with different contradictions it is not so hard to understand why the secular institutions at the heart of our cultural order always must stand rather precariously. If a society and a faculty can so easily rage against and also promote the dying of the humanities while forgetting the people at the heart of these changes, then it may well be that that same society, and those same faculty, may forget eventually even to protect their most hallowed and revered institutions as well. In his more recent essay, a review of Andrew Delbanco's  College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Grafton notes that "In research universities, passionate and effective undergraduate teaching offers no prestige, no profit, and no prospect of permanence. A governing scientific ideal, which emphasizes the ongoing transformation of all fields of knowledge, relegates the transmission of knowledge to at best a secondary status."

Is not this really the place of crisis? And it is not really the newly governing ideal that is the culprit, although Grafton directs our attention towards it, but rather it is the unwillingness to value the teaching, to demand that it be recognized for its intrinsic worth. This problem is not solely for the humanities and social sciences either. How many universities, even elite ones,  teach introductory courses with less than twenty students in calculus, trigonometry, physics, chemistry, fluids and mechanics, accounting, statistics, and biology? And let all the faculty who pride themselves on teaching those surveys raise their hands too.

Grafton, acknowledges these sad facts, writing once again of the humanities: "Saddest of all, the serious courses on the bases of the Western tradition that [are] best adapted to opening minds and building characters are rarely required. And even at Columbia and Chicago, where students have to take them, they are mostly taught by younger faculty and graduate students who can be assigned to them, along with a few true believers from the older faculty. Most younger professors look forward to their release from this sort of required generalist teaching, for which they have neither the training nor the taste." He does not recognize that similar circumstances prevail in the sciences, maths, and business courses too. Thus, we may generalize his observations, that:
What’s missing [from graduate school] is not training in teaching, though this could certainly be improved and made more systematic, but something at once tenuous, essential, and difficult to create: a sincere belief that teaching should play a substantive part in choosing university faculty, and a grasp of how to evaluate and promote it in a rigorous way.
If this were the only problem, then universities could likely solve it. But it is not really the disease, but rather the most evident symptom. The complaint is that somehow the faculty writ large appear to have begun dreaming of bigger things, different ambitions, and loftier status. And that's all well and good if Ted Lectures, Presidential Commissions, and punditry are the things we wish to laud, but maybe it would be better if some of us would dream a little bit more loudly against those things in favor of dusty books, crappy laboratory equipment, and the joys of the footnote.

Wouldn't it be novel if, for example, our academic conferences took place on our campuses? And if instead of sleeping in Marriott's, we slept in dorm rooms? After all our predecessors did that - didn't they? And how about thinking about how we transmit our knowledge? And maybe having conversations about our values and ideals? And talking about why it is that so many graduate students vanish? And why so many of our undergraduates carry mortgage size debts when they leave our institutions. And whether tenure and promotion systems need to be changed? And whether the peer-review system works? Or how about why open source journals are not good enough?

In some sense, the conversation that is missing is the one where the faculty talk about what we're doing and why and what we are prepared to give up for our profession and our students so that our knowledge and passion and ideas survive. Perhaps instead of letting our departments hire and exploit adjuncts we should teach more, not less. Maybe we have a duty to work against grade inflation and make it normal again for a "C" to be evidence of achievement. If our students really are academically adrift, what are our responsibilities to them?

I'd appeal here to several historical examples. Ginzburg's miller cared about books he couldn't really read because he mysteriously cared, no matter the Inquisition. John Milton, some claim, knew everything there was to know. Is it so wrong to try? Samuel Johnson was sometimes homeless. Our times can hardly be claimed as dangerous as those of De Staël, salons, and all (rhyme intended). The 19th century - the world of Matthew Arnold, John Henry Newman, Thomas Henry Huxley - saw no end of efforts to reform education and make it available to the masses.

Ask yourself seriously: what else would you rather be doing?  Somehow our current complaints seem rather shallow. We seem not to be living up to our ideals or our heroic idols. We seem not even capable of being fascinated by what academia has achieved. Write a list of the names of the last century's scholars - it is an amazing list. Think of our Republic of Letters! Maybe we should try looking forward; may be we should look for languages and ideals for our Age. To be sure, it is right to worry about our economic condition and the Taylorist nature of institutions. However, the cenotaphs and epitaphs to the university have become a bit thick of late. Shouldn't we instead cultivate the courage to protect our students and our values and celebrate our collective accomplishments despite these realities? After all, that path is fairly well worn, if a bit harder to walk.


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