The Little University

David Brooks wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times the other day called “The Big University.” It’s not a bad piece: It argues that the humanities are a necessary underpinning for professional specialization and points out “four important tasks” for institutions wanting to move back toward a position where “they leave a mark on the full human being.” These are:

  1. “Reveal moral options”;
  2. “Foster transcendent experiences”;
  3. “Investigate current loves and teach new things to love”; and
  4. “Apply the humanities.”

OK, but I would boil these down to one, something that encompasses all of these but that does not get lost in unnecessary scholasticism: “Teach judgment.”

The value of using that one instead of the four is that acceptance of it forces us to exercise judgment in order to teach it. Brooks’ list allows us to step outside of our own responsibilities as teachers and as institutions, applying something to the students that we do not apply to ourselves. That’s not really possible. “Physician, heal thyself,” commands Jesus. As teachers, we cannot do for others what we do not do for ourselves.

Yes, the problem with Brooks’ list is that it is asking teachers to teach what they cannot do, not in the current institutional climate and culture of American higher education where the only things that matter are those that can be counted and numerically assessed. Brooks writes, “College is about exposing students to many things and creating an aphrodisiac atmosphere so that they might fall in lifelong love with a few.” No, it is not… not when its structures are heavily top-down, making failure cataclysmic and success dependent solely on files. And it cannot be, not until institutions of higher learning abandon corporate models and adopt humanist structures in their own operations. Not until the institutions allow just that sort of atmosphere for teachers, too.

Universities, Brooks writes, “could more intentionally provide those enchanted goods that the marketplace doesn’t offer.” But that can’t happen when universities have entered the marketplace. The marketplace doesn’t rely on judgment, doesn’t care about it. It cares about rankings and ratings, completely different things. It cares about trade, something quantifiable in a way that the learning Brooks is writing about (and the learning that I also advocate) is not.

As things stand, what Brooks proposes can only be panacea for the offspring of the rich who yearn for ‘something more’ in their lives before they go on to law or medical school, or enter an MBA program. The little projects at elite universities will never grow into something accessible to hoi polloi but will remain as exclusive as they have always been: The “great books” program of St. Johns College in Annapolis and Santa Fe has been around for generations now, but it still remains little more than a release for the children of privilege.

Brooks correctly identifies a part of a problem:

Technology is… forcing change. Online courses make the transmission of information a commodity. If colleges are going to justify themselves, they are going to have to thrive at those things that require physical proximity. That includes moral and spiritual development. Very few of us cultivate our souls as hermits. We do it through small groups and relationships and in social contexts.

But it is not only technology causing the problem. Reliance on corporate structures for institutions where corporate goals are not appropriate does so, too. If Brooks were serious about his four suggestions, he would make them a part of a greater structural change, one that would allow colleges and universities to revert to a shared-governance model where judgment can be exhibited through daily action on the part of educators, where they are not simply cogs reliant on codified “student learning outcomes” or any other reductive formulas of “accountability.”

Once, it was possible to view higher education only in terms of elite students and campuses. It was not a good idea, even then. Today, when “college” means so much more than an elite education at one of the ivies, we need to look at it in other ways. One of those is practical: How do we provide as much as possible in as short an amount of time as possible for students who come from a diversity of backgrounds, educationally and otherwise? Unfortunately, the answer has often been to limit exposure to the Liberal Arts in favor of more “practical” courses. Brooks is right to be concerned about this.

His answer, his four tasks, will do nothing toward making American colleges and universities turn toward his goals. That’s going to take something more than asking teachers to concentrate on the very things that most of us would like to be concentrating on anyway.

3 thoughts on “The Little University

  1. Brilliant essay. I recently lost my chamber music class because it wasn’t cost-effective. Students were learning how to solve problems in small groups with the goal of creating a beautiful performance together that could be shared with others. They were learning how to make judgments (your word!) about details of beauty, sound, and expression. And they were learning to get along with one another, rather than simply competing for dominance. You have hit the nail on the head (again!) about what we need to teach in higher ed.

  2. Indeed, both the essay and first comment are on target. I might only add that a true higher education would also teach something about how to engage in the collective struggle to save and implement the values and practices you describe, for the working class majority. Maybe this is just my prejudice a a labor historian and labor studies teacher, but I think not.

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