"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Higher Education Reform–Economics vs. Queer Studies in 18th Century Low Country Slavery


Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) has been an outspoken reformer of higher education, feeling that public universities are not preparing students for the current world.  Worse, the cost of such impractical and unproductive education now has reached $40,000 in Texas; and Perry wants to reduce it to $10,000 and run universities like private businesses which match investment to measurable results.  Of course there has been an outcry of revolt from the academic establishment who, predictably, argue that such economic-based institutions will leech all the intellectual juices from what always has been a rich environment for ideas.  Perry at his provocative best, wants to eliminate “esoteric” courses from the university curriculum and focus, as above, on those courses and majors which will make it easy for graduates to enter the economic, social, and political mainstream.   The Washington Post article is linked below:

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/rick-perry-wages-an-assault-on-the-ivory-tower/2011/07/26/gIQAyfrvsI_story.html?hpid=z3

I am all for this idea, with some notable reservations.  As many of you who follow this blog know, I have been immersed in an esoteric subject of my own – Literary Criticism – and cannot imagine a world without Harold Bloom, Jan Kott, Nancy Tischler, A.C. Bradley and others whose writings have provided the insights, guidance, and critical thinking which illuminates Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams (my current interest).

How, then, to assure that intellectual academic activity remain vital, energetic, and creative, while assuring that students graduate with enough practical knowledge to justify what is now a $160,000 investment?

First, I think that states should invest part of the monies that currently go to the state university and college system into technical schools – schools that funded partially by the state, partially by industry which has a vested interest in productive young workers, and partially by the students themselves.  If it can be shown that these technical schools can achieve a high first-job acceptance rate, a high industry retention rate, and above-average salaries, many students will forgo four-year institutions for them.

Second, I would reform the charter of the State Board of Regents and refocus their strategic planning on selecting those courses which are most linked to current and projected economic activity.  IT, computer science, accounting, genetics, resource management, biotechnology, avionics, etc. are obvious choices.  Foundation courses for teaching, nursing, medicine, gerontology, pharmacy, marketing, are others.  Engineering, especially chemical and electrical are equally important.

The curriculum would also have to focus on those disciplines which create a more socially literate society – one whose citizens understand far better than today the structure of democracy and a market economy and the historical precedents which are responsible for its character.  Therefore courses in history, political science, and especially economics and finance are critical.

Now, what about the “esoteric” subjects? Is there a place for them at public universities, supported in part by taxpayers money?  My instinct is let private universities accommodate these interests either through their endowments or through high tuitions or both.  It would be up to them to determine just how esoteric they want their liberal arts departments to be.  I am more of the Harold and Allan Bloom school of The Literary Canon (there are simply some easily defined great works of literature from Aeschylus to Faulkner which even committed post-modernists have a hard time dismissing as “texts” equal to and no better than any other when looked at objectively through the lens of history, gender, etc.), and would hope that scarce resources are invested there and not in “The Transvestite in the Low Country: Queer Slave Journals in South Carolina in the 1780s”.  Keep the Low Country, Slavery, South Carolina, and the 1780s, and lose the rest.

The visual and performing arts present a conundrum, because most people consider them luxuries, rather than essential elements of a society.  Particularly in America where middlebrow culture dominates and grows (popular music, dance, arts need no academic preparation, the middlebrow canon goes.  “We are a populist democracy and the arts come up from the bottom, not given from the top”), the demand for courses in higher education is low.  I am of two minds here.  On the one hand, believing as I do that the high arts, just like their literary companions, are not only essential for a society’s well-being but enobling, necessary for illuminating the human condition, and providing insights into human nature.  Why is Shakespeare necessary? Because he goes beyond history and the Grand Mechanism of its cyclical repetition.  He addresses the human nature which is behind all historical action.

Realigning the higher education system is not easy, to say the least; but I applaud Rick Perry for shaking the cages of the establishment, forcing them to think much more critically and practically about their task of education young people.

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