Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Department of Bad Ideas is now offering a course on its greatest hits

The Crimson reports that there will be a new freshman seminar option this fall variously called "Big Ideas" and "Great Big Ideas" (a confusion which is actually not the paper's fault since the course site also uses both names). The course will consist of videos of professors lecturing about their field paired with the sparsest of readings (often of the professor's own work). The purpose of this course is largely unknown, since all the descriptions of it available consist entirely of educational buzzwords. According to the Crimson,
"One of the goals of Great Big Ideas," Hopkins said, is to expose new students to as many different areas of knowledge as possible, helping them connect relevant ideas from multiple disciplines and guiding them in their own decisions about future academic paths...This is a course for everybody...To do one thing well, you need to be able to connect the dots between disciplines, see the big picture, and understand how seemingly different concepts relate to each other. You need to have a diverse toolkit to confront challenges that are out there.”
"Expose" "Areas of knowledge" "Relevant ideas" "Multiple disciplines" "Academic paths" "Connect the dots" "Big picture" "Diverse toolkit" "Confront challenges"-- Are you wondering what the actual content of this course might be? If so, perhaps you will be enlightened by the description included on the syllabus [requires university login]:
This course serves up a mezze-plate introduction to the world’s most important ideas and disciplines. It is the conceit of this course that there are precious few important ideas that have relevance beyond their specific disciplines, but it is these very ideas that comprise the sine qua non of a modern education. A wide range of subjects will be covered including Psychology, Economics, Biomedical Research, Linguistics, History, Physics, Politics, Statistics and more. Within each topic, we will discuss the most current, innovative ideas in the field, dissect them, and look at how they impact not only the world-at-large, but our own lives as well. How does Demography predict our planet’s future? How is Linguistics a window to understanding the brain? Each of these lectures will be presented by top experts from top institutions around the country, and will be delivered via the Internet. The course is designed to give students an introduction to a variety of concentrations in a way that allows them to explore unfamiliar territory and ask leading questions, and look at different subjects in a new light, before choosing any predetermined field of concentration.
Oh, did that not clarify anything? Maybe what you're failing to grasp is that this course is about Everything, or the subset of Everything known as Every New and Hip Thing, and so has no specific content? Let's look at the weekly assignments and see:

The first week will be an overview of the syllabus itself. This is understandable because the syllabus is 12 pages, four of which contain the biographies and color photos of the professors in the videos.

The second week is called "The Classics," and the topic of the video lecture is, "Contemporizing the Classics: Why Homer, Plato and Dante Still matter in the Modern World." You might imagine that this session will include readings from--at least--Homer, Plato, and Dante. But, no. Instead, some chapters of How to Read a Book and Education's End--a recent pop lament of the decline of the liberal arts--are assigned, as well as evidently the entirety of that ageless classic, All Things Shining, which came out about two weeks ago and is reviewed here. So I guess after this session, students will be "exposed" to all the "relevant areas of knowledge" in literature and will have "connected the dots" to see the "bigger picture" of the entire history of Western literature, and will be sufficiently equipped with the requisite "diverse toolkit" to determine whether an English major ought to be their "academic path," right?

The rest of the syllabus proceeds in much this way, the only difference being that most of the other sessions assign readings from the latest works of the professor featured in that week's video lecture, some newspaper or magazine articles, or a single chapter of a random textbook in the field being "exposed"--economics, statistics, etc. The reading is on the nonexistent side of light, which I suppose is reasonable since these ideas are either "big" or "great big," and in either case, obviously expansive enough to warrant a week's dedication to their contemplation unencumbered by such distractions as "books." The week dedicated to philosophy has the most extensive requirements, listing the readings to be discussed as:
Thomas Hobbes, Selections from Leviathan
• Book I, chapter XIII, paragraphs 1-14
• Book I, chapter XIV, paragraphs 1-5
• Book II, chapter XVII, paragraphs 1-15
Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia
• (Optional) Preface, entire (pp. ix-xiv)
• Chapter 7, Introduction (pp. 149-150)
• Chapter 7, Section I, up to “Sen’s Argument” (pp. 150-164)
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
• Chapter I, opening paragraph (pp. 3)
• Chapter I, section 1, paragraphs 1-2 (pp. 3-4)
• Chapter I, section 2, paragraph 1 (p. 7)
• Chapter I, section 3, paragraphs 1-8 (pp. 11-16)
• Chapter I, section 4, entire (pp. 17-22)
• Chapter II, section 11, entire (pp. 60-65)
Given that this is a course on Great Big Ideas, this may seem like a Great Big Lot of reading, but look closer, and you'll realize that it's fewer than 50 pages in total. So no worries, freshmen, nothing is easier than learning Everything!

UPDATE: This absurdity has a website, which sports their logo, which doubles as their message to students--F U.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Overheard during freshman move-in day

Said by a freshman to her new roommate: "This is the greatest place in the world to be a brilliant and motivated young person...That's our room [pointing to a dorm window]. It's amazing. We're going to be sitting there in January, drinking coffee and watching snow fall in the Yard. Then we're going to change the world."

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

If it were possible to be a fan of reviews of things in general, I would say that I am a fan of Emily Hale's reviews of things--books, lectures, battle re-enactments (as the case may be). I usually lack the requisite interest in the particular genre of mid-century women writers who convert to Catholicism to seek out the books she reviews, but in a universe of infinite time, I might read them based on these reviews. But recently, she reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and it was clear from her description--Calvinism! teacher-student relations!--that this was a book I needed to read, pretty much as soon as possible. So I did. And it was, as I expected, completely mesmerizing. You can read Emily Hale's summary of the book so I don't have to repeat it here. "Teacher-student relations" is a politic way of getting at what the book is about, which is something more like the erotic nature of teaching, and its limits in forming people. Everything about this book is, as teh catz would say, relevant to my interests, which are soon to become my dissertation. (After the completion of which, I might have no further interests.)

Emily Hale thinks Miss Brodie's failing "is that she attempts to make her students into her own image." This is true in that she seems to have a narrow sense of what is acceptable for the best women to become--not "team spirited" believers in popular platitudes, not unthinking young wives, not technical experts like the upper school teachers, and so on. Basically, not anyone else they encounter in school except herself. But it's not clear that her criticism of the narrowing tendencies of conventional schooling is entirely misplaced. She tells her girls, "Miss Mackay [the headmistress] retains [a poster of a former Prime Minister] on the wall because she believes in the slogan 'Safety First.' But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first." Is that not an accurate summation of the imperatives of schooling vs. the imperatives of living? And Miss Brodie is additionally right to resist various efforts to send her to "the more progressive schools," sensing that the education she offers can only be effective against the backdrop of tradition, not in the absence of it. But I think the main problem is not that she wants to make her girls into herself as that she wants to make to make them all Anna Pavlovas (her ideal of passionate dedication) of whatever vocation she discovers in them. But she is first more fallible than she assumes in her ability to identify the girls' vocations. And the Calvinist idea of secular vocation can't bear the weight of her demands (even before she extricates it from its original relation to an omnipotent God). It turns out that "vocation" can't be secularized at all, that in the world it can only lead to disappointment because it's incommensurate with the smallness of human lives, which can rarely be as single-minded and committed as vocation demands.

Miss Brodie wants to instill passion in her girls in order to "lead them out" (her translation of education--"ex duco") so that they may discover themselves in the world, which is to say, so that they may take up their vocations. But vocation demands that individuals become exceptional in some way simply by taking their rightful places in the world, and this doesn't account for our relative smallness and the world's galling bigness. All of Miss Brodie's girls go on to respectable but unremarkable things--one becomes a typist, another a nurse, a third a scientist. Spark tells us all this right away, just as she introduces the girls, so that there is no suspense about what will become of them or what effect the tutelage of Miss Brodie will have. She even emphasizes the smallness of each girl's youthful talents--"what she was famous for," as she describes it. One girl is famous for doing somersaults, another for being desired by boys, a third for having remarkably small eyes, and a fourth for being hapless. These are not auspicious beginnings for identifying vocation, for leading what is already inside the girls out.

And the great gulf between the "potentiality" (a word Spark seems to like) of their childhoods and their adult fates is so blunt as to be shocking--the first outcome we learn about is that of the hapless and stupid girl, Mary, whose hapless and stupid death in a fire is described in maudlin detail. Why does Miss Brodie so to speak "elect" such a pathetic girl to her set? What is the meaning of election if one must live and die like Mary? Did Miss Brodie see some spark or potentiality in her, or think it a challenge suitable to her prime to improve someone as dull as her? But for the reader, the girls are always destined, or predestined for their smallness in the world. Jenny, the prettiest of the Brodie set and thought by Miss Brodie to have much potential until she unaccountably "becomes insipid" sometime in her mid-teens when she discovers acting, and ends up only "an actress of moderate reputation," contentedly married for 16 years when she comes across an Italian stranger with whom she falls in love, but "there was nothing whatever to be done about it." This--both the mediocrity in a life of imitation and the unthinking unwillingness to pursue an illicit love--was not imagined in Miss Brodie's plans for the girls. Only the main girl, Sandy, whom Miss Brodie is always saying will go too far one day, achieves a kind of strange acclaim, a place in the world for a psychology book she writes, but that only after she converts to Catholicism and rejects the world to enter a convent. "What a waste. That's not the sort of dedication I meant," says Miss Brodie when she hears about Sandy's vocation. Ironically, of course, Sandy--the one who is famous for nothing more than her small eyes--turns out to be the only one of the Brodie set to have any capacity for a vocation at all.

One might also ask how well Miss Brodie herself lives up to her vocation, which she declares several times is her students. It is clear that she loves her students and they love her, but she doesn't realize that if it's to be a vocation, this love must be exclusive. When she starts an affair with another teacher, the girls, and Sandy most of all, feel betrayed. The other girls turn their attentions more to the world outside Miss Brodie, while Sandy starts up an imaginary affair with a policewoman, whom she helps to gather evidence of Miss Brodie's crime. This is a great moment in the psychology of modern eros, by the way. In Emile, Rousseau argues that, in order to educate children in a world without any legitimate authority (the fear of punishment being a perversion of authority to which we resort for lack of other means), a teacher must dedicate his whole existence to a single child. Authority can only be established contingently on a child's sense of the adult's perfect benevolence to him, which requires unstinting attention to the child. The impossibility of living up to this demand is in part what makes Emile a Lockean comedy rather than a serious guide to childrearing. But we get an image of Emile gone wrong in Miss Brodie, who sets out to do exactly what Emile's tutor does, but never realizes that the temptations of "her prime" must be seen as mere distractions from her vocation rather than the arbiters of her own happiness. This is of course an impossible demand, but Calvinism makes it.

Also this book is wonderfully written, mimicking the rhythm of children's thoughts with their endless repetitions while the girls are young, and picking up as they grow older. Emily Hale is also right that, despite the sort of whimsical narration and plot, it's ultimately dark. I finished it in a state of low-grade gloom, quite convinced that I ought to lay off the Calvinism for a while.