The future of university education

A friend who teaches at a Japanese university tells me of a phenomenon in the classroom that he calls the “shut-out syndrome.” It refers, he says, to the ability of students to mentally block everything they hear inside the classroom.  They are physically present, their eyes are on their professors, they appear to listen, yet they do not hear.  They have trained themselves not to hear. They have conditioned themselves not to be distracted by their professors.

In the multi-media digital age, young people have perfected not only the art of learned inattention but also that of simultaneous engagement.   They can talk on the phone, send text messages through a cell phone, while watching  television and doing their lessons. Or they can simply switch off.  Their minds are better than the fastest computers; they invented multi-tasking ahead of Windows. They can shift from task to task without missing a beat, or put some tasks on extended hold.

Teaching has become extremely difficult under these circumstances, my Japanese friend says.  A talking lecture can easily be shut out.  He himself uses video material with a lot of varied images and sounds in order to engage his students’ attention.  But even this technique, he admits, quickly loses its novelty.  Sometimes it even aggravates the sensual overload that the students are already experiencing.  In the face of this, professors typically just give up, choosing to reciprocate their students’ inattention by their own alienation.

The problem, I believe, is not just a failure of educational technology.  I think that what we are confronting in the modern university is not simply the challenge of multi-media overload, but the disease of “knowingness”, the cynicism that comes from the illusion of knowing too much.  Knowingness  results from a failure to define new horizons and new utopias in which one can find excitement and hope.  It is the erroneous equation of knowledge accumulation with education, of theorizing with the use of the imagination.

There is less and less room in the modern university for disciplines that inspire and move, that enable us to stand in awe of something, or to imagine better worlds.  What we call the humanities, the core of liberal arts education, have lost their ability to nurture hope, to promise happiness, or to provide the base for a sustained critique of the world in which we live.  In their advanced state, they have become nothing more than what Harold Bloom calls “schools of resentment”, in which everybody seems to engage in endless debunking, deconstruction, and demystification.   In the words of Richard Rorty, who admires Bloom, they “substitute knowing theorization for awe, and resentment over the failures of the past for visions of a better future.”

At the recent public forum in Diliman on the presidency of the University of the Philippines, the nominees were asked if liberal education had any place in their respective visions for the university.  I thought it was an important question to raise at a time when university education is becoming more or less synonymous with the highlyfocused training of scientists, technicians, engineers, and various other types of professionals.  The responses from the nominees were heart-warming.  Everyone had something to say about the value of a well-rounded humanities-based education and of the need to breed not only competent professionals but also wise human beings.

But I note that there is a tendency to define liberal education solely in terms of the cultivation of commitment, of critique and righteous outrage.  I think the main goal of the humanities should be to inculcate a deep capacity for awe for the great achievements of the secular imagination.  It is not just to develop critical thinking.  It is rather to enlarge horizons and explore utopias, as well as to inspire self reflection and hope in every generation.

Certainly, the university will not be a university if it is not engaged in critique and demystification.  But neither does it deserve to be called a university if, in its will to debunk, it can no longer celebrate greatness, genius and charisma, or affirm humanistic values in the construction of alternative futures.  This is not a plea for a return to the essentialism of Plato.  I do not believe greatness is eternal.

“We should cheerfully admit,” writes Rorty in an essay on the value of great works, “that canons are temporary, and touchstones replaceable.  But this should not lead us to discard the idea of greatness.  We should see great works of literature as great because they have inspired many readers, not as having inspired many readers because they are great.”

And here precisely lies what I think  has gone wrong with the modern academe.  It has discarded the idea of greatness.  It is no longer a place of excitement and hope, enthusiasm or inspiration.   It has become at best a gloomy agency where one picks up the jargon and gets certified as a professional person.   At its worst, it has degenerated into a cesspool of cynicism, smugness, and apathy, in which students and professors alike can, as Rorty puts it,  “ridicule anything but can hope for nothing, can explain everything but can idolize nothing.”

Students will always find new ways of shutting out a state of affairs like this as a measure of self-protection.  But professors and university administrators who care for the life of the mind have no choice but to reinvent academe so that it may serve once more as a lively refuge for dreamers and utopia-builders.


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