Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Liberal Arts, Politics, and Education: A Response to Rick Scott, Rick Perry and university education reform

"This university without conditions does not, in fact, exist, as we know only too well. Nevertheless, in principle and in conformity with its declared vocation, its professed essence, it should remain an ultimate place of critical resistance--and more than critical--to all powers of dogmatic and unjust appropration" --Jacques Derrida, "University without Condition"  

In class, we have been discussing endlessly the idea of "education," as understood in Richard Rodriguez's "Achievement of Desire," Paulo Freire's "Banking Concept of Education," and David Foster Wallace's "Address to Kenyon College." All three of these pieces, we could generalize, are inspired by the spirit of the liberal arts, a spirit that maintains that education is more than information or "knowledge." It involves, to use Freire's terms, a "humanization" of the world. As such, a lot of emphasis is placed on the power of the humanities. The university, although it has extended its range (particularly as a state university) has always been rooted in 'humanistic' discourses, as even the notion of "science," in the classical university hardly concerns the producing of "jobs"--which seems the primary goal of Rick Scott: "“If I'm going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I'm going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.” Rather, the university has always been a place of discovery and invention of knowledge.

Now, I am a far cry from disagreeing that we need jobs in the state and people that are qualified for those jobs. However, is it not the case that most jobs are a function of "on the job training"? In other words, does it hurt people that  majored in English, Philosophy, Sociology, or Psychology? Is the University supposed to give anyone the practical know-how to succeed in a job right out of college? Are there not other institutions, aside from the four year State university that can prepare someone for a job better? Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, is not "humanistic" thinking conducive to innovation. I mean, is it an engineer's courses (for example) or their creative thinking that will lead to innovation? Is it not precisely the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that comes from an individual's creativity that "creates" new jobs.

I realize that I am asking several questions rather than giving answers. I guess what intrigues me about this whole "university reform" thing is how the terms of the argument keep slipping. At the beginning of the article, we have the idea that they want to eliminate Humanistic disciplines. Somehow this is linked to other changes, such as "weeding out unproductive professors and rethinking the system that offers faculty job security."

We might ask what he means by "unproductive professors." At University of Florida, we have, for example, and insanely productive faculty in terms of publications, research, and conferences. Of course, because English would be considered one of the degrees with the "least" job prospects, I suppose this makes English research irrelevant. So "unproductive faculty" seems to be a euphemism for professors who are producing "humanistic research," which, these politicians may argue, is not "research" at all.

And so we get to the other issue: Job security. Namely, that term that makes every conservative politician shutter: tenure. Tenure, people like Texas businessman Jeff Sandefer (who wrote a policy paper for Perry), argue "places too much emphasis on research. To be promoted, faculty must publish original work. As a result, they spend less time in the classroom and often delegate teaching to graduate students" ("Liberal Arts"). Agreeing with this sentiment, former Wall Street Journal Editor Naomi Riley claims, "there really needs to be a refocus on the students in front of you [. . .] They use the people at the bottom to do the teaching" ("Liberal Arts").

Ok, so, the logic is that by abolishing tenure, professors will focus less on research and more on students, which will somehow help produce jobs? But, again, I ask, are the courses that "Science and Math" students take going to help create jobs or simply qualify them for jobs that already exist? Is it not the case that abolishing research (in the sciences) will not allow such benefits of research that should eventually benefit our society?

Riley (Naomi Riley, above--not me--god I'm embarrassed that I have the same name as this person) claims that " top professors produce the kind of work that ensures job security, making tenure irrelevant" ("Liberal Arts"). But as many better and more qualified writers than me have pointed out, tenure is less about merely "job security" and more about academic freedom (see Cary Nelson) . Academic freedom allows professors to inquire and research into what they want to research in. It allows academics to research topics that may not align itself with certain ideologies or market imperatives, thus allowing the research (ideally) to be less influenced by people who, say, might threaten their livelihood if they don't produce the right results. This freedom is just as important in the sciences as it is in the humanities (think climate change research). Thus, tenure is not irrelevant, because it keeps people like Rick Scott from getting rid of departments that don't seem to be doing the right kind of research that supports a particular conception of a university's purpose.

So who is focusing on our students? Well, first off, tenured professors. In the English department, our faculty not only prolifically produce research, but most are teaching undergraduate courses in English. So the fact is, faculty, at least in the Humanistic disciplines, are focusing on undergraduates. Furthermore, it is true that a lot of our basic "survey" courses in English are taught by Ph.D. candidates. My question is, how exactly are we the ones "at the bottom" as if we were completely unprepared to handle undergraduates? Why can't we think about these people positively as those "future professors"?

If teaching in the Humanities is less about merely "transferring" knowledge--if teaching is instead about a co-creation of meaning and knowledge, about facilitating and creating conditions inside and outside the classroom for students to explore and learn, then how does a Ph.D. qualify me any more or less to teach survey courses in English, or, as I do, composition courses? A Ph.D. would qualify me as an expert in my field in research. This is why tenured faculty do research as well as teach.

Clearly, although the politicians try and justify what they do through utilitarian arguments about jobs and the functioning of society, this kind of thinking is an attack on thinking that disrupts the status quo's values. Although I am not someone who believes that my writing heralds the coming revolution or creates the possiblity for utopia, my research and thinking that I do in graduate classes produces the ideas and attitudes that I teach even in my composition class. For me, as for those like Blanchot, writing is disrupting and ambiguous. I would extend that and say that the "humanities" are ambiguous--even the status of humanistic "knowledge" is ambiguous. We deal in questions of value, questions of value that sometimes exceed immediate market gain or merely economic progress in terms of jobs. However, I would argue that it is precisely creative, innovative, and resistant thinking--in whatever discipline--that creates jobs and, ultimately, new human possibilities.By eliminating fields of knowledge,  we close down the possible and, perhaps, more importantly, the (im)possible.  As Jacques Derrida writes,

"I will speak of an event that, without necessarily coming about tomorrow, would remain perhaps--and I underscore perhaps--to come; to come through the university, to come about and to come through it, thanks to it" (Derrida 213).

Works Cited

Taking the liberal arts out of a state university education?

Derrida, Jacques and Peggy Kamuf. "The University Without Condition." Without Alibi. California: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print. 



  1. I enjoyed reading this, Jake. It's very thoughtful.

    I agree entirely with you (and with Derrida) that the university should remain a space for "critical resistance" and that research shouldn't be governed by economic (or any other cultural) imperatives. Put another way, perhaps we indeed shouldn't have to justify ourselves and the value of our work using the language and logic of people like Scott and Perry (jobs and economic growth).

    But these thoughts leads me back, perhaps not even logically, to questions I often think about, increasingly so as I begin to consider what I want to focus on in my Ph.D. work. I wonder whether what much of what we're doing in humanities research, although we like to believe it has humanistic value, isn't ultimately another facet of our general condition of cultural "exhaustion" (I think of Heidegger's concept of Gestell, "enframing," as it resonates with Stiegler's concept of "malaise").

    I guess it's a matter of how to engage, how to communicate, how to protest the widespread devaluation of cultural knowledge we see in this sort of "conservative" rhetoric, without lapsing into our own form of humanistic conservatism or elitism, and without lapsing into complete theoretical obscurity.
    In other words, how do we create a language to convey the significance of what we do in the humanities to a public upon whom we do rely to finance our work? I don’t care whether what I’m researching has any economic value, but I would like to believe, even if it’s naïve, that my work would have some sort of social or public value beyond its immediate utility to other academics.

    You address this “disruptive” of transformative potential of humanities research near the end of your essay. Certainly we try to create this space of possibility within our classrooms, but is that enough? How do we dialogue with people outside the classroom, outside the university? I feel that (and this is more a feeling than an argument, really) if we don’t consider how our work intersects or interacts with society, how it might create spaces of possibility beyond our immediate sphere of pedagogical influence, then we’re just “ordering the orderable,” just assembling more standing-reserve.

    I definitely am not sure what those intersections or interactions look like, but I guess it’s something I should think about…

  2. I completely agree with your comments about communicating with those outside of the university the value of what we do (beyond arguing that it is ultimately "useless" but that is a good thing because "uselessness" opposes market value). I think you are right when you write, "how do we create a language to convey the significance of what we do in the humanities to a public upon whom we do rely to finance our work? "

    This is an issue I was just discussing yesterday with Greg Ulmer, someone who is constantly concerned with how to communicate with the public at large the "use" of humanities research. In his own work, he combines the complex theory of Derrida, Deleuze, Baudrillard, with "real world" applications. He is working on so called "real world" problems with this theory. You might be interested in looking at some of that.

    Thanks for the thoughtful response! We will continue to discuss this if you come out for beers tomorrow night (and further)