My Theory About the Purpose of Higher Education

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. If you read this blog, you know that I often complain about my college. However, I'm not opposed to the existence of higher education, I just think it has gone hay-wired. (Or never had what I wanted--also possible.) So I'm going to try to put down here what I do think the purpose is supposed to be.

First of all, I don't think it is supposed to pompous (think Harold Bloom), either loaded down with academic verbiage or devoted only to the study of particular kinds of culture. On the other hand, I think the academic world is based on a belief: that it is possible to teach stuff over time, and that stuff will still be there every time you teach it. And instead of apologizing all over the place for this...this...dare we say, conservatism, the academic world should just say, "Look, this is what we do. We teach that there are things that can be taught."

For example, in my current class on folklore, we have read a number of articles and had a number of interesting discussions, but the professor hasn't taught us any of the theories of folklore that have influenced scholarly opinions.

Now, as you may know, I'm not a big believer in using hypothetical theories to find hypothetical profundities, and if that was the professor's feeling as well, I probably wouldn't care, but it isn't; we spend many classes having hypothetical discussions about hypothetical profundities. If we're going to do this, I think we should know the scholarship that makes it possible. (Then we can decide whether the scholars are right or not.)

So I think the academic world shouldn't apologize for being scholarly. It shouldn't be obnoxious and ivory tower-ish about it either. But it shouldn't apologize. The academic world should accept that it has a purpose. It might not be a particularly noble or relevant purpose but who cares. Its purpose is to teach scholarship, teach what people have written about what other people have written and done through time.

In promoting this, I feel that I'm some kind of throw back to medievalism. Or maybe I just read WAY too much C.S. Lewis as a kid. (Probably.) Lewis was a big fan of the narrow and deep approach. In my case, I feel that the Humanities (in particular) went off the rails when they thought they had to come up with teaching styles that covered economics and race and gender. And then they decided they had to be diverse, which meant they had to be sorry that so many of their texts were written by men and were written, not oral. Shock. Shock. I'm not opposed to reading things by women nor am I opposed to reading/studying oral cultures. But I don't think the academic world should abandon what it is in order to show how sorry it is that it isn't something else. Because if it keeps doing that, it's just going to vanish.

To my own subject: I think when literature is taught, it ought to be taught for/as what it is. I mean, nobody expects Stephen Hawkins to explain the particular importance of his universe model in terms of the economic realities of minority single mothers living in urban centers. (And his theories might be amazing, but they have very little relevance to the day-to-day.) As a teacher myself, I'm not a big fan of enlightening people or engendering appreciation or whatever. I just want to teach people to understand a subject, and I think it would be fantastic if the Humanities could reach the point where people would talk about, say, Homer, just because he's dead, and he wrote great poetry and here's how he did it, and here's why people cared, and people may not care anymore, but they should still know that once someone did care just because it's good to know stuff like that about books, like it is good to know about Newton and Galileo. Not even because it makes us better people. Just cause knowing stuff is good. (I'm going to print that on a T-shirt: Knowing Stuff is Good.)

But maybe I'm expecting too much. Is it better to have people vaguely educated in a lot of things with a lot of vague concepts rattling around in their heads or is it better to have people know a lot of information and context and specific details about a very few things?

Actually, I don't know the answer to that.


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