Critical de(con)struction
May 12, 2014 8:11 PM   Subscribe

"Young Minds in Critical Condition" (SLNYT) "Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one’s own “privilege” … We should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers—or, to use a currently fashionable word on campus, people who like to “trouble” ideas," opines Michael Roth, on the status quo of liberal education. Also "The case for a liberal education", 2014/05/09, The Boston Globe; and, "There's Nothing Liberal About Specializing in Philosophy" The Atlantic, 2014/05/09. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, recently authored “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters”, and teaches "The Modern and The Postmodern", offered on Coursera.
posted by polymodus (22 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Jefferson would be appalled by the retreat from public responsibility for higher education. He tried to pass taxes to support people without money receiving an education, and he failed. At the same time, he would probably say it’s predictable. This is how wealthy people protect their advantages: by limiting access to higher education to their own children. This creates what Jefferson called an “unnatural aristocracy,” people who have unearned privileges. He would think it’s very sad that people are going into debt to finance educational exploration. He would worry about the possibility that talented people without financial means would be left out of higher education. In terms of a vocational approach, Jefferson was a great believer in studying things that didn’t seem to be immediately profitable.

Founding Father-type talk always makes my eyes glaze over but if that's truly in line with what Jefferson wrote or said, then he seems like somebody worth exploring.

But this:

I teach Great Books courses, and if students can't explain why Virginia Woolf or Baudelaire matters in terms relevant to their own lives, I don't think they understand the book.

I've read Virginia Woolf (under duress, though I quite enjoyed Orlando) and Charles Baudelaire (when I was a goth dilettante) and I think that if a person can't explain why their work is relevant to their own lives, then it isn't automatically because they don't understand the book. It could be that you are a shitty teacher, or it could be that there simply isn't any relevance. Flowers of Evil was relevant to my life only insofar as it gave me something to do for my evening's first bottle of wine, before I was too hammered to read words.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:59 PM on May 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

is there an emoticon for making the jerking-off motion in the air?
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:31 PM on May 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Once outside the university, these students may try to score points by displaying the critical prowess for which they were rewarded in school, but those points often come at their own expense. As debunkers, they contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning — a culture whose intellectuals and cultural commentators get “liked” by showing that somebody else just can’t be believed. But this cynicism is no achievement.
You mean getting lots of Favorites on Metafilter doesn't count as an achievement?
posted by Bugbread at 9:33 PM on May 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

You mean getting lots of Favorites on Metafilter doesn't count as an achievement?

Achievement Unlocked: Favorite Counter

+15 to MetaScore
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:35 PM on May 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

My "liberal" education in critical thinking and assessment has served me very well, but in science. I mean, you have to apply it, guys.

Otherwise it's just a navel gazing circle jerk. Which is pretty much my opinion on the state of affairs in higher education these days, judging by the last few PhD thesis in education I have had the misfortune of reading.

But once you move into other fields it's just too easy. The people I work with think I'm some kind of Holmesian wizard for being able to do basic literature review on a topic nobody has heard of, organize the major themes and conflicts in the field, and knock out an summary in an hour. It's not curing cancer and I'm sure I'm missing some details but as bad as some of these papers are, it's no Finnegan's Wake.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 9:46 PM on May 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Richard Vedder, director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, puts it this way: “Do you really need a chemistry degree to make a good martini?”

That's true. But at the same time, at many cocktail bars, the customer expects not just an artisanal cocktail but also conversation at the level of someone educated in the liberal arts. The problem is if that job pays less than it should, not that someone with a degree is shaking a martini. Nor is that person behind the bar necessarily going to be there for their entire life -- I doubt many Wesleyan graduates spend their lives at the bottom tier of the economy.

I'm someone with a liberal arts degree. For a few years it felt like a liability, compared to people I knew with narrow (or targeted) technical degrees. Now, finally, it seems like a real plus, like I'm able to leapfrog ahead based on a wider knowledge base. I don't want to generalize, but I definitely agree that you have to look past narrow measures of income in assessing "success," or look at longer time frames and satisfaction.

As of right now, I wouldn't swap my liberal arts education for anything. I've achieved more material success than I ever expected (modest though it is), but more than that I am able to contextualize and integrate things in ways that add value to my immediate world.

Otherwise it's just a navel gazing circle jerk.

If that was true I wouldn't be supervising people with science degrees. It's not that simple and the claims it is are genuinely tiresome.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:03 PM on May 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

My "liberal" education in critical thinking and assessment has served me very well, but in science. I mean, you have to apply it, guys.

Otherwise it's just a navel gazing circle jerk. Which is pretty much my opinion on the state of affairs in higher education these days, judging by the last few PhD thesis in education I have had the misfortune of reading.

Navel-gazing circle jerks aren't necessarily bad qualities for affairs to have
posted by clockzero at 10:40 PM on May 12, 2014

Dip Flash; unless you have friends that are billionaires, we're ALL at the bottom tier of the economy.
posted by ZaneJ. at 12:06 AM on May 13, 2014

I don't think someone who makes $500,000 dollars a year could be fairly called being at "the bottom tier of the economy".
posted by Bugbread at 12:50 AM on May 13, 2014

There is a fine line between Rabelais and rabble-rousing. Rabelais was quite critical of his contemporaries and his time but throughout Gargantua and Pantagruel his joyful exuberance--his passion and underlying optimism--is irrepressible.

One of the great sadnesses of modern time is a strong underlying cultural pessimism which I believe stems mostly from the ennui generated by a shit economy, a "no future" for the majority of young people who know they are being manipulated by the powerful few and yet see no way to remedy matters in any profound and systemic way. In such a world snark becomes virtue and tearing things down is a perverse form of creativity which is often celebrated.

And, of course, youth is wasted on the young, yadda yadda... .
posted by CincyBlues at 1:05 AM on May 13, 2014

Otherwise it's just a navel gazing circle jerk.

I don't see why "application" is more valued than theory actually.... really the Large Hadron Collider is a in some sense a massively expensive circle jerk.... which is sort of an application of theory - that then may eventually be "applied" to help us to make better smartphones.

In some sense there is as much value in Flaubert's attempt to perfect the novel than in Apple's attempts to perfect the smart phone.

In the end all application of education is just as pointless as the education was anyway.
posted by mary8nne at 2:50 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Great sadnesses indeed. Thinking thoughts like "should I have kids, or will Europe be run over by fascism, the US devolve completely, and the environment collapse?" There was an article in Aeon recently about how global warming causes anxiety and how we need to talk about it more.

Henry Miller wrote some seemingly relevant stuff in The Time of the Assassins, his book about Rimbaud.
"I think that the task of the future is to explore the domain of evil until not a shred of mystery is left. We shall discover the bitter roots of beauty, accept root and flower, leaf and bud. We can no longer resist evil: we must accept."

"Whose voice is it that now makes itself heard, the poet’s or the scientist’s? Are we thinking of Beauty, however bitter, or are we thinking of atomic energy? And what is the chief emotion which our great discoveries now inspire? Dread!"

"And fools are talking about reparations, inquisitions, retribution, about alignments and coalitions, about free trade and economic stabilization and rehabilitation. No one believes in his heart that the world situation can be righted. Everyone is waiting for the great event, the only event which preoccupies us night and day: the next war."

"The age of electricity is as far behind us as the Stone Age. This is the Age of Power, power pare and simple. Now it is either heaven or hell, no in between is possible any longer. And by all indications we will choose hell."

"The heart registers a shock before the rest of the body. It takes time for doom to spread throughout the corpus of civilization."

"Art is something which stirs men’s passions, which gives vision, lucidity, courage and faith. Has any artist in words of recent years stirred the world as did Hitler? Has any poem shocked the world as did the atomic bomb recently? Not since the coming of Christ have we seen such vistas unfolding, multiplying daily. What weapons has the poet compared to these?"
These seem somehow like the darkest times and the brightest times. I guess it fits the "global warming" theme of endless hopeless summer. Indie rock, running shoes, crushes, apps, superhero movies, fresh roasted coffee, festivals, bike trips, meditation... Youth kind of fills up with stuff. Joie de vivre. Don't be creepy, don't be awkward, don't be sad. Don't think too much.
posted by mbrock at 3:05 AM on May 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't have much of an opinion on criticism vs appreciation, if that's even a sensible distillation of the NYT op-ed, but I'm skeptical of the social argument for liberal education to begin with.

In fact, the US and Canada are the only places I know to emphasise any kind of breadth in tertiary education. Elsewhere, a narrow subject is chosen well before applying for university, and undergraduates never take any courses in anything else. Even when outside content is needed, physics students (for example) are taught the maths they need by physics faculty in a physics course.

People educated in this way can still think critically, appreciate literature, and understand the world around them as relating to a broader arc of history and culture. You don't need a degree for that, you need curiosity and the ability to read.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 4:26 AM on May 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

The older I get, the more I appreciate Michael Roth's point that the ability to trouble a conversation with a smart analytical question is only part of a liberal education; it serves best when accompanied by other skills like empathy, curiosity, reaching for meaning, the drive to make, the recognition of common humanity, the love of the learning process, etc. Witty snark is not enough.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:03 AM on May 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

My "liberal" education in critical thinking and assessment has served me very well, but in science. I mean, you have to apply it, guys.

Well, sure, but it's not like the hard sciences are the only fields where application is possible.
posted by lunasol at 5:19 AM on May 13, 2014

I think trying to make the case that knowledge of literature should be applied and is useful is conceding to much to the critics. Its about as useful as knowledge and appreciation of music, meaning it will satisfy a person's desire for art but as for everyday utility? C'mon. I loved reading War & Peace and Lolita, but if the goal is applicable knowledge, there are much more efficient ways of gaining said knowledge.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:45 AM on May 13, 2014

I mean, you have to apply it, guys.

Why should anyone even bother to learn enough to apply it anywhere, when they're constantly sneered at for seeking this thing - an education - in the wrong way and at the wrong time, and how it's only a piece of paper and also it's only good for anything if it's used in [this] way?
posted by rtha at 5:50 AM on May 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I love my liberal arts education. I couldn't point you to a single thing I learned in my university courses, but I could tell you about the massive amount of crap it helped me to unlearn. The course requirements at my school made it incredibly easy to decide to go ahead and add a second major, or to allow students to decide to delve deeper into the field of that entry level course that caught their attention.

I'm not an expert in pretty much anything, but I have a pretty broad background thanks to my college, and the tools to help me explore and learn more about what's needed of me. My only regret is that I didn't have more time, that I couldn't take more classes in more fields. Had I gone to the other school I was seriously considering, I wouldn't have had to take a single course outside secondary education and English lit, and I look back and think how glad I am that ended up at school where I was encouraged to learn more and more broadly.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:59 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Adding to the mix, here is Jason Rosenhouse's recent address to the graduates of James Madison University's College of Science and Mathematics:
Not everything has to be about the daily grind. You are permitted to learn things you will not eventually be tested on. A liberal arts education is not about practicalities. It is about seeing yourself as one link in a long chain. It is about connecting yourself with the generations that came before you, and recognizing that you have much in common even with those far separated from you in place and time. And that’s valuable. At a time when political polarization is causing real suffering for real people, and at a time when people can carefully choose the websites they read and the news channels they listen to so as to ensure they only hear opinions they agree with, I’d say anything that helps bring us together hardly needs any further justification.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:50 AM on May 13, 2014

Can the praise for the humanities - cool as it is - not be at the expense of those who have decided to go technical? A technical education does not hold you back from an education in humanities or the liberal arts unless you let it hold you back. Any limitation is a choice - unfortunate as it may be in the long run - by the learner.
posted by whatzit at 11:39 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Jason Rosenhouse: "I’d say anything that helps bring us together hardly needs any further justification."

I had a liberal arts education, and I enjoyed it, and it has been useful to me. However, nothing about my liberal arts education makes me think that it is something that "brings us together".

whatzit: "A technical education does not hold you back from an education in humanities or the liberal arts unless you let it hold you back."

Yeah, I knew several people in high school who were very smart, and could have gone into higher education in the liberal arts or in the sciences. Some majored in the liberal arts, and some in the sciences. I didn't see any pronounced differences between them now after they finished their university educations, nor do I see any now, almost 20 years later. If you think "Liberal Arts educations create people who are like X" or "Science educations create people who are like Y", it may be simply that "People who are like X tend to choose liberal arts educations" and "People who are like Y choose science educations". The field of specialization may be the result, not the cause. If you are like X, but choose a technical education, it's not going to make you Y, nor vice versa.
posted by Bugbread at 4:11 PM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Everyone stop! You're liberally educating wrong!
posted by runcibleshaw at 7:17 PM on May 13, 2014

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