Behind The Curtain

I made a suggestion in a reply to a comment on a recent post that might be offensive to some readers. But since I have very few readers, I doubt that this is much of a problem. I refer to the comment I made that many faculty members in our colleges and universities have agendas they regard as more important than the central agenda of the college itself, which is to educate young minds. I want to expand on that comment since it might be of interest to some who wonder just what goes on behind the curtain that surrounds our ivory towers. If it doesn’t interest anyone, that’s OK, because I simply want to indulge myself.

There are two aspects to this comment. To begin with there is the plain fact that a great many faculty members have political agendas and they defend these agendas openly by insisting that there have always been political agendas in higher education and they think it’s about time theirs was attended to. This, of course is bollocks because the reading of “dead, white males” (as many of these people characterize the tradition they pillory) does not comprise a political agenda, since none of these dead men agreed with one another about much of anything. Further, those who defend women’s studies on these grounds ignore the fact that Plato, for one, insisted that women could be philosopher kings in his Republic; Thomas Moore, taking a page from Plato, insisted that his daughter be fully educated, knowing she was the equal of any man he knew; and John Stuart Mill wrote the definitive treatise on women’s rights in the nineteenth century and had a wife who collaborated with him in writing his major works on ethics and logic. Further, the classical tradition includes a number of important and brilliant women. It can hardly be said that these men or women had any agenda at all, political or otherwise.

But there is the second aspect of my claim and that centers around the fact — based on my own experience, my talks with others in teaching, and my reading of works by thinkers who have found the subject noteworthy — that very few faculty members in our colleges and universities ever stop to think about what it is they are doing. This is not odd, of course, since very few of us stop to think why we are doing the things we are doing, but it is of special concern in higher education because in the 1960s when the students themselves started to ask why they were required to take “irrelevant” courses such as history their professors had no answer:  they had never given the question a thought. As a result, “irrelevant” courses such as history, philosophy, mathematics, and foreign language and what used to be the core of required courses at the center of our colleges and universities were seriously weakened or  scrapped altogether.

What remained of the core requirement, if anything did remain, became the battleground for college professors who worried about their jobs. Indeed, to my knowledge, this was the only reason in the minds of a great many college professors for keeping a core requirement at all. After all, if there were core requirements, then all students would have to take them and this would build up enrollments in their own subject areas that otherwise might be so thin the administration might start to ask “why? and folks would be out of jobs. So what remained was a giant pizza pie that the faculty all approached in curriculum committees and faculty meetings with knives keenly sharpened and a determination to get as large a piece as possible. This resulted in a plethora of disjointed core requirements consisting of scads of courses (sometimes dozens) in certain broad areas, such as “critical thinking,” and “language arts,” the “social sciences,” and even “science.” I recall a faculty member of my institution insisting that computer science be allowed as an option in the science requirement because it is a science. This showed how ignorant that man was about the nature of science and once again proved the maxim that it is better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. In this case, the faculty voted him down. But in countless other instances I witnessed the faculty pass on courses that simply didn’t belong because they wanted to guarantee that when it was their turn the faculty would support them — no matter how weak their argument. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!

In any event, the core requirement has taken a beating over the years and it is what remains, in most colleges and universities, of the liberal arts which are designed to liberate young, poorly trained minds and help them gain freedom from narrow vision, ignorance, and prejudice. Add to this the business of the hidden agendas and things started to go down hill rapidly. Since most faculty members haven’t thought about what higher education ought to be doing, and since they are well-trained in their own academic discipline, they began to increase the major requirements in their own areas of interest and push for courses in areas they regarded as politically important (such as women’s studies and black studies), keeping a sharp eye on the piece of pizza they had carefully carved out for themselves. They saw their jobs as dependent on an increased number of major students; they desperately wanted students to take courses in their pet areas to push their own political agendas; and they knew how vital it was to hang on to the piece of pizza they fought so hard for in the faculty meetings. The fact that none of this has anything whatever to do with education never entered their minds. What mattered is the preservation of their jobs, pushing hard for those subjects they themselves found most interesting or politically important, and hanging on to that precious piece of pizza. All of this at increasing cost to students.

I realize I have made a number of generalizations and while I also realize that there are exceptions to those generalizations I do think my seemingly outrageous claims will hold up to scrutiny, generally speaking.  Unpleasant though it might be, this is, generally speaking, what is hiding behind the curtain at many, if not most, of our colleges and universities, and it might explain why I go on and on about what should be taking place.

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12 thoughts on “Behind The Curtain

  1. Well, needless to say, you’ll get no argument from me!
    I think it might interest you to know that on page 39 of this month’s Atlantic magazine is an add for “A Summer of Great Books and Great Ideas” to be taught at Amherst, Stanford and Oxford and “using the Socratic Method”. It gives one hope. Pointedly, St. John’s College is NOT mentioned!

    • I am not aware that St. John’s works with young children. But I have read about such programs (rare though they are) that are very successful. The kids soak up ideas like sponges! We really underestimate them in our schools.

    • I do get disappointed when there is no feedback, much as I hate to admit it.But I suspect my blog is too bleak for many. Mostly I write for a few like yourself and to help clarify my thinking.

      • I also read your columns regularly, though not every one. I am taken by your comment about feedback, or lack thereof. One thing I’ve noticed in WordPress is to get feedback, one usually has to give it. If you just want to write for yourself, that’s of course perfectly fine. But to encourage feedback and exchanging of ideas, you also need to contribute to the conversations.

        Just a thought…

  2. Hugh, good post. Ironically, I read a news piece this morning that spoke of an unsurprising conclusion. That folks that watch Fox News become more conservative than they are and folks that watch MSNBC do the opposite on the liberal side. To your point, this is why we need the lessons of history and great thinkers. We need to think and analyze more. We need to learn the lessons of history. We need to know that some preconceived notions are more recent phenomena and others before them disagreed with these notions.

    The director of “Selma” said many young people thought Selma was about a woman. Many were amazed that four girls were killed in a church bombing and black people were beaten on a bridge. And, we are going through more civil rights issues today because of this ignorance. We must teach the hard truths in our history and not whitewash them.

    Thanks for writing. Your blog should be read by more for the simple reason, you make people think. All the best and if you keep writing, I will keep reading. BTG

    • I never doubted it. I was just at a low point when I wrote that. My apologies. I really don’t worry about how many readers I have. And Barney’s right: I might build up the readership if I got more involved in others’ blogs. But life is so short…. I do appreciate folks like you and Z. And I enjoy reading what you have to say.

      • Hugh, I don’t have an abundance of readers either, but part of what I do is for my own sanity. I need to tell someone that our leaders are not talking about issues of import in the right way with a proper lens. Plus, I like to write, so that by itself is therapy. I personally have benefitted from reading the blogs of you and others. My opinions are reinforced, shaped and flavored by people who have passion, intelligence, curiosity and interest in doing the right thing. I am certain others who read you feel the same. All the best, BTG

      • If I had never started writing this blog I would never have gotten to know people like you, Z, and Barney. That has been great fun. I always look forward to your comments and sincerely appreciate your following the blog.

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