From the Quagmire of Academe: Daedalus, Fall 1997, The American Academic Profession.

 

This academic exercise in self-examination is a banquet with many courses (15), prepared by prestigious chefs. Raw marshmallows, to start with:

 

"In the same vein, I recently read an article in an airline magazine that described the travel agency of the future. Through virtual reality, a traveler considering different vacation venues would be able to experience various possibilities. The traveler would be able to smell, hear, feel and see different locales. She could walk the beaches, climb the mountains, enter the historic landmarks, and inspect the restaurants, hotels and shops. The same could be done with historic locales. One could visit fifth-century Rome, eighteen-century America, or fifteenth-century Paris. Imagine smelling the smells of fifteenth-century Paris¾ they must have been putrid. Imagine walking the cobblestones, entering the great and not-so-great buildings, and seeing the people on the street. This would have revolutionary consequences for pedagogy. How will a standard lecture on fifteenth-century Paris compare with the experience of actually being there? As technology advances, we can anticipate profound changes in the nature of instruction. The only real question is the degree to which this will be something that replaces the faculty or whether it will supplement the faculty. In either case, it will mean a very different role for the professoriate."

 

Iíve never been through "a standard lecture on fifteenth-century Paris." Would Villon belong there? But never mind Villon (where are the snows of yester-year, anyway?); learning enough French to be able to read him is too hard; easier to open your nostrils and inhale the putatively putrid air. That was not from a kid just back from Disneyworld, but from Arthur Levine, President of Teachers College, Columbia University. For us the only real question left now is whether some god, somehow, will protect our young.

 

Next, chips. Burton R. Clark, Allan M. Cartter Professor of Higher Education Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, confronts the pressing problems in the Higher Education "industry" and concludes on the only solution, more professionalism. Who, within or without Academe, doesnít chew on that junk? The plumber, the dry-cleaner, the dental hygienist... Munch, munch. But let us pass the crude attempts by Professors of Education, notoriously responsible for the present educational mess; here they come first, I suspect, because the Editors, following professional guidelines, decided marshmallows and chips come naturally first.

 

Eugene Goodheart, E. M. Gross Professor of Humanities at Brandeis University, offers more substantial fare, tastefully prepared. But what a melancholic aftertaste, after reading his "Reflections on the Culture Wars"! Prof. Goodheartís very sane and thoughtful points are sad, because one cannot fail to ask in what kind of milieu it would be deemed necessary to insist on these: (1) People who are discussing should not scream at each other, nor openly despise their opponents; (2) Tradition and innovation are not necessarily opposed; (3) For a discussion to lead somewhere, one must have some agreed-upon way of distinguishing true from false. We ask, in what kind of milieu? Answer: the academic departments of humanities, which, I sadly fear after this sad dish, ought to be called brutalities.

 

After eight or so servings of rigorous academic prose, we do get something different from a poet, Charles Bernstein, David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Buffalo. Refreshing, yes, irreverential, all for crossing, cutting boundaries and stomping on them, all against staid interpretations of fetishized master works; a rambling incoherent salmagundi one might call it, but approvingly, for thatís on purpose. "Eccentric, indulgent, disjointed, loose, inconsistent¾ and proud," apt self-encapsulation of his style. "We cannot make education more efficient without making it more deficient," "...I find it deplorable that the academic profession is, well, too academic," and "The profession is best when it professionalizes least ." Self-italicized, this chefís recipe is, you can see, the opposite of Prof. Clarkís: Prof. Bernsteinís dessert is several scoops of sherbet, fruity, refreshing, tepid and half-melted, so one cannot say where the watermelon becomes orange or raspberry.

 

Alas, the critical sense! That kill-joy, vaunted by all professors, chemists, psychologists or poets, wonít let us relish our dessert; like a tooth ache, it pulls us down into the dirty mechanics of eating. I might as well say it: Prof. Bernsteinís dish is not so refreshing, and he is not so irreverent; no, he is not eccentric at all. When he criticizes academics for being too academic, he is most academic; when he pleads for less professionalism, heís being strictly professional¾ as a Professor of Modern Poetry of course. Against linear discourses and for patchwork and quilts, for errancy and vagabondage, coolly confronting T.S. Eliot with Lenny Bruce: itís whatís expected from him, itís in his job description, being modern, modernly poetic and hip. Oh, the benumbing, oxymoronic humiliation of being a University Professor of Modern Poetry!

 

All in all, a miserable meal; about the courses prepared by the hard scientists Iíll only say theyíre terribly bland, because for them the system works fine. Perhaps some god will save some of our young from the silliness of Academe; as for me, I am glad I donít work there.

 

Melissa Byles


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