Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The war on the humanities

 The Chinese educational system has been criticised for its focus on science and failure to produce fully rounded individuals.
The war on the humanities, as I have had cause to observe during my career in the trenches or tranches as a student with a Ph.D. in English and thirty-plus years teaching at every level from basic ESL to upper-level college, continues. Alex Preston, in the Guardian, documents the situation in Britain. Margaret Thatcher's regime implemented a relentless march towards imposition of practical rather than philosophical (in the root sense of the term) programs. These push STEM rather than liberal arts coursework, and force the remaining majors outside the vocational strata into a systematically applied set of standards demanding accountability and measurable results. In the U.S, as I can testify from my campus experience, it's not "downsizing" when administrators get the word out to the masses during a "downturn," but timely "right-sizing" given market demands for careerism.
"Currently fixed in the crosshairs are the disciplines of the humanities – arts, languages and social sciences – which have suffered swingeing funding cuts and been ignored by a government bent on promoting the modish, revenue-generating Stem (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects. The liberal education which seeks to provide students with more than mere professional qualifications appears to be dying a slow and painful death, overseen by a whole cadre of what cultural anthropologist David Graeber calls 'bullshit jobs': bureaucrats hired to manage the transformation of universities from centres of learning to profit centres. As one academic put it to me: 'Every dean needs his vice-dean and sub-dean and each of them needs a management team, secretaries, admin staff; all of them only there to make it harder for us to teach, to research, to carry out the most basic functions of our jobs.' The humanities, whose products are necessarily less tangible and effable than their science and engineering peers (and less readily yoked to the needs of the corporate world) have been an easy target for this sprawling new management class."
Marina Warner is cited by Preston, from her time at the U. of Essex, which when I contemplated (alas I could not afford this, as it was the height of Thatcherism, a year before the miner's strike) attending graduate school there. I also was told by a British professor about East Anglia, and Birmingham. All three were a bastion of freethinking, interdisciplinary education. Now, administrators crack down, and demand profit. Austerity rules and restricts. Dame Warner laments. For me, it's as if time travel back for me thirty-plus years happened: "the management structures being imposed on universities are nothing like one would see in a real business in the current economic environment, but one from 30 years ago. 'It’s so 80s. It’s Reaganomics.”'

As Graeber elaborates in "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs": "A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well." His work strives to advance anarchism that challenges the corporate stranglehold.

If as we in the West are told, we need to be more like China, what avails us?  Preston warns: "Only 10% of Chinese college graduates are deemed employable by multinational businesses, according to research cited by Yong in his book. The main complaint? They are too regimented, predictable and lack the creative spark."

At East Anglia, Sarah Churchwell weighs in as Preston quotes her at length: 'What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,' said Churchwell. And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”

Where I teach, a different model rules vs. that where my sons attend. They revel in small classes led by professors, many of Ivy League training and at one institution, some of the leading writers and thinkers that the proximity of New York City to the Hudson Valley can entice under a nationally-known president and an innovative approach. And the other model is student-driven, community-based, and radically collaborative. While they like their parents will graduate into the kind of employment prospects that may in Graeber's estimation make our world more than a "lesser place," I hope they sustain the legacy in which I have been prepared and which I try to transmit to STEM and accounting students, a glimpse at least of "centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration" which I believe all students, no matter their major or career, can learn from.

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