Escaping the ‘prison house of self’

Freddie Bartholomew as David Copperfield and W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber in the 1935 movie.

College professors are killing students’ interest in literature, writes Gary Saul Morson, a Northwestern humanities professor, in Commentary.  That’s bad for democracy.

Some professors teach a “dense thicket of theory” focused on “the text.” Students look for symbols. Others encourage students to judge the “author, character, or the society depicted according to the moral and social standards prevalent today.” A third interest-killing variation sees literature as a documentary of its times.

These approaches “fail to give a reason for reading literature,” writes Morson.

Reading a novel, you experience the perceptions, values, and quandaries of a person from another epoch, society, religion, social class, culture, gender, or personality type.

Literature provides practice in empathy, he writes. “We follow the life of Dorothea Brooke or David Copperfield moment to moment, and we live with them for hundreds of hours, always living into their experience, growing along with them, approving or disapproving their choices, and perhaps changing our minds as they change theirs.”

Here’s the money quote:

We all live in a prison house of self. We naturally see the world from our own perspective and see our own point of view as obvious and, if we are not careful, as the only possible one. . . . The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments.

. . . Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie.

“Great literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel,” concludes Morson.

Students don’t judge contemporary art, writes Michael J. Lewis, also in Commentary. They don’t care.  “While the fine arts can survive a hostile or ignorant public, or even a fanatically prudish one, they cannot long survive an indifferent one. And that is the nature of the present Western response to art, visual and otherwise: indifference.”

High Art has removed itself from a conversation with the culture, and now lectures from barren cul-de-sacs to acolytes in sack-cloths,” responds James Lileks.

‘You have to know history to teach it’

“You have to know history to actually  teach it,” historian Eric Foner says in an Atlantic interview. Too many history teachers are athletic coaches, he says.

Students need to know historical facts — and to understand “every selection of what is a fact, or what is important as a fact, is itself based on an interpretation,”  says Foner. He wishes his college students could write essays.

Many elementary schools spend little time on history, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge Blog. Students don’t develop the historical knowledge or vocabulary to understand history when it’s introduced in later grades.

On of Ed Week’s most-viewed commentaries of 2013 was on students’ lack of history knowledge, notes Hansel.

Author Vicky Schippers, claims that we’re teaching history wrong—as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam” instead of as “a study of struggles, setbacks, and victories.”

Schippers tutored “Tony,” a would-be high school graduate who “had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled.” He’d heard of Abraham Lincoln, but couldn’t link him to the Civil War.

Hansel wonders if Tony got a string of bad history teachers — or if it was something else.

It could be that all of Tony’s history classes consisted of terribly boring facts that Tony decided not to memorize. But I’d guess that at least some of Tony’s teachers delivered the facts along with the struggles and stories—and I’d guess that Tony’s listening and reading comprehension were too limited to follow along.

K-6 teachers average 16 to 21 minutes a day on social studies, according to a 2012 survey. And history is only a fraction of that.

Common Core doubts

Will the Common Core Create World-Class Learners?  Yong Zhao, a University of Oregon education professor, has doubts in an Ed Week interview with Anthony Cody.

“Judging from the accomplishment of NCLB and Race to the Top, I would say that five years from now, American education will still be said to be broken and obsolete. We will find out that the Common Core Standards, after billions of dollars, millions of hours of teacher time, and numerous PD sessions, alignment task forces, is not the cure to American’s education ill. Worse yet, we will likely have most of nation’s schools teaching to the common tests aligned with the Common Core. As a result, we will see a further narrowing of the curriculum and educational experiences. Whatever innovative teaching that has not been completely lost in the schools may finally be gone. And then we will have a nation of students, teachers, and schools who are compliant with the Common Core Standards, but we may not have much else left.”

Other than that, he’s a big fan.

Zhao is the author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization.

Conservatives are pushing back against Common Core Standards, writes the Wall Street Journal. Some state legislators who felt rushed into adopting the standards are having second thoughts.

There are rumblings from all sides. The common standards and assessments represent the “antithesis of progressive values,” writes Jack Hassard on The Art of Teaching Science. “The idea of having a single set of standards and associated assessments appears to remove individuality, creativity and innovation from American classrooms.”

From Peoria to China

Globalization has come to Peoria:  International business majors at the local community college can study and intern in China to prepare for jobs in local industries, such as Caterpillar.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Colleges are trying to assess how much students are learning, but faculty members aren’t leading the way.

The Great Brain Race: Many winners?

Ben Wildavsky’s The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World will be published this month.

In an interview with Insider Higher Ed, Wildavsky argues the globalization of universities is inevitable and potentially a win-win.

In the near term, we shouldn’t lose site of the fact that we remain hugely dominant – we have a disproportionate share of top researchers, 70 percent of the world’s Nobel winners, hold most of the top slots in global college rankings, and so on. We also pass an important market test, continuing to attract the lion’s share of top international students. That said, patterns of mobility could well change, and with so many new and improved universities in other nations focusing on science and engineering, that seems likely to be an area where we might lose ground.

. . . From a U.S. point of view, where we are likely to remain very strong is in our creative spark, in academia and beyond. This is something other nations urgently wish to emulate – our ability to innovate, and to use research discoveries in entrepreneurial ways.

In many competitor nations, universities have no “liberal arts tradition,” Wildavsky says. “A few are trying to change that, but for now our ability to ask questions, to challenge the conventional wisdom, to be nonconformist at times, is likely to continue to be an area where we stand out.”

Free trade in brains

The globalization of higher education should be embraced, not feared,” writes Ben Wildavsky in The New York Academy of Sciences. While other countries are trying to catch up, “the U.S. dominance of the research world remains near-complete,” he writes. 

Yet there is every reason to believe that the worldwide competition for human talent, the race to produce innovative research, the push to extend university campuses to multiple countries, and the rush to produce talented graduates who can strengthen increasingly knowledge-based economies will be good for us as well. Why? First and foremost, because knowledge is not a zero-sum game. Intellectual gains by one country often benefit others.

. . . global academic competition is making free movement of people and ideas, on the basis of merit, more and more the norm, with enormously positive consequences for individuals, for universities, and for nations. Today’s swirling patterns of mobility and knowledge transmission constitute a new kind of free trade: free trade in minds.

Fun fact: Half the world’s physicists don’t work in their native countries.