Thursday, November 06, 2014

"Public higher education is under aggressive ideological and political—but not necessarily partisan—attack, and is fostering a fervent political defense."  Siva Vaidhyanathan

A comment, posted on a piece on education and education "reform" by Siva Vaidhyanathan, "a cultural historian and media scholar" (see previous). The formatting was stripped; this a lot easier to read. The last bit repeats paragraphs quoted just below in the post on Joshua Cohen, for the same obvious reasons. Rough, I fixed the spelling and that's all, and all repeats here. It'll do.
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This essay is full of the sort of confusions endemic in our age when academics style themselves "public intellectuals" while indulging the biases of the academy: they’re always coming down from the mountain.

What does it mean to defend the research model for the entirety of academia while condemning instrumentalism? (I'll pretend for now that the author is defending the humanities as such, even though it's clear he isn't.) The researchers I know dislike teaching, especially teaching undergrads, because it takes them away from research. And the research model has infected the humanities so that professors now see themselves as akin to scientists or technicians, and also therefore “producing” something, even if it's only cubic yards of pseudo-radical hot air. Economics and Anglo-American philosophy are open in their claims to the status of science, as Marxism and Freudianism once were, but like literary theory and Continental philosophy there’re all forms of high scholasticism, as self-supporting as the Roman Catholic Church, certainly no defender of free thinking and curiosity for curiosity's sake.

And as far as academic radicalism is concerned, Martha Nussbaum was right about Judith Butler's self-indulgence, while Butler is now actively defending liberal principles, in Israel and Palestine, that Nussbaum is too much of a coward to stand for. The same goes for the current popstar Zizek, who's called a Stalinist by liberals who refuse to stand by their own principles, which he and Butler are left to do, as leftists. To see an amusing take on Zizek from something more engaged in what Raymond Geuss would call “real politics” see this.

And as the recent fiasco in Montana should make clear to social "scientists", there is no feedback loop in geology. [an awkward sentence] Money spent studying the average man or woman on the street would be better spent raising the average: in education, not "research". The academy's constant focus on measuring to the mean puts downward pressure on the mean; it makes us all dumber. Seekers of the impossible goal of a “value free” social science are themselves often models of moral passivity.

But as I said at the top, the author of this piece isn't really attacking instrumentalism, he's attacking short term instrumentalism
Some time in the 1980s, states forgot that universities benefit the broader society, not just the students who attend. They are part of the cultural and social fabric of each state. They preserve and enhance local art, music, poetry, and drama. They make sense of our past and predict our future. State universities invented Mosaic, the most influential early Web browser, and made those “waves of grain” that feed much of the world possible and profitable. 
Call it serious rather than knee-jerk neoliberalism, the thinking man’s productivism, or Fordism for adults. And the mention of “art, music poetry, and drama” reminds me of Howie Cohen, the ad man who credits Woodstock and acid for giving him the imaginative freedom to come up with the lines "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" and "Try it, you'll like it!"

And now to "disruption" which the author calls "an ahistorical and specious concept". Google "modernism radical disruption" for the history and "disruptive dissensus" for the current vogue. See also of course the current popularity of anarchism. Disruption is ahistorical only because all tag lines and political fantasies are ahistorical: predicated on forgetting the lessons of history. Disruption itself is a modernist trope, just as permanent revolution is a capitalist fantasy, as “creative destruction”. Taylorism and Fordism are not the inventions of a professor at Harvard Business School. [they're the justification: the Harvard program started in 1908] The theme of the relation of modern man as individual to the collective that made him (and of which he’s a member whether he likes it or not) is as old as Hamlet. The ideal of sleepless curiosity is Goethe’s Faust: the definition of Modernity.

And now to the movies. Andrew Rossi:
One of the key themes of Ivory Tower is the idea of disruption, which has been at the core of almost every movie I've made in the last thirteen years. 
Well then, there you go. And Peter Thiel:
But I must confess that over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.
The author of this piece is defending technocratic capitalist liberalism against anarchist capitalism. I’ll offer a third option, that any professor in the humanities should recognize, though more and more they don’t. And THAT is the most important change in the academy over the last century, from Weber and Ford to Sputnik, a change Siva Vaidhyanathan and other academics of this age have no knowledge of because they’re the product of that change. Neoliberalism made you. You’re a product of culture without knowing how it would be even possible to be anything but “free to choose” as uncle Miltie would say. But first, Frederick Wiseman.

Wiseman is not a “documentary” filmmaker. He calls his films “fictions”. He’s “generated deep respect from critics, film scholars, and other filmmakers.” because he’s a very good filmmaker, as some writers are very good writers. “Through his long career offering almost anthropological observations of American institutions…” He’s made films about the Comédie-Française and The Paris Opera Ballet. Wiseman makes movies about systems and the people within them. He was going to do a film about a Las Vegas casino, but the casino backed out. A wise choice, but not because Wiseman was going to reveal hidden corruption. He was simply going to be an honest observer, sympathetic to people going through their daily routines. Wiseman the filmmaker is not a teacher.

So here’s a small taste of what you’re not. The Learning Knights of Bell Telephone.
The sociologist E. Digby Baltzell explained the Bell leaders’ concerns in an article published in Harper’s magazine in 1955: “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Bell, then one of the largest industrial concerns in the country, needed more employees capable of guiding the company rather than simply following instructions or responding to obvious crises. 
In 1952, Gillen took the problem to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a trustee. Together with representatives of the university, Bell set up a program called the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives. More than simply training its young executives to do a particular job, the institute would give them, in a 10-month immersion program on the Penn campus, what amounted to a complete liberal arts education. There were lectures and seminars led by scholars from Penn and other colleges in the area — 550 hours of course work in total, and more reading, Baltzell reported, than the average graduate student was asked to do in a similar time frame. 
...Perhaps the most exciting component of the curriculum was the series of guest lecturers the institute brought to campus. “One hundred and sixty of America’s leading intellectuals,” according to Baltzell, spoke to the Bell students that year. They included the poets W. H. Auden and Delmore Schwartz, the Princeton literary critic R. P. Blackmur, the architectural historian Lewis Mumford, the composer Virgil Thomson. It was a thrilling intellectual carnival. 
...What’s more, the graduates were no longer content to let the machinery of business determine the course of their lives. One man told Baltzell that before the program he had been “like a straw floating with the current down the stream” and added: “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.” 
...But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.

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