More Book Reviews

Three education books reviewed in the same column!

Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas and Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings:

If the question of the ’80s and ’90s was, “What should we be reading, and how?,” the question that dogged the opening years of our new millennium was of a vastly more dismal kind: “Why bother?” The commenters’ hate registered a broader structural truth about a crisis in the humanities. News items have been bouncing around academic Facebook pages and Chronicle of Higher Education links throughout the last year: furloughs; steep declines in academic hiring; bankrupt state governments; ever more fiendishly impossible demands for humanists to justify their existence. Meanwhile, in the UK, the managerial talent of New Labour made enormous strides in making their vision of cost efficiency take on flesh: departments and high-profile professorships vanished, it seemed, each week. American administrators looked with envy at the audacity of British budget-slashers. The accelerated dismantling of humanities programs across the world demanded a response from the professors. So the call went round the 
academic-professional world: Comrades, to the barricades!

Which means, academic talent being what it is, to manifestos. And so there emerged, as the last academic year staggered to a close, a series of counterstrikes. Two are of particular note, since they come from Louis Menand and Martha Nussbaum, academics whose professional accomplishments within humanistic disciplines (English and philosophy, respectively) are coupled with effective public voices. Writers of lean, flexible prose, they offer distinct kinds of humanistic styles: Menand, the historicist, reminding us of how we got here (and the attendant ironies); Nussbaum, the ethicist, telling us where we should want to go (and the attendant dangers). Both books are short, concise answers to the call to defend and rearticulate the mission of the humanities in an age of neoliberal resentment…

If the ethics or the histories of humanities education are not quite helpful in regaining some collective nerve, perhaps a less abstract genre would work better — something, that is, that would tell us in intimate terms why one studies in the humanities, what it feels like to do so, and how doing so changes the ways one feels. If that is what is wanted, Terry Castle’s The Professor could scarcely be bettered. Not quite a biography, it is a witty phenomenology of humanistic life; it opens up what such a life feels like from the inside. One of its happy paradoxes is that its essays, each seemingly written as a jeu d’esprit, elegantly perform the public service of articulating the claims of the humanities.

Check out the whole thing and then order one up for Spring Break!

The Purpose of a University Revisited

I mentioned this series when it started, but I missed the second posting, which is a review of Karl Jaspers’ The Idea of the University. One idea in it, echoing in some ways the educational philosophy of Morehouse and DuBois’ idea of the Talented Tenth:

Jaspers identifies three types of university students: True geniuses, the mediocre ones who make up the largest proportion of the student population, and a small group of talented youngsters. The geniuses require no instruction because in the university setting, they will take care of their own education. Teaching the large majority, however, is a waste of time, Jaspers says. All attention should, thus, focus on those few who are gifted but can develop their potential only when instructed by experienced professors.

Such guidance, though, will have to be gentle. The talented student develops best when inspiration replaces rigid formation. “Artificial guides such as the syllabi, curricular and other technical devices which convert the university into a high school, are in conflict with the ideal of the university,” Jaspers writes. “They have resulted from adapting the university to the needs of the average student.”

Ever have the feeling that most of your efforts are wasted and most of your seed is sown on inhospitable soil? We probably all have–luckily it passes and we all get a surprise or two. Still, the syllabus analysis is interesting, no?

The third one, on John Henry Cardinal Newman, is here. What does he think?

The other major concern for Newman is the kind of education that “trains the intellect in its own function.” Because the university must provide professional education, while also producing “good members of society” and transmitting the “art of social life,” it must devote part of its efforts to liberal education. “A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life,” he writes, “of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.”

In fact, more so than educating the engineer or the economist, “a University training … aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.”

Philosophy of Education Conference

Are you without plans for next Friday and Saturday?

Consider checking out the program for a Philosophy of Ed conference put on by the Society for the Philosophical Study of Education. It’s an exceptionally inexpensive conference and typically has a nice mix of the practical and the theoretical.

The registration fee is $65 and includes a year membership, but I wrote to them and asked if they could wiggle on that and they generously agreed to let HWC (and CCC) adjuncts register for $20. It’s a great opportunity for adjuncts to see some papers (and network a bit) and get an inexpensive professional development opportunity (as well as another line on the CV). PLEASE share this with the adjuncts in your department. Back when I was one, I would have jumped at the chance to feel and be academic in any sense other than just in front of my students.

As it says on the program, the conference is taking place in Film Row Cinema Center, which is part of Columbia College, located in the South Loop.

If you have any questions you can write me or go right to the horse’s mouth; Allen Johnston from DePaul is the President of the SPSE and the guy who coordinated the rate negotiation for the adjuncts. His email is AJOHNST2@depaul.edu. Please keep in mind though, that he has a large role in putting together a conference that starts six days from now, so try not to overwhelm him with things that you might be able to figure out by other means.

You can register the morning of the conference, but if my memory serves me right, they could not process credit cards for the registration, so please bring cash or a personal check.

Philosophy of Education

This is an interesting new series that will be in The Chronicle over the coming months, featuring articles about influential and classic conceptions of Higher Education. They start out with a presentation of a thinker whose writing I happen to adore, if not for always for the content, at least consistently for the style and provocativeness–Ortega Y Gassett on the reasons for student-centered educational approaches to higher education.

I will certainly be posting future articles from the series.