February 16, 2009
The Character of an Education
In 2000, I was in my mid-20s, an embittered grad-school dropout. It was the last thing I could have imagined happening. Halfway through my undergraduate career in America, I got the chance of a scholar's lifetime. I was accepted into Oxford for a full undergraduate degree. It was a dream world I'd entered, and I mean that in the best sense – and in the most forlorn.
Oxford in 1993 was still a pretty medieval place, all things considered. There were no cellphones, nor telephones in rooms. A handful of phoneboxes were scattered among the quadrangles, adequate – I suppose – for the 150 or so students living in College. Every day a little old man, on a bicycle with a basket, came cycling through each of the 41 gatehouses, wheeling the inter-Collegiate post into ten thousand pigeonholes. If you wished to call on a friend, most often you'd call on them, in the Victorian sense: stroll over down the lane, and through the quadrangles, rap on their door, and – oh, yes, I'm in the middle of Sidney's Arcadia now, but we can sit for a cup of tea.
I flew into Gatwick with my Mac Classic on my lap; but out of 70 students in the entering class of my college, only one other student brought a personal computer up with him. For the rest of us, four obsolete PCs – one of them perpetually broken – were crowded into a repurposed storage room, token technology for the college's 150 undergraduates. You were actually encouraged to write all your weekly essays in longhand, to prep you for the speed and stamina you'd need in examinations.
The Bodleian, one of the great libraries of the world, was little better in the technological stakes back then. To its great credit it wasn't remarkably far behind most leading universities of the time. It just had more to deal with. As a national reserve library, it received a copy of every book and journal published in Britain. The library dated to the mid-15th century. The poor librarians had managed to computer-catalogue everything from 1993…back to 1982. For everything else, you'd have to go over to a pair of bookshelves that spanned the entirety of the Reference Room, which held about a hundred black catalogues, each double the size of a Manhattan phonebook, that listed five hundred years of acquisitions.
Here's how you'd get a book. With your coat, you'd stake a claim at one of the hundreds of numbered desks. Then you'd rummage in the catalogues. You'd note your desk number and each of your book requests on a separate slip of carbon paper, and hand your bushel to the front desk. Perhaps four hours later, you'd have your books – except for the one being used by someone else, over at Desk 245-D. So then you'd have to go over and introduce yourself, and negotiate a time-share agreement. Or hover by Desk 245-D, waiting for its occupant to get back from his cup of tea. Gnawing on your fingernails the whole time, as the clock ticked toward the Bodleian's 10:30pm closing, with 40 pages of research still to read before starting your essay due at 9am the next morning.
It was slow. It was inefficient. It was wonderful.
Shutting up the library at 10:30pm, same time as Last Orders, meant grabbing a quick pint before the call of "Time at the bar now, thank you!" You'd have to dash it down before "Leave now, thank you!" turned into "Time to fuck off now, thank you!" Waiting for your books occasionally meant a meander through the open stacks, hunting for a bit of information from somewhere, anywhere, that might solve your question, suture your argument and salve the panic. You'd never find what you were looking for, but you'd often find something else, maybe from a completely different realm of the planet, that would throw your brain into an entirely unusual gear.
If you had to personally arrange a book-share, that meant diplomacy: meeting a colleague, maybe making a friend. Oxford's method of personal tutorials and independent study meant that you weren't competing against this student, whose book you'd need; he's not in your "course" because there weren't any "courses." He couldn't be grade-grubbing because there were no grades! (Only fear-of-God important exams.) There was respect: you're both working on different pieces of the puzzle. You're running your own race.
My tutors ranged in quality from the wretched to the superb, and the wretched were very saddening. I watched as one was quietly relieved of his teaching duties out of very strong suspicion that he'd sexually harrassed his female students – in America he'd have been subject to tribunal and dismissal. I sat amazed as a Shakespeare tutor didn't seem to have a great working knowledge of Hamlet. Both were graduate students. But the superb tutors far outnumbered the wretched, and the superb were truly sublime. With a grimace they could note disapproval, with a nod and a "Hm!" they could convey surprise and pleasure. A nudge of the head and a sentence spoken, and they could send you reeling into uncharted territory. One, a great Victorian scholar, would subtly grade your performance by a drink offering: for polite encouragement, a cup of tea; if you'd done commendably, a glass of port; exemplary work, the 12-year scotch.
Some of the best tutors had a particular quality that the press, at any rate, would tell you is a declining element in American academia: a remarkable political and theoretical equanimity. They would be fluent in the entire family of critical and theoretical languages, and might betray their native or naturalized accent from time to time, but seldom while judging the inherent quality of your work. Their job was to develop in you the rigorous art of making a strong argument, and of defending that argument, and then evaluating how well you did it. They took care to show you the spectrum of the argument, from the infrared to the ultraviolet, so you could know what wavelengths you were emanating. They would ask, "Well, what about X?" If you explained X, they'd say, "But then you haven't addressed Y." If Y, then "you see, Z has jostled loose." There was no complete answer, you learned, and there were no A's given out at Oxford. Because perfection is impossible. My first essay, handed back to me, had these remarks: "Well done. A-. An excellent start. However you have missed points a), b), c), d), e), f), g) and h)."
Some of the other best tutors were theoretically and politically strident, but they always let you know where they stood: and then they dazzled you with the defense of their ground. Mere fireworks? Or were they cannons? They might, just might be plasma ray-guns. Terry Eagleton, author of the standard Literary Theory: An Introduction, would begin his lectures with an aggressive Irish wink, saying, "As some of you have heard, I am a Marxist. You will just have to deal with that." I'm pleased to report that I was a dutiful capitalist running dog; while taking notes, I could be observed stenciling hammer-&-sickles by anything that looked like a Manifesto. Then there were the lectures on the Victorians by a poststructuralist named Robert Smith (not of The Cure, but of All Souls College, the world's most exclusive intellectual club). In close-cropped hair and a matching black Armani suit, Paul Smith shirt and tie, he'd produce a quicksilver idea-jet on the theological deconstruction of "F" and "L" sounds in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. We'd stumble out of there in sheer awe of the performance, traumatized by the avalanche of ideas, hardly able to say a word for two hours after.
Some of the very best had an extremely rare quality: a sense of mutual respect, a sense that they were still learning, too. In every gesture, in every comment, they would silently communicate: "This is a conversation between you and I. We are on the same journey together, learning about the world. I may be the tutor, and you the student, but only because I have lived longer and therefore have had the chance to read more books. Let's see what we can discover."
Not all were like this, of course. I have heard enough tales of rude, inconsiderate, bullheaded, sexist, lecherous, brusque, intellectually insulting dons to fill a separate essay. (The petty squabbling between dons is legendary; one tutor confessed to me that he found dinners at High Table "a chore," with "interminable boring conversations.") But at the system's best – and it frequently was – it pressed you to think around a question as well as through it. To see the question's dimensions, its shape, its volume, and the network of other facts, concepts and questions surrounding it. The system strived to internalize the idea that a text is constantly communicating with myriad others in its time, and throughout history, as well as intimating toward the secret futures that were being written at that moment. Kind of like the World Wide Web. Which was invented by Tim Berners-Lee.
It was a system that, on the whole, appeared to respect and reward extremely hard preparatory work, extensive research, and creative risk-taking – in that order of progression. Without serious prep work, you wouldn't have the time for extensive research; without extensive research, it was difficult to justify risk-taking. Prep-work without research was considered unambitious. Creative risk-taking without extensive research was punished mercilessly. The triad was the golden ticket – exceptionally hard to unwrap, but you knew it's what you had to do, if you wanted to be considered as having achieved excellence.
After writing weekly essays for a year or two, which were ungraded (in the strict transcript-worthy sense) and merely diagnostic and preparatory, you were required to sit a series of very strict and transcript-determining examinations. In each, you received a list of about 22 questions, and had to answer three of them in three hours. In English Literature, at least, they could range from the seemingly straightforward –
"Which are the most significant themes in Tennyson's early poetry?"
– to the bewilderingly provocative –
"Has writing in England in this century been too parochial in its formal and/or thematic concerns?"
– to the maddeningly open-ended –
"Write an essay on Yeats and wisdom."
Now, it was entirely possible – indeed probable – that none of the questions directly addressed topics you'd covered in the honed, studied essays you'd previously written. You had to think fast. Very fast. The emotional tenor of this moment was something not unlike the Examiners arriving at your door and saying:
"This is a very nice house you've built here over the last few years. Ranch-style, is it? Frank Lloyd Wright, if I'm not mistaken. Right: here's a big stick of dynamite. Come out here, over to the lawn, so you don't get hurt. There we go. See big house go boom? What a lovely ruin that is! Right, we'd like you to rebuild this house if you don't mind. We like Frankness. Could you do it in the style of Gehry? Oh, and by the way, the only materials you're allowed to use are the blasted shards from your old house.
You have an hour. Cheerio."
More than anything else, my Oxford tutors tried to communicate the idea that studying the literature of the British Isles was an important endeavor. England only learned how to become a coherent nation, after the Romans abandoned the island and through three centuries of Dark Ages, by slowly consolidating the various tongues of its immigrants and invaders – Old Norse, Old German, Latin and others – into a coherent framework of communication. The earliest surviving texts of Old English are translations of the Bible by Alfred the Great. The language survived and grew and mutated – even after the Norman Invasion, and for the three hundred years after that, when the court and the aristocracy were speaking exclusively in French. It is arguably the country's greatest invention, and its most successful export.
I worked for and earned an excellent, comprehensive, demanding, and richly rewarding education. It left me utterly unprepared for America.
In my absence, the World Wide Web appeared, delivering to me a culture shock and a future shock in a single blow. By the late 1990s, the culture wars initiated by the wide adoption of poststructuralist theory had eviscerated humanities departments across the country – take, for example, the swift fame and swifter collapse of the entire Duke University English department. The well-reputed Midwestern research university at which I found myself was a house divided against itself; as in any quagmire, the combatants were sick of fighting, but didn't know how to stop. The graduate students were intensely competitive and bitter, the professors were either blasé or dogmatic – it seemed as though everyone had lost a sense of purpose for the very subject they were dedicating their lives toward. The great debate between traditional and relative value systems had consumed the value of literary study itself, for its own practitioners.
I went to a graduate-student party, once. The last thing anyone wanted to talk about was their dissertation. But their dissertations had consumed their lives, so they couldn't talk about anything else. I've had livelier conversations in crypts. Not long after, I left, to become an embittered grad-school dropout.
I haven’t told you this story to flaunt my fancy-dancy degree; I haven’t told it in a burst of nostalgia (though it’s been a nice side-effect); and I’m no longer an embittered grad-school dropout. My tenured friends are unhappy, and struggling to accomplish a little serious research, a little serious progress in their thinking, while juggling class loads, academic advising, departmental administration, departmental politics, relationships, and trying to cultivate some vestige of a hobby or interest not directly related to their jobs. We have continued to mint humanities PhDs far in excess of a dwindling market – a market that is dwindling because we have valued the humanities less than the worth of business and science. We have been suffering a crisis of “contingent faculty” in the humanities – adjunct, itinerant, non-tenure-track academics – long before the current financial collapse, which has forced hiring freezes and faculty eliminations across the country and is turning a crisis into a full-blown catastrophe.
Business owners readily admit that, when all things are tallied up, the financial crisis is a result of greed and ignorance. Politically, the last eight years – perhaps the last couple of decades – have been dominated by ideological thinking, and ideological marketing, more than serious analysis and balanced judgment. The mainstream media has often led us to value politics as entertainment, as carnival, rather than the serious negotiation of serious matters. Our government bears a great deal of the blame for this. And we, as Americans, must share that blame.
I think that when the humanities suffer, humanity suffers. When we neglect and devalue the study of our language – and our languages – we begin to abuse the language. We euphemize. We lapse in our inspection of truths. We are sold ideas, like a war or an economic policy, without carefully considering them.
Our educational system is in a crisis from top to bottom. The speed of technological advance, market forces, and political forces are all defeating our advances in educational philosophy. Over the next couple of generations, we will be rebuilding our concepts of what it means to be educated in order to negotiate a technological society that has never before existed. As we rebuild, as we adapt our study of the humanities to deal with our fully technologized society – to re-imagine what it means to be human – we should keep in mind certain of the voices from the oldest universities, built when the world was a similarly bewildering place: concentration, curiosity, relaxation, diplomacy, rigor, preparation, research, creative risk-taking, agile minds – and networked thinking.
Posted by David Schneider at 12:15 AM | Permalink