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We Need Less Talk, More Action

Written with Michael Brown

Mary: Faculty members and administrators often talk over and around one another. When it comes to discussions about the crisis in the humanities and ultimately, the crisis in higher education, many faculty members take a theoretical approach to the issues. On one level, those arguments are very appealing. But they rarely have the power to translate into practical, on-the-ground changes that can be immediately implemented at our institutions.

Perhaps I am too pragmatic, or perhaps I am just frustrated. I have sat through too many faculty senate meetings and department discussions that debate the finer points of theory and mission without ever coming close to a hint of strategy and implementation. There is a great need for people in our institutions who can translate theoretical ideals into actual practices. Many faculty members are fantastic at espousing theory, and just as many administrators are incredible at implementing programs and policies, but it is as if these two groups operate on parallel tracks that never meet.

We need more difficult dialogues: between administrators and faculties; between folks in the professional schools and the liberal arts; and between those who hold competing views about the role that higher education plays in society. Although Stanley Fish argues that academic inquiry should be the sole reason for higher education’s existence, he’s unrealistic and out of touch with today’s reality. The competing goals of vocational training, social justice, and personal development will continue to exist at our institutions. To move forward, we need to find a way to bring competing views together.

Mike: One of the most important problems facing defenders of the humanities is the biased nature of the current debate, with its constant references to the monetary value of majors, standards, and the need for the United States to be “competitive” in the world. I’ve suggested that there is another problem, namely that the defense of the humanities has been weakened by a failure of many faculty in those disciplines to recognize the ideological aspects of the debate and to acknowledge, no matter how painful that might be, that educational policy is always intensely and irrevocably political. It seems to me that this is a fact that must not only be addressed but worked through, no matter how one might want to focus on humanistic principles that seem to be different from what politics requires.

To move forward, as you say, Mary, is certainly crucial. But the future is not as open as one might want it to be, and this must be squarely faced. That reality is already visible in the trajectory defined by the corporate model, the marginalization of the humanities, and the growing power of administration and external influences on the academy.

Mary: It is obvious that our options are not unlimited. However, the competing ideas put forth by Grayling and Fish, for example, represent two very different strange, but romanticized views built upon models that most likely never existed within higher education. It is as if they both wish to return to a way that never was.

Yes, it is true that the corporate model is going to be with us for a while, and the next model will not be a precorporate version of higher ed but rather some yet-to-be-determined model of the future. The models that seem to be promising are those that are networked, collaborative, and built on consortiums and partnerships that bring together institutions, community and private partners, and public regulatory bodies. In theory, each of those represent bodies with competing interests. In reality, each has something to contribute and something to gain from their collaborative efforts.

In my mind, moving forward will require us to move from theory to practice. I agree with Nigel Thrift, who states the following with regards to the recent bout of higher-ed bashing: “Any critique needs to be accompanied by at least some notion of what the writer would do instead.” I would push that even further by stating that not only do we need new ideas, but we also need a plan for action that goes beyond critique and debate.

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