To the Editor:

Chuck Stetson’s “Restoring a More Productive College Curriculum” in the Winter 2013 issue (vol. 26, no. 4) is the first uplifting response to the intellectual collapse of American colleges and universities I have seen in a long time, welcome though the usual tonic critiques in Academic Questions have been. Mr. Stetson and his organizations merit high praise for their efforts to improve the academic climate, and the two suggested modifications that follow should be seen as contributions to that end.

First, I suggest that “core area” 8—Beauty in Art, Music, and Culture—be altered to read simply “Art, Music, and Culture” (pp. 448, 451). What is valuable to the human spirit about art, music, and culture cannot be comprised in the word beauty, which implies a focus too narrow and misleading. It is true that beauty may be one element in the profound experiences of meaning that the greatest works of art make available to us. But to substitute the word “beauty” for all the forms of meaning, truth, authenticity, reality, and vision that great works of art, music, and literature provide is to make a primary goal of a secondary byproduct.

Beauty itself may be uplifting and meaningful or deceptive, cruel, and destructive, and many great works (say Dante’s Inferno) are not about beauty, however beautifully they may be made. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony assured Leonard Bernstein that all was ultimately well with the world not merely because of its beauties (though, of course, it is in places beautiful) but because of its meaning, its musical resolution of some very profound paradoxes of life, its transmission of a vision of ultimate wellness transcending and triumphing over life’s horrors honestly acknowledged. This point deserves a more complex discussion, but to paraphrase Hamlet in order to say it briefly, there are more things in heaven and earth revealed through art, music, and culture than are dreamt of in any conception of beauty alone.

Second, while I find attractive the idea of online disruption knocking the over-bureaucratized, politically correct, anti-intellectual colleges off their perches, I have doubts about the ultimate value of online education as a substitute. In his essay “Does Online Education Rest on a Mistake?” in the Fall 2013 Academic Questions, Donald Phillip Verene argues that there are false premises in the hopes for online learning. In my view, the danger of substituting online learning for a living classroom with a good teacher is not only that it may eventually put the few good teachers out of business along with the many bad, but that it cements into place the current notion among students that education is merely the acquisition of information.

Because, as McLuhan said, “the medium is the message,” and because, like it or not, the online medium is bits and bytes and screen shots, not living realities, even online courses that seek to engage in character education will tend toward reduction of the experience of learning. Contemporary students hearing even the greatest lecturer online will pause (for tweets, instagrams, emails, etc.), will skip forward, will mine for supposed essentials, reconfiguring their experience to fit their own aims and electronically narrowed imagination. (I know because I am daily fighting this phenomenon in trying to teach them to read with comprehension.) Students schooled on the computer alone will have no idea what it is like to confront the vision and idiosyncrasies of a real person with wisdom to impart that is far more likely to fall on fertile ground in interpersonal meeting than online. One inevitable result of substituting online learning for the real presence of a teacher, and thus contributing to the overarching view of education as mere information gathering, will be Mr. Stetson’s continued frustration with applicants for jobs at PEI. Any port in a storm, of course: no doubt good teachers online are better than the legions of whirlwind-reapers on actual campuses. My hope and challenge, however, are that Mr. Stetson’s vision for revitalizing education may be advanced by his organizations in the real world as well as virtual classrooms.

Gideon Rappaport, Ph.D.

English Department

La Jolla Country Day School

San Diego, California

Mr. Stetson Responds

Thank you for taking time to write your thoughtful letter. I agree with your points. I hope that we can get to the type of comments that you are making.

Something is drastically wrong with the current system.

I think that there is a very interesting opportunity where online, I believe, will play a dominant role. In “Flourishing Through Business,” I am working to get businessmen and women to mentor young people taking the course. In three focus groups with college students earlier last year, mentoring turned out to be a very hot issue. Students want to know more about the workplace that they are entering and will work in for fifty years, plus or minus. Most of what they think about is wrong. For example, in the course, one of the speakers notes that 56 percent of a class on entrepreneurship in Middle America—Nashville, Tennessee—believe the definition of profit is the amount above cost that you take from your customers without their knowing about it. This is one example of how students have been lied to in K–12.

Undergraduate business students from respected colleges who come to us are very poorly trained and this can be corrected with online courses for credit.

Young people starting with millennials, as you are probably well aware, want authenticity and truth. When they find it, they will let their friends know. Ultimately, I am very optimistic about the current education mess we are in, because it will turn around through online coursework.

At this point, my hope is that we can start the conversation about restoring education to what it should be. You have valuable suggestions and we need to work together in 2014 and beyond.

More on Modern Madness

To the Editors:

Peter Wood gives Liah Greenfeld too much credit for originality in “Modern Madness,” his Fall 2013 review essay of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience (vol. 26, no. 3). Hers is an argument dating back to at least the nineteenth century. The form of the argument and the accoutrements used for buttressing (putative recent insights from neuroscience, etc.) are updated for a modem audience, yes, with the historic rise of nationalism added as a new twist. But originality? No, I don’t think so. “Civilization and Its Discontents,” by none other than Papa Freud himself would be an excellent example of work in a well-established literary genre. The argument can be reduced to one idea and one idea alone; namely, culture and the limitations imposed on human behavior in order to live within civil society are the root cause of troublesome human feelings. Prior to Ms. Greenfeld, civilized behavior and its demands on our psyches was the culprit for mere ennui and alienation. Now, Ms. Greenfeld would have us lump bipolarism and schizophrenia in besides. Mr. Wood suggests the academy take its time digesting Ms. Greenfeld’s departure from orthodoxy—to come to a full accommodation. I submit the academy should save itself the trouble. By the way, the reason Americans suffer from more psychic maladies than citizens of other countries is because American psychiatrists busy themselves finding mental disorder where none exists.

James Turner, M.D.

Englewood, Colorado

Dr. Wood Responds

I appreciate Dr. Turner’s attention to my review, though I think he is rather hasty to shelve Greenfeld’s book in the genre of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and then walk away. Prof. Greenfeld does indeed continue a long line of observers struck by the ways in which mental illness wraps around social breakdowns. But that is only to say that Greenfeld takes up a perennial problem, not that her analysis of it is old news.

Dr. Turner sees in these centuries-old observations nothing but a stale conceit that the academy should brush aside. Greenfeld, of course, faces the burden of convincing readers otherwise. Part of the burden is getting past Dr. Turner’s threshold; he appears to rest his dismissal of the book on my review rather than the book itself. Part of the work of Academic Questions is to air good scholarship that runs athwart prevailing opinions. Mind, Modernity, Madness certainly meets that test. I hope readers will look for themselves.

And the Failures of Teaching Composition

To the Editor:

The articles on the failure of English composition teaching on the college level in the Fall 2013 Academic Questions put me in mind of a letter I wrote in response to the request of a trustee of Northeastern University who was disturbed by the failure to teach writing effectively at Northeastern. My letter follows:

In response to your suggestion that I might sketch for you a few ideas about problems faced by higher education today and how to deal with them as viewed from my perspective as a retired college teacher, I offer the following thoughts. The problems, of course, are many, but I shall limit myself to a focus upon the failure to teach college students to write well and related weaknesses in the teaching of the humanities.

In the times in which we live—in a time of instant communication—of television, computer networks, fax machines, satellite telephone, etc., and of the pervading trend toward sound bites, slogans, quick commercials, and alleged “instant” this, that, and the other thing, it is not surprising that we have advocates of “instant education”—simple, easy, and democratically available to all, regardless of mental potential or talent, by filling in the application form. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work, as the near illiteracy of many college “graduates” sadly demonstrates.

Education, real education, is not simple, is not easy, and above all it is not quick. On the contrary, it is complex, difficult, laborious, and ultimately takes a lifetime of effort. Essentially it takes self-discipline. It cannot be applied from without by the teacher, which is not to denigrate the important role of the teacher as guide and example. The learner must learn to teach himself. And that’s where the self-discipline comes in.

In the sciences, the core discipline is mathematics, which as Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead demonstrated is fundamentally logic. In the humanities, the core discipline is writing with, of course, its fundamental structure of grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Traditionally it is in Freshman English that writing is taught—or, at least, is supposed to be taught. I taught Freshman English for thirty-four years at six different colleges and universities here and abroad both as a young instructor and also as a seasoned full professor. It can be successfully done. The method is no mystery, but it takes concentrated effort on the part of both teacher and student.

A good course in Freshman English should have three interrelated goals—good writing, reading, and thinking.

Many freshmen don’t know how to read. Oh yes, they can make the sounds of words in a sequence as printed, but that is not reading. They should be challenged by reading essays of real intellectual substance—not ephemeral journalism. They should read essays by such writers as John Stuart Mill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Sigmund Freud, Pascal, Bernard Shaw, Emerson—to name just a few at random to suggest the level and quality. And they should be asked by the teacher, “What is the essential thought of this paragraph? What is the theme or thesis of this essay as a whole? Do you find it sound? If not, why not?” In short, they must be trained to read analytically and critically. And with frequent and persistent practice this leads to analytical and critical thinking and writing.

You cannot think without symbols. Thoughts do not exist in a vacuum. Of course, mathematicians can think in numbers, artists in lines, forms, and colors, and musicians in notes and rhythms, etc. But you must have symbols and for the writer words are the symbols. Therefore, the richer the vocabulary, the richer are the possibilities of thought and writing. Students increase vocabulary by reading—challenging and difficult reading. And then they must be frequently and steadily exercised in writing—at least one 600-or-more-word essay every week for a year.

The teacher plays a very important part as audience and critic. However tedious it may sometimes be, the teacher must read these essays with care, marking errors in grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, logic, etc., and then make a meaningful criticism or praise of the thought and unity of the essay in writing. Then the student must return the essay with each error corrected—or whole parts rewritten—to the teacher. The collected essays of the student must be kept on file and periodically the student should have a conference with the teacher and his progress or lack of it made clear.

All this calls for self-discipline not only by the student but also by the teacher. If the teacher is not willing to enforce the discipline by rigorous criticism, the student will soon perceive that he may get away with sloppy performance and will not make the effort that is necessary to really improve.

Another important matter is the cooperation of the entire faculty with the teacher of writing. In all of the departments of the university—including the sciences—the writing of students must be graded as writing and not merely on factual content. The easy to grade and easy to take multiple choice exam, although it has a limited usefulness, should be merely supplemental, while well organized and well written essay exams and papers should be the requirement in all courses in the humanities and social sciences. At one university a statistical test was administered that showed that the students improved their writing after Freshman English, but then their writing deteriorated on the upper levels because, as one student said, “Writing doesn’t matter in courses other than in the English department.”

Another matter of importance is the contemporary disease of grade inflation. Motivated by a false egalitarianism, many college teachers award As and Bs to everyone in the class. They justify this as “building self-esteem,” particularly in regard to recruited minorities of blacks, Hispanics, or Indians. Equality of opportunity is desirable, but elitism of performance is essential to real education. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn and to achieve or fail! As and Bs are meaningless when the average student and the downright failure also receive them.

Related to this undisciplined weakness in contemporary education is the supposedly “scientific” view that all values—moral, ethical, aesthetic, societal values—are relative. That is that every culture is equally as good as any other. There are no ultimate values and anything goes as long as a number of people think so. And so it becomes an academic dogma that there are no classics tested by time and experience and a Mozart symphony is not a whit superior to rock and roll or an African tribal chant. Accordingly there should be no core curriculum of essential classics of our Western culture to provide a common ground of knowledge and experience for all educated citizens. The claim is that such a core is necessarily Eurocentric, paternalistic, sexist, racist, and homophobic and, of course, politically incorrect. The consequent cultural vacuum is lauded as “multiculturism” and “diversity.” A culture that is supposed to consist of all cultures is necessarily a contradictory mishmash and no culture at all. That is not to say that we can learn nothing from non-Western cultures. We always have learned from them in the past and adopted and assimilated what we have learned. That is a different matter.

Related to this is the tendency today to identify oneself not as an American and an individual but as a member of a collective category. Contemporary education encourages one to think of fellow citizens as Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Afro-Americans, and so on. Some Indians say they alone are Native Americans—but are they not really Siberian-Americans who arrived here some thousands of years ago? I sometimes think that the typical “liberal” American—or one who calls himself so—wants to virtuously commit cultural suicide, he so despises his Western cultural heritage.

After all, what is a culture but a discipline—a preference for certain particular values and the willed practice of cultivating and enhancing them. My central thesis is that contemporary American education lacks discipline and mistakes libertinism for liberty and self-indulgence for freedom.

Charles F. Herberger

Professor Emeritus of English

Nasson College

Springvale, Maine

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