Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Essential Knowledge

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting review of Harry Lewis' Excellence Without a Soul, a critique of American higher education. His main contention is that American universities have no idea what constitutes a good education, because they have no unifying values and make no effort to discern what's really important.

I find the argument especially interesting because of what I had heard from the people who are actually making the curricula. The SKS always loved inviting William H. Willimon, the former Dean of Duke Chapel and now bishop in the Methodist Church, to speak, because he was very frank about such things in his talks. "You folks come to college, and you expect us to have the recipe for making a good, well-rounded, well-educated person who is prepared for life in the modern world. But really . . . all it is is a bunch of old white guys sitting around a table saying, 'I dunno, ya think two years of foreign language sounds good?' " Willimon, who is a fine scholar and who obviously has given (and received) much from academic life, was refreshingly honest about the limitations of what a college curriculum can actually accomplish. He made it clear that it was up to the students themselves to find the definition of a successful life, and the path to it; the current climate in academia had no room for educating the soul. I think the reason Willimon worked so closely with the SKS was because he knew that the university could do a better job on this front . . . he certainly saw the rumblings of "soulessness" at Duke when he defined its challenges as "a problem of meaning."

When I was at the NCSSM Alumni Forum last week, I made a point of telling the students there that my coursework had absolutely nothing to do with my success in the field of science, and later in computer software. Everything that was really important, I learned outside the classrooom, either in independent research, or in a lab job, or in leadership positions in the student union and the SKS. To this day I find it horrifying that someone can complete an entire undergraduate degree in biochemistry and never conduct a real experiment, or read a real peer-reviewed journal article. Every time I give money to the university I include a note that tells them to support more opportunities for students to work in real labs doing real research.

One the reasons I'm interested in teaching so much is because it is so obvious to me that the current system is severely flawed. I'm not sure if that means I'm called to actually teach, or to become a policy wonk who tries to reshape the system, or a little of both.


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