Upon arriving at college, I signed up as a Poli-Sci major. I aspired to be the next Peggy Noonan, because I thought she was amazing, but also because I was eighteen. Youthful ignorance is known to produce thoughts of such grandiose things, and I then felt that Noonan-heights achievement lay most definitely within my range of abilities.
Thank G-d for the many professors who rid me of my delusions.
I am also grateful for the utter dearth of excitement in my Poli-Sci 101 course. There were no engaging political debates, no scandalous stories of DC corruption. Instead, we had a professor who personified the concept of “buttoned-up.” She gave competent lectures about the nature and history of government, but it was old material, and delivered in such a way as to weed out all but the truly dedicated, all those future policy wonks.
I was not among them.
What I did love was books, and I had the lucky fortune of being assigned as my freshman advisor a one Margaret Whitt. She was (is) an esteemed faculty member of the University of Denver’s English Department, and after listening to my complaints about the lackluster Poli-Sci experience, Professor Whitt shooed me into a major in Literary Studies.
Oh the joy! To do nothing but read books, write about books, talk about books! I could hardly believe such a major existed. Sure, I knew I was being self-indulgent. All my friends dutifully slugging it out in advanced statistics, crafting business plans, headed for Wall Street or hedge funds or some other such “real career…” they looked mighty mature next to my abandoned thesis on the connection between Karl Barth’s theology and James Joyce’s singular Ulysses. (To that dear abandoned thesis: I will write you, one day).
But I just did not care.
That’s what happens when you’re in love.
And I had fallen hard for critiquing literature, accompanied by late night pub talks about Albert Camus, and the concept of justice, and what it meant to be conscience of mortality, and all other topics you’ll hear discussed with true and earnest, if immature, passion on most college campuses across this great land.
And then I graduated, and did what almost every English major does: I became a teacher.
I’ve written extensively about Education, and particularly about how standardized testing can be a useful, and even successful, tool for learning.
It might be better to say it like this: I believe in testing.
I really do.
But after three and a half years out of the classroom, some perspective is gained. And the thing is, I feel we really must address a question that was answered beautifully in a recent session at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival.
The question is: What is the point of Education? You know… what is it all for?
We admit parents need somewhere for their kids to be while they’re at work (which is how the Ragged Children’s School came to be in England, the British precursor to compulsory K12 schooling).
And we know literacy and critical thinking are crucial skills for a democratic society. We can’t have much confidence in people voting if they don’t know how to read and think through platforms, and policy statements, and yes, even tweets.
So there are two pretty persuasive utilitarian arguments for school.
But are they enough? And are they the most important arguments?
Leon Wieseltier and Drew Gilpin Faust think not. During a discussion entitled, “Do We Need to Rescue the Humanities?” the writer and Harvard President put forth a host of beautiful arguments for the importance of Literature, Art, History, and even traditional social sciences, that are being shunned by contemporary students in favor of career-oriented courses.
The one that has most stayed with me is what Wieseltier dubbed the “imperialism” of “scientism,” this misguided notion that all things can be given a numerical value. As he put it, “We live in a society in which the greatest, most esteemed authorities on human happiness are economists.”
It got a good laugh.
But I have been wondering, how has this come to be? That we believe crowd-sourcing can give us the answer to everything, and that falling in love might be looked at as “an important data point,” according to an anecdote Wieseltier shared about how a former employee talked of his girlfriend.
One explanation: Dr. Gilpin Faust pointed out that students don’t have the same patience for long, involved reading that they used to, which further proved another key insight of the discussion, and that has to do with time.
Our relationship with time is changing. We want things to be efficient, and immediate. Because we carry around Google in our pockets, it is impossible to live with “not knowing.” We have unfettered access to information, and that’s great.
But it’s information, and that is not the same as knowledge. Knowing what art critics have said about a painting is not the same as sitting in front of it yourself, examining it, letting it sink beneath and beyond initial judgment.
Having Spark Notes tell you what a story is “about” has nothing at all to do with the soul impact of reading it yourself, dwelling on it, having it pop into your mind during an unrelated conversation, much less having the characters do a kind of speech to you when you are faced with some similar circumstance as they.
And here, I admit: this has been the greatest contribution of my own Literary Studies major. That I can return, to take one example, to John Proctor’s final decision to safeguard his character over his own life, for himself, for his family, for his legacy. That is amazing. It is terrifying. And it challenges me to be braver, and more honest.
He’s a character from a play, and he’s made a difference in my life, and for that I have a whole list of Humanities people to thank, from Arthur Miller to Margaret Whitt, to my high school English teacher, and on down the line.
And reading that play took time. Real, un-short-cutted time.
I tried to share this with my middle and high school English students. They were not always keen to this line of thinking.
They’d been raised in a culture that prioritizes “College and Career Readiness.”
Can you read informational texts? Can you summarize? Can you do advanced algebra? Can you solve for a hypotenuse?
What does John Proctor choosing to be hanged have to do with that?
When I taught the Holocaust, my students had to discuss what gives a human being value. Is it their intelligence level? Is it their money? Is it their societal status?
Is it what they can contribute to society?
We ruled out all these (you’d be amazed at the depth of thirteen year olds). We eventually agreed that human beings have intrinsic value. It cannot be given, and it cannot be taken away.
Human life has no price tag.
But I’m not sure most college students have thought that through. I don’t know that many 20-year-olds feel their life has intrinsic worth. I don’t know how many older adults think theirs has any merit either, outside of that important but insufficient metric of “societal contribution.”
And we need to combat that. We need students to know they are much more than good little workers. And that their dignity and worth cannot be quantified. Not by passing or failing standardized state tests, nor by the next metric dreamed up by Silicon Valley or Ivy League scientism proselytizers.
Our schools are lying to students if we don’t help them see that their life experiences will encompass much more than what can be measured on a bank account statement, or plotted on an emotional-health spectrum quiz.
We need to boldly push back against what Leon Wieseltier calls it: this “plague of misplaced quantification.”