Skip to comments.Starving the Soul on Campus When Computer Science Replaces the Classics
Posted on 08/15/2014 2:53:20 PM PDT by Kaslin
April is the cruelest month, and August is the melancholy month. Even the crickets sing a different song at dusk as August begins summer's slow retreat. Children listen for the back-to-school bells as autumn closes in and the days begin to get noticeably shorter.
Bicycle baskets morph into book bags. Sandals give way to tighter shoes, and the days of flip-flops are numbered. Sand from the beaches becomes the sand through the hourglass in the science lab. Free spirits are rounded up and structured into classes of whiteboards and textbooks overflowing with data. Teachers promise expeditions to new frontiers of knowledge.
But the mournful crickets have a point. Some critics argue that the colleges are turning students into intellectual zombies, never touching their souls. William Deresiewicz writes in The New Republic how the young at the elite colleges are so focused on making a return on their investment they're not interested in what makes them interesting people. Expensive accomplishments required for making it into the Ivy League, such as high SAT scores, the fruit of expensive private schools and tutors, extra-curricular activities of do-good adventures in poverty work on the other side of the globe or a mastery of violin, cello or clarinet (preferably all three), exhaust the spirit, if not the mind.
Top applicants become trapped in a "bubble of privilege," taught to regard affluence, status and credentials as the crucial life values, more concerned with conforming to standards of "excellence" at the expense of the exhilaration that comes with the personal discovery of new ideas in the great writers of the classics. Mr. Deresiewicz tells of a student who left Yale complaining it was "stifling to the parts of yourself that you'd call a soul." Introduction to Computer Science is the most popular freshman course at Harvard. The English major is almost extinct, and economics, "the dismal science," is the top major at 26 of the nation's top 40 universities and colleges.
A wit once observed that if man had made the progress in the culinary arts that he has in education, he would be eating soup with his hands. It's no better now. A modern casualty is the English major, who studies literature to better understand the perplexities and complexities of life. Classic literature holds up a mirror to human nature, exposing a multitude of experiences that make up the human condition, developing a many-angled point of view. The mirror delivers provocative glimpses into the truth of experience through insight into what Matthew Arnold called "the best that was known and thought in the world."
One wonderful book of summer reading that's good for the cold, gray days ahead is "A Literary Education" by Joseph Epstein, a collection of essays for adults eager for their children to get a literary education and to avoid joining an endangered species.
His essays span a half-century of the thought of an educated man who studied English literature at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, who considers the changes in education over the past 50 years as changes in the wrong direction. He describes the kinds of ideas he wanted his students to take away from the books he taught at Northwestern University for more than 30 years, "from Charles Dickens, the importance of friendship, loyalty and kindness in a hard world; from Joseph Conrad, the central place of fulfilling one's duty in a life dominated by spiritual solitude; from Willa Cather, the dignity that patient suffering and resignation can bring; from Tolstoy, the divinity that the most ordinary moments can provide -- kissing a child in her bed goodnight, working in a field, greeting a son returned home from war." He goes on, but you get the idea.
He's a man of his time and above his time, a thoughtful writer in a digital-oriented world of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, where ideas shrink to spontaneous exchanges of disjointed messaging.
Those who brave a major in literature today bear the burden of working through narrow political ideas and arcane critical theories based on gender, race and class. This is especially true at the elite universities. But that's not the only reason the study of literature has fallen on hard times.
The liberal arts were once the classes that sustained the soul in harmony with the utilitarian subjects. They must be required study lest they be passed over. The new technology may alter the way students learn, think and behave; college recruiters emphasize creature comforts, luxurious dorms, gyms, swimming pools and athletic fields. Good things, to be sure, but not enough. Not nearly enough.
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering 5
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Here come the posters talking about how useless English majors are.
Economics was dubbed "the dismal science" by Thomas Carlyle because the logic of free market capitalism argues against slavery. See Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question. There is nothing dismal about economics, unless you count the way economic concepts are twisted to promote government policies.
Just to say...I had an older family member, lived in New York, lived successfully through the century.
She, at 85, was very active socially. Attended parties at her niece’s home...CEOs, successful women, New York money.
She told me there was something way wrong, that ‘none of these men can have a conversation, they are from Dartmouth, etc, and all they know is their business, and it didn’t used to be that way’
It’s just a snippet, but it’s interesting, in that it is true across the board.
The most interesting educated people I know are the Military Academy grads. They learn the classics, they did up to the eighties, anyway
The title of Field’s column is the mission statement for ALL of public education, only culminating at university level.
What do we care though? We’ve got to go to work, make money and go shop. Who possibly can fool off time with their kids to teach them, or home school them? Who really cares what they don’t learn?
How about factoring in the immense costs of yearly tuition, living, predatory book costs, and then consider the strangling “STUDENT DEBT” that awaits them on graduation day.
No longer can the student hope to “work their way through college”. Such a plan would require work 34/7 (accurate type).
The accumulated debt REQUIRES the student to consider, on the first day of a college career, the burden of paying back those loans.
As far as the classics, one doesn’t need college to have the ambition and desire to be “educated”.
I think Ms. Fields is confused.
The classics were killed, but not by computer science. They were killed by political correctness, deconstructionism and multiculturalism.
When your society’s classics are evil, who would want to study them, and why? What is the point of learning about The Good when your professors insist there is no such thing?
Remember the folks that chanted 'Hey Hey Ho Ho Western Civ Has Got to Go" in the 60s.
They run the universities now.
Thank you. Economics, taught properly, is as good for the soul as anything on the liberal-arts side of the quad.
As a college professor I can tell you that in my economics-principles classes (a) 80% of the students are eager to learn, beyond just things that seem more directly vocational; the stereotype of the mindless time-punchers who just want to be entertained or stare at their phones is misplaced; but (b) about 30% of them simply cannot write a proper paragraph, and so simply do not belong in college. Remedial work is largely useless. As wonderful as the classics are in the hands of a good teacher, these students are nonetheless simply in the wrong place.
But there is no reason for even those students who get a more technical education to not read the Classics on their own. Do they really need a professor expounding on the 'meaning' of what they've read? They could always read critiques, if they wanted someone to tell them what to think of the piece. They could also enjoy the Arts on their own, attending concerts, plays, etc, if they are so inclined.
When the price of a college education begins to fall, you might see more students spending more time on the Classics and the Arts.
Bring back the Lyceum... or whatever those were called
An English program is a program for instilling hostilities against healthy behaviors. Masculine, healthy men are not allowed to graduate from English programs.
In all fairness, society and our culture only *need* and want a tiny number of people versed in “the classics”, and most of those only if their jobs require that knowledge.
A superb example of this was William F. Buckley, Jr., who just oozed pretentiousness when injecting some statement in classical Latin by Julius Caesar while discussing contemporary politics, even though only 1 in 100,000 of his viewers had any appreciation for Latin or Julius Caesar.
Did this indicate Buckley was smart? Only in so far as he spent a lot of time studying Latin instead of other things, and used it not to illustrate and illuminate his arguments, but to obfuscate them.
If you examine what in past have been called “the classics”, you also find some serious deficiencies. That is, that while they are *colorful*, and influential in history, today their relevance is minimal. Old ideas that don’t matter much anymore.
There are a number of avenues for learning about literature, outside the class room, at least for gaining some knowledge in the form of a general survey of (insert) subject, most dealing with the development of western civilization. There are open courses online, and also options such as The Teaching Company, et al, who present some very good introductory lectures which include many classics.
People like myself who have limited formal education, can with little effort, and money, get a thumbnail education, in the arts and humanity as well as other disciplines, all of which, I find quite enjoyable. However, I’ve learned that much of recent “educational” experiments have been targeted towards discounting traditional Christian ethos, by stripping the meaning from our very experience of life. It seems to me that, twentieth century science and political theory, is at the forefront of this philosophical change.
Anyway, this is my limited observation, I wish that I had heeded the words of my elders, who told me, that it was my responsibility to get good grades in school. However, I was very hostile towards authority and also stubborn, so I waited until I left school to begin learning.
Yes, there is, if you're looking for a free lunch. Economics tells you you can't have one, or at least not everyone can have one. Economic is, after all, the science of dealing with scarcity.
Sorry, but I don't agree with you.
I was a physics major as an undergraduate. By some quirk of academia, we physics majors had to get a BA, while the chemistry majors could get a BS. That meant I had to cram in a lot of liberal arts courses in addition to the science & math courses I needed, while the chemistry majors didn't.
I'll be forever grateful for that academic quirk. I had to take courses in literature, composition, history, economics, and other "liberal arts" studies in which the professor, who was a lifetime student of his topic and loved it, guided us through those subjects and explained them in the depth that I'd probably never have found on my own. Yes, you can read those things, but having them explained by someone who has really studied them makes a big difference.
As it turned out, my literature courses consisted almost entirely of prose writers, not poets. For a while after my first wife died, I dated a professor of English literature. I tried reading a book by her favorite poet (yes, I wanted to impress her). I didn't get much out of it until she practically led me by the hand through it and unpacked the poetry. Having a guide makes all the difference in the world.
In reality that's no different from science or math. I defy anyone to read a book on Advanced Calculus and get much out of it without the guidance of a knowledgeable professor.
What the hell are you talking about?
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