Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Campaign in the "Culture Wars"

The Culture Wars (or is it war?) are similar to those "wars" we've fabricated which are not wars and which are not won or lost, but are unending, like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty.  But the Culture Wars are sillier than those other non-wars in that they are even less wars than are the others, as the others at least have had practical impacts on some of us, good and bad.  It's unclear the Culture Wars have had or ever will have an impact of any kind in real life.  That's because they represent only opportunities, of which there are already far too many, for the more pompous and verbose among us to pontificate once more on matters they find disturbing and disagreeable. 

These days and for some decades past those of the right, socially and politically, take such opportunities more often than those on the left, and this has had the effect that the campaigns of these wars are rather dull and repetitive.  One of the more recent of them involves the old Maine liberal arts college of Bowdoin, which is the subject of a lengthy criticism issued by something called the National Association of Scholars, which describes itself as being committed to rational discourse as the foundation of academic life, rather than irrational discourse, which it would seem must be committed to by the National Association of Bad Scholars or Non-Scholars.  The study is called "What does Bowdoin Teach?", which I like to think was chosen as a title to parody the frivolous advertisements/brochures colleges use to lure students, which have titles such as "What is X University?", but which I fear was a title selected by those grim scholars who authored the study in all seriousness.

I've mentioned Allan Bloom's diatribe against modern college education in the past, and it seems Bloom lives again in the pages of this work.  There is much the same outrage and much the same that is deemed outrageous.  Assuming the study is accurate, it may be said things are even less Bloom-like or Bloom-worthy than when he wrote.

While I've noted that Bloom strikes me as someone who was very much an old fogey, I've also noted that I find some of his criticisms to be merited.  His fascination with the sex lives of the students and their parents is somewhat unnerving, though, and this preoccupation seems shared by scholars of this national association (I'll just call them the "scholars" for the rest of this post).  If the study is accurate, though, it seems that sex fascinates the professors at Bowdoin as well, as there are apparently courses about sex and sex which is the wrong kind of sex as far as the scholars are concerned.

That college students are obsessed by sex and experiment with it should come as no surprise.  The scholars, though, believe that they are being encouraged to experiment by the professors, and to be accepting of objectionable sex.  I have my own problems with college courses on sex that are not part of a psychology or sociological curriculum, i.e. which are not devoted to the study of sexual conduct, but rather advocate sexual conduct of a particular kind (if there are such courses).  But I think that our society generally and social conservatives in particular take sex far too seriously.  There was a great deal of sex going on in the distant days when I was in college; that's the way of it.  In itself it's nothing to get excited about.

Similarly, the fact that the curriculum and professors are overwhelming "liberal" is hardly surprising; that again was the case decades ago.  That the professors are not sufficiently American ("un-American" has some disturbing associations, but perhaps the scholars have their own committee on such activities) is not surprising either.  All these criticisms have a familiar ring to them, I'm afraid.  They're old news.

The study suffers from having a forward by William J. Bennett, famous gambling addict, proponent of the virtues and opponent of the Seven Deadly Sins (except, perhaps, greed).  It's difficult for me to take moralizing from Mr. Bennett seriously, and his participation in the study, however limited, gives it the appearance of political and ideological bias.

I have limited expectations regarding a college education.  I think it's desirable, but feel that those who graduate and do not continue in the academy in one way or another are not influenced by it greatly, and that what influence there is dissipates with time and in the face of the focus required to make a living.  I don't think it's necessary that certain books be read, certain history taught, certain languages learned.  There will be time to read those books, and one reads them to better effect when one doesn't have to read them.  What I think colleges should do, though, is instill in their students the habit of critical thinking and the means of intelligent analysis and inquiry.  This study purports to demonstrate that critical thinking is not being taught at Bowdoin and by implication at other liberal arts colleges.

That may be true and if true is most unfortunate.  But I don't think it would be taught in the context of a "good old" liberal arts university education either.  I don't think it has been taught at all, in fact, though I think I was fortunate in having a few teachers in college who actually made me think and taught me something about it.  That wasn't due to the courses being taught, however; it was a discipline taught not due to the topic of study but due to the demands imposed by the professors.  Critical thinking won't be taught in schools until courses specifically devoted to such thought are made part of the curriculum.  Until that time, it will be taught haphazardly if it all.

Critical thinking may create doubts regarding whether preferences of those on the right or the left are appropriate, however.  Nobody wants to see their sacred cows subject to criticism.  So it's unlikely the method of critical thinking will ever be taught as part of any curriculum.  It's very likely, though, that those who believe that particular courses should be taught, not others, will always maintain that those they prefer must be taught in order for students to know what is right, good and true, and that they will insist on telling us so.

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