Teaching Barbarism: The Contemporary University

Shock of the week: my discovery that freshmen (excuse me: “beginning students”) do not know how to analyze a text in terms other than seeing it as audience-manipulation.  I had already ruefully observed, here in the final semester of my career, that I enjoy but a tiny fraction of the academic freedom I used to know. I scarcely get to decide what’s done in my own classroom any longer, as if I were teaching third grade.  I can’t choose my own textbook; the state has mandated that I thrust an online tutorial into my syllabus (full of nanny-nags about intellectual honesty that wouldn’t be necessary if our robotic curriculum taught thinking instead of imitation); and my department tells me that every paper assigned must have a citation page, marginal annotations, etc., etc., even though you’re not going to cite other sources if your topic is to think through an issue for yourself.  We once called that “critical thinking”… and, oh yes, the phrase still holds an honored place among various buzzwords.  We just don’t actually teach it any more.

Instead, students for probably about two decades now (for the lifespan, that is, of my fresh-beings) have been taught to profile the intended audience of any given piece, and to adjust their “rhetorical choices” to that audience.  Sounds damn near the same thing as selling a used car.  And what’s the difference, really?  The capitalist system in general, and advertisers in particular, are universally loathed by academics in my area… and yet, what do we teach our own students?  To pitch their position so as to make it maximally appealing where the “target audience” is likely to be most vulnerable.  Apparently, manipulating people for the prospect of reaping a lucrative material profit is squalid and disgusting—but manipulating them for ideological reasons is a skill that every educated, enlightened person should acquire.  Academe agrees entirely with the “putrid business community” that no such thing as objective truth or absolute value exists; but “those people” deal in dollars, whereas we deal in… ideas!

I’m supposed to be preparing students for writing within their special discipline in upper-division courses, so I have attempted to get them to see why science needs quantifiable data reached by replicable experimentation, whereas any field related to human behavior is allowed to consider anecdotal evidence, surveys, art work, and so forth.  What did I find out?  That an archeologist, for instance, takes aerial photos of an ancient site so that the reader won’t get bored, and that a biologist divides a paper into paradigmatic sections so that readers won’t get lost in a complex discussion.  Everything is a courtesy to the almighty reader; none of it is ever a concession to researching the specific kind of truth reserved for the field’s study.

Well, this is what we’ve taught them; this is how we raised them.  If there’s an idiot in your son’s or daughter’s college yearbook, it isn’t one of the kids.  We’ve taught them to ape thinking—to dress up in the costume of a thinker: we haven’t taught them how to connect and prioritize propositions on the basis of logic, probability, common sense, morality, or anything else.  And indeed, the articles that we ourselves grind out as “scholars” are long with needless citation intended to show the world how dazzlingly erudite we are (known as “ethos” in composition textbooks, after a dull-witted misconstruction of Aristotle).  Our writing is full of obscurantist jargon aimed at the same end—and which, frankly, could well stand to be a little more reader-friendly.  The purpose of “scholarship” in our own lives isn’t to draw closer to the truth; for—to repeat—truth does not exist objectively.  No, our publications are engineered to show how incredibly bright we are.  Always ourselves, front and center.

In an act of reading, the reader is of course front and center.  So, you see, it all holds together: put yourself in the middle of everything you do.  If you need people to read your crap, seduce them into believing that you’re serving them hand and foot.  If you need the masses to gape at your opera magna uncomprehendingly, write gobbledygook.  Whatever it takes.

Any wonder that our society is in its present shape?

Author: nilnoviblog

I hold a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (Latin/Greek) but have not navigated academe very successfully for the past thirty years. This is owed partly to my non-PC place of origin (Texas), but probably more to my conviction--along with the ancients--that human nature is immutable, and my further conviction--along with Stoics and true Christians-- that we have a natural calling to surmount our nature. Or maybe I just don't play office politics well. I'm much looking forward to impending retirement, when I can tend to my orchards and perhaps market the secrets of Dead Ball hitting that I've excavated. No, there's nothing new (nil novi) under the sun... but what a huge amount has been forgotten, in baseball and elsewhere!

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