Thursday, July 4, 2013

Leon Bostein on the American University and Its Challenges

Bard College
Leon Bostein is the President of Bard College.  In this piece published at The Hedgehog Review, he has a lot to say about the state of higher education.  This essay is so chock-full of interesting ideas that I will simply quote a few lines below and leave it to you, the faithful The Way of Improvement Home reader, to follow-up over at Hedgehog Review.

In one of our most prestigious universities, where I happened to be visiting, I came early to the hall (which doubled as a concert venue) for a rehearsal. A lecture course on Shakespeare was underway, given by a very famous scholar. I snuck in to catch the last ten minutes. There were fourteen hundred people in the hall. When the lecture was over, the undergraduates clapped. But teaching is not a performance art with passive spectators. Five very hardy, ambitious, and probably obnoxious undergraduates scrambled to the front of the auditorium in an effort to ask a question of the lecturer. At that point, a cordon of teaching assistants rose out of their seats to block access to the professor to whom the five hungry undergraduates were seeking to pose a question. One of them broke through the cordon, got to the faculty member, and before her question was asked, the professor quipped, “talk to my assistants.” Such habits and practices will be put out of business, and they should be....

We must not resist, in my view, the idea that the university should be in the business of being of use. We should not be fighting demands to be “useful.” We should not assume that some fields of study are “useless” according to some reductive sense of utility....

It is not at all clear to me that undergraduates will respond to the terms of that professional conversation and to the way in which we are accustomed to talking about our subjects, particularly in the humanities. The most egregious case in point may be in the case of literature. Teaching a young person that reading is not just stripping the page for information or a plot, and stopping the reader in his or her tracks in an early stage to figure out possibilities of meaning are good things to do....

We are unwilling to face, in an American democratic, egalitarian context, the public or the politicians, with the real and practical virtues of the university, which appear inherently discriminatory, elitist, exclusive, and judgmental. We hide behind the mask of the university’s populist appeal as an instrument of sports and entertainment....

By that token we are also complicit with most of the problems in governance at a university— the failure to have serious leadership that focuses on teaching and research and that intersects with cultural and political issues. I cannot name a single university president in office today who could possibly approach the moral or political stature of James Bryant Conant or The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh. Not only the trustees, but the alumni and faculty members, have made sure that no such person would ever be appointed president. The constituents in a university really do not want leadership. Faculty enjoy their own authority. We like the absence of centralized leadership. We want paper pushers and fund-raisers; we do not want people at the helm guiding the major intellectual functions of the university. We love our anarchic independence. In this context, anybody who wants to be a university administrator ought to be disqualified by definition....

The real advantage of a residential or classroom-based education comes from the physical reality of the university and the nominal community of scholars, which rarely really exists. Faculty members in a university do not actually talk to one another beyond narrow circles of colleagues or beyond the level of gossip....

In a well-designed curriculum, the teaching material is chosen not because of its political symbolism or fashion, but because of its pedagogical power....

The ability to think empathetically about someone who appears not identical to ourselves, who thinks differently from ourselves is crucial. Consider the revival of religion in American society. For those of us who are concerned about the sort of religion that has been revived, the dangers of fundamentalism, we need to design a curriculum that offers a deeper immersion in the theological worldviews of all the great religious traditions. It is hard to get young religious people to think critically about faith, in a way that seems not to violate the idea of faith, without close reading of great theological texts—without reading Augustine, Calvin, Luther, or Aquinas and the Koran and the central texts of other world religions, including Judaism....