Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Autogooglotic asphyxiation

Today's Brooks ("The Big University") starts out looking pretty deadly ("Not that one again!"), but it does have its funny side, which I discovered more or less by accident.
Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular.
Religious rituals like mandatory chapel services were dropped. Academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission.
Administrators and professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription either because they didn’t know what to say or because they didn’t want to alienate any part of their diversifying constituencies. The humanities departments became less important...
I'm thinking yeah, if you mean Harvard and Yale and so on, because they were founded as divinity schools, to prepare preachers, and cultivating spiritual and moral natures was part of the job description. It was when they started putting out doctors and lawyers and congressmen that things began to change, right?

So I start googling around to get a sense of how wrong I might be on the point, and almost immediately come to a site calling itself Q and featuring an essay by Peter Greer and Chris Horst of Hope International ("a global nonprofit focused on Christ-centered job creation, savings mobilization and financial training") saying practically the same thing:
“Harvard was founded to prepare ministers of upright character,” Derek Bok, president at Harvard University (1971–1991), penned these words in his annual letter to the Harvard Board in 1987. Candidly, he examined the storied history of America’s most prestigious university....
[Harvard's] mission reads like that of a seminary or Christian college. It’s hard to reconcile such overt religious language with the secular university we know as Harvard today. But many of our country’s most prominent universities, including Yale, Brown, and Princeton, started with a similar mission....
Well, duh, it was a seminary and a Christian college. That's what preparing ministers means, pardner. Not like Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia, founded in 1819 as
a new kind of university, one dedicated to educating leaders in practical affairs and public service rather than for professions in the classroom and pulpit exclusively. It was the first nonsectarian university in the United States and the first to use the elective course system.
And not "over the course of the 20th century". Harvard began offering medicine in 1782, law in 1816, and degree courses in arts and sciences at last in 1872, under the great president Charles Eliot, who removed Christianity from its privileged position in the curriculum and graduated the school's first African-Americans and Jews. Daniel Coit Gilman brought about a similar secularization at Johns Hopkins, describing the university's mission in his 1876 inaugural in the broadest purely educational terms, in which religion, science, and humanities were roughly equal:
To educate its students and cultivate their capacity for lifelong learning, to foster independent and original research, and to bring the benefits of discovery to the world.
And James Burrill Angell's efforts at secularization at the University of Michigan beginning in 1871 went further than he himself was in the end completely comfortable with.

Anyway, if you scroll down a bit in Greer's and Horst's essay, you find:
David Brooks has written extensively on the importance of rediscovering the importance of virtues in our universities: “Highly educated young people are tutored, taught and monitored in all aspects of their lives, except the most important, which is character building. When it comes to this, most universities leave them alone.”
They're fans! (And emulators of the Brooksian prose style, do you see how the repetitions of "importance/important" weigh the sentence down like leg-chains?) So what I'm thinking is, he came up with a model for today's column, once again, by googling himself, landing on the exact same page I did trying to chase him down! Autogooglation, as we call it in the trade. I just think that's so cute.

Greer and Horst:
In her book Finding God at Harvard, Kelly Monroe reports that when Christian evangelist Billy Graham asked Bok, “What is the biggest problem among today’s students?” Bok replied, “Emptiness.”
Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down.
But things are looking up, because

Greer and Horst:
Training students with “upright character” is the most popular trend in modern educational theory. Perhaps this vision isn’t so antiquated after all.
things are changing. On almost every campus faculty members and administrators are trying to stem the careerist tide and to widen the system’s narrow definition of achievement. Institutes are popping up — with interdisciplinary humanities programs and even meditation centers — designed to cultivate the whole student: the emotional, spiritual and moral sides and not just the intellectual.
Interdisciplinary humanities programs, to the extent they are in fact mushrooming, may not be about cultivating the whole student anyway, but more, as the American Historical Association was advising in 2013, marketability:
The Interdisciplinary Humanities: A Platform for Experiential Learning of Workplace Skills
And as for meditation centers (the Japanese Teahouse and Meditation Garden at Mount Holyoke was built in 1984; the Interfaith Center of SUNY Albany in 1966, and the Danforth Chapel at the University of Kansas in 1946), something tells me they may be involved in marketing too.

Danforth Chapel, University of Kansas, ranked 5th best meditation space on a US campus by bestcounselingschools.org.
The two columns diverge at this point. Simple-minded Greer and Horst just want to re-Christianize all the colleges (heck, we don't need federal funds, that's for unspiritual stuff like research and subsidizing poor students), while Brooks wanders off into the familiar wank-fantasy territory in which the ecstasies of being twenty are infused with the fragrance of piety, a splash of parfum eau-de-Dieu:
If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty — with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral, serving a child with Down syndrome, waking up with loving friends on a mountain — there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.... the great works of art and literature have a lot to say on how to tackle the concrete challenges of living, like how to escape the chains of public opinion, how to cope with grief or how to build loving friendships. Instead of organizing classes around academic concepts — 19th-century French literature — more could be organized around the concrete challenges students will face in the first decade after graduation.
Like, don't marry a mediocre small-town doctor. And stay away from right-wing religious sexual hypocrites.

What's deeply missing in Brooks's historical understanding is, as usual, historical understanding. The secularization of the American university, taking place largely in the later 19th century, had nothing to do with the grim professionalization that really got going a hundred years later, around the time Brooks himself was in Chicago (opened with Baptist alongside Rockefeller funds in 1892, it has never had a sectarian affiliation) enjoying the deep and dope-scented conversation in the residence halls. The secularization was about the discovery that higher education was good for something other than training ministers and teacher, including, notably, the members of the ruling class (at the same time as Oxford and Cambridge were training Englishmen to rule India and Africa).

And the secularization along with democratization after World War II  were precisely the things (along with the dope, no doubt) that made Chicago such a wonderful place, at least for a while—the democratization having slowed down considerably, I imagine starting around then.

But the other thing about American university education is the element of class. The great schools from the 1870s through the early 1940s were temples of nourishment for a cultivated upper crust (or a bunch of wealthy thugs, or, in the normal case, a bit of both), but had little or no room for the masses until the GI Bill changed the equations after World War II (in the 1869-70 school year 1.3% of the 18-to-24-year-old cohort were enrolled in a tertiary institution; in 1929-30, 7.2%; in 1961, 23.6%; and in 1975, 40.3%). As college attendance became almost the norm for American kids, it also became more and more attuned to the demands of capitalism for narrowly trained and obedient employees, more sensitive to donors and their interest in fancy programs and buildings named after them, less sensitive to students and their quest for meaning. This is really true, and everybody knows it unless, like Brooks, they were in a protected Arcadia of privilege.

Nowadays even Harvard undergraduates (who were supposed to be kept debt-free by the financial aid system, last I heard) feel the pressure to land in the appropriate job, and for most students anxiety rules. The beautiful days of sitting under the ivy and having transcendent experiences are hard for anybody to get. There is certainly a spiritual problem in college administrations (they're obsessed with money, including that of their own six-figure salaries and that of the patrons from whom they spend all their working hours begging), and with the competition on the one hand over meditation centers and on the other over job placement rates.

The dirty secret of which Brooks will never become aware is that the quality of tertiary education in the United States, including its spiritual awareness quotient or whatever you want to call it, is directly connected to changes in the degree of income and wealth inequality, reaching some kind of wonderful peak in the 1950s through 1970s and declining ever since, even as the quantity increases, the fanciest being reserved for the increasingly tiny number of those who can pay full price. Not that you can't get a wonderful education at your cheap commuter school, but chance and fighting for it both play a very large role, and the meditation center probably sucks.

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