Ds Scholarship

Great Books, Graduate Students, and the Value of Fun in Higher Education

Louis Menand, a writer and professor of English at Harvard University, has the spirit of an anatomist. His best writing quietly details things to discover how they are built and how they work. But Menand lost his temper last month in a December article in a New Yorker, “What’s so great about great book courses?”

The occasion was a review of two recent books on public education—by Roosevelt Montas and Arnold Weinstein—describing and defending “Great Books” courses. Menand turned a skeptical eye on their arguments. What he especially practiced, he wrote, was that “the research had nothing to do with” teaching the courses of the great books. Menand writes that Montas and Weinstein’s focus “on primary texts and students’ ability to communicate rather than academic literature and disciplinary training,” demonstrated indifference to the decline of the humanities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

His article inspired a number of responses, including one by John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University New York times, And last by Former Macalister College President Brian Rosenberg in these pages. This appears to be a burgeoning debate – one that college educators desperately need. We should spend more time discussing the reasons and reasons for what we do, and we should do it in public.

Menand’s argument builds on the foundation laid by Laurence Veysey, author of The foundation of the American University (Chicago, 1965) – Perhaps the best single book ever published on American higher education. Vesey argued that the American research university was driven by three imperatives: research, facilities, and “liberal culture” (ideal individual freedom of thought, informed by liberal arts education). The scholarly, utilitarian, and liberal culture does not work in harmony with the Veysey model; They compete for resources. One by one they gained prominence in different historical moments in different institutions, but the tension between them continues. Vesey argued that this tension shaped the culture of American higher education.

For now, it’s safe to say that the tool has an upside. Majors in business and other professions threaten traditional liberal arts curricula. Everyone, including state legislators and tuition-paying parents, seems to question the “benefit” of majors that don’t provide explicit training for specific jobs.

The idea of ​​great books arose from – and some would say a relic – the ‘liberal culture’ apex of the Weissie Triangle. Advocates believe that great book courses will encourage personal education and get students into better versions of themselves. Roughly, this is what Montas argues in his book, Save Socrates (Princeton, 2021), and uses himself as his first example. (Menand holds a special contempt for the idea that reading great books makes one a “better person.”) There are other arguments for these courses, too—such as that students should read a common list of great books because they help create a community of general knowledge—but the primary goal has always been to improve Self through interaction with the great works of literature, history and philosophy.

Menand argues from the “research” apex of the Visey triangle. He questions the value of educating Dante in a brilliant course of books—that is, quickly by a non-specialist who will learn about Cervantes the next week and Shakespeare the following week. Instead, Menand asks: For the relatively few students who would like to read these books, why not Dante’s specialist come forward, and then bring in Cervantes and Shakespeare specialists to take their roles? After all, he explains, research universities are where you find these professionals. (Rosenberg rightly points out that most institutions don’t have such a deep seat, but let’s move past that objection for now.) Menand helped design such a course at Harvard, with rotating lecturers.

But there is something missing in this debate between professionals and workers. This thing is fun or fun to learn. The role of pleasure, beginning with the experience of discovery, affects not only college education but also higher education—including the decision to enter graduate school in the first place.

I lived by myself debating specialist versus specialist. I got a “Wonderful Books” education in Colombia. The university’s Columbia College has a large core curriculum centered around two courses, “Contemporary Civilization” (commonly known as “CC”) and “Humanitarian Literature” (or “Lit Hum”). Montas also graduated from Colombia, and continued to run the nucleus there for a decade. That experience led to his book.

Essence of Columbia gave me a way to think about books and ideas that were simply fun. I remember being thrilled to learn about Plato’s metaphor in the cave in my CC course, and to read it crime and punishment At Lit Hum it fueled my interest in crime stories, a topic about which I would later write a book. Without these courses, I doubt I would have entered a graduate school, where I naturally became a specialist.

I was thinking of becoming a professor, of course, but the academic job market was bad in my day too, and I had no illusions about it. The real reason I went to graduate school was because I wanted to keep having fun longer.

One could argue that we don’t need more people to enjoy college, and certainly not more people who choose to go to graduate school. This would be an argument for utility: graduate school prepares students to be professors, and we already have enough of them. But anyone but the most staunch proponent of utilitarianism would find such a position extremely pessimistic. (And besides, I have been arguing for years This graduate school offers competent preparation for diverse careers.)

Most students don’t go to high school for the money. They have the opposite motivation: they go because they like a subject they want to study. Whether students end up in graduate studies or not, they deserve a chance to learn to love learning. Public education gave me that, and I know I’m not alone.

Research creates expertise and experts, but none of us start that way. As an undergraduate, my core courses were motivating precisely because they were broad in scope. Their juxtaposition challenged me in unexpected ways and – despite their relatively narrow Eurocentrism at the time – introduced me to ideas from different eras and different disciplines. Architecturally, this gave me a huge imprint to build on. I eventually majored – but my specialty lies on top of my general beginnings.

Undergraduate and graduate students start out broadly and then specialize in their own way. One chooses a major, and the other a sub-field within a major. Over the years, the drive toward specialization came early and ahead of both undergraduate and graduate degrees. But the training of students should not look like a needle-shaped skyscraper, it should look like a pyramid. It’s easier to climb this way.

Core courses can also teach the graduate students who teach them. Columbia aims to have full-time faculty on its core courses, but some graduate students work alongside them each year. Philip Bolivron, postdoctoral lecturer who received his Ph.D. in English from Colombia in 2020, he started teaching “Contemporary Civilization” as a graduate student.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that teaching the course has changed my teaching methods,” he said in an email interview. The pace of the session, he said, “forces me to create frank consistency from one room session to the next, which in turn forces me to articulate these connections myself.” For example, linking “John Stuart Mill at the end of one week to Karl Marx at the beginning of the following week” led Polivroni to search for “a line across” that he found in “liberalism and a strong critique of liberalism.”

The course similarly influenced the direction of his research. “Teaching CC has influenced the methods I use in my research and even some of the questions I explore,” he said. Polefrone studies the American literature of the Anthropocene. Before teaching the course, he said, “I have often framed my work in reference to contemporary climate change and the discourse of the Anthropocene. Teaching CC has helped me discover the history of human nature’s thinking that anticipates and precedes the Anthropocene.” He says teaching “far from my specialty” has given his scholarship “a richer and deeper context”.

As a proponent of research, Menand asserted that the best way to learn something is from a specialist. I’m not sure this is always true. Nor can this be true all the time – and here I come back to Rosenberg’s point that most professors are general by necessity. How many French literature experts can the college afford? A faculty member with a PhD. With a major in 18th-century French novels, he’s still someone who teaches Rabelais, Baudelaire, and Sartre – and sometimes average French as well. This is what Rosenberg meant when he said that Menand’s approach is bad news for the humanities: If we limit the teaching of the humanities to certified specialists, we will be out of business because most institutions cannot afford to hire a specialist in every field and sub-area.

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is part of the liberal arts. In addition to academic training and specialization, the graduate school must therefore value its own form of ‘general education’. We teach graduate students that becoming a professional means realizing your highest potential, but this is debatable. Watch – and participate in! Non-specialist inquiry helped me choose a path leading to specialization. This inquiry also helped instill the habit of reading widely and in a seemingly unrelated area. This habit has made me a better scholar, critic, and writer — and happier.

So let’s not lose sight of the fun of public education. One of Montas’ main points is that the pleasures and rewards of this type of learning should not be reserved for the privileged few. “Denying less fortunate students this opportunity is a form of educational malpractice,” Andrew Delbanco, president of the Tegel Foundation and professor of American studies at Columbia University, said in an email interview.

The benefit is now entirely hidden in the DNA of American higher education, Veysey predicted years ago. We ignore it at our peril. Nor should we underestimate the fears of parents who want their children to have a good job after college. (The data shows that liberal arts students get good jobs and thrive in their careers, but this is a case where perception or misunderstanding is so important because it influences behavior.)

Menand advocates research, and Montas’ liberal culture, but what has been overlooked is that they both agree on one point: they both challenge the position of utility, the third vertex of the Veese Triangle.

Accurately interpreted arguments about utility run the game at the moment, obscuring other ideas about what higher education can do. The embargo of the liberal arts lowers the market value of knowledge itself. The argument between Menand and Montas should continue further. Meanwhile, we should all work to show that knowledge is valuable and useful – not least that its acquisition can bring joy, which is certainly an important human value as well.


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