Many academics seem to have the paranoid conviction that, like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect: surrounded as they are by yahoo students, apparatchik administrators, Babbittish trustees and a clueless public that takes them for tenured radicals, overpaid slackers (summers off! sabbaticals!) or mildly amusing geeks. Their very name, in a cruel double-entendre, proclaims their inconsequentiality.
And now, by an unfortunate irony, along comes Eric Gould, a professor of English at the University of Denver, with a wide-ranging, thoughtful analysis of the dilemmas vexing American higher education—in a book that also shows why people often think of academics as, well, academic, i.e., unreal.
Gould has a huge target in his sights: the tensions and ambiguities of a massive institution in a very real and multilayered crisis. (The United States now has about 3,900 colleges and universities, with revenues of over $250 billion, and some 15 million “student clients,” 2,265,600 of whom each year receive a degree.) On the one hand, universities are increasingly beholden to corporate interests and are, in fact, run like corporations. It is no accident that business majors outnumber modern language majors by around 15 to one. On the other hand, they are also traditionally supposed to seek knowledge for its own sake, as a precious symbol rather than a crude commodity. Something’s got to give here, and we all know which way the wind is blowing.
This is nothing new. In one of his handy lists Gould cites four not-necessarily-compatible goals that American universities have been setting themselves over the last 100 years: 1) general, liberal education, along the lines of the “intellectual culture” preached by Harvard’s president Charles Eliot (1869-1909); 2) research and scholarship, particularly in the sciences, which require and promote professional specialization; 3) support for the economy by generating “useful knowledge” and technically proficient workers; 4) service to society by “transmitting democratic values and helping to shape the national character.”
But how to do all this even as the humanities are being steadily marginalized, with grade inflation swelling, narrow disciplinary boundaries crumbling, tuition costs spiraling out of control, disposable adjuncts replacing tenure-track faculty, competition for the best students diverting scholarships from the truly needy to SAT aces and intensifying the hunt for full-fare students regardless of their talent, etc.?
After surveying the present-day university scene with remarkable range, depth, acuity and, alas, soaring abstractions, Gould comes up with, not a plan exactly, but a series of forthright if vague recommendations. He wants “interdisciplinary treatment” of “foundational issues,” such as “the relation of culture to society, truth to reality, language to meaning.” In this “Deweyan epistemological profiling” one does not teach beliefs or dogmas, but “ways of teaching and questioning.” Borrowing the words of a more eloquent scholar, Elizabeth Kelly (who sums up her case by citing Vaclav Havel), Gould says that his vision boils down to a “struggle for democracy, taking ‘the side of truth against lies, the side of sense against nonsense, the side of justice against injustice,’ wherever and whenever possible.”
That sounds wonderful, but the closest Gould comes to actually spelling out a curriculum or specific courses is when he calls for a focus on “the nature of civil responsibilities within a liberal democracy, with the historical development of social institutions and capitalism, along with alternative systems; with the social construction of power; with the impact of new international economies and information systems on national identity; with the nature of global interdependency”—a rather demanding syllabus for 18-year-olds. Furthermore, Gould thinks it essential for students to learn something about the history and dynamics of the collegiate biosphere in which they spend four or more years (only 59 percent graduate on time).
Ultimately, Gould plumps for a university education that “mediates liberal democracy and the cultural contradictions of capitalism.” That is accomplished by “reproducing society” (college is more assembly line than atelier), but critically and reflectively, amid vigorous debate—which ideally leads to changing the world for the better. But that is about as much detail as Gould will provide.
His book, then, though solid, is for academics only. Readers unused to verbs like “foreground” will likely find their eyes glazing over when they read such magisterial pronouncements as: “When the corporate practices of the modern university obliterate the nuances of subjectivity in faculty culture, when consumerism and quality control criteria produce new sets of academic cultural values based primarily on participation in what are perceived as the peripherally civic or commercial enterprises of the university...then faculty self-respect among those working in more symbolic areas of developing knowledge is difficult to maintain.” That makes a nebulous sort of sense, but while Gould is generous with statistics, he is terribly stingy with examples; and he never takes us inside a real classroom in a real college, nor does he introduce us to real professors or students. For all his passionate concern, at times Gould seems quite comfortable in the old ivory tower.
Still, if his Olympian insights ever get translated into pedestrian proposals and then thrashed out by patient college committees, Gould might end up winning recognition as a proponent of major reforms; because, despite the public (and corporate) putdown of academics, their work is, of course, crucial. As Henry Adams, a man not given to hyperbole, famously said, “A teacher affects eternity.”