08 January 2009

Call me at the "Ivory Tower"

In my last post, I ventured to guess that the percentage of our population who think that too many of the books we assign in high school and college are irrelevant to their lives has risen meteorically since some 38% agreed with that statement in 1993.

I also sighed.

Here's my current take:

Way too much of current curricula in all disciplines (especially on the university level) has fallen prey to the relevance argument:

"If it's not relevant to our everyday lives, if we can't use it in a job immediately upon graduation, if it's not listed among the qualifications in a job listing, if it doesn't talk directly to my experience as a _________, then why bother?

"Nobody of importance in the real world," they continue, "is ever going to ask me to scan a line of Milton's Paradise Lost, or solve a quadratic equation, or describe the importance of Impressionism in the history of painting, or talk about the Gilded Age, or..."

This attitude is now being abetted by a push from all those who argue that more and more and more learning needs to "engage the community," to help solve the problems of society, to get students out of the ivory tower. "The world has problems," they crack, "but higher ed has disciplines."

The problem with this approach is that educated people solve problems. And people are not truly educated, in the fullest sense, if all they've ever learned is how to do is "this, that, or the other" practical application. And application without perspective -- without discipline -- is busy work.

Believe me, I want (and, indeed, need) Joe the Plumber to know how to install and fix my pipes. But, unless he's spent some time pondering the problem of evil in a philosophy class or learned a little macroeconomics, or read a poem in another language, or heard at some point that "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for "lead," or taken a Chem or Bio or Physics class, I can't imagine he'll remedy any of the larger societal problems that lack as clear-cut and concrete solutions as my septic tank.

I also realize that, just because students have taken philosophy, Chinese, or Chemistry, it does not mean they will be able to solve the big problems that face us. BUT it's a really good bet that, if they never addressed the perennial questions of what is art, evil, humanity, and hydrogen; if they've never been tested in the intellectual rigors of a discipline, they'll be hard-pressed to have the vision necessary for what faces us in the 21st Century.

Training needs to be "relevant" and timely. Education is best when it's timeless.

A more practical concern, of course, is that, if public universities are now being charged with solving society's problems, doesn't that turn them into just another state agency, no different than Family Services, the Department of Corrections, or Transportation?

I sure hope not.

Is a university just another service organization?

I sure hope not.

Will funding (and promotions, etc.) be linked to its success in curing (or at least alleviating) hunger, homelessness, unplanned pregnancy, and illiteracy in its local community?

I sure hope not.

We must actively embrace the ivory tower/real world dichotomy -- NOT run away from it. We can then help students think as broadly and as deeply as possible, so that, when they do venture out into the real world, they have a firm grasp of human history, thought, and accomplishment, which, as educated people, they can then apply to both their own lives and the lives of those around them.

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