There are better ways to advance the humanities than writing op-ed pieces -- so I argue in, of course, an op-ed. It has appeared in today's InsideHigherEd.
Here they are:
Hillary Clinton: Wellesley, Political Science
Ted Cruz: Princeton (Wilson School) Pubic Policy y
John Kasich: Ohio State, Political Science
Marco Rubio: University of Florida, Political Science
Bernie Sanders: University of Chicago, Political Science (“boring and irrelevant”)
Donald Trump: University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) Economics
Elite private colleges: 4
Flagship Public Universities: 2
2700 other colleges and universities: 0
Political Science & Public Policy: 5
Economics (Real Estate track): 1
History, Philosophy, Literature: 0
I’ll be interested in what readers make out of this. Surely not that the other 2700 four year institutions are all failing, or that political science is the only route to political prominence. What do you think?
Latin, that is. So says Evan Colby, the only student in the world who earned a perfect score on the AP Latin exam last year. And if you ask him how Latin is different from (Not than - please, Evan) everything else that he has studied, he will probably tell you what he recently told the News and Observer, “I like the rules that came with it.”
He’s right again, I suspect. We don’t hear a lot about the importance of rules in education these days, but some very talented students, I believe, are attracted to Latin and Greek because the ancient languages have such distinctive structures to express meaning. Sure, they are hard to master for an English speaker. They take discipline, and for some students that is part of their appeal. They reward disciplined study by making it possible to live a more disciplined life. What’s more they have a jackpot: master the rules, learn the vocabulary and you win a free trip back a couple of thousand years, and when you get there, you can understand what people are saying and thinking. What a deal!
Evan’s comments remind me that we shouldn’t try to hide from students that Latin and Greek require disciplined learning. They are a Marine Corps boot camp for serious students. We shouldn’t try to make them look like English, or Spanish, or Film Studies or other fine and edifying subjects. That’s not what they are. These languages are different. They demand discipline and they reward it.
Today’s News and Observer reports that leaders of the NC legislature are considering a plan drastically o lower tuition at some public universities in the state. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But read on. The legislators ”have focused on financial models for a less expensive degree at historically black Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State, and UNC Pembroke, once known as Pembroke State College for Indians.” These legislators have not won a reputation for being sympathetic to African-Americans and other minorities in the state. This plan sounds to me like second class education for second-class citizens.
And why right now? The new president of the University, Margaret Spellings, takes office on March 1. She is, we are told, “up to speed on the discussions. “ Will she be presented with a fait accompli? Or is she happy that someone else will take the heat for this very dubious plan? The legislature should wait until she is in a position to speak her own mind on educational issues. Meantime, she should be insisting on time for an in depth study of the proposal. . Where is Mrs. Spellings when we need her?
Swarthy Zeno liked to sunbathe, thereby making his dark skin even darker. The Pythia must have notice that when, perhaps fed up with poolside basking, he went to Delhi and asked what he should do to lead the best possible life. She coined a new word for her answer: “Synchromatize with the corpses.” Zeno didn’t miss a beat. He knew right off the solution to her riddle, and went off to read old books. Scholar’s pallor was what he needed. So he started reading the classics.
The story is in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 7.2. But it doesn’t stop there. Back in Athens he sat down in a bookseller’s shop, and of all the old books there, chose the second book of Xenophon’s Memories of Socrates. It changed his life. You can try the experiment yourself, and see if the results replicate.
Here are the figures now being reported for endowment per student in 2013/14 at six leading colleges and universities:
You got it right! These figures are for endowment per student. Tuition income, annual funds etc. are not included. At a 5% spending rate … well, you get the picture.
Not long ago I would have rejoiced that such fine institutions were doing so well. Now things seem to have reached absurd levels; The discrepancy between rich institutions and all the others keeps growing. Some fine colleges are struggling to do a good job with endowments under $50,000 per student, and projects such as the Paideia Institute which we know have powerfully beneficial effects on disadvantaged students struggle to do get the support they need.
It’s time to blow the whistle. And time to shift gears.
These endowments are growing fast, in part from successful capital campaigns but also because college endowments are tax exempt, and because spending rates are often quite low. Is it any wonder then that bad ideas are keep surfacing, calls for free tuition at Harvard, for example, (a giveaway to rich parents), and various schemes to “recover the taxpayer’s money that is “being lost,” thanks to the tax exempt status of these endowments. Of course, it is not ”taxpayer’s money.” These funds are the result of gifts from private individuals who over the years have contributed to these institutions so they could advance and transmit knowledge.
But, no matter what, the more the endowments grow the louder will be the demands to tax them. They are sitting duck for populist politicians on the right as well as on the left. The only way to avoid that, I believe, is by a pre-emptive strike: a consortium of colleges contribute to a fund to address structural problems that currently keep talented young people from getting a first rate education – the quality of high school instruction, the skewed admission process, curricular weaknesses in many colleges, etc.
A 1% annual contribution from the endowments of just these six colleges would yield over a billion dollars a year for structural improvements that could strengthen all of higher education. It’s time to be proactive.
Robert Newman, the new Director of the National Humanities Center, has spoken eloquently about “humanities moments.” Here’s another one fr his collection; it’s an excerpt from a lecture I gave some while ago at Middlebury College:
In the Hanoi Hilton, the place where the North Vietnamese imprisoned and often tortured American captives during the Vietnam War, the US prisoners tapped out poetry in code. Their captors would not allow them to speak to one another. But they didn’t notice the tapping -- or didn’t understand what it was about.
Here’s the code they used. It breaks the alphabet into five lines, each with five letters in it. So any letter (forget about K) can be conveyed through two sets of taps. A is 1,1; Z is 5,5. The code ’s five lines are :
Line One: A B C D E
Line Two: F G H I J
Line Three; L M N O P
Line Four: Q R S T U
Line Five: V W X Y Z
“K” is either C or two, six
So if I want to say “Hi, friends” I tap out (2,3) then (2,4).
(2,1), (4,2), (2,4), (1,5), (3,3) (1,4), (4,3)
John Borling wrote poetry that way and his fellow prisoners memorized it. It may not have been great poetry, but it kept them going. ,,
Poetry can do that, as William Carlos Williams reminds us in Asphodel:
“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day/
for lack/of what is found there.”
(And thanks again to Robert Newman for calling my attention to this passage).
 Bill Keller “On Keeping On” The New York Times February 25, 2013.
Imagine! Unlikely things really do happen. The Council of Independent Colleges gave me the Allen P. Splete Award for Outstanding Service, and asked me to speak for ten minutes or so to the several hundred college presidents and spouses gathered at its award banquet. As it turned out I was the fifth and final speaker in the award ceremony. As the evening wore on, my voice wore out, so I decided to cut my remarks drastically. But here is what I would have said, had time and laryngitis allowed.
Over the past year things have turned rancorous, not only in American politics but on many college campuses. In fat, the job definition of many a college president has changed, without any notice or discussion. It’s no longer enough to keep the seats filled with good students, balance the budget, build the endowment, pour concrete, and have a winning record in all sports. Something new has been added.
Colleges have become the stage on which the American Dream is now acted out. It’s the old script - equal opportunity for all, economic well-being, harmony across racial and other divides. On campus that translates into generous financial aid, a student body that “looks like” America, and readiness for a good paying job immediately upon graduation. Colleges are expected to provide what we rarely experience in our neighborhoods or at work - genuine diversity, with differences honestly expressed and freely discussed without anyone’s feelings being hurt. A robust understanding of the First Amendment is expected to coexist with harmony across gender, racial and sexual divides.
The media tell us that Americans are losing their belief in the American dream. I don’t think that’s true. We have simply transferred that dream to college campuses. The further society gets from the dream, the greater the expectation that colleges will, symbolically at least, make it happen. They will heal the wounds and assuage the pain. The more clearly we realize that America has not yet shaken off the long legacy of slavery, and discrimination in all its vicious forms, or solved its economic problems, the more intense the insistent that any painful reminder should be removed from college campuses - statues, murals, names on buildings, the title ‘master,’ any word or image that might trigger hurtful memories. At the same time, nothing must be allowed to deny or obscure past injustice.
The contradictions are flagrant, but the expectations are high. The new job description for college presidents seems to demand that you create for each student on campus the American dream we seem to be losing out there in the “real world.” In this fantasy-land you are the impresarios, the illusionists; the more persistent racial animosity, the more extreme the hollowing out of the economy, the uglier political discourse, the more intense the demand that each college president wave a wand and whisk away all the contradictions, fears and disappointments. I don’t envy you!
Sometimes symbols can substitute for reality and make contradictions seem to to disappear – but only temporarily, of course. No magic can erase the past or ensure a better future.
The ‘real world,’ as we call it, does not waste much time on such fantasies. Work has to get done - if you are lucky enough to find it. Meantime, wealth concentrates; wages stagnate; glass ceilings turn out to be made of permafrost. Jobs get exported, while job-eating technology crawls higher and higher up the corporate ladder. The work that remains can be soul-destroying, but it’s sink or swim out there. Feelings get hurt but you better pick yourself up and get on with it … or else.
It does no good to tell students this. They know it, often first hand, not from reading reports or watching TV. Indeed, it is that knowledge, I believe, that drives the discontent we have been seeing on so many campuses. That is what is changing your job description. “Please,” they are saying, “for a few years let us dream.”
There, it seems to me, lies opportunity. It’s a chance to re-write your own job description. This is the moment, I believe, to take hold of fears and dreams and make them into what we have come to call ‘a teachable moment.’ Because, look, behind the rhetoric are powerful, persistent questions, about how societies change, how they understand and commemorate the past, what is the role of art, what is to be discovered in that grey area between heroes and villains, where most of us live? How much is determined by brute economic forces, and how much of a difference can an individual make? What does it take to be an effective agent or change? What do we mean by success; what values shape that definition; where can we find true satisfaction? You see where I am heading. These are the contemporary version of the recurring questions in any true liberal education; they are the questions that can turn us where Socrates insist we must head, to the examined life, without which life is not worth living.
That job description means finding ways to help students, all of them, to cut through the rhetoric and to dig down to their core values, and then muster the courage to live by them. All this, I believe, is alive and well, kicking and screaming maybe, on your campus, waiting for the leadership that can make possible a transformative, liberating education.
I realize that’s a tall order. But it is not a new job description. It’s a very old one, and that is good news, because from Socrates to your colleagues here at CIC you have allies who can and will help you. And a lot of us on the sidelines are cheering for you.
Diogenes of Sinope, founder of the “Cynics,” took a dim view of contemporary education:
“He held that we should neglect music, geometry, astronomy and similar studies as useless and unnecessary.” Diogenes Laertius Lives 6.73
De Tocqueville had a similar view but with an important difference. He feared that the Classics, if poorly taught, might stand in the way “of sound instruction in necessary studies.” But he went on to say:
" ... All who have ambition to literary excellence in democratic nations should ever refresh themselves at classical springs; that is the most wholesome medicine for the mind. Not that I hold the classics beyond criticism, but I think that they have special merits well calculated to counterbalance our peculiar defects. They provide a prop just where we are most likely to fall." (Democracy in America ch. 15).
At this moment of rancor and inflammation in our body politic perhaps a good dose of that medicine for the mind may be of all studies the most necessary.