February 6, 2012

Rescuing academia from the academics

A liberal arts curriculum should meet needs of students with interests outside of academia.

Suppose you’re a student who chose the U of C over other schools mainly because it combines the material resources of an elite university with a traditional liberal arts curriculum that emphasizes the humanities and social sciences. While you need those resources because you’re not interested in an academic career, you think that reflecting on eternal human questions, learning how to appreciate great works of art and literature, and figuring out how complex societies work are important parts of a worthwhile life, even for non-scholars. Remarkably enough, completing your Core requirements only strengthens your convictions about the value of the liberal arts, so you decide to become a humanities or social sciences major. The undergraduate curricula in most non-math and science departments are presumably designed for students like you, rather than for the minority interested in becoming professors. So how well do they meet your needs?

Four years as a philosophy major have made it abundantly clear to me that at least one of those disciplines often does so quite poorly. Consider the department’s offerings this quarter, which include a class on the ethical thought of Elizabeth Anscombe—a fascinating but obscure 20th-century British philosopher whose name has generated many a quizzical look when I tell friends I’m studying her—as well as several classes on the philosophy of language and logic, topics which are of great interest to academics but are quite remote from the iconic works that most educated laypeople take philosophy classes in order to read. While I don’t have the detailed statistics to prove it, I’ve found the phenomenon of departments designing undergraduate classes for future academics to be quite widespread. One friend majoring in history often bids for only three or four classes because most of the others deal with extremely specific phenomena, such as 6th-century Chinese medicine, rather than the major political and social changes that drew him to the subject.

Most departments do, of course, still offer some classes that have wider appeal (the Philosophy Department offerings also include courses on Plato and Kant). However, the teaching style they feature tends to reflect the same focus on preparing students for academia. Professors and TAs frequently proceed as if most of their students are bound for graduate school and so orient lectures and discussions around academic concerns rather than the aspects of a topic that would be of most interest to a non-specialist.

Defenders of this approach would likely offer several objections to the critique sketched here. First, they might note, professors will teach most effectively when they can focus on material that they find exciting, which will presumably be related to their research interests and to the ongoing academic debates within which those interests are situated. Furthermore, the most obvious alternative to finding guidance about what to teach in the academy’s research agendas would seem to be developing some list of important figures, events, and phenomena about which educated people should generally be informed. However, because of the vast amount of knowledge that most academic disciplines have now produced, developing such a list based on objective criteria is an impossible task. Any list that is actually created will therefore be highly arbitrary and will also risk the sort of exclusion of marginalized individuals and subjects which has often characterized such lists in the past.

As someone who does want to become an academic, I can see the force of these complaints, but I think that those who make them ultimately miss a fundamental point. Those who study the humanities and social sciences contribute very little of quantifiable value to the society that sustains them, so we need some way of persuading our fellow citizens to support our inquiries into sometimes obscure questions; the still-struggling economy and the resulting budget cuts at many universities have made this problem especially urgent. If our disciplines do not in fact deal with matters that any educated person ought to know something about, then those who study them simply have unusual tastes and it is unclear why the students and parents who subsidize graduate programs with their tuition, the foundations that endow professorships, and the taxpayers who provide many other kinds of financial support should make sacrifices for their benefit.

Therefore, regardless of the real difficulties involved, it is essential that humanists and social scientists think seriously about how to serve the sort of student I described above. If they do not, the purely academic pursuits that they rightly want to protect may soon become a mere memory.

Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.