Imagine that you are a graduate student in Philosophy writing a dissertation on Plato in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and you met a visiting professor from Egypt; let’s call him “Theuth.” And Theuth came to you and said: “I have discovered a new art of writing; one that will make it possible for you to simultaneously co-author a document with your students about the Platonic dialogues you are teaching.”
Liberal Arts in a Time of Crisis
STATE COLLEGE, PA – These remarks were delivered at the 2011 Symposium of the Center for American Literary Studies: Crisis? Whose Crisis? What Crisis?
Let us imagine further, that Theuth explained his new technology this way: “This living document is structured in such a way that you and your students can comment on what you are writing together. It allows you to tag the things you write with multiple terms so you can actually watch themes arise organically in the course as you and your students write reflectively about the dialogues.”
And then imagine that he began to get very excited and said, almost in a whisper: “The best part of this new art of writing, the aspect that makes it most wonderful and compelling, is that it can be made public in such a way that anyone, anytime, from anywhere can read and respond to it.”
How would you respond?
Would you say to Theuth: “as the father of this new technology, you have too much affection for it and you fail to see the damage this sort of exposure to the public will do to these young, impressionable minds; you fail to recognize that young people are not prepared to determine for themselves what is important or interesting or compelling about these ancient texts. And besides, it will kill our students’ capacities to concentrate and contemplate.”
And let’s imagine yet further, that Theuth was so deflated by this that he returned to Egypt and hid his technology away and that you went on teaching as you were taught, lecturing, encouraging students to focus, concentrate and reproduce on exams and papers the wonderful things they heard from you, which they submitted dutifully–and privately–to you as the authority on the topic.
Suppose, however, that one day, Theuth’s technology was discovered and put into the hands of students, and that some faculty had wind of this and were beginning to find ways to use it to empower students to write reflectively and dynamically on all conceivable subjects. Imagine that you have in the meantime become an established faculty member, a respected authority in your field.
This would be the crisis you then faced: the intellectual and ethical capacities you have developed over the course of your career, the very abilities that made you the success that you are, no longer provide traction in a new, more dynamic world in which an unfathomable amount of information is always accessible, collaboration is the main way to create meaning and writing is instantly public to the widest extent imaginable.
What I hope you can imagine feeling on a personal level–overwhelmed, dismissive, defensive, and ill-equipped–is amplified and rendered acute when we move from imagination to the concrete realities of our educational institutions. For you see, whatever else this time of crisis involves, whatever the limits of our old funding models, whatever the challenges the liberal arts face from increasing professionalism, whatever budget cuts are announced, these all pale in comparison to the crisis brought on by the revolution in literacy new media technologies have introduced.
How will we as faculty, as administrators, as institutions and, indeed, as human beings respond?
The good news is that the core values of a liberal arts education have never been more important as we attempt to navigate this crisis in ways that might in fact enrich rather than impoverish our lives. The bad news, however, is that although we have long held the values of excellent communication, ethical imagination, global understanding, an openness to difference and responsiveness to change–we have in our teaching and in the structures of our institutions done less to cultivate the intellectual and ethical practices that underwrite these values.
Our teaching remains largely a matter of conveying information delivered by the authoritative expert who controls the discussion and assesses the value of the responses. Our scholarship–particularly in the Humanities–is pursued largely in isolation, made public–to the extent that it is–at small, intimate conferences and only after long periods of incubation. Our disciplines remain dependent on a model of authorship that measures success by the reputation of old media journals read rarely and when read, almost exclusively by isolated experts. Our institutions remain determined by a business model that rewards the adoption of practices that increase efficiency rather than the quality of the educational experiences of our students.
And yet, our institutions have the capacity to adapt; they remain committed in principle at least to the core values of the liberal arts. Our disciplines have become porous and are beginning to reach out across boundaries to draw rich resources to and from one another. And our scholarship–especially in the Humanities–is able to reflect upon the limits of its practices, to criticize the calcified conceptions of authorship and authority on which we have come to rely and which have begun to dissolve. And in our teaching, we are learning to empower our students to take an active role in their own education, to become writers, podcasters, bloggers, videographers–makers of meaning in a new and multifaceted world.
Imagine, then, if you were a graduate student studying Philosophy today and you found your students and a few colleagues, perhaps even a faculty member or two, using Theuth’s technologies–how would you respond? And more importantly, how will we as faculty, administrators, institutions and, indeed, as human beings respond to this revolution in literacy in ways that enrich the educated life?
Cultivating the intellectual and ethical practices that enable us to do this should be the main focus of the liberal arts in this time of crisis.