Dead Poets’ me-me-me message

Dead Poets Society, which came out 25 years ago, has had a pernicious influence on young writers — and on college English departments — charges novelist Stephen Marche in Esquire.

The story is a classic tale of writerly egomania, transferred onto the figure of a teacher. Robin Williams playing John Keating — he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance — was the origin of the “cool teacher” cliche that humiliated so many of us in the 1990s. Instead of staying in a classroom reading, he takes his students for long walks and life lessons. Instead of having them read interpretations of literature, he begins his class by having them rip out the pages of the introduction. He modestly suggests that they call him “O Captain, my Captain,” a title that Walt Whitman originally intended for a murdered Abraham Lincoln, martyred savior of the Republic. Keating is entitled to his students’ adulation, in the film, because he imbues in them a sense of self-worth, totally unrelated to their accomplishments.

The movie presents literature as “collective narcissism,” writes Marche. Reading and writing are easy.

Understanding the literary tradition was not a task. Nobody had to learn foreign languages or philology. Nobody had to work at it. What you really needed to be a writer was to be sensitive and to overcome the traditional strictures of mom and dad. You really just needed to be a rebel.

Dead Poets Society glorifies a terrible way to teach humanities writes Kevin J.H. Dettmar, an English professor, in The Atlantic. It’s anti-intellectual gush.

The movie has been voted the greatest “school film” ever and often named as one of the most inspirational films of all time, according to The Guardian.

As Shakespeare turns 450, humanities are dying

In honor of William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, Jay Greene mourns the death of the humanities in U.S. schools.

He cites Harold Bloom: “Shakespeare not only invented the English language, but also created human nature as we know it today.”

“Teaching children about what it means to be a human being” isn’t important to “some of the more prominent” reform movements, writes Greene. They see school as “a mechanism for improving students’ economic prospects.” That’s not the most important element of education.

We aren’t gorillas, for whom zoo-keepers seek to optimize food, shelter, and longevity.  Unlike gorillas we are inclined to reflect on what our existence means and try to give that existence purpose.  Education should help guide us in doing that, not just train us to optimize food, shelter, and longevity by becoming the best future workers we can be.  To reflect on what it means to be a human being we need to learn the humanities, including history, literature, and art.

Few will admit hostility to the humanities, but “it is the dominant thrust in the 21st Century Skills movement, which is backed by the same people who gave us Common Core, with its shift away from literature to ‘informational texts’.”

Here’s a graphic that represents the key elements of 21st century learning:


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Greene wonders where the humanities fit. The core subjects have to start with an “r” or deal with the 21st century.

Contrariwise

Contrariwise is a philosophy journal written and published by Diana Senechal’s students at New York City’s Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering. It’s a public middle/high school with a technical focus, but students also study the humanities.

The “ambitious venture” includes dialogues, essays, letters, diaries, poems, roundtable discussions, questions, commentary and art” on topics ranging from time to tyranny, writes Cynthia Haven on Book Haven.

It all started when juniors taking Political Philosophy wrote “continuations of Plato‘s Republic, Book VIII – the section in which Socrates and Adeimantus discuss the decay of the kallipolis, city of philosopher-kings,” write editors-in-chief Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape. 

Topics in the inaugural issue include Alba Avoricani‘s “Letter from Folly to Platon Kovalyov,” Khadijah McCarthy’s “John Locke on the Nature of Marriage,” and, taking on Hamlet, Sofia Arnold‘s “Claudius: A Flawed Machiavel.” I was rather intrigued by Megan Almanzar‘s essay on freezing time, “The Key to Immortality,” and Fariha Wadud‘s “The Book of Job’s Greater Message.”

Daniela Batista‘s cover art shows a bird on the nose of a buffalo.

Here’s how to order a copy.

Self-help course may replace humanities

Community college students in San Antonio will study the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People instead of history, philosophy or literature, if Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie gets his way. Learning Framework, based on Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling  self-help book, would be part of the core curriculum, replacing one of only two humanities requirements.

College isn’t just about social mobility

Poor kids are told college is the key to social mobility, writes Andrew Simmons in The Atlantic. What about learning?

One of his 12th-grade students, “Isabella,” wrote a college admissions essay about wanting to pursue a career in oceanography.

The essay’s core concerned the rhetoric that educators had used to motivate her and her peers—other minority students from low-income communities. . . . Since elementary school, teachers had rhapsodized about the opportunities that four years of higher education could unlock. Administrators had rattled off statistics about the gulf in earnings between college graduates and those with only high-school diplomas. She’d been told to think about her family, their hopes for her, what they hadn’t had and what she could have if she remained diligent. She’d been promised that good grades and a ticket to a good college would lead to a good job, one that would guarantee her financial independence and enable her to give back to those hard-working people who had placed their faith in her.

Thankfully, Isabella decried this characterization as shortsighted and simplistic.

Simmons teaches black and Latino students in Los Angeles. Educators repeatedly tell them “that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security,” he writes.

His students care a great deal about money because their families have so little of it, he writes. They fantasize about well-paid careers, but don’t understand the work they’d do as a lawyer or doctor. “According to ACT’s College Choice Report from November 2013, 32 percent of students pick a college major that doesn’t really interest them,” lowering their odds of completing a degree.

College should be “sold” to all students as an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening. . . . we need to proactively teach our most marginalized students that honing an intellectually curious frame of mind is as essential to leading an invigorating working life as ambition and work ethic.

How many  high school students have an intellectual passion (or interest) they want to pursue in college? Isabella will get scholarships to pursue her dream. (If she earns a PhD, the money’s good.) But the B and C students really do need to worry about qualifying for a decent job without going into debt.

Why I let my daughter get a “useless” college degree gives the upper-middle-class parent’s perspective. The daughter is majoring in American Studies “with a focus on the politics and culture of food at a small liberal arts school.”

My daughter majored in American Studies with a minor in Creative Writing, worked as a book publicist, earned a law degree and now works as a literary agent.

Future MOOCs: Just for jobs?

In a few years, MOOCs went from fad to destroyer of higher ed to flop, but MOOCs have a future, writes Rachelle DeJong on Minding the Campus. It lies “somewhere between adapting to a niche clientele and rebounding to capture” hundreds of thousands of students.

She envisions three possibilites.

First, MOOCs could become “advanced technical schools and outsourced employee training,” as predicted by Walter Russell Mead.

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun is is moving in this direction after giving up on competing with brick-and-mortar BA programs.

The new MOOC-ish master’s degree program at Georgia Tech is an example: AT&T is a major funder of the Georgia Tech initiative, planning to send its employees through the program and to hire additional high-performing program graduates. Forbes reports that a growing number of businesses are authorizing MOOC versions of their training courses.

MOOCs could be “usefully middlebrow,” a sort of Readers Digest version of college courses, suggests University of Michigan professor Jonathan Freedman. It might be college lite, “but it’s not comic books, either,” writes DeJong.

It’s also possible no-cost MOOCs will “encourage renewed interest in the humanities,” DeJong writes. When college costs are high, students are drawn to what they see as practical STEM courses.

Trendy vs. truth: Can the university survive?

If universities aren’t going to teach truth, beauty, knowledge or reasoning — and they can’t guarantee liberal arts graduates will earn enough to pay their debts — something’s got to give, writes Victor Davis Hanson on PJ Media.

A fourth of liberal arts courses are trendy time wasters, writes Hanson, a classics and military history fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and an emeritus classics professor at Fresno State. Students don’t learn a body of knowledge. They don’t master inductive reasoning and empirical objectivity. They don’t learn to write clearly.

(Trendy classes) tend to foster the two most regrettable traits in a young mind — ignorance of the uninformed combined with the arrogance of the zealot. All too often students in these courses become revved up over a particular writ — solar power, gay marriage, the war on women, multiculturalism — without the skills to present their views logically and persuasively in response to criticism. Heat, not light, is the objective of these classes.

. . .  college is intended as a sort of boot camp for the progressive army, where recruits are trained and do not question their commissars.

Vocational and technical colleges “are upfront about their nuts-and-bolts, get-a-job education,” he writes. They don’t pretend to teach humanities.

 Yes, I am worried that the University of Phoenix graduate has not read Dante, but more worried that the CSU Fresno graduate has not either, and the former is far more intellectually honest about that lapse than the latter.

Federal aid allows colleges to keep hiking tuition, leaving students deeper in debt. Professors complain that “grade-grubbing” students won’t take their esoteric courses. Why should they? Hanson asks.

. . .  does the computer programming major at DeVry take an elective like the Poetics of Masculinity to enrich his approach to programing? Does the two-year JC course on nursing include an enhanced class like “Constructing the Doctor: the hierarchies of male privilege”?

As a young professor, I used to believe in the value of a universal BA that would teach truth and beauty to the masses. I still do, but mostly as instruction apart from the university that now has very little to do with either beauty or truth.

Meanwhile, the economic value of a humanities degree is questionable. Most studies say a liberal arts bachelor’s degree is worth the investment, but how long will that be true? “I am reluctant to make the argument for the humanities on the basis of financial planning, but then the humanities are not quite the humanities of 50 years ago.”

Hansen suggests a national test in math and verbal skills and knowledge for a bachelor’s degree like the bar exams for law graduates. Someone who’d skipped college could take a longer version of the bachelor’s exam.

Most college students pick what they think are practical majors. Business administration is the most popular college major, according to the Princeton Review. Also in the top 10 are psychology, nursing, biology, education, English, economics, communications, political science and computer and information science.

Florida may raise tuition for non-STEM majors

Florida wants more engineers and scientists. Would-be poets, actors and anthropologists? Not so much. A state task force has recommended lowering university tuition for STEM majors while charging more in humanities and social sciences, reports the Sun Sentinel.

It usually costs more to offer science and engineering classes, but it’s worth it, says Dale Brill, who chaired the task force for Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida used to pay 75 percent of the cost of educating students in public colleges and universities, but that’s dropped to less than 50 percent in recent years because of the weak economy, reports the Sun Sentinel.

Struggling to teach science

American Educator’s new issue includes: An Evolving Controversy, subtitled The Struggle to Teach Science in Science Classes on biology teachers under pressure to teach religious alternatives to evolution; World-Class Ambitions, Weak Standards on the 2012 state science standards, and Knowing Ourselves, How the Classics Strengthen Schools and Society.

College’s economic value depends on the degree

College is worth it, but majors linked to occupations offer better job prospects than majors focused on general skills, concludes a new Georgetown report, Hard Times: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal (pdf).

Another general rule: “People who make technology are better off than people who use technology.”

A bachelor’s degree is one of the best weapons a job seeker can wield in the fight for employment and earnings. And staying on campus to earn a graduate degree provides safe
shelter from the immediate economic storm, and will pay off with greater employability and earnings once the graduate enters the labor market. Unemployment for students with new
bachelor’s degrees is an unacceptable 8.9 percent, but it’s a catastrophic 22.9 percent for job seekers with a recent high school diploma — and an almost unthinkable 31.5 percent for recent high school dropouts.

Except for architecture graduates, who’ve been hit hard by the construction crash, unemployment rates are higher in non-technical majors such as the arts (11.1 percent), humanities and liberal arts (9.4 percent), social sciences (8.9 percent) and law and public policy (8.1 percent).

Unemployment is low for computer science (7.8 percent) and math (6 percent) graduates who can write software and invent new applications, higher for information systems graduates (11.7 percent)  “who use software to manipulate, mine, and disseminate information.”  However, the report predicts jobs for computer majors will “bounce back strongly” as the recovery proceeds.

Median earnings among recent college graduates vary from $55,000 among engineering majors to $30,000 in the arts, psychology and social work. While new graduates in computer engineering average $60,000, physiology graduates average only $24,000.