Stepping off the Whirligig

Twenty years ago the best colleges and universities in the U. S. turned up their noses at the US News & World Report’s “best colleges” ratings. At the beginning of last year Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent article in The New Yorker tearing the ratings to small fine shreds. Other shredding operations have been conducted, and sensible people should consider them disposed of. Far from it: the ratings continue to make their undead way, arms outstretched, towards successive classes of high-school seniors caught up in the admissions “process.”

And not just the high-school seniors. Even very good universities that have ten or twenty applicants for each place, and that should be ignoring the ratings game, produce mailers that they send to top scorers on the SAT. Their own “thin envelope” letters note that there are many qualified applicants for every place, so why do they do it? The only explanation can be that they want to have a higher ratio of applications to admissions in order to boost their ratings.

Only such thinking can explain another phenomenon, the move towards viewing admission interviews by alumni/ae as a marketing tool. Admissions officers from good or excellent universities “explain” that an interview acts as a kind of “bonding experience” shown to be effective by market research in producing a “yes” from admitted high-school seniors. The more “yeses,” the higher the yield ratio and the resulting rating.

There seems to be no end in sight to the nonsense, for it is difficult to detach oneself from the whirligig. Gladwell notes that even the statistics about the “value” of a top-shelf degree comprise other factors than just the quality of the education received, but it doesn’t stop the clamor at the ivy gates. High school teachers and counselors as well as the parents of juniors and seniors should be helping students to look beyond the dazzle of university ratings to make intelligent and satisfying choices, but very often our role ends up being to console them when those gates slam in their faces.



Elephants and Education

During the year I started teaching in South Africa, Victoria Falls beckoned. On a visit there I took a walk along the right bank of the Zambezi River from the rain forest that surrounds the Zimbabwe side of the falls. Away from the mist, the rain forest thins to what one might call “ordinary” jungle, though I was all eyes for the first such scenery I had ever viewed. I saw a troop of monkeys in front of me at one point tossing a baby back and forth among themselves as they chattered and clambered among the branches. Were they playing catch? Were they trying to confuse the two-legged predator about which monkey had the baby? Were they trying to be sure that no child was left behind?

Then, rounding a curve in the trail, I saw in front of me an elephant—a solitary bull elephant. It looked at me, flapped its ears, and charged. I was not a Transformer, but I instantly changed from all eyes to all legs. I lost twenty-five years of my age as I ran again like the young adult I used to be (well, that’s the way it felt). Was it my imagination that felt the thumping of the elephant’s feet as it ran, its toes eager to make human jam? Maybe the thumping was my heartbeat. I then seemed to pass an invisible property line, after which the bull stopped chasing me. Some time later I stopped running and decided that my only resemblance to Dr. Livingstone was that I had seen a statue of Henry Morton Stanley near the falls.

Though at the time I seemed to lose twenty-five years, in retrospect I see that I also lost about twenty thousand years as I found myself among the trees chased by an animal seemingly determined to turn me into a grease stain on the jungle floor. It occurs to me now that this kind of time travel can also go in the reverse direction, for a liberal education recapitulates civilization. Hence José Ortega y Gasset’s claim that “if a whole generation ceased to study, nine-tenths of the human race then alive would die a violent death.” What is more, he says, “Techniques can be taught, mechanically. But techniques live on knowing, and if this cannot be taught, an hour will come in which the techniques too will succumb.”

To Ortega “knowing” is more than recall, pattern-recognition, and fulfilling job requirements as  “human capital.” It is people—not human capital—creating disciplines of study “out of brute force” because “they needed them so badly that they had to have them.” And the need is not always immediately practical: Apollonius of Perga “needed to know” about ellipses 1700 years before practical use was made of his work. Fortunately for post-Renaissance astronomy, liberal education preserved that knowledge even though it didn’t help anyone become more marketable. And liberal education preserved calligraphy at Reed College, where an ex-Trappist monk taught it to the young Steve Jobs.

Against an elephant-stampede to turn much of education into cheap or profitable dullness, some schools in the U. S. are making the right choices. A friend of mine reports substitute-teaching at a public high school in rural Wisconsin. “His” class almost didn’t need his presence as it read and discussed Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, written at about the time modern astronomy found a use for Apollonius and sixty years before the Trappist order of monks was founded. It was a time when calligraphy seemed to recede in practical importance, though it clearly kept its inspirational power. I hope that if some of those students end up in politics and education, their own liberal education will remind them what a Faustian bargain is.



Knitting Patterns

“Boredom is rage spread thin.”—Paul Tillich

“I do love knitting patterns.”—Professor Dumbledore

Many teachers are familiar with those moments in school assemblies or large classes when a single action or a small chain of words provokes a response that suddenly amplifies into a cheer, a wave of laughter, or a rumbling hubbub. (Though for regrettably many teachers and their students, the momentary phenomenon at assemblies is silence.) Then, as the moment passes, the assembled students return to their modicum of shared attention and disguised private daydreams. (The silence of gadget-twiddlers is another phenomenon entirely.) One sign of the good school is that its assemblies proceed in an equilibrium of paid attention and momentary ebullience: such gatherings show that its students have learned to balance shared experience and private enthusiasm and know how to subordinate private enthusiasm to public attention at need. People leading these assemblies also have a sense of what will play at an assembly and what will not.

But this kind of attention implies something worth attending to: discipline will carry students or their teachers only so far. If students have to spend time to “learn” “Jungle Gym Math” in the classroom, they will sooner or later stop paying attention: you can’t force someone to be interested in paint peeling. The same goes for assemblies where they (and their teachers) have to listen to baloney.

The usually expected reaction to this kind of trial is angry boredom, for “boredom is rage spread thin” according to the theologian Paul Tillich. But boredom of a different kind can also be a sign of acedia. In either case, as Professor Barzun notes, boredom is highly destructive.

But it is also possible to turn away from dull conditions of life in good ways, or in ways that are not inherently vicious. Hence the old tradition of striking out to “seek one’s fortune,” exemplified by Dr. Johnson and David Garrick, who hit the road together—Johnson eventually becoming the greatest man of letters of his day, and Garrick the greatest actor. Hence also the more modern tradition of “garagism,” in which the ambitious or otherwise not easily satisfied young person composes and plays music or invents and tests gadgets and Franklin stoves in his garage. And of course there are those like Bashō who are wonderfully present-minded while being able to cast imaginatively across time and space, admiring old ponds with frogs jumping in and silent ancient temples alike.

It would be nice to think that schools help young people on their way to find life interesting or rewarding, but in many cases that is wishful thinking. It is certainly wishful thinking in the case of Jake Davis, a recently arrested member of the Anonymous internet collective. One of a number of very highly intelligent young people now shaking up the wired world, Davis, a Shetland Islander, metaphorically hit the road, finding fame and felony charges by age 18. His interviewer, expecting to find a pimple-scratching sociopath, was struck not just by how articulate he is but also by how unmarked by anger, acedia, or gaucherie. The reason I write about him this week is that he craved—and still craves—learning but got little or none of it from his school, where the only thing he remembers learning was how to knit. I am not belittling the pastime of aunts, grannies, headmasters and hackers; I am wondering what his school was doing while he was going there, in class or in assembly. It is poignant to find out that he hopes he will be able to read and learn more in prison when he finally goes there than he did in school.