Thursday, September 04, 2008

Drinking the "Liberal Arts" Kool-Aid

I know, I know. I should be writing about Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. But I just can't bring myself to do it. I'm still shocked and dismayed that I didn't see one single non-white face in the Convention audience on television last night. And I'm also still amused that, at one point, the television cameras were panning the Convention floor, and one of the signs that read "Country First" was partially blocked so that it looked like it read "...try First." That cracked me up.

Instead, I want to weigh in on "the first-year college experience," which is the topic of a couple of interesting posts at Perverse Egalitarianism ("Welcome to College. May I Take Your Order Teach You Something?") and Dead Voles ("The Wonders of College"). Both Mikhail and Carl make short work of dispatching with whatever romantic notion we might have of the "first-year college experience," which most of us believe to be eye-opening, mind-expanding, and life-changing for our young charges. According to a study conducted by sociologist Tim Clydesdale, discussed in his book The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School, very few fresh college students experience any change in their identities, values, religious or political views during their first year. Rather, according to Clydesdale:

Most of the mainstream American teens I spoke with neither liberated themselves intellectually nor broadened themselves socially during their first year out... What teens actually focus on during the first year out is this: daily life management.

So, Clydesdale warns, don't expect your first-year students to climb atop their desks and yawp "O Captain, my Captain!" They're too busy trying to figure out how to balance the demands of life without parental control: studying, partying, working, making friends, managing finances, waking up on time. And while they're doing that, they're keeping the characteristics that have defined them so far in what Clydesdale calls an "identity lockbox."

Of course, this can't be true of all first-year students, and Clydesdale acknowledges that a (very) few of them do in fact have the deep and profound experience that college brochures promise. But the sorts of students who are inclined towards peripeteia and anagnorisis are basically just little versions of us and, according to Clydesdale, most of them grow up to be professors just like us. This is how we keep the dream alive.

In the end, Clydesdale advises that we basically give up on that dream. Stop telling first-years that your course is going to expand their world-view, because it probably won't. Instead, he advises that we focus on skills-development, which is not only more attuned to what new college students want, but what they need. At least in part, I agree with Clydesdale that teaching critical skills to new students-- how to read well, how to write well, how to think well-- is time and energy well-spent. But, having drunk the liberal-arts Kool-Aid a long time ago, I still believe that those skills are partly useless, and mostly meaningless, if they are not contextualized within some "for the sake of which."

For the time being, I'll keep my Rule #1 as it is... including the "Be More" part. Maybe I'm just preaching to the Future Professors and Purveyors of the Dream Choir, but maybe not. At any rate, despite the nay-sayers, I'm going to keep practicing a lesson I learned from the Republicans last night: "...try First."


hawkbrwn said...

Leigh, how can you be so critical? The RNC had a black guy recite the National Anthem, for god's sake! And the camera focused in on another black guy in the audience.

Hamilton said...

Your description of the RNC sounds like graduation at Rhodes minus, in regards to hawkbrn's comment, the National Anthem part.

Booga Face said...


Carl said...

Thanks for this! I actually believe teaching students to think critically, examine perspectives, and interpret rigorously is a much more flavorful liberal arts kool-aid than indoctrination into the dry and flaky dogmas and trivial pursuit answers of our little separate disciplines. So around the backdoor Clydesdale is really suggesting that we get our gaze out of our navels and reconnect with a richer and more inclusive enchantment. This is worth trying.

anotherpanacea said...

Your account of Clydesdale sounds right; learning to live on one's own and balance the demands of higher education with the social life offered -is- the first job for freshmen.

I -loved- my first year of college. I felt like I was finally where I belonged. But I wouldn't say I changed much. Except for the heavy drinking, I was the same nerd I had been in high school, only I was finally in a place where that was okay, even encouraged! The "Oh Captain, My Captain!" experience seems much more about teaching as erotic sublimation, channeling a student's passion into a subject matter, our subject matter. The students who arrive in our classrooms have already been selected for their intelligence by the admission's office, and their curiosity about philosophy gets them into our classes: they're basically begging to be persuaded by good ideas and innovative arguments to become philosophy majors.

Why should we want to make them into something else, as if they came to us as unmolded clay? By and large, we get students shaped by a decade of education, who have then been left in the drawer for the last two boring and unnecessary years of high school to dry out. We're here to put on the glaze and fire that clay into fine porcelain. At this point, major personality change is bad and unhealthy: it means our students couldn't stand the heat and have cracked in the kiln.

Booga Face said...

In response to Carl and AnotherPanacea, I want to emphasize Doctor J.'s final points, "for the sake of which" and "Be More."

It seems to me that you all missed that.

In other words, "skills" yes, for sure, I agree... but for what and why? Or, to badly paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari's preface to their book _What is Philosophy?_, "where's the love!?!?"

Lemme put it another way, a way by way of example. A current catchphrase going around the college and university administrations these days is "intercultural competency" -- meaning, I suppose, that we want our students to not be a bunch of chauvenist bigots and to be able to get along in this new era of "globalization." But is competency really the goal here? What about ethics? What about self questioning? What about "being more"?

To counter this mantra of "intercultural competency" (which seems to me to be a phrase coined by the same folks at Harvard who planned Russia's transition from a nation run by communists to a nation run by mafia thugs), I like to refer to a recent NPR story about the various ethnic gangs in California -- Vietnamese, Korean, Latino, Black, White.... These gangs demonstrate an amazing degree of intercultural competency. They know each others' languages, customs, etc., and they use that knowledge to their advantage in gang wars and narcotics trade. In essence, they demonstrate more "skills" and "intercultural competency" than any of the spoiled white kids that I teach, BUT (as Doctor J so appropriately and adroitly asks), "for the sake of which?"

Are you pickin' up what I'm layin' down? Are you gathering what I'm carefully placing before you? It ain't what it is, in other words.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, Booga. You actually said what I had intended to say, but I got too busy last week to come back and comment.

Anyway, I'm sniffin' what you're smellin'!