Friday, January 23, 2009

Purely academic

In his recent book Save the World on Your Own Time, Stanley Fish tells his fellow academics to shut up and teach, and stop politicizing the classroom. Here is my review of the book, for the online edition of City Journal.


  1. I'd actually lean towards another way, though I think both yourself and Fish would disagree: Give up on the universities for most post-HS education. (Of course, I'd say HS and lower education should ideally be handled by home schooling as well. Oh, if only the world were more perfect.)

    Not that a promotion of autodidactism will solve everything, but I think moving in that direction would be a vast improvement. If I want to learn programming, or art, or history, or otherwise, I don't need to pay a university for the privilege. And in more technical cases, what's important is the certification a diploma offers - but there's better ways to certify people as well.

  2. Professor, have you also seen this column in the NY Times recently:

    It scares me to death, not only because I hope to have an academic career myself but because I am convinced that study of the humanities has both intrinsic and instrumental justification. I know all sorts of people here at Princeton who as a result of reading the classics in economics, philosophy, literature, etc. became fired up to serve their communities in unbelievably creative ways.

    Autodidactism has a place but you are ignoring the crucial role social interaction plays in shaping people's beliefs, skills and attitudes. Universities do not exist just to 'certify' people in a certain subject, as if you were downloading a piece of software into their brains. They provide a community in which students can test their ideas, learn to argue vigorously but respectfully and acquire friendships and networks of contacts that will serve them throughout their lives. I do probably 70-80 percent of my reading outside the classroom and read more extracurricular books than curricular, but I still find classroom interaction indispensable to a healthy social and psychological life.

    I say this as someone who was home-schooled until the 4th grade. I value that time immensely and it instilled in me a desire to learn on my own and take the initiative for my education, but my parents just did not have the time or skill to teach the things I wanted to learn, like advanced math and physics, or later on philosophy of religion and neuroscience.

    I'm curious, professor Feser, in light of TLS what is your academic ideal (model of instruction, faculty compensation, etc.) and how would you justify it?

  3. JD Walters,

    One problem is, who pay to go to college for 'the community'? The crucial social interaction skills line is what I normally hear with regards to home-schooled children, not college-aged or older adults - and it doesn't work for home schooled children simply because if community is desired, there are plenty of alternatives. For adults, all the moreso. People manage to meet others, interact, and so on without a school or university mediator.

    Now, if someone's parents simply don't have the resources or knowledge, that's that. On the other hand, I've been to plenty of college courses where the person in charge of teaching the class didn't have the expertise either - they taught from a book.

    Keep in mind, I'm not saying one should never get a degree, or pay for classes. Obviously it's a necessity in some fields (medicine, law, etc), and if you just can't teach yourself, there is that option. On the other hand, the modern insistence that everyone - no matter what their career goals - needs a degree, is nonsense. And if someone wants to learn a subject, paying to attend a class when there are ample books available in the library (or better yet, online) can be nonsense as well. The first attempt should be the autodidactic route.

  4. Anon,

    Of course people can meet and interact with others outside the classroom, and no one would pay money just to socialize there. I'm talking about a specially structured community that only exists in the university that's specifically oriented toward learning. You can't get that taking classes online or reading books by yourself, perhaps while trying to hold down a full-time job at the same time.

    I agree that many instructors don't really know what they're talking about and teach from a book. But that's not a reason to scrap the classroom model of learning.

    Another point worth considering is that few people have the discipline to be true autodidacts. I know that colleges with big impersonal classes don't really do anything to remedy that, but in an ideal setting where classes are small and teachers are competent the lack of discipline can be compensated for.

    I'll grant that a degree isn't necessary for all careers, if you think the goal of a degree is only to 'download' specific skills. But for me a liberal arts degree is about much more than that. It's about gaining a broader knowledge of the world, its peoples and cultures and learning to think critically and with integrity in all sorts of subjects, not just the one you get your degree in. My degree, for example, is in religion, but I've also studied physics, math, computer science, philosophy, neuroscience, literature and the economics of the petroleum industry. All of this learning has shaped who I am and how I engage with the world around me. You just can't get that exclusively through online classes taken piecemeal in a non-academic context. It's a whole experience, one that I think every person should have.

  5. JD Walters,

    Again, I would question the value of 'a specially structured community that only exists in the university that's specifically oriented toward learning'. It's going to have to be one hell of a community and one hell of a special structure to justify spending as much money, time, and otherwise as is required by the university structure, especially where degree programs are concerned. Uniqueness only gets one so much currency - joining the army is unique. Getting your GED at 16 and joining the workforce or attempting to start one's own business is unique. Communities will be had in way after way. The uniqueness (every option is arguably 'unique') and community (unless you are a hermit - something entirely possible to be in a university - you will have a community) doesn't seem to be a good way to measure what the norm should be, especially when a substantial cost is factored in.

    Now, I will readily admit that some people can't - or at least claim they can't - be autodidacts. To that I would say this: First, that autodidactism at the very least should be held up as an ideal in communities - in families, in churches, etc. Cultivated and respected rather than written off as 'too hard'. Second, what I've said here is that the first attempt should be autodidactism - yes, someone may fail due to the difficulty of the material or otherwise. But when someone decides 'I want to learn how to code' or 'I want to learn about history', the instinct should be to gather books and study. Not pay an institution for a training wheels version of the same instruction by someone who may or may not be helpful.

    I haven't dumped on a liberal arts education here, keep in mind. My own degree was in political science. I am saying that a 'liberal arts education' (and many other types of education) can be had without paying thousands or tens of thousands of dollars yearly for the privilege, and that the quality of education can be equivalent or better than what the university may offer. I'm admitting that it may not be feasible for everyone, but that the attempt should nevertheless be made and the skill encouraged - 'I will learn myself' should be the gut reaction when someone wants to learn something, not 'I will pay money to take a class'.

    But most of all, I want to focus on this. You've ceded that instructors (I would say 'quite often') teach from a lesson book. Certainly you must admit that the university culture does have some problems (Look at Fish's writings, look at Feser's writings, look at the Larry Summers case, etc.) And you seem to admit that, while maybe not everyone, some people (again, I would say 'many, if the encouragement was there') can learn on their own, at their own pace and on their own schedule, with books that are either free or a fraction of the cost of a class. Are you really arguing that (for 'everyone', by your words) it's worth spending thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars... in order to be 'part of a community'?

  6. Anon,

    If the community prerequisite to acquiring a good education can be had elsewhere, give me examples where such a community is found outside the university. Where else can you find a place where people have the time to devote themselves exclusively (or nearly so) to their studies and can get the kind of feedback and interaction that will allow them to sharpen their own ideas and learn how to communicate effectively. Sure, some people can acquire good communication, writing skills and a broad and deep knowledge of the world around them by themselves, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

    But let's focus on the supply side of the equation for a minute. You're so gung-ho about students learning by themselves from books that don't cost nearly as much as a class...but where do those books come from?? Who does the translating of the classics in literature, philosophy, economics, the natural sciences, etc. and gives commentary so that students can read them in their proper context? Who writes the textbooks in physics, chemistry, etc. where you can learn about integrated circuits or the internal combustion engine? These are for the most part produced by professors with years of experience in teaching as well as the TIME required to sit down, research and write them. If we follow your suggestion and abolish the universities (and presumably all the jobs that go along with it) who is going to produce the educational materials that the next generation of students in higher-ed need? Certainly not some autodidact who read Adam Smith in his/her spare time while holding a 'useful' job.

    And I shudder to think of a new academic 'culture' where testing corporations hire what are essentially mercenaries to produce the books needed by students, aimed only to download skills into their brain.

    I admit that higher education has problems. Professors need to be better teachers, classes need to be smaller and more intimate, universities should stop spending so much money on sports and focus on libraries, writing centers, etc. But I don't think you understand human psychology very well if you think that it could be the norm for people to just learn whatever they want whenever they want and somehow expect the resources they need to do so to fall magically out of the sky in a world where people can't make a living preserving and expanding humanity's intellectual heritage.

    Certainly college could be made more affordable. But it's very hard to imagine an alternative social arrangement that could accomplish what higher ed does today without established universities, professors, tenure and tuition.

  7. JD Walters,

    First, I'd contend that for the most part, the number of students who devote themselves 'exclusively or nearly so' to their studies is tremendously low. You've been (are?) enrolled in a university and so have I. The sheer amount of extracurricular activities (which ranges from involvement in political activities to fraternities to otherwise) is considerable, before realizing just how many students end up dropping out of college before they get their degree. Let's not pretend that the average college student is immersed in their studies, or anything close to such.

    Second, even if I were to acknowledge that universities can improve communication and writing skills, it would hardly establish that the value is worth the cost, or that better alternatives could be found. And again - that's paltry justification for the money spent.

    Third, where did I say we should abolish the universities? Really, how could I say that when I've expressly admitted that they are a (if second- or third-best) alternative for people who can't self-teach, for certain types of more exacting professions (law, medicine, etc)? Granted, if my suggestions were taken to heart, there would be far fewer students paying money to the universities - but that's very far from abolishing them.

    Finally, you make a plea that in order to provide what they do, universities need so much money. But my sympathies are first and foremost with families and would-be students. If the idea that some people can and will effectively teach themselves is somehow threatening to universities because it would impact their bottom line, I'm sorry - I will side against the universities in such a case. The resources of individuals are limited as well, after all, and many times in more dire ways.

    Right now, universities are viewed as having a monopoly on education - if you want to learn something, you must pay a teacher for the privilege. I think that should end. If the mere thought of people choosing that option in greater numbers - buying and reading books, even textbooks, rather than paying to have textbooks read to them - is a threat, then I submit something has gone drastically wrong with how we view education in general.

  8. For what it's worth, virtually all the 'autodidacts' I've met can't communicate their 'knowledge' effectively, let alone engage in reasoned disagreement. And though I've met some extremely intelligent and perfectly sociable people who were homeschooled, I've also met a bunch of social retards who think that only evil imbeciles believe that the world is more than roughly 6000 years old or that theocracy is a questionable form of government. Theory isn't the place to justify these programs; show us the results, and perhaps we'll believe that homeschooling and 'autodidacticism' are good ideas for anything but a few rare souls.