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….
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