Menand’s Second Theory

My brother directed me to a recent article by Louis Menand (see here for a good video interview) in The New Yorker about college education in the States. Menand recalls an occasion that a student asked him: ‘Why did I have to buy this book?’ He outlines three possible responses, which are based on three theories about university education. Theory 1 is that a degree is one big examination that allows society to determine who its smartest people are:

[P]icking out the most intelligent person is difficult, because intelligence involves many attributes that can’t be captured in a one-time assessment, like an I.Q. test. There is no intellectual equivalent of the hundred-yard dash. An intelligent person is open-minded, an outside-the-box thinker, an effective communicator, is prudent, self-critical, consistent, and so on. These are not qualities readily subject to measurement.

Theory 3 is even more utilitarian. It states that modern society requires more people to have specialized skills, and so students need to study longer to gain the abilities and knowledge necessary to become a doctor or lawyer or engineer. So universities are for vocational training. This doesn’t offer a good answer to the question about buying books! Like Theory 1, however, Theory 3 describes aspects of education in general, as well as university teaching.

Menand’s second theory—and he calls himself ‘a theory 2 person’—is that education is democratic. The answer to the book-buying question is:

“You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” This reflects a different theory of college, a theory that runs like this: In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

So education is a training for life, as well as for a future career. I’m also a ‘theory 2 person’ in that I’m a specialist in literature, and literary studies are particularly helpful for developing these skills.

I also believe that different subjects teach different types of aptitudes and sensibilities. Theories 1, 2 and 3 isolate different contributions that education makes to society. Each academic subject and specialty teaches an approach to the world, and how to contribute to society. There’s a need to train people for their careers, but a liberal society also produces talented individuals who are well-informed about our past, have a good understanding of a foreign culture, know how to analyze the written word, and so on. Literature only starts looking like a weak link once you start insisting that the vocational Theory 3 is the only theory that matters. Society as a whole benefits from having individuals trained to a high level in many different areas.

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Social R&D

My post on the New College of the Humanities had far more readers than usual, and I imagine that some of them found it less worldly than viewpoints expressed on other blogs. Going easy on the bile, I instead worried about whether the college would teach the ‘right kind’ of English degree—one that balanced intuitive and critical reasoning.

It wasn’t written in spite of social considerations, though. How English is taught is wholly connected with questions about how the humanities contribute in the public and private spheres. As many have pointed out, the New College of Humanities threatens to drag subjects like English literature further towards privatization, rather than protect its place in public life (i.e. in state-funded schools and universities). Removing humanities research and teaching to the private sphere would probably hurt accessibility badly (I don’t know enough about the American system to comment much on this). It would not only suggest that humanities have no industrial or economic benefits to society—incorrect, given the still-prestigious education system in the UK—but would disparage the humanities’ contribution to quality of life in general. It would argue, for example, that there is little value in training specialists in language and reading within a highly literate culture.

So this follow-up post unpacks the social dimension of my argument a little. Subjects like English teach analytical skills that are valuable in a whole range of careers; they also nurture creativity, which has social and economic benefits that are often underplayed by comparison. I write ‘social’ because there’s need for continual remodelling of our preconceptions about such life issues as health and how we interact with people who aren’t like us (see my thoughts on ‘Libraries and the NHS’ for an example). Put another way, there’s a need for some Research and Development work on aspects of human experience because society and the world around us are always changing. We need people who play around, explore, experiment with different ways of thinking, and draw on how people have spoken and written about each other in the past to find ideas that will promote a healthy society in the present. This doesn’t mean that English professors should intervene directly on social affairs (and it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t). A liberal democracy does, however, have a use for people who spend time thinking freshly about where our ideas come from and how we can express them. These people can inspire others to question their assumptions, and to come up with alternative descriptions of how society can work—ones that are more thorough and comprehensive than a simple term like ‘Big Society’ allows taken alone.

That R&D metaphor was loaned from Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. I attended a lecture she gave yesterday in which she argued that children are the R&D department of the human race, and adults are the publicity and marketing people. She means that children are better at exploring unusual possibilities than adults, but less good at exploiting them. This intellectual play generates approaches that might otherwise never appear, and from them come methods and approaches that adults start adopting too and which come to benefit the human species as a whole. Extended immaturity is something distinctive to humans—it makes us smart, and Gopnik made the playful analogy that studying and working in ideal research conditions (e.g. Oxford) could extend that development indefinitely.

Academia, like childhood, is a natural home for intellectual flexibility, adaptability, and challenges to the ways mature people see the world. Sometimes new mathematical or zoological or literary insights have a delayed impact on society, and sometimes they remain esoteric: in the long term, however, learning keeps the intellectual reservoirs fresh. Research (and childhood) creates variability and innovation that feeds into otherwise stable societies with their customs and traditions, and means that those societies doesn’t become a North Korea or Turkmenistan. Research needn’t have the end-product always in mind, any more than children should always focus on becoming adults—both children and academics reinvent what it means to be an active adult who engages (socially, culturally, economically) in society. There is a problem about pinning down what research (or a child nibbling on a plastic cup) actually achieves, but this doesn’t diminish its contribution. If the British education system promoted these aims it would fulfil the Archbishop of Canterbury’s desire (expressed in this week’s New Statesman) for ‘a long term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy’.

This social role for the humanities in academia becomes something sinister if certain sections of society are excluded from the conversation–it’d be positively harmful if it’s just the rich and privately-educated who are driving it. Public support encourages creativity and vibrant, diverse participation in the arts. Experimentation in the humanities and arts equips more people to reassess how they relate to each other and the world with respect and tolerance. I stress that this is a general goal of education, not restricted to certain subjects. Education in natural and social sciences clearly plays an important part in this too, but there seems more need to clarify the part that the humanities play in all this. And if you’ve gained anything from this post, then thank the UK government, who are funding my academic research and so allowing me to develop and promote my perspective.


English Literature at the New College of the Humanities

‘The New College of the Humanities (NCOH) is a new concept in university education.’ For Britain this is probably true. It is also far too early to come to any judgements about it: it’ll take several years to see how successful or self-standing the college is, and whether it is the first of several new private undergraduate institutions in Britain. There’s probably a market for it, though I’m far from sure whether it’ll do more good or harm for safeguarding the humanities (instinctive reservations about inequalities and ‘elitism’ loom). The founding Master, A.C. Grayling, makes some fair points in a letter to the Birkbeck Student Union President about the need for a system of financing arts education closer to the US model now that the government have abdicated most responsibility for it, though there’s still much to learn about how it will operate.

The project has the backing of a dream-team professoriate, and I’m looking forward to hearing them speak about the College. Mary Beard helpfully pointed out that NCOH is not a ‘New Oxbridge’ because it is not a research institution—the College doesn’t currently look like it’ll foster research in the humanities. The ‘highly distinguished’ professors are distinguished because of their academic work and, in several cases, their general, popular works that made them famous: Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson aren’t famous teachers, which is relevant when the college is a teaching-only institution. In short, there’s more to learn about how the teaching will work. NCOH also won’t be a liberal arts college, which is something I’d be very interested to see attempted in Britain. Some more discussions of the institutional impact and significance of the NCOH are available here and here.

NCOH offers the same English literature course as the University of London International Programmes. The course descriptions have been cut and pasted without being updated, which explains an odd fixation on Helen Gardner’s editorial work: her Penguin edition of the Metaphysical Poets has been updated since, and, weirder still, her New Oxford Book of English Verse
is prescribed when you might think that Christopher Ricks (the only literary scholar named on the website so far) would prefer teaching from his new edition, the Oxford Book of English Verse. I was surprised to see that the course makes no mention of learning a foreign language, though it prescribes texts in several different languages (Greek, Latin, Italian, Middle English).The course is similar to that taught at that especially artsy college, Goldsmiths (see page nine of their undergraduate prospectus), but the NCOH bolts on its distinctive diploma subjects (logic and critical thinking, science literacy, applied ethics and professional skills). So classes on the Alexander Pope’s poetry might be followed by a session on microeconomics. For the extra cost students supposedly leave better prepared (and better connected) for the world of work than their ripped-jean colleagues at Goldsmiths.

So its English course is fairly standard. In Christopher Ricks, the college has recruited a critic renowned for his sensitive, non-theoretical readings of literary texts (including Bob Dylan). But given that the company’s name was previously ‘Grayling Hall Limited‘, it seems likely that some of the founders will (as founders tend to do) put their intellectual mark on the institution. Although the diploma subjects are kept separate, and Richard Dawkins probably won’t be teaching Gawain and the Green Knight, a strong emphasis on scientific and critical reasoning is potentially detrimental to English teaching. Creativity, emotion, sensitivity, intuition, diversity, empathy, creativity and holistic thinking are important in an English degree: they don’t become wishy-washy when faced with critical thinking, reason, and analysis. The University of London degree, like all English degrees I know of (including those mentioned in my previous post) balances analytical and imaginative approaches. It’d be a strange English course that didn’t promote feeling as well as thought.

[Update 10th June 2011: see my follow-up post ‘Social R&D’ for more on this]