Is "Higher Education" an Oxymoron?
Clueless in Academe. By Gerald Graff. Yale, April 2003. $29.95
Why Education h Useless. By Daniel Cottom. Pennsylvania, May 2003. $26.50
Letters to Dalton: Higher Education and the Degree Salesmen. By John R. Turner. Word and Image, November 2002. $12
The Art of Humane Education. By Donald Phillip Verene. Cornell, September 2002. $19.95
Liberal Education and the Public Interest. By James O. Freedman. Iowa, January 2003. $29.95
Some forty years ago I faced my first class as a teaching assistant in the English department of a large public university. It was (what else?) a required course in composition and I brought equal measures of enthusiasm and trepidation to the task. Reading the names on the class list - gussied up in my new corduroy sports coat (with the then requisite leather patches on the elbows), blue button-down shirt, rep tie, and crisp pressed khakis-I must have oozed earnestness. After ticking off such perfunctory matters as how many themes would be required and why attendance was important, I took a long breath and addressed what I thought was the real business of English 101: "I certainly hope that this course will teach you how to be more effective writers and speakers," I began, "but even more than those things, I hope you will get a large frame of reference."
Thus instructed, and then dismissed, the class filed out into the hall-with the exception of one student, probably more nervous than I was, who stayed behind to tell me, first, that she hadn't done well in her high school English classes and, second, that she hoped to make a better start in this one. So far, so good. Then she told me about her willingness to get an extra-large frame of reference and asked me if she could buy one at the university bookstore. No doubt Gerald Graff would call me "clueless," a word that hadn't yet entered the vocabulary but that would later come to stand, in Graff's mind, for everything that academics like myself do when we sail bits of in-house jargon over students' heads.
Even more to the point Graff keeps making in Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, most academics don't care a fig about whether their courses are "relevant," a term I haven't heard being bandied about since the countercultural 19605. Graff knows the academic landscape and he's a smart cookie but he's also something of an operator. For the last few years he has made a considerable reputation by advising English professors to "teach the conflicts" when they talk about works of literature. For many (though probably not for Graff himself) this has meant spending lots of class time distinguishing feminist criticism from a neo-colonist reading, or the benefits of queer theory from those associated with deconstruction. In the worst-case scenarios (which, alas, happen all the time), the literary work presumably under discussion doesn't get so much as a mention. But no matter-plucking the heart out of Hamlet's mystery no longer requires that a student actually read Hamlet.
In his latest effort, Graff is convinced that we could raise the number of genuine students on our campuses if we would just agree to change what we mean by learning. Instead of trying (cluelessly, as it were) to teach them what they don't know, teachers should concentrate on asking them about what they care about: films, television shows, music videos, comic books, and everything else that travels under the wide umbrella of popular culture. The result, Graff argues, would be lively discussions and engaged students. Perhaps, but there are important differences between a dormitory bull session and classroom discussion, just as there are important differences between a course in classical music and one in rap or a course in Renaissance art and one in TV sitcoms.
Some of the books under discussion seem ready to consign the business of higher education to …