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Thread: On the uses of a liberal education as lite entertainment for bored college students..

  1. #1
    Dark Adept Sionn Harrow's Avatar
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    Post On the uses of a liberal education as lite entertainment for bored college students..

    Okay, this is a long, intimidating post. Read it anyway-- this is definitely worth it.





    September 1, 1997
    Harper's Magazine

    Mark Edmundson

    A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.

    Today is evaluation day in my Freud class, and everything has changed. The class meets twice a week, late in the afternoon, and the clientele, about fifty undergraduates, tends to drag in and slump, looking disconsolate and a little lost, waiting for a jump start. To get the discussion moving, they usually require a joke, an anecdote, an off-the-wall question -- When you were a kid, were your Halloween getups ego costumes, id costumes, or superego costumes? That sort of thing. But today, as soon as I flourish the forms, a buzz rises in the room. Today they write their assessments of the course, their assessments of me, and they are without a doubt wide-awake. "What is your evaluation of the instructor?" asks question number eight, entreating them to circle a number between five (excellent) and one (poor, poor). Whatever interpretive subtlety they've acquired during the term is now out the window. Edmundson: one to five, stand and shoot.

    And they do. As I retreat through the door -- I never stay around for this phase of the ritual -- I look over my shoulder and see them toiling away like the devil's auditors. They're pitched into high writing gear, even the ones who struggle to squeeze out their journal entries word by word, stoked on a procedure they have by now supremely mastered. They're playing the informed consumer, letting the provider know where he's come through and where he's not quite up to snuff.

    But why am I so distressed, bolting like a refugee out of my own classroom, where I usually hold easy sway? Chances are the evaluations will be much like what they've been in the past -- they'll be just fine. It's likely that I'll be commended for being "interesting" (and I am commended, many times over), that I'll be cited for my relaxed and tolerant ways (that happens, too), that my sense of humor and capacity to connect the arcana of the subject matter with current culture will come in for some praise (yup). I've been hassled this term, finishing a manuscript, and so haven't given their journals the attention I should have, and for that I'm called -- quite civilly, though -- to account.. Overall, I get off pretty well.

    Yet I have to admit that I do not much like the image of myself that emerges from these forms, the image of knowledgeable, humorous detachment and bland tolerance. I do not like the forms themselves, with their number ratings, reminiscent of the sheets circulated after the TV pilot has just played to its sample audience in Burbank. Most of all I dislike the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervades the responses. I'm disturbed by the serene belief that my function -- and, more important, Freud's, or Shakespeare's, or Blake's -- is to divert, entertain, and interest. Observes one respondent, not at all unrepresentative: "Edmundson has done a fantastic job of presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way."

    Thanks but no thanks. I don't teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she "enjoyed" the course -- and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations -- somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind. The off-the-wall questions and the sidebar jokes are meant as lead-ins to stronger stuff -- in the case of the Freud course, to a complexly tragic view of life. But the affability and the one-liners often seem to be all that land with the students; their journals and evaluations leave me little doubt.

    I want some of them to say that they've been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they've read. It's said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? The hand that framed that question was surely heavy. But at least it compels one to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, student and author, where the stakes matter. Those Columbia s&dents were being asked to relate the quality of an encounter, not rate the action as though it had unfolded on the big screen.

    Why are my students describing the Oedipus complex and the death drive as being interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? And why am I coming across as an urbane, mildly ironic, endlessly affable guide to this intellectual territory, operating without intensity, generous, funny, and loose?

    Because that's what works. On evaluation day, I reap the rewards of my partial compliance with the culture of my students and, too, with the culture of the university as it now operates. It's a culture that's gotten little exploration. Current critics tend to think that liberal-arts education is in crisis because universities have been invaded by professors with peculiar ideas: deconstruction, Lacanianism, feminism, queer theory. They believe that genius and tradition are out and that P.C., multiculturalism, and identity politics are in because of an invasion by tribes of tenured radicals, the late millennial equivalents of the Visigoth hordes that cracked Rome's walls.






    ....


    Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals -- and individual students in particular -- to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There's still the library, still the museum, there's still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end. As for myself, I'm canning my low-key one-liners; when the kids' TV-based tastes come to the fore, I'll aim and shoot. And when it's time to praise genius, I'll try to do it in the right style, full-out, with faith that finer artistic spirits (maybe not Homer and Isaiah quite, but close, close), still alive somewhere in the ether, will help me out when my invention flags, the students doze, or the dean mutters into the phone. I'm getting back to a more exuberant style; I'll be expostulating and arm waving straight into the millennium, yes I will.

    ...thoughts, anyone?

  2. #2
    TobeFrank Paulclem's Avatar
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    What's your take on this article?
    Last edited by Paulclem; 01-30-2011 at 04:59 AM.

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    Moderator Logos's Avatar
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    I don't know where you got this article from but please, do not quote it in full, give credit where it is due. See Forum Rule #5..

    http://www.online-literature.com/for...cement.php?f=9

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    Orwellian The Atheist's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sionn Harrow View Post
    Okay, this is a long, intimidating post. Read it anyway-- this is definitely worth it.
    Agree. I found it entertaining.

    Quote Originally Posted by Some Bloke
    Why are my students describing the Oedipus complex and the death drive as being interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? And why am I coming across as an urbane, mildly ironic, endlessly affable guide to this intellectual territory, operating without intensity, generous, funny, and loose?
    A: Because young people generally never have got their rocks off at the eternal verities.

    B: You're teaching arts for god's sake!

    Thank you.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sionn Harrow View Post
    ...thoughts, anyone?
    20th century Facebook "likes".

    The whole like/dislike thing disturbs me a little; popularity has never been a measure of anything beyond popularity, as far as I'm aware.
    Go to work, get married, have some kids, pay your taxes, pay your bills, watch your tv, follow fashion, act normal, obey the law and repeat after me: "I am free."

    Anon

  5. #5
    I'm going to say something unpopular. The majority of people in college, particularly in classes such as these, do not belong there. They are in school to acquire a degree to get a job. There is nothing wrong with wanting to (just) get a job, but these people are cluttering up the colleges and universities, just as the children from prominent families who received gentleman's Cs cluttered the schools up 50 and more years ago. So most of them simply do not have the temperament to care about matters such as Freud.

  6. #6
    Skol'er of Thinkery The Comedian's Avatar
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    I think this guy sounds like a self-important jackass. When a student who comments that he or she "likes" or "enjoys" the course could be saying all sorts of things: from "I enjoyed your stories" to "I felt challenged" and, for me at least, all of that is just fine.

    A liberal arts course may be many different things for many different students. . . .but more than that: I personally think that a really good course, one that's dynamic, interesting, challenging, though-provoking, entertaining. . .all that stuff will, at best put students a few steps along the path to greater understanding, interests, and wisdom. That is, don't expect your little seminar, (O' wise Professor!), to be the French Revolution. It won't be. And it doesn't have to be to be worthwhile.

    I mean a student who may generally "like" a biology course may further his or her study in that subject and in so doing, and in life's application of that material, learn a great many things about life and human experience. . . .may even get a decent job because of it. That student was put on a path that he or she may not have taken. So good for him. Good for her. And good for the instructor. Your 16-week course when you told those few stories made a real difference. It may not have seemed so at the time, but in the long run. Yes.
    Last edited by The Comedian; 02-14-2011 at 12:32 PM.
    “Oh crap”
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    Quote Originally Posted by Baudolina View Post
    I'm going to say something unpopular. The majority of people in college, particularly in classes such as these, do not belong there. They are in school to acquire a degree to get a job. There is nothing wrong with wanting to (just) get a job, but these people are cluttering up the colleges and universities,
    That's not their fault, though, as a degree is needed for many jobs.

  8. #8
    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    There are serious issues with those instructor evaluations though.

    Studies have shown that people will rank instructors highly if they teach them gibberish but do so in an engaging and entertaining fashion, and that they are probably going to rate a challenging teacher poorly.

    This isn't to say that an enjoyable lecturer can't also challenge her students, but it does mean those evaluations aren't exactly productive for improving the quality of education.

    I also approve of going to school to get a degree to get a job, because I, much like those students, live in the real world and have to feed ourselves so we can't just be puttering around learning merely for personal improvement. The notion that we should be using colleges merely for centers of cultural refinement and learning is absurd, it hinges on elitist assumptions of leisure or maybe even just naive ignorance of what the world is really like out there.
    "If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."
    - Margaret Atwood

  9. #9
    Skol'er of Thinkery The Comedian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by OrphanPip View Post
    There are serious issues with those instructor evaluations though.
    Ha! Too true, this. Quick story: a while back our college was big into "critical thinking" and having our students say on those feedback forms that they were engaged in "critical thinking". So you know what I did?

    I named all of my assignments "Critical Thinking activity" but otherwise changed my assignments in NO WAY AT ALL. And my marks for "engages in critical thinking"? Through the roof, baby!
    “Oh crap”
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  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by The Comedian View Post

    I named all of my assignments "Critical Thinking activity" but otherwise changed my assignments in NO WAY AT ALL. And my marks for "engages in critical thinking"? Through the roof, baby!
    That is hilarious.

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by OrphanPip View Post
    I also approve of going to school to get a degree to get a job, because I, much like those students, live in the real world and have to feed ourselves so we can't just be puttering around learning merely for personal improvement. The notion that we should be using colleges merely for centers of cultural refinement and learning is absurd, it hinges on elitist assumptions of leisure or maybe even just naive ignorance of what the world is really like out there.
    What I'm saying is that we need a serious overhaul of our educational system. We need to change things so that people *do not need* to go to college in order to support themselves and their families. I don't blame my students for not wanting to be there in a math class they only are taking to fulfill a requirement, to get a degree, to get a job. It is time that the K-12 system was overhauled to actually (gasp!) prepare people to support themselves without having to sit through classes they are not interested in, and what's worse, go into outrageous debt in the process.

  12. #12
    Card-carrying Medievalist Lokasenna's Avatar
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    Though I think the article mentioned in the OP is rather too cynical, I think there is a definite point. When I did my undergrad, I could see that there were a lot of students who had come along because they simply wanted to go to university, and hadn't thought much beyond the fact that they occasionally liked to do a spot of reading.

    So many times, I'd turn up to a seminar, and while waiting outside the room I would hear some variant on the following conversation:

    "So, have you read the novel?"
    "Well, no. I'll just keep quiet. What about you?"
    "I've read the first ten pages. I figured that'd be enough. How was last night?"
    "I dunno. I think we got in about 5:00 am. We were well hammered - I've had, like, 2 hours sleep."

    And so on...

    The problem was that my tutors were, for the most part, a supportive bunch who wanted everybody to contribute in discussions. This lead to painful amounts of time being wasted as the tutor kept trying to tease opinions and details out of barely conscious zombies who hadn't even had the decency to read the damn book. Not only were they wasting their time, they were wasting mine as well. It made me angry then, and it makes me angry now. People should not be doing a degree if they are not interested or passionate about it. If you worked out how much you were paying on a per hour basis for those sessions, they were incredibly expensive (particularly for an arts student) - I could not justify spending that much money without getting something for it.

    I'm familiar with about half a dozen top notch British universities, and I have seen students like this at all of them, including both Oxford and Cambridge. I appreciate that not everyone is going to have an academic career ahead of them, or that they are even necessarily going to do well. But, honestly, what is the point of spending that much money, and three years of your life, without even applying any effort to what you are doing?
    "I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity- through him all things fall. Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity!" - Nietzsche

  13. #13
    Chess Neely's Avatar
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    So many times, I'd turn up to a seminar, and while waiting outside the room I would hear some variant on the following conversation:

    "So, have you read the novel?"
    "Well, no. I'll just keep quiet. What about you?"
    "I've read the first ten pages. I figured that'd be enough. How was last night?"
    "I dunno. I think we got in about 5:00 am. We were well hammered - I've had, like, 2 hours sleep."

    And so on...

    The problem was that my tutors were, for the most part, a supportive bunch who wanted everybody to contribute in discussions. This lead to painful amounts of time being wasted as the tutor kept trying to tease opinions and details out of barely conscious zombies who hadn't even had the decency to read the damn book. Not only were they wasting their time, they were wasting mine as well. It made me angry then, and it makes me angry now. People should not be doing a degree if they are not interested or passionate about it. If you worked out how much you were paying on a per hour basis for those sessions, they were incredibly expensive (particularly for an arts student) - I could not justify spending that much money without getting something for it.

    I'm familiar with about half a dozen top notch British universities, and I have seen students like this at all of them, including both Oxford and Cambridge. I appreciate that not everyone is going to have an academic career ahead of them, or that they are even necessarily going to do well. But, honestly, what is the point of spending that much money, and three years of your life, without even applying any effort to what you are doing?
    And then there are the missing ones. The ones who would relish the opportunity but who can't afford to be there or they don't know the right people or they are not born of that world. It's my opinion that the type you describe should be thrown out and the opportunity (which is golden let's face it) given to the more deserving. It's survival of the richest though of course so that would never happen...

    Of course the real insult is that even those types you describe will probably end up walking out with a 2:2/2:1 which will still carry weight coming from a top university and having the right sort of contacts on the other side. Straight into a good job to perpetuate the cycle!

    Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

    I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.
    Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.

    Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.

  14. #14
    Gee, I thought this was just an American problem...

  15. #15
    Chess Neely's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Baudolina View Post
    Gee, I thought this was just an American problem...
    Oh no, welcome to Britain - great land of social divide and equal opportunity for some...

    Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

    I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.
    Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.

    Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.

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