Thursday, March 08, 2007

The interior lives of young people

My colleague Andrew Delbanco has an extremely interesting essay in the current NYRB on the scandals of higher education. Here's what he concludes about the group of books under review:

None of these books—whether by outside critics or inside administrators—has much to say about the interior lives of young people eager for intellectual and aesthetic excitement, learning to examine old ideas in light of new imperatives. If—as Bowen, Golden, and Michaels variously insist—it is a scandal that so few disadvantaged students are able to attend our most advantageous colleges, it is also urgent, in the words (the italics are his) of Donald Levine, former dean of the college at the University of Chicago, to notice that

the scandal of higher education in our time is that so little attention gets paid, in institutions that claim to provide an education, to what it is that college educators claim to be providing.

Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, Levine has written a fascinating history of curricular debates at the University of Chicago, reaching back to its founding more than a century ago. It is a story of serious teachers responding to continuous change in the world and in their particular academic disciplines while always keeping in view the enduring goal of liberal education, which Levine succinctly calls "the cultivation of human powers." To reach this end requires first of all the recognition that it is unending, in the sense that "the purpose of school education," as John Dewey put it, "is to insure the continuance of education by organizing the powers that insure growth." It requires the student to become informed about past and present—to learn, that is, something substantial about history, science, and contemporary societies in order to bring that knowledge to bear on unforeseeable challenges of the future.

Better get that one and read it, I think...


  1. Dear Jenny

    Regarding the writing workshop I am taking, I would like to reproduce for you the opening sentence of an essay I brought to the workshop since my professor referred me. Reading it, I can see how it could be made shorter, or split in two, but overall, I don't see what the major objection is to it, other than it's brimming maybe some extraneous detail, detail which is not directly supporting my central claim, but which I feel as an opening sentence, imparts a sense of historical context and breadth to something that literally could be reduced to merely: "Civil service examines determined the placement of officials in Qing dynasty China. They could be at the county, provincial, or capital level."

    "Supplanting the Nine-Rank system of the Three Kingdoms which was largely hereditary-based, in pre-modern China, during the Imperial bureaucracy of the Qing Dynasty as well as during those of the Han and Ming, civil service examinations determined the appointment and placement of government officials in counties, provinces, and within the capital city itself, Beijing, with the exams for each level of service becoming progressively more difficult, and by rough rule of thumb as mentioned in the textbook, the degrees granted - namely the Shengyuan, the Juren, and the Jinshi - correlated with the B.A., M.A., and Ph. D. at modern Western universities1. "

  2. Dear Jenny

    One more thing: do you feel that the "general, educated" reader is an empirically empty label. On side I have a part of myself that is sympathetic with abstraction, openness, speculativeness, and theoretical complexities; another side is altogether almost mathethically rigorous which expects absolute precision and formulaic definition. With respect to the "general, educated reader," unless one can define unambiguously, unequivocally, concretely, explicitly, exactly who on earth the "general, educated reader" is, I'm not sure is a helpful prescription for those who must write at the university level. Secondly, when dealing this kind of aggregate-identity or the public collectivity who might consume what I have to say, if they're so picky, who cares about them?