Friday, January 23, 2009

The death of teaching

Stanley Fish, in a blog for the New York Times on January 18th, The Last Professor, lauds a book by a former student of his that in no uncertain terms declares victory for the utilitarian model of education and predicts the demise of the university as a place for "understanding and explaining." He's not entirely wrong, but neither is he entirely right.

I haven't read the book he's reviewing, and based on his review I likely won't. As a poet, moreover, a literary translator, and an aspiring academic, I hear often enough how the humanities don't contribute to the world in a tangible or measurable way. I hear often enough that higher education is "an enterprise characterized by a determined inutility." This is the triumph of the corporation over the individual, the system over the human. And those who can view this change with satisfaction, with victory, have clearly never read Dickens' Hard Times.

Had they bothered to read literature they would perhaps understand that this is the ultimate dehumanization. The author of the book, Donoghue, concludes, “that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.” He's not wrong - in fact, we have already seen this happening - it continues to happen to the fields of imaginative pursuits. It is not my purpose to rehash the classic arguments that only by first imagining a better world can we then create it, or by taking an imaginative perspective on the world can we critique it, and therefore improve it. I fully subscribe to these arguments, as anyone pursuing my future would have to. But the idea that the future holds no place for the imagination, and only for utility, is not to be congratulated as pragmatic but lamented as defeated.

Not only that, but it seems to me to be distinctly wrong. One might just consider events of the past several months as an example. The devastating crash of the unregulated market, and the resulting loss of faith in the free market as a suitable system of moral guidance for life, is a place to start. The free market, we have learned, is very good at one thing, but can not serve as a model for all things, nor even can it be left to its own devices without oversight. No longer can we associate goodness as a virtue with the manifestation of material wealth and productivity, as the utilitarian model requires. While we need technicians, engineers, investors and bankers to make the system run, so also do we need the visionaries who imagine ways to improve the system, to make it both more efficient and more human. We need people with the developed ability to envision alternatives to the status quo, both in the name of progress and in the name of morality. And these people don't just learn to do this by studying numbers or processes. It requires the nurturing and development of a different set of skills, those of the imagination, through literature, philosophy, dare I say art?

Second, look at the recent (political) victory of the intellectual imagination over the lowest-common-denominator. It is the ability to envision change, envision a better world that we can all be part of, that in large part ensured the success of the Obama campaign. No longer are the willfully ignorant lauded as being more 'authentic' - but the chance for education must be extended to be universal. Only by having an imaginative, engaged and educated populace can a democracy thrive. People get the government they deserve in a democracy; it is by celebrating the life of the imagination, the ability to make real in the world what our artists, writers and philosophers dream for us as a better existance, that we have come finally to a new beginning. There is hope in this national shift, though no assurance it will become permanent.

The stifeling of the imaginative intellect visibily damaged the world we live in. These are but two examples. Perhaps there is a future in which professors, and university life that stimulates imaginative thinking, is gone entirely. But I rather doubt it. How many students vy to go to the University of Phoenix (mentioned approvingly in the article) over Harvard, or even the University of Massachusetts? This is not soley because of name recognition - it is because for the most part we still understand that without an interactive, imaginative education we are limited to our technical skills. Like a machine working into all eternity with no purpose.

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