What is Going on at the University of Wisconsin-Superior?

This decree from the administration of the University of Wisconsin-Superior has been making the rounds today:

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Superior

How can you claim to be a college without programs in Math, History, Economics, Chemistry, Social Science, Politics, Sociology, and Visual Arts?  Is the University of Wisconsin-Superior now appears to be little more than a professional school.

More Good Reasons to Study the Humanities

59c16-i_love_humanities_tshirt-p235524076469557183trlf_400These come from Ilana Gershon and Noah Berlastsky at The Pacific Standard.

Here is a taste of their piece “Studying Humanities Teaches You How to Get a Job.”

“If you’re studying interpretive dance, God bless you, but there’s not a lot of jobs right now in America looking for people with that as a skill set,” Kentucky governor Matt Bevin declared in September, at a conference about higher education. Bevin’s skepticism about the humanities and arts isn’t an anomaly; politicians regularly joke about the supposed uselessness of non-STEM training. In 2014, President Barack Obama told students to major in trades rather than art history. In 2011, Governor Rick Scott of Florida said that it wasn’t of “vital interest” to his state to have students major in anthropology. And so on. Math, engineering, science, trades: Those are practical, politicians agree. Literature, art, and anthropology? Those don’t help you get jobs.

In fact, the reverse is true: The skills you learn in the humanities are exactly the skills you use in a job search. The humanities teach students to understand the different rules and expectations that govern different genres, to examine social cues and rituals, to think about the audience for and reception of different kinds of communications. In short, they teach students how to apply for the kinds of jobs students will be looking for after college.

Read the rest here.

Hire a Humanities Major

StrossCheck out Scott Jaschik’s interview at Inside Higher Ed with Randall Stross, author of A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees.  Stross has a Ph.D in Chinese history from Stanford and currently teaches business at San Jose State University.  (Yes, you read that last sentence correctly).

Here is a taste of the interview:

Q: Many admissions leaders at liberal arts colleges report increasing difficulty in making the case for the liberal arts. What is your advice for them?

A: If it seems difficult to make the case now, imagine how difficult it would have been in the depths of the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate was 16 percent and headed for 24 percent and market demand for liberal arts majors had evaporated. The talk in the air was of the need for more vocational education. Yet William Tolley, in his inaugural address as the president of Allegheny College, did not falter. He made the case for a broad liberal education in 1931 whose contemporary relevance should hearten all of us who advocate for liberal education. “Specialists are needed in all vocations, but only as long as their vocations last, and vocations have a tendency now to disappear almost overnight,” he observed. He reasoned that in an ever-changing world the broad knowledge covered at a liberal arts college is “the finest vocational training any school can offer.” The argument is no less powerful today. But to make it seem well grounded, admissions leaders should have at their fingertips stories to share of graduates who left their schools with liberal arts majors and have gone on to interesting professional careers.

Q: Politicians seem to love to bash the liberal arts, asking why various majors are needed. How should educators respond?

A: Many politicians — perhaps most politicians — view the labor marketplace in terms defined entirely by “skills”: employers need workers equipped with specific skills; students either arrive with those skills or lack those skills. This is new, historically speaking. In a bygone era, 60 years ago, many large corporations hired college graduates in bulk, paying little heed to their majors, and spent the first years training the new hires themselves. So the defense of the liberal arts today must be delivered using the vocabulary of “skills.” Fortunately, conscientious students in the liberal arts can demonstrate great skill in many things: learning quickly, reading deeply, melding information from diverse sources smoothly, collaborating with others effectively, reasoning logically, writing clearly. I will resist the temptation to point out the apparent absence of these skills among those who are doing the bashing.

Read the rest here.

“The Closing of the American Mind” at 30

ClosingAllan Bloom‘s bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, turns thirty this year.  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, cultural critic and New Left activist Todd Gitlin reflects:

“You can slam its young people into universities with their classrooms and laboratories, and when they come out all they can talk about is Babe Ruth. America is a hopeless country for intellectuals and thinking people.” Babe Ruth is the giveaway. These words were spoken in 1923, and the speaker was Theodore Dreiser, who had dropped out of Indiana University after one year.

So it is not a new thought that American universities are nests of self-betrayal and triviality where inquiring minds trade the nobility of their tradition for cheap trinkets and the promise of pieces of silver to come. Indeed, five years before Dreiser popped off, Thorstein Veblen was denouncing “the higher learning in America” for having surrendered to business domination, ditched the pure pursuit of knowledge, cultivated “conspicuous conformity to the popular taste,” and pandered to undergraduates by teaching them “ways and means of dissipation.” “The conduct of universities by business men,” to borrow from Veblen’s subtitle, had rendered university life “mechanistic.” Veblen anticipated that the academy would wallow in futility when it was not prostrating itself at the feet of the captains of finance. His original subtitle was A Study in Total Depravity. Veblen having dropped it, Allan Bloom should have picked it up.

Veblen thought the university had been seized by “pecuniary values.” To Bloom, whose bestselling book, The Closing of the American Mind, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, something much worse had happened: The university had been seized by the absence of values. “The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines. … This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is.”

A horde of bêtes noires had stampeded through the gates, and the resulting noise had drowned out the proper study of both nature and humanity. Nihilism had conquered. Its chief forms were cultural relativism, historicism, and shopping-mall indifference, the humanities’ lame attempts at a holding action that “flatters popular democratic tastes.” Openness was the new closure; elitism had become the worst of all isms.

Read the rest here.

Neem: “The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences.”

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Kentucky governor Matt Bevin

Back in June, we published a post on Kentucky governor Matt Bevin‘s endorsement of a bill allowing the Bible to be taught in the state’s public schools.  I later published a shorter version of this post at Religion News Service.

Governor Bevin is back in the news after his said that the state’s public universities should cut programs that are not “helping to produce” a  “21st century educated workforce.”  Bevin urged university administrators in his state to “find entire parts of your campus…that don’t need to be there.”  He singled out “Interpretive Dance.”  Back in January, he singled out “French Literature.”  Bevin wants to put money and energy into growing engineering and other STEM programs at Kentucky universities. Ironically, according to Inside Higher Ed‘s coverage of Bevin’s remarks, the governor has an East Asian studies degree from Washington and Lee University.

Sadly, the interim president of the University of Louisville, Dr. Greg Postel, seems to agree with the governor. Postel told the Lexington Herald-Leader that his university’s engineering program is growing, making Bevin’s ideas for funding more STEM initiatives a “natural fit” at Louisville.  “Universities have to be aware of where the jobs are,” he told the Herald-Leader, “and that has to advise us as to which programs we choose to grow and put our resources in.”  If I was a humanities or liberal arts faculty member at Louisville I would be up in arms right now.  Postel has no clue about two things:  1) college education is more than job training and 2) liberal arts majors contribute to the economy and do a variety of jobs.

Check out Inside Higher Ed‘s coverage here.  It includes several faculty members who have pushed back.

Western Washington University historian Johann Neem is not mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article, but back in February he responded to Bevin’s earlier comments on STEM. Neem believes that “science” should not be part of the STEM equation.  As he puts it, “The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences.”

Here is a taste of his piece at the blog of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education:

In theory, there are two major faculties on American college campuses, those who teach in the liberal arts and sciences, and those who offer professional education in such fields as business, education, engineering, social work, and various health fields. The two types of faculties are not necessarily in opposition, but they have different missions because they are oriented toward different goals.

To faculty in the arts and sciences, undergraduate education is liberal in nature​ — it is about gaining a broad knowledge ​about how the human and natural worlds work, because doing so can inspire students and because it serves a broader public good to have well-educated adults. Ideally, and often, there is no specific vocational outcome to these majors. In fact, to ask a history, English, biology, or geology major, “​What are you going to do with that?” ought to be irrelevant since these are academic disciplines designed for academic purposes. When majors were first established, their goal was not job training but to offer intellectual depth ​and balance or, better put, to enhance a general education. Thus, majors in the arts and sciences exist for their educational purposes with no real or necessary relation to market needs.

Professional faculty, on the other hand, train people for specific jobs. Their success is measured by whether their students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment in specific fields. Students who major in engineering, for example, are right to ask their programs, “​What can I do with that?” Moreover, students who choose to major in these fields may not receive the same kind of liberal education as those in the arts and sciences. Instead, they seek a direct line to employment. These fields, in other words, are tied closely to market needs.

The rhetoric of “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) seeks to professionalize science faculty by reorienting their core community of identity. The sciences are not job training but part of liberal education. Math is a humanistic pursuit. Ideally, faculty and students in the sciences and math have different goals, perspectives, and aspirations than those in engineering and technology-related fields. Traditionally, science and math faculty have identified themselves with the broader purposes of the liberal arts, of which they are a part.

The more we use the term STEM​ — in praise, condemnation, or simply as a descriptor​ — the more we divide the arts and sciences faculty from each other. The arts and sciences exist as the educational core of the undergraduate collegiate curriculum. They are tied together conceptually. There is in fact no difference, from the ​perspective of liberal education, in choosing to major in philosophy or chemistry. Faculty in both disciplines, in all the arts and sciences, believe in the value of intellectual pursuit, in fostering curiosity about the world, and in graduating students who have breadth and depth. Yet, increasingly on campuses across the United States, colleges of arts and sciences are dividing into two units, the humanities and social sciences in one, and the sciences and math in another.

Neem concludes:

The STEM rubric undermines the unity between the humanities and sciences. For many policymakers, this is no doubt desirable. Yet, if faculty in the sciences and mathematics are not careful about how they identify themselves, they will be party to the erosion of the ideal of liberal learning, of which they remain an essential part. If faculty in the humanities and social sciences are not careful, they will find themselves marginalized as the sciences abandon liberal education to join forces with market-driven technology and engineering programs. If Americans are not careful, we will soon find that we have fundamentally changed the purposes and goals of collegiate education.

Read Neem’s entire piece here.

“Pluralism and the Art of Disagreement”

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Last week we wrote about Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber’s criticism of the religious questions posed to federal judge nominee Amy Coney Barrett by Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Today we call your attention to Eisgruber’s speech at Princeton’s opening exercises entitled “Pluralism and the Art of Disagreement.”  It is a clear statement of the purpose of a university.

Here is a taste:

Some people have suggested that the University should issue an official statement about Charlottesville, or that I should use this occasion to pass judgment upon President Trump’s comments.  The events and the president’s response troubled me profoundly, and it is tempting to share my thoughts with you in detail.  It is, however, neither my role nor that of the University to prescribe how you should react to this controversy or others.  It is rather my role and the role of the University to encourage you to think deeply about what these events mean for this country and its core values, and to encourage you to find ways to participate constructively in the national dialogue they have generated.

You will find plenty of professors on this campus whose scholarship and erudition will provide you with insight about Charlottesville.  As journalists worldwide have sought to illuminate these events and their aftermath, they have turned to professors here, including Eddie Glaude and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in African American Studies, Lucia Allais in Architecture, David Bell and Kevin Kruse in History, Julian Zelizer in History and Public and International Affairs, Robert George and Keith Whittington in Politics, and Peter Singer in the University Center for Human Values.

I urge you to seek out these and other faculty members, hear what they have to say, and learn from them.  Keep in mind, however, that what they offer are not authoritative pronouncements but arguments backed up by reasons.  It is your responsibility to assess their views for yourself.

This University, like any great university, encourages, and indeed demands, independence of mind.  We expect you to develop the ability to articulate your views clearly and cogently, to contend with and learn from competing viewpoints, and to modify your opinions in light of new knowledge and understanding.  Your Princeton education will culminate in a senior thesis that must both present original research and also contend respectfully with counter-arguments to your position.

This emphasis on independent thinking is at the heart of liberal arts education.  It is a profoundly valuable form of education, and it can be exhilarating.  It can also at times be uncomfortable or upsetting because it requires careful and respectful engagement with views very different from your own.  I have already emphasized that we value pluralism at Princeton; we value it partly because of the vigorous disagreements that it generates.  You will meet people here who think differently than you do about politics, history, justice, race, religion, and a host of other sensitive topics.  To take full advantage of a Princeton education, you must learn and benefit from these disagreements, and to do that you must cultivate and practice the art of constructive disagreement.

Read the entire speech here.

Should We Say Goodbye to the Phrase “Liberal Arts?”

Liberal Arts

First “evangelical” and now “liberal arts?”  Politics changes everything.  It is a powerful force with the potential to redefine our vocabulary.   Over at Inside Higher Ed, Michael Stoner argues that the phrase “liberal arts” is too politically loaded to be a useful descriptor of the kind of education many of us value.

Here is a taste:

In case you missed it, Gallup’s Brandon Busteed wrote in a blog post in August, that “putting the words liberal and arts together is a branding disaster.” As he noted,

Of course, there are abundant ironies in that statement, starting with the fact that we know that “liberal” arts don’t have much to do with “liberal” politics.

Yet that’s not how it appears. And  I see the value of moving beyond what is essentially academic jargon, no matter how much we appreciate the resonance of a term beloved by those of us in higher ed. If a term, concept, or approach is misunderstood or outright disdained by many people, any good marketer would tell you that it’s time for rebranding. So instead of trying to defend or explain what the “liberal arts” are, let’s move on.

Of course, I don’t suggest dropping the liberal arts (or rebranding “liberal arts” education). Instead, let’s focus on what’s important about the liberal arts.

The fact is that there is great value in a liberal arts education. So even if we stop using the term “liberal arts” in describing an institution or an educational approach, there’s still lot to talk about.

Read the entire post here.

Why We Need the Liberal Arts

Spencer

Clayton Spencer

Clayton Spencer, the president of Bates College in Lewistown, Maine, reminds her students about the meaning of the liberal arts in times like this.  (Thanks to Bates alum and The Way of Improvement Leads Home reader Amy Bass for bringing this 2017 convocation speech to my attention).

Here is a taste:

The Bates mission statement frames the project of education in a radical and distinctive way. We invoke the “emancipating potential of the liberal arts,” and we invite our students to engage “the transformative power of our differences, cultivating intellectual discovery and informed civic action.” These principles were revisited and restated by the Bates community in 2010, and I would suggest that they need to be brought to the surface with fierce attention in the fall of 2017.

We believe in truth. We believe that knowledge is hard won, and that meaning is a personal struggle that each of us tackles in our own way. We believe that learning is more powerful when it happens in community with the inspiration of dedicated teachers and scholars and the solidarity of friends and fellow travelers.

We understand that hard problems do not admit of glib or easy answers. Rather they are solved incrementally and over time, often with painstaking work that builds on the knowledge of previous generations and gains strength through the insights of contemporary colleagues. This is called expertise. It is developed in institutions like colleges and universities, and it is safeguarded by respect for standards of inquiry and expression. Expertise matters, because it brings the promise of making lives — and life on this planet — better.

We teach our students to reason from evidence. We believe that facts matter. A college campus is a culture that depends on persuasion and reason-giving, not on authority derived from power or position. We give reasons for believing that something is true, because we trust in the good faith and agency of others, including the agency to freely disagree. These principles make open and robust discourse on a college campus possible, they make democracy possible, and they make it possible for us to cultivate our common humanity.

 

Read the entire speech here.

Why We Need More Liberal Arts Majors

Bowdoin

Clayton Rose is the president of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Over at Time he makes his case for liberal arts education.  Here is a taste:

As I prepared to welcome Bowdoin College’s students back to campus this week, I couldn’t help pondering where we are today in the worlds of politics, of government and of the media — imperfect but essential institutions for a healthy democracy. We have evolved to a most distressing place — to a place in our society and world where intellectual engagement is too often mocked.

Facts are willfully ignored or conveniently dismissed. Data is curated or manipulated for short-term gain rather than to test or illuminate aspects of the truth. Hypocrisy runs rampant and character appears to no longer be a requirement for leadership. Instant gratification and personal aggrandizement are celebrated as virtues over the work of tackling hard problems that ultimately serve the public interest and common good.

 

Too often, respectful and thoughtful discourse about the tough issues and efforts to find common language for a conversation — let alone common ground for solving problems — are among the rarest of commodities.

This is decidedly a nonpartisan problem. We have evolved to this place over a long period, and there is more than enough blame to go around to all sides. Whatever one’s political and world views, we should all be alarmed. A system where skill, expertise, data, judgement, discourse, respect and character are in short supply is a system in trouble.

liberal arts education can play an important role in correcting this problem. At Bowdoin, we work hard to create an environment where students can be intellectually fearless, where they can consider ideas and material that challenge their points of view, may run counter to deeply held beliefs, unsettles them or may make them uncomfortable. We do this to prepare our graduates to effectively tackle climate change, economic inequality, race relations and so many other issues that polarize us today.

In a liberal arts setting, intellectual fearlessness is achieved through the development and enhancement of competence, community and character.

Read the rest here.

Moral Clarity and Academic Virtues at Christian Colleges

Messiah

University of Virginia German professor Chad Wellmon‘s piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education has been getting a lot of attention.  Wellmon argues, in the wake of the white supremacy march at UVA, that universities are not in a position to offer moral clarity to students or the larger society.

Here is a taste:

The contemporary university, at least in its local form in Charlottesville, seems institutionally incapable of moral clarity. Individual faculty members had spent the days and weeks before Saturday’s rally denouncing and organizing against the white supremacists. But as an institution, UVa muddled along through press releases, groping for a voice and a clear statement. By late last night, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ian Baucom, had written to faculty members to decry “the evil of racism, the evil of violence, the evil of hate.” But Sullivan’s missives, especially her initial ones, read like press releases from the bowels of a modern bureaucracy, not the thoughts of a human responding to hate.

And that makes a lot of sense. What can the president of a contemporary university say? The University of Virginia is many things — a health center, a federal contractor, a sports franchise, an event venue, and, almost incidentally, a university devoted to education and knowledge. It is most often, as Clark Kerr wrote in 1963, a multiversity, with little common purpose but the perpetuation of itself and its procedures. Why should my colleagues and I look to our chief executive for moral leadership? As a university president, Sullivan is, in the words of Thorstein Veblen, a captain of erudition, not the leader of a community bound to a common moral mission.

Wellmon adds:

Yet even Weber acknowledged that the university is not without its own values and virtues. And whatever Stanley Fish might think, these values are not simply bureaucratic or professional procedures. They are robust epistemic virtues —— an openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry, attention to detail, a respect for argument —— embedded in historical practices particular to the university. They provide those within and outside the university with essential goods.

As the hate on display in Charlottesville made clear, however, these scholarly practices and virtues are also insufficient. The university has moral limitations. Universities cannot impart comprehensive visions of the good. They cannot provide ultimate moral ends. Their goods are proximate. Faculty members, myself included, need to acknowledge that most university leaders lack the language and moral imagination to confront evils such as white supremacy. They lack those things not because of who they are, but, as Weber argued, because of what the modern research university has become. Such an acknowledgment is also part of the moral clarity that we can offer to ourselves and to our students. We have goods to offer, but they are not ultimate goods.

And so universities need to look outside themselves and partner with other moral traditions and civic communities, as my inspiring faculty colleagues here in Charlottesville have done for months in anticipation of this weekend. Universities may not be able to impart comprehensive visions of the good, but they are uniquely positioned to help students engage in open debates and conversations about the values they hold most dear.

Acknowledging the limitations of the academy might help us to reconsider the bromides issued by university press offices in our name — the automatic incantation of “our values” of diversity and inclusion. What kind of goods are these, and why do we defend them?

They are not ends in themselves, but they contribute to the primary purpose of the modern university —— to create and care for knowledge and to pass that knowledge on by teaching our students. Diversity is good for learning. The knowledge project of the university is sustained and best served through what the Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen calls “epistemic egalitarianism,” the idea that “we can cultivate collective intelligence that is better than what any individual can achieve.” Our common pursuit of knowledge is richer and truer when it seeks contributions from the broadest diversity of peoples.

I largely agree with Wellmon’s assessment of large research universities. When functioning at their best, these universities should indeed be places of intellectual diversity.  And yes, such communities of  inquiry do have moral limitations.  (I say “functioning at their best” because often times intellectual diversity is lacking. Moreover, the lefty professors that dominate most humanities departments are often some of the most outspoken moralizers on campus).

I don’t teach at one of these places.  I teach at a relatively small Christian college.  Many view this kind of college as a place that combines liberal learning with the “moral traditions,” the “civic communities,” the “moral imagination,” and the “comprehensive vision of the good” that Wellmon writes about.

So what might Wellmon’s piece mean for Christian colleges?

First, it is worth noting that all Christian colleges are different.  Colleges connected directly with a denomination or a religious tradition will be able to articulate a “moral tradition” or “comprehensive vision of the good” more effectively because they represent the educational arm of a very particular spiritual community.  At other Christian colleges, perhaps those without a specific church connection (mostly products of early 20th-century non-denominational fundamentalism), moral clarity comes from very carefully defined statements of faith or community expectations.

My college prides itself in its commitment to Christian diversity and intellectual hospitality for all who confess Christian faith at its bare minimum (the Apostles Creed). At schools like this, a common approach to the Christian (moral) tradition, or a “comprehensive vision of the good,” is harder to come by.  When there is not a common vision of the Christian faith, rooted in a particular creed or tradition, it makes conversation very difficult because there are few commonly-shared presuppositions about how Christianity should work in an educational institution or in the larger world. At least at public universities there is a shared secularism that requires everyone in a faculty meeting to speak in a language that other members of the community can understand.

Second, I often wonder if Christian colleges have the opposite problem from the one Wellmon describes at the University of Virginia and universities like it.  Christian colleges are very good at moralizing.  Ask students to read a text written by an author with whom they disagree and their initial response will be moral condemnation. Sometimes faculty might even think that casting judgement upon the author is part of their “prophetic” responsibility as Christians.  The classroom thus becomes a church, not a space for intellectual engagement with ideas.

Christian colleges need to do a lot better job at teaching Wellmon’s academic virtues: “openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry, attention to detail, [and] a respect for argument.” Christian colleges are not four-year camps to train Christian activists. Residential life and other co-curricular staff need to attend to the spiritual, emotional, and moral dimensions of students’ lives, but their contribution to the life of the college should also be measured by the degree to which they create extracurricular spaces in which the academic virtues of debate, clear thinking, the art of argument, and intellectual diversity are cultivated.  This might mean that it is necessary for faculty to live in the dorms.  There is a reason some of the best institutions of higher education have residential colleges with faculty masters.  (Wellmon’s entire piece is framed around his work as the resident principal of UVA’s Brown College). Academic virtues are best taught by academics.  Sadly, I am unaware of any Christian colleges that have such a system.

Allow me to restate Wellmon’s argument: The secular academy provides the kind of academic virtues that allow graduates to make thoughtful contributions to society, but it is unable to provide moral clarity on the most pressing issues of the day.

Christian colleges, it seems to me, are in a unique position to offer students both training in the the academic virtues and a sense of moral clarity.  But without cultivating the former, the the latter will be little more than shallow sermonizing.

“Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World”

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If you haven’t heard it yet, check out Episode 21 of the Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  We talk with Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist and author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World.

Thanks to Hartley’s twitter feed I just found this review of The Fuzzy and the Techie at the website of The Philippine Star.  Here is a taste of Bong Osorio’s piece:

While the parents of college-age children largely prefer degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the technical trades — collectively called STEM — there’s new evidence to suggest that value can still be found in the good old Liberal Arts degree. Hooray for literature, history, humanities and sociology subjects.

Alyse Lorber of Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) media wrote, “The advent of ‘Big Data’ has led businesses into what seems like a new age of reason. We have the technology now to quantify our world in endless rational ways. We see more, we know more and we have the algorithms to reach people with more precision than ever before. Choose the channels; decide on the message and press send. Relevance is guaranteed; success will surely follow. There’s just one flaw in this analysis: human nature.”

Real people don’t behave as rationally or as predictably. We are familial and emotional and the reasons behind the choices we make aren’t so easily measured.

Read the entire review here.

Do Universities “Police the Imagination?”

RisingMadison Smartt Bell, an English professor at Goucher College, a writer, and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins his Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Policing the Imagination” with this story:

In the latest issue of Write, a publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada, its then-editor, Hal Niedzviecki, argued that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” and to write about them. There was an immediate outcry from other contributors and union members. The union apologized for what Niedzviecki had published. Niedzviecki resigned as editor. Newscoverage made it clear that he had effectively been convicted of disbelief in the concept of “cultural appropriation,” which in the view of his accusers amounts to a form of heresy.

The identity politics informing this scandal and other recent and similar episodes (such as the novelist Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year) date back to the 1990s. Since then, an unwritten rule prohibiting a member of a particular identity group from speaking as if from within the experience of another identity group has gained power, and nowadays it is often very loudly and stringently enforced. A kind of silencing ensues from the enforcement.

He then describes, as a white male, how he has spent his entire career writing fiction from the point of view of African Americans and Haitians.

He concludes with his thoughts on liberal arts education:

…an essential goal of liberal-arts education is to broaden the views of students and improve their capacity for empathy by exposing them to kinds of people different from their kind. A great deal of that work used to be accomplished by reading imaginative literature under the umbrella of the now-rapidly dwindling English major. Now that so many students would rather write than read, it’s incumbent upon us as teaching writers to get the same job done.

Writing isn’t only about self-expression, I argue. It’s about imagining the lives of others and representing them in a convincing way. So you, students, are encouraged to think and write outside your identity group’s comfort zone. If you bring us Tonto, you can expect to be reproached for that. But if you research and learn in good faith, if you imagine in good faith, if you compose with enough artistry and conviction, you might bring us back something that enlarges our view of the world and the people in it, even as it expands your own.

To make that happen, I tell the students, requires a community of trust — but we don’t automatically have that now, when we have just convened our group for the first time. Now is when we have to start building it — right now, without delay.

So far I’ve been able to get that approach to work in my classroom … but maybe it’s not such an accomplishment to create the necessary community spirit in a group of 15 young people who already share a number of good intentions. Outside the academy, the stakes are much higher. If there was ever such a community of trust in the American national discourse, it is a shame that we have lost it, and we need to get it back. We need to abandon the fortified positions into which identity politics has forced us, and find a way to make ourselves not only heard, but understood, across the chasms that divide us.

So I wonder how this works in the history classroom?  I think it is fair to say that even though I am not a scholar of American slavery, I know more about slavery than nearly all of my students.  Does this mean I am not in a position to teach about the subject?  I don’t think any historian would say this, but it does seem to be the logical end of the kind of identity politics Bell is talking about here.

I want my students–all of them–to be able to see the world from the perspective of someone who is different.  As Bell puts it, I want to “broaden their capacity for empathy.” Sometimes this requires an act of the imagination.  I want my white students to engage deeply with the story of slavery in seventeenth-century Virginia, the life of Frederick Douglass, the plight of 19th-century African American Philadelphia businessman James Forten, and the sorrow of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.

I want my male students to encounter the boldness of Anne Hutchinson.  I want to expose them to the late 18th-century female community on the Maine frontier that was cultivated by the midwife Martha Ballard.  I want them to understand colonial America from the perspective of “Good Wives” and see the American Revolution through the eyes of Judith Sargent Murray or Phillis Wheatley.

I want my African American students to understand Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson on their own terms, not through some kind of twenty-first century grid that makes them one-dimensional characters that lack complexity.  The same could be said about Western Civilization more broadly.

I do all of this not primarily because I think the ideas of these men and women are right or wrong, but because the encounter with their voices and their stories forces students to think in a more nuanced way about these historical figures–a way that recognizes their humanity and their brokenness.  This kind of reflection might even help my students to reflect more deeply on the social and cultural issues that they believe to be important in their everyday lives as they seek to live justly in this world.

“This is Your Chance”: The Pietist Schoolman on the Christian Liberal Arts

 

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Crown College

Chris Gehrz, aka the Pietist Schoolman, recently gave the keynote address for the annual Honors Symposium at Crown College, a Christian college in St. Bonifacius, Minnesota.  He has graciously posted an abridged version of his address, “The Three Journeys of the Christian Liberal Arts,” at The Anxious Bench.

Here is a taste:

Unfortunately, as the Presbyterian pastor and novelist Frederick Buechner said once, while preaching on Isaiah 6, “our lives are full of all sorts of voices calling us in all sorts of directions. Some of them are voices from inside and some of them are voices from outside. The more alive and alert we are, the more clamorous our lives are. Which do we listen to? What kind of voice do we listen for?”

You are being sent out into a noisy world, “where there are so many voices and they all in their ways sound so promising.” None is louder than “the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us all by blasting forth that the only thing that really matters about your work is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status…”

But this is your chance. Before you’re encumbered by too many responsibilities and obligations, think about your education as a relatively quiet space in which you have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tune your ears to hear God’s voice — in Scripture and theology, but also in the cadences of poetry and music, in the narratives of history and theatre, in the song of birds and bubbling of test tubes, in the cries of those who suffer.

If Buechner is right, then the sound of God’s call on your life is actually like a vocal duet: the sound of two different voices singing two different notes with two different timbres — and one ultimate purpose.

First, we should go “[w]here we most need to go,” follow “the voice of our own gladness,” and do that which “leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is…”

Second, we should go “where we are most needed,” into a world with “so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain,” and offer ourselves in service.

And if, Buechner concludes, you answer to those two voices, you will take up “the calling of all of us, the calling to be Christs.”

What does this have to do with the Christian liberal arts? Buechner advises us to “keep our lives open,” but it’s hard to do that if you track yourself into a professional path admitting little personal exploration. As it happens, the broad study of the liberal arts both helps you know yourself more deeply, so that you’re better able to discern that “true north” that is specific to you, and in disenchanting you, it helps you recognize the grief and pain that you can alleviate, the emptiness that you can fill.

Read the entire post here.  In the meantime, I am sending this off to my daughter.  She is a freshman at a Christian liberal arts college.

 

 

Why Computer Scientists Should “Stop Hating” the Humanities

HartleyThis issue keeps coming up.

Yesterday during a faculty meeting I listened to a colleague explain digital humanities to a group of more traditional-minded humanists.  He discussed the digital humanities as an effort to bridge the divide between computer scientists and humanistic inquiry.

Last weekend we dropped Episode 21 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Our guest was Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist who came of age in the Silicon Valley.  Hartley’s new book The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World argues that liberal arts graduates usually have the most creative and successful business ideas.

Now Wired magazine is getting into the act.  Check out Emma Pierson‘s piece “Hey, Computer Scientists! Stop Hating on the Humanities.

Here is a taste:

As a computer science PhD student, I am a disciple of big data. I see no ground too sacred for statistics: I have used it to study everything from sex to Shakespeare, and earned angry retorts for these attempts to render the ineffable mathematical. At Stanford I was given, as a teenager, weapons both elegant and lethal—algorithms that could pick out the terrorists most worth targeting in a network, detect someone’s dissatisfaction with the government from their online writing.

Computer science is wondrous. The problem is that many people in Silicon Valley believe that it is all that matters. You see this when recruiters at career fairs make it clear they’re only interested in the computer scientists; in the salary gap between engineering and non-engineering students; in the quizzical looks humanities students get when they dare to reveal their majors. I’ve watched brilliant computer scientists display such woeful ignorance of the populations they were studying that I laughed in their faces. I’ve watched military scientists present their lethal innovations with childlike enthusiasm while making no mention of whom the weapons are being used on. There are few things scarier than a scientist who can give an academic talk on how to shoot a human being but can’t reason about whether you should be shooting them at all.

Read the rest here.

 

Episode 21: Why We Need More Historians in the Silicon Valley

podcast-icon1The liberal arts vs. STEM. A degree in the humanities vs. a degree in business. The current conversation around higher education consistently pits the study of history, philosophy, or English against more “practical” pursuits like engineering or computer science. But both data and the insights of business leaders tell us that this is a false dichotomy. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss the value of the liberal arts within both the current economic and political climate. They are joined by venture capitalist Scott Hartley (@scottehartley), author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World.

Episode 21 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Drops in Two Hours

HartleyEpisode 21 will be here at midnight.

The episode is titled “Why We Need More History Majors in the Silicon Valley.” My commentary focuses on the National Endowment for the Humanities and we spend some time chatting with one of the show’s sponsors, Dr. J of Jennings College Consulting.

Our guest is venture capitalist Scott Hartley (@scottehartley), author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World.

Stay tuned.

 

Cornel West and Ross Douthat Together at the University of St. Thomas

 

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I have been concerned lately about the lack of open debate and public conversation on college campuses.

All colleges and universities invite guest speakers to campus.  At my college we do a fair job of inviting a range of voices. Some speakers come from within the Christian tradition and some come from outside of it. Some are liberal and some are conservative.

Liberal factions on college campuses bring in speakers who will attract liberal faculty and students.  The speakers tell the audience what they want to hear and basically confirm the audience’s already held convictions.  Everyone oohs and ahhs for 45 minutes.  Then, when the applause is over,  they loft “softball” questions that the speaker can easily hit out of the park.  After the lecture they talk about the speaker for days, hoping that the college as a whole will take note of what he or she said and start to enact meaningful change along the lines that the speaker has proposed.

And then the next week a conservative speaker comes to campus and the same thing happens all over again.  Very few of the faculty and students who were present for the liberal lecture show up for this lecture.  The speaker expounds upon her or his conservative values and everyone leaves feeling pretty good about themselves.  Then comes the usual post-lecture swoon.

Rarely is there a conservative response at the liberal lecture or a liberal response at a conservative lecture.  I imagine that sometimes people worry about this kind of intellectual exchange becoming too contentious.  (This is certainly an issue at my college where Christian peace and the absence of conflict stem from the school’s Anabaptist heritage).  Yet such arguments, when conducted civilly, contribute to the educational and intellectual culture of our campuses.  Rarely do our students see two intellectuals with different ideas engaged in conversation over things that matter.

Last week I was up in Wenham, Massachusetts to deliver the Gordon College Franz Lecture.  My topic was “Why Study History?,” so I used my time to talk a little bit about the ongoing problems that I see with American democracy.  (Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Why Study History? have heard or read this before).

Here is a small part of my talk:

And what is happening to the state of democratic conversation? Public argument and debate over the critical issues of the day too often takes place in 30-second sound bites between talking heads on cable news. This sound-bite culture makes it difficult to fully engage with and even understand the viewpoints of those neighbors with whom we disagree. Cable news encourages a kind of passive approach to public life. Rather than engaging in civil conversation, we sit on our couches or in front of our screens and merely consume it all. This is not citizenship.

As the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has written:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it….as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

I was thus encouraged when I recently read about a week of lectures and conversations at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota.

The highlight of the week was a session featuring Cornel West and Ross Douthat.  The topic was “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.”

Here is a taste of University of St. Thomas theologian Michael Hollerich‘s description of the event at the website of Commonweal

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Read the rest here.  We need more events like this on our campuses for the purpose of modeling conversation and intellectual exchange about important matters.

 

Liberal Arts Colleges “Punch Above Their Weight”

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Messiah College

I do not teach at a liberal arts college.  Messiah College is a comprehensive college that bills itself as a “private Christian college of the liberal arts and applied arts and sciences.” Faculty in the liberal arts, and especially in the humanities, sometimes have to remind our colleagues that the liberal arts are part of our mission.  But I digress.

On the “Technology and Learning” blog at Inside Higher Education, Joshua Kim, the Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning,” reminds us that liberal arts colleges “punch above their weight when it comes to creating ideas and nurturing idea creators.”

If Kim’s name sounds familiar to the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home it is because he is one of the many former history majors we have featured in our “So What Can You Do With a History Major” series.  You can read his entry here.

Here is a taste of Kim’s piece on the liberal arts:

…The question is not if a liberal arts college is the best place to learn how to think – and then to think really hard about big questions – but why this is so?

We need a theory of small colleges.  

After living and working at a small liberal arts college with big global ambitions for over a decade, I have a couple of hypotheses.  

My first hypothesis has to do with conversations. If you live and work at a small liberal arts college, you end up having lots of conversations with experts from many different areas of thought. On any given day you will run into life scientists and computer scientists, instructional designers and professors of English. Philosophers and librarians, chemists and historians. Where else in the world do so many people who know so much about so many different things interact with each other on a daily basis than on the campus of a small liberal arts school?

My second hypothesis has to do with culture. People who gravitate to small liberal arts schools value questions over answers. They prize evidence, flexibility, and nuance over certitude and appearance. Substance over flash. A supportive environment for the open exchange of information is essential for the development of new ideas. A suspicion of the conventional wisdom is necessary to advance how we think about an issue. A healthy liberal arts campus is a contentious place of ideas, and a nurturing place of people. The best colleges are living examples that debate and disagreement are necessary components of advancing knowledge, but that a conflict of ideas can occur within a common set of values and cultural norms.

A third reason (my third hypothesis) why small liberal arts colleges are disproportionate generators of ideas – and hence playgrounds for the intellectually curious – has to do with the interaction between teaching and research. Nowhere are these two activities as symbiotic and intertwined as at a small liberal arts college. The best schools invite students into the theories and methods of our academic disciplines at every stage of their education. Professors teach the knowledge that they are creating in real time, using the classroom as a laboratory to test out new ideas and to share new results.  There is a certain excitement that happens when a critical mass of people are all buzzing around thinking new thoughts, exploring new ideas. This can only happen when everyone in the community we call a college is an active participant in the work of discovery.  

Read the entire post here.

Deresiewicz: Select Private Colleges Have Become “Religious” Schools

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William Deresiewicz‘s recent article at The American Scholar is especially pertinent in light of what recently happened to Charles Murray at Middlebury College. Deresiewicz writes “political correctness and rational discourse are incompatible ideas.”

Here is a taste:

Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.

I should mention that when I was speaking about these issues last fall with a group of students at Whitman College, a selective school in Washington State, that idea, that elite private colleges are religious institutions, is the one that resonated with them most. I should also mention that I received an email recently from a student who had transferred from Oral Roberts, the evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, to Columbia, my alma mater. The latter, he found to his surprise, is also a religious school, only there, he said, the faith is the religion of success. The religion of success is not the same as political correctness, but as I will presently explain, the two go hand in hand.

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude….

That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger. Nothing makes you more enraged than an argument you cannot answer. But the reason to listen to people who disagree with you is not so you can learn to refute them. The reason is that you may be wrong. In fact, you are wrong: about some things and probably about a lot of things. There is zero percent chance that any one of us is 100 percent correct. That, in turn, is why freedom of expression includes the right to hear as well as speak, and why disinviting campus speakers abridges the speech rights of students as well as of the speakers themselves.

Read the entire piece here.  It is definitely worth your time.  At one point in the piece he challenges the notion of “civility” on college campuses, calling it a “management tool for nervous bureaucrats, a way of splitting every difference and pureeing them into a pablum of mush.”

As I read this I could not help but wonder if a similar kind of “religiosity” permeates evangelical or so-called “Christian” colleges.  A few additional thoughts:

  • For some Christian colleges the “religiosity” that Deresiewicz describes is defined as a commitment to a conservative political agenda that forbids any kind of dissent among its faculty and students.  Those with more moderate or progressive political viewpoints, articulated from within the Christian tradition, are ostracized.  Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog knows that I have been very critical of this approach.
  • For other Christian colleges this “religiosity” is defined by a commitment to a progressive political agenda that is often articulated in terms of “following Jesus” or “fighting for social justice.”  Those who see liberal arts education as primarily the pursuit of an “examined life” or as a pursuit of “truth,” rather than as a means of primarily fighting for justice, are often viewed as outside the mainstream or perhaps even less Christian.
  • In both of the aforementioned models, liberal arts education is subordinated to either conservative politics or a progressive Christian mission to change the world.  While I hope that a Christian liberal arts education will challenge students to be politically active, change the world, and fight for justice, I don’t think that this is the way the questions raised by the liberal arts and the humanities–both in terms of the classroom and outside classroom (guest lecturers, etc…)–should be framed.  (This, by the way, is why I have been critical of both Howard Zinn and David Barton).  Back in the early 1990s I went to seminary. I could have chosen a path in the ministry, but I chose to pursue a life teaching history.  I see these things as two different callings.

Mark Cuban: Don’t Go to College to Study Business. Study the Humanities

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From Business Insider:

Billionaire investor Mark Cuban offered a perhaps bleak prediction on the future of jobs in an interview Friday with Bloomberg’s Cory Johnson at the NBA All-Star Technology Summit in New Orleans.

Discussing the swiftly evolving nature of jobs due to automation, he noted that across a broad array of industries, robots will replace human workers.

Prompted by Johnson, he then made a bold proclamation about the types of skills and majors that will dominate in his version of the future labor market.

Here’s an excerpt of their conversation (emphasis ours):

Johnson: So essentially what you’re making the case for is education and job training for grown ups.

Cuban: No, no. I think that won’t matter. What are you going to go back and learn to do?

Johnson: What it takes, right? Whether it’s finance, whether it’s software programming.

Cuban: No finance. That’s the easiest thing — you just take the data have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.

Cuban’s forecast of the skills needed to succeed in the future echoes that of computer science and higher education experts who believe people with “soft skills,” like adaptability and communication, will have the advantage in an automated workforce.

Cuban highlighted English, philosophy, and foreign language majors as just some of the majors that will do well in the future job market.

Watch the entire interview here.

Cuban is reinforcing a narrative I and many other have been pushing for a long time.  We need the humanities more than ever in a constantly changing workplace. (Not to mention their contribution to our democracy).  Colleges and universities with traditional liberal arts programs that do not invest in their humanities-based missions are doing so at their own peril.

Having said that, I am becoming more and more convinced that not every 4-year college or university, even those who give lip-service to the liberal arts and the humanities, will be unable to commit to this kind mission and still keep the doors open.  Colleges in financial difficulties, or those who rely entirely on tuition dollars, or those with small endowments, cannot afford to take the long view in this way.  Instead, they must throw their money into professional programs just to stay alive.

Cuban takes the long view.  Liberal arts and the humanities are the future.  It think college administrators understand this, but there is nothing they can do about it.  Mission is sacrificed to market.  Give the students want they want, not what they, and all of us, need.