shocker: north carolina right-wingers fear intellectual exploration

The Civitas Institute, North Carolina’s statewide right-wing think tank, accuses the UNC system of wasting taxpayers’ money on “courses [that] are esoteric, tinged with propaganda and often populated with few students.” Civitas and its sister organization, the Pope Center, delight in this methodology, which consists of reading course catalogs and deciding which course titles sound silly to the report’s author. Presumably this author has no particular academic credentials (indeed, he she appears to have graduated from UNC last month and headed to Washington to work as a lobbyist for UPS), but feels qualified to evaluate the content of academic courses he she has never taken and whose content he she has not read.

Predictably, the logic of the argument is that these courses do not “prepare students for the ’21st Century knowledge-based economy'”, that is, they don’t convey the skills Civitas expects to be necessary for future employment. Furthermore, these wouldn’t exist “without substantial taxpayer subsidies,” the implication being that market forces could suitably determine which courses are worth teaching. There are several things wrong with this way of thinking about higher education; I’ll detail a few here.

First, a quick glance at the course list reveals that most of the courses are in the humanities or humanities-oriented social sciences. Recent evidence suggests that these are precisely the courses in which students are actually learning the most. Indeed, those “populated with few students” are also those in which instructors are more likely to offer the direct instruction, reading and writing requirements, and critical feedback that are essential to students making intellectual progress during college.

Trying to determine what specific skills will be necessary for the 21st-century economy is a bit like trying to time the market: a quest for too much precision leads to missing the mark. It’s a reasonable argument that the reason to have and maintain a public university is precisely because it provides the kind of generalized capacity for thought that makes alumni flexible thinkers, thereby better able to adapt to unanticipated events in professional life (in the context of citizenship I wrote about this in Citizen Speak as “thick” vs. “thin” democratic imaginations). I happened to meet a high-up finance person recently and we were talking about higher education, and he said he believes finance should be looking specifically to hire humanities and other liberal arts graduates because their training better prepares them for the intellectual rigor of finance than does the narrow curriculum experienced by finance and business majors.

Second, and in partial contradiction to the above, the reason to have a great public university system is not simply to prepare students for the 21st- century knowledge economy. As our mission makes clear, our role is far greater than that. It has been greater than that since the founding of the university. The 1789 charter charges the university with the mission:

To consult the happiness of a rising generation, and endeavour to fit them for an honourable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying strictest attention to their education.

(This quote graces the mantlepiece of the Fellows’ Room at UNC’s Institute for Arts and Humanities, among the most intellectually rich places with which I have ever had the pleasure of being affiliated.)

Even in the realm of undergraduate education (itself only one facet of the whole university), that is, the point is not simply to make graduates into more profitable employees but to prepare them for “honourable discharge of the social duties of life,” a goal the courses Civitas doesn’t understand like may well serve.

Third, I believe what is really going on here is the right wing’s good old fashioned anti-intellectualism. Multiple viewpoints, complexity of thought, esoteric topics, and exploration of new areas are scary to important portions of the right-wing coalition (NOTE: I am NOT claiming this is true of all conservatives, but rather of important portions of the conservative coalition!). The exceedingly cursory treatment of the courses in the report demonstrates this anti-intellectualism. Since the post does not actually consider the content of the classes–only their titles and short descriptions–the implication is that no course in, for example, Intercultural Communication, covering “basic principles and rules for understanding intercultural communication and provides instruction on how to apply the principles when communicating in intercultural situations,” could meet the goal of “fit[ting] [students] for an honourable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying strictest attention to their education.” This claim is very, very dubious.

Fourth, and finally, the reason the market logic doesn’t apply is that students and their parents are not our customers! We serve the American and North Carolinian publics by creating and communicating knowledge for the benefit of those publics, not for the benefit of the students except insofar as that benefit is a by-product.

7 Comments

  1. klhoughton
    Posted June 2, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    “The Civitas Institute” is complaining about esoteric learning???

    When was the last time NC middle and/or high schools required a four-year Latin program?

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  2. spidersharp
    Posted June 2, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    It is also interesting that many of the courses that they say should be cut deal with the topics of race, gender, and sexuality.

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    • Posted June 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Really? “Introduction to Sexuality Studies” — that’s what they’re complaining about?

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  3. Posted June 2, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m not willing to say that every course in the catalog is pure gold and I imagine there are some courses at UNC (or for that matter at UCLA) that I would find, on careful reflection, to be crap. However I also agree with Andrew that Civitas’ method for compiling the report (ie, having a 22 year old kid look for courses with silly names) is not exactly a solid method for measuring the pedagogical value.

    In particular, I think that courses with a pop culture hook can often be better than average. For example, the Bill Will course on The Wire. A lot of people hear about this and say, “WTF? they’re teaching a course at Harvard about a show about drug dealers?” However those of us who are competent to judge pretty much all agree that this sounds like one of the greatest courses ever offered anywhere. I think this critical attitude of such courses comes from a (perhaps willful) misconception that such courses consist of merely enjoying the pop culture, perhaps with a bowl of popcorn at hand, rather than using it as a bouncing off point for exploring theory.

    I myself have taught a (one-unit) course that was nominally on reggaeton (a kind of Puerto Rican hip hop) but that was really an excuse to get into issues in economic sociology about diffusion of innovation and categorical schema that are much more challenging than students encounter in the usual undergraduate sociology course. I had several students drop when they realized that it wasn’t the kind of “pass the popcorn” class that they were hoping for (and Civitas apparently fears). However I think those who stayed learned more (at least on a per-unit basis) about serious sociology than they would have in the more typical class about more self-evidently legitimate subjects.

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  4. Posted June 2, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Tiresome bullshit like this is a staple of this sort of think tank. Beyond the predictable attack on race- and gender-related courses, I was bemused by the “time travel” stuff—the paper by David Lewis referenced in the course description (“The Paradoxes of Time Travel“) is a beautifully clear and justly famous piece of work that he developed at Harvard (as a graduate student) and later taught periodically at Princeton. It’s often used—as the course description suggests—in courses focusing on some central issues in metaphysics, notably personal identity, free will, the nature of time, causation and so on.

    This reminds me of a recent, similar (but apolitical) exercise where some idiot at New York magazine trolled some course catalogs looking for The Ten Most Ridiculous-Sounding Math Classes Currently Offered at Liberal-Arts Colleges. They came up with ones like “The Mathematics of Chance”, “Topology” (seriously: I think the author picked it because the course description mentioned holes), and “Mathematical Origamist’s Toolkit” (which of course includes topics in spherical geometry, optimization and circle packing). Idiots.

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  5. Posted June 2, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    I have it on good authority that the author of the report is a woman, so I have edited accordingly.

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  6. Posted June 3, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Seems to be a method similar to that used by Tom Coburn’s interns digging through the NSF grant list: http://1.usa.gov/k0pkK7

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