A Credo, and a Move From Blog to Book

Written with Michael Brown.

Note to our readers: As we move on to the next phase of our writing partnership, we would like to thank you for joining us this past year at Old School, New School at The Chronicle. We firmly believe that more academics should write in public and use public venues to actively engage ideas and readers. We thank The Chronicle for hosting us and our editor, Jean Tamarin, for her amazing support and enthusiasm for our work. We would especially like to thank Lee Skallerup Bessette, Janni Aragon, Ana Dinescu, Vanessa Vaile, Cathy Davidson, Jason B. Jones, Billie Hara, Jessie Daniels, Alondra Nelson, Melonie Fullick, Steven Schwartz, Robert Herzog and so many others who have helped shape our ideas over the past year through their comments here on the blog, on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail. We look forward to having you continue with us as we write the book that was inspired by these conversations.

The purpose of our conversation has not been to provide an overall analysis of higher education but to examine it from within, from our somewhat different points of view and from our respective positions inside higher education, especially in regard to our experiences of the changes that have been taking place during the past half century.

To do this, however, has required some sense of what is at stake in the crisis we face and how it has come to be at stake. It has required us to explore, in conversations with our readers, what needs to be included in the most general visions of education as these appear to us in the context of change. It has also required that we examine the constraints built into the debates on education and that we explore a number of problems that practitioners of education now face, in particular the question of the role of the humanities and sciences, the purposes of the major, and the reorganization of the university as a corporate entity geared to globalization and to that version of capitalism increasingly known as neoliberalism.

We have a vision of higher education that, for better or worse, informs what we say and that is bound to be controversial in the moral and political environment of an increasingly conservative, and we believe, reactionary era in our national history (though one that has many unfortunate precedents).

Our vision embodies several ideas: the human as an end rather than a means, human life as creative, the intrinsically social nature of the individual and therefore the intrinsically social nature of human life, and the necessity of reminding ourselves that inequality without limits is a condition of social decay—perhaps the most important one.

We also accept the ideal of a liberal constitutional democracy, but only on condition that social values inform the ideas of liberalism, constitutionalism, and democracy. To us, that means that a legitimate government is one that represents the body politic and its general will against power and against the dominance of particular wills. It means that a constitution guarantees the sort of justice that is both procedural and substantive and therefore is geared to greater equality in the material realm and equal opportunity in the social and cultural realms. It means that democracy requires an inclusive sense of society consistent with the idea of social justice. Finally, it means that debate is less important than mutually appreciative discussion, and therefore requires a wary eye toward moments when we allow our fear of the “other side” to dictate reactions that are irrationally extreme or that compromise core values.

We believe that education is part of life and continuous with it and that the core values of society, democracy, and constitutionally reinforced justice must be implicated in every instance of education. That means that no matter how technical a field, it cannot be taught free of the social values and problems that bring those values into play without damaging the society that is supposed to benefit from the teaching and application of technique and the knowledge that corresponds to it.

It also means that teaching and learning are intertwined and that a good teacher is a learner, both in her field and from her students. A good learner is one who can show how what one has learned is the result of resolutions of earlier problems in the course of coming to conclusions. For that to work, doubt must be given particular privilege in the university, and everything, every belief, must be subject to doubt and therefore to appreciation of the possibility of alternatives.

We have tried to persuade our readers that the humanities and social sciences are the core of a higher education, and that this should influence how science, math, and engineering are taught in our colleges and universities.

We do not deny that it is possible to work within the current changes taking place at our universities for a positive social and individual direction in education. But right now it is not possible to imagine what working within would look like and whether doing so might have positive or negative effects. That is the dilemma of any reformer, and so ours is perhaps a more radical view than is usually associated with the desire to reform from within.

On the other hand, we are already within the institution, and so our radical point of view is qualified from the start by an acceptance of the idea of higher education, by a fairly traditional view of educational values, and by the need to sustain the institutional aspect of higher education, even though the compromises involved may be self-defeating in the end. We do not mean to imply, when we refer to politics, that the university is a setting for promoting a greater politics, only that political interests, no less than material, social, and even cultural interests, play a crucial role in the ways in which the changes are devised and implemented.

We believe that the crisis of the moment has to do with the intervention into educational practice of those whose lives are conditioned by the special aspects of the economy and its market and productive practices, and by the biases that this has introduced into their decisions about evaluation, curriculum, organization, motivation, and the rest.

Perhaps most important, both of us are concerned with built-in inequalities in the university—class biases that play an important role in access and outcome for students, and gender and racial biases that play similar roles in student life and also show themselves to be problems within the institution of learning. The fact that education in the humanities and social sciences emphasizes the existence of these biases and discusses literature aimed at reducing them reinforces our belief that these are the fundamental disciplines in a rational educational program.

Thank you again, and we look forward to hearing from you. Mary can be reached via e-mail and on Twitter @mary_churchill. Mike can be reached at Keep in touch!


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