Wednesday, February 05, 2014


In my sophomore year of college, I took a history course on Tudor and Stuart England with Prof. Dudley Bahlman, who was as close to a human incarnation of Mr. Magoo as I have ever seen.  (If cameraphones had existed then, I would have snapped a few shots of him on his moped.)  He was in his last semester before retirement when I took his class, and he wore his dinosaur status with pride.  There was no social or economic history for him.  For him, classes were lectures, history was royals, and stories were laugh-out-loud funny.  

The highlight of the course for me -- and I’m pretty sure for him, too -- was the early Restoration period, when Charles II ascended and put an end to the Cromwellian interregnum.  As Mr. Magoo presented it, the early Restoration period was a sort of extended Fat Tuesday.  After a decade-plus of extreme suppression by the Cromwells, the English took the Restoration as an opportunity to let their freak flags fly.  I remember him reading with palpable glee from Pepys’ diaries, portraying bacchanals with just a little too much enthusiasm.  

But the party ended, as parties do.  After the initial relief, the usual intrigues started to bubble again, factions arose, and it wasn’t long after the end of Charles II that William of Orange upended the whole thing.  The Restoration may have been fun, in its way, but it was short-lived.  The tensions that caused the house of Stuart to fall had never really gone away.

I thought again about the Restoration when some folks on Twitter pointed me to this piece by Overworked TA.  It’s a rumination on college as a process, rather than a product, and it’s well worth reading.  OTA argues that much of the focus of policy types on improving the “efficiency” of higher education derives from mistaking the “product” of college -- the degree itself -- for the process of attaining it.  Shortening the process of attaining it and stripping away anything “unnecessary,” whether it’s the junior year abroad or the gloriously self-indulgent course on seventeenth-century England, misses the point.  The journey is the point.

It’s a familiar argument, and much of it is true.  Students who had the option of the junior year abroad often swear by it.  Serious students often tell tales of serendipity, in which a random moment unexpectedly became incredibly important.  (I can trace much of my adult career to a single conversation I had with a professor during office hours in my junior year.  A single conversation.)  There is certainly much to be said for the vision of giving students time away from the pressing concerns of day-to-day economics, and for letting them wander a bit intellectually until something clicks.  And yes, some of the initiatives that OTA condemns are worth some skepticism.

But still.  I’ve got two nagging objections I just can’t shake.

First, and most obviously, the classic vision of the pastoral campus with lovable Mr. Magoo figures sharing wisdom with their young charges was romanticized and exclusionary in the best of times.  Economic pressures and family obligations are real.  If we define higher education such that only people who can afford to spend four years at residential liberal arts colleges are eligible for it, we will return it to its historic roots as a holding tank for the second sons (and now daughters) of the aristocracy.  If we believe instead that talent is distributed much more evenly than wealth is, then we need to develop models that real people, in real lives, can use.

Second, though, underlying the piece is a strong, if wistful, wish for Restoration.  Notice the language:

Will the market ever recover?  Will we go back to having more TT [tenure-track] positions? I don’t think so.  That’s terrifying, actually...I will defend a liberal arts type of education to the death…

Past good, present bad.  Restore past, and all will be good again.  

I don’t mean to pick on OTA.  S/he stakes out a commonly held position, and does so uncommonly well.  I have been known, from time to time, to say similar things myself.  Just as students need time and money to get education, professors need time and money to provide it.  The model under which those conditions were met still exists, even if it’s withering, so it’s easy to assume that those conditions can only be met under that model.

But restoration is not a sustainable answer.  The old model has been decaying for longer than it thrived, and there are important reasons for that.  “Will the market ever recover?”  It will never be 1967 again.  Hell, it will never be 1997 again, and that was no picnic for newly-minted Ph.D.’s.  

I agree with OTA on the need for an economically sustainable model for faculty, and I’d add “for students” as well.  Add “for taxpayers” while we’re at it.  The current model features tuition spirals, underpaid faculty, and high student loans.  It’s time for a new model.

To my mind, the energy directed toward Restoration is misdirected.  The necessary -- urgent -- discussion should be around developing a sustainable model that manages both to be cognizant of very real economic needs and effective at maintaining -- and improving -- the best of the past.  I’m guessing that technology will help, though the form it takes is still very much up for grabs.  Competency-based education holds promise, though there, too, we’re in the early stages of the learning curve.  Maybe it’s something else.  The future is just sitting there, waiting for passionate and thoughtful people to shape it.  

But the past is gone.  Mr. Magoo retired, riding his moped into the sunset.  The Restoration fell.  I don’t see much to be gained in raging at the sun for rising, or in waxing nostalgic over a past that relied on a set of exclusions that we should be glad to bury forever.  The urgent conversation in higher ed shouldn’t be about how to move backwards.  It should be to figure out what “forward” can look like.