North Hall Society

Friday, August 26, 2005

The LRC curriculum battle in the blogsphere

In an article entitled "Lenoir-Rhyne College and 'the erosion of liberal arts education,'" Christopher writes (Against the Grain, August 25, 2005):

Dr. Philip Blosser speaks out on "the erosion of the liberal arts core" at Lenoir-Rhyne College, my alma mater, including a proposal to group philosophy with a number of electives alongside courses in "physical wellness."
He goes on to quote from my article, "Bowling for Lenoir-Rhyne," then offers two quotations -- one from G.K. Chesterton, the other from Jacques Maritain -- apropos the institutional drift at Lenoir-Rhyne and other liberal arts institutions around the country. The first is from Chesterton's All is Grist:

Now, the nuisance of all this notion of Business Education, of training for certain trades, whether of plumber or plutocrat, is that they will prevent the intelligence being sufficiently active to criticize trade and business properly. They begin by stuffing the child, not with the sense of justice by which he can judge the world, but with the sense of inevitable doom or dedication by which he must accept that particularly very worldly aspect of the world. Even while he is a baby he is a bank-clerk, an accepts the principles of banking which Mr. Joseph Finsbury so kindly explained to the banker. Even in the nursery he is an actuary or an accountant: he lisps in numbers and the numbers come. But he cannot criticize the principles of banking, or entertain the intellectual fancy that the modern world is made to turn too much on the Pythagorean worship of numbers. But that is because he has never heard of the Pythagorean philosophy; or, indeed, of any other philosophy. He has never been taught to think, but only to count. He lives in a cold temple of abstract calculation, of which the pillars are columns of figures. Bue he has no basic sense of Comparative Religion (in the true sense of that tiresome phrase) by which he may discover whether he is in the right temple, or distinguish one temple from another....
The second is from Maritain's Education at the Crossroads:

If we remember that the animal is the specialist, and a perfect one, all of its knowing-power being fixed upon a single task to be done, we ought to conclude that an educational program that would aim only at forming specialists ever more perfect in ever more specialized fields, and unable to pass judgement on any matter that goes beyond their specialized competence, would lead indeed to a progressive animalization of the human mind and life.
Finally, he offers the following quote from "The Changing Idea of a University: American Higher Education and the Illiberal Use of Knowledge", by Matthew D. Wright [The 2001 Lord Acton Essay Competition - The Acton Institute]:

Liberal education values man as man, unique in an ordered universe and ordered in his uniqueness. Man is not a fungible cog in the gears of social progress. Developing the student's intellect is its own good, admitting of no further justification for the energy expended. Liberal learning educates for the good of man, and in so doing produces a good for mankind. Utilitarian training, on the other hand, abandons the good of the soul for the perceived good of society, and in so doing abandons the possibility of a good society to shallow and incontinent souls. This is increasingly the position of American culture. As Newman observed of his own day, "The Philosophy of Utility, you will say, Gentlemen, has at least done its work; and I grant it,-- [sic] it aimed low, but it has fulfilled its aim." The state's experiment in utilitarianism has been overwhelmingly successful as well. Contemporary technological sophistication is unparalleled, and the university has unquestionably been at the forefront of this progress. Nonetheless, as society begins to experience the upshot of abandoning its heritage, the realization grows that it has had far, far too low an aim.
(A tip of the hat to Christopher)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Bowling for Lenoir-Rhyne
A new Michael Moore movie?
Or the new liberal arts curriculum?

by Philip Blosser

The following remarks express my concern about the erosion of the liberal arts core at Lenoir-Rhyne College. They should not be misconstrued as a self-serving gesture in behalf of job security. I have no fear of losing my job here, no matter what curricular changes are finally implemented here; although, given the current drift of things, it might be a blessing. While I may complain about Lenoir-Rhyne’s poor salaries like everyone else, I want it to be clear that my purpose here is to defend the integrity of the liberal arts mission of the college, not my personal position.

Several times since last fall, I have written about the eroding liberal arts curriculum in colleges and universities across the country, as well as in my own instition of Lenoir-Rhyne College. See, e.g., (1) "Designing educational 'outcomes'" (Sept. 18, 2004), (2) "Axing liberal arts courses in a market driven curriculum" (Oct. 4, 2004), (3) "Axing liberal arts courses (part 2)" (Oct. 4, 2004); (4) "Axing liberal arts courses (part 3)" (Oct. 4, 2004); (5) "Deconstructing the liberal arts curriculum" (Oct. 27, 2004); and (6) "On why liberal arts programs are being eroded" (May 11, 2005).

The matter is not merely academic. I have just come from a meeting in which the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, of which I am a member, was asked by the chair of the faculty curriculum committee to consider a proposed new liberal arts curriculum in which philosophy would be no longer required of all students, but grouped together with a number of electives alongside courses in "physical wellness." Let me translate: a student, under this proposal, would be allowed to choose between Introductory Philosophy and, say, Introductory Bowling. Students would doubtless leap for joy. But from the point of view of anyone schooled in the history and meaning of the liberal arts, this is (to use the words of one of my colleagues in history) simply obscene!

The issues go far deeper than bowling or philosophy. The proposal shows a profound poverty of understanding – or at least a profound myopia – on the part of those faculty members who designed the proposed curricular changes. It reveals an erosion in understanding about the very purpose of liberal arts education, not to mention the place of philosophy in such an education. The problem behind this myopic reasoning is simple: philosophy, like the other liberal arts, has no immediately identifiable utility, therefore it is assumed to lack substantial value. By contrast, courses in "professional" programs -- such as business, marketing, tax law, physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercise science, nursing, computer science, etc. -- are obviously very useful, and therefore assumed to be eminently valuable. They offer practical “know-how” that can be harnessed for useful purposes -- often with great financial rewards -- in the world of business, industry, and the health-related professions. Hence, it's easy to assume that what has no immediate imaginable use must be basically worthless. This, at least is the assumption under which the liberal arts, including philosophy, are being eroded in favor of professional programs.

While I would be the last to question the value of whatever is useful, I would be the first to insist that not all value is reducible to utilitarian value. This is the great error of our times, especially in first-world countries like the United States. We value work. We value it because it is useful. It builds things, produces consumer articles, and gets things done.

But there are many things that have no utilitarian value that are of great value and importance. Who would question the profound value of happiness and pleasure? Yet we don't value either of these because they're useful. Useful for what? Nothing. We enjoy them precisely as ends-in-themselves. Who would be such a boor as to question the value of a birthday party! Yet we don't celebrate birthdays because they’re useful, but simply as ends-in-themselves – or, more precisely, to celebrate the life of an individual as an end-in-itself. Church attendance is not something generally considered useful either; which is likely why church attendance has fallen off so precipitously in our utilitarian work-a-day world. In fact, those who go out on Sunday, not to go to church, but to go shopping or to dine out, consider it very useful that stores and restaurants should be open on Sundays; and even those who have to work on Sundays consider it useful that they should have another day added to their schedule of gainful employment. But if God does exist, of course, then divine worship must have value, but not because of any particular usefulness it may have for God or for us. Even leisure is something of great value, though our utilitarian culture pressures us to think even of leisure in terms of its "usefulness" in enabling us to work harder. But that, of course, is to miss the point of leisure. Leisure is not something whose primary value is instrumental -- in helping us work harder -- but rather as an end-in-itself. Leisure is the point of work, not vice versa. We work in order to enjoy the leisure it makes possible, not the other way around; and anyone who confuses the means and ends here is in danger of losing all sense of what life is for. Likewise with the liberal arts.

If we bought a large wooded property of many hundreds of acres in the mountains, and came across a fence while exploring our newly-acquired lands, it would be foolish to act on an initial impulse to simply knock down the fence because it was in the way and we couldn't see its point in being there. The fence was presumably built for a purpose, and the prudent thing would be to discover that purpose. Likewise with the liberal arts. It would be equally foolish to act on an initial impulse to simply do away with liberal arts courses like philosophy, just because we couldn’t see any use in them. But that is exactly what the designers of this proposed curriculum have done in listing philosophy as an elective alongside bowling. Not only are they signalling that philosophy is as useless as bowling, however much certain curious individuals may enjoy them; whatever they may say, they are signalling that philosophy is of no more value than bowling!

Philosophy, like history and theology and the rest of the liberal arts, has a long and venerable tradition in western history. According to Aristotle’s classification, the practical sciences improve our practice. Thus computer science improves our performance in navigating the Internet world of online research and email. The productive sciences improve things in the world. Thus electrical engineering improves the memory chips that drive our computers. But neither of these sciences involves the liberal arts. What are the sciences, then, that improve our selves, our psyches, our souls? Why the liberal arts, of course, and none other!

It is a question of whether we want our students to all aspire to become in their own way “philosophers,” lovers of wisdom … or mere bowlers – knuckle-dragging mouth breathing bowlers for Lenoir-Rhyne, facing a future bereft of intellectual life, stuffed full of potato chips and sour cream dips and nachos grande, making shift to hobble, wheezing and grunting, hauling their tremulous torsos and abdomens in and out of fluorescent-lit bowling alleys. I am not so naive as to suppose that enlightened minds will prevail over the pressures of self-seeking utilitarian values among our faculty. But one may hope, and argue, and put up a good fight in behalf of our liberal arts mission.

Lenoir-Rhyne Business College & Technical Institute?

Well, it was nice to get a few days after concluding summer school classes. But it's back to school again -- this time with the additional onus of being called upon to defend a liberal arts core curriculum against an administration and professional division who seem bent on turning this traditionaly church-related liberal arts college into a secular business college and technical institute.

Watering down the college mission?

Last year the members of our school (History, Philosophy, and Religion) were asked to review our expected "student outcomes" in accordance with the demand imposed by our accrediting institution that we have a mechanism by which to measure our "performance." Are our graduating seniors exhibiting the "outcomes" we expect them to have attained in their liberal arts education at Lenoir-Rhyne College? It seems a reasonable idea.

The difficulty comes when we compare what our mission statement says with what we're doing. One of the major distinctives stressed in the Lenoir-Rhyne College Mission Statement is a religious one. It states that one of the institutional's goals is to "clarify personal faith," and that as "an institution of the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the College holds the conviction that wholeness of personality, true vocation, and the most useful service to God and the world are best discerned from the perspective of Christian faith."

Presumably, the framers of this mission statement believed that this mission could be achieved without succumbing to evangelistic proselytism and thereby compromising the academic integrity its programs. I, for one, believe that's an eminently attainable goal.

Recently, the chair of the committee charged with revamping the college curriculum wrote to me, thanking me for my input apropos our review of the "student outcomes" he had requested of us last year. I had pointed out a number of areas in which I thought there were significant disparities between the stated mission of the college and what we were in fact doing as an institution. He politely thanked me for my observations, and told me he both agreed and disagreed with me. He said he agreed with me on the importance of exploring the meaning of "vocation" (in connection with the mission statement's declaration about clarifying "personal faith"). On the other hand, he said, my concern seemed "a little over the top."

I responded by telling him that our Dean of Academic Programs had asked me about a month ago whether I'd be willing to mount a discussion series with the new faculty along the lines of the "Faith and Institutional Purpose" discussions I led with the Robert Benne book a couple years back. I declined. In my memo to the Dean, I stated that when I agreed to do so last year, only two faculty members turned up, and that if the administration and trustees of the college didn't show a serious commitment to the undertaking, then I didn't see why I, a Roman Catholic, should spend my time flogging a comatose horse that the Lutheran administration showed no interest in resuscitating.

I then said to the committee chair:

I have little illusion about the NC ELCA Synod offering any direction along these lines, much less the Administration or College Trustees doing so in the absence of Synodical interest or even understanding. My impression is of a decided drift in ELCA towards a prophetic stance which consists of holding up the denominational finger to see which way the wind is blowing. The imperatives of faith seem to be regarded increasingly as (1) having only a private, personal relevance, or, (2) insofar as they have any relevance to the world, as echoing what the secular world is already telling itself.

Hence, it was with some surprise that I received your email offering feedback on my comments about Student Outcomes from a year ago. I am not naive enough to suppose that anything I proposed will ultimately be considered seriously. Nevertheless, since you have taken the trouble to offer some remarks, I offer the following observations.

On the one hand, you say that you've thought a lot about my comments on value and agree with me. I imagine this has to do with the fact that most of us tend to assume that an ELCA college like ours ought to have some raison d'etre -- some noble or pious purpose -- to justify our sacrificial acceptance of its pathetic salaries.

On the other hand, you say that you may disagree with me and that my concern "seems a little over the top." And I imagine this has to do with the aforementioned ELCA drift, from which vantage point taking any position at odds with secular academe would constitute an institutional embarrassment.

You agree about the importance of vocation, but then ask about the students in our classes who may not even be theists, much less Christian. Well, what about them? Would we have expected the Apostle Paul to soft-pedal the Gospel because some of his listeners weren't believers? The issue is not avoided by pointing out that our venue is academic as opposed to evangelistic.

Look: when I was studying Buddhism in Japan, I took courses in which the instructor made no bones about the fact that his intention was to teach us Buddhism and to convince us of the truth of its Four Noble Truths. Should I have been offended by that? On the contrary, I should have been offended if the instructor singled me and other non-Buddhists out as a reason for watering down his presentation of Buddhism, should I not? Part of being liberally educated means understanding what believing Buddhists actually believe.

In our own case, the question is whether LRC as an institution means anything when it says, in its official mission statement, that it "holds the conviction that wholeness of personality, true vocation, and the most useful service to God and the world are best discerned from the perspective of Christian faith." Would it not be a trifle odd if none of our proposed outcomes even touched on the central component of the college's stated mission and purpose?

Again, I'm not so naive as to suppose that such considerations will constitute more than a passing annoyance to be waived aside like a buzzing fly over dinner. But I leave you with these thoughts, old fashioned enough to suppose that an accounting will someday be expected of our short lives.

Do the liberal arts leave the academy when God does?

I received the following quotation from my son, Christopher, apropos the ongoing debate at Lenoir-Rhyne College over the administration's effort to reduce the size of the liberal arts in the core curriculum. The author, Michael Novak, suggests a link between the eclipse of God and the eclipse of Western humanism in education:

What, then, is the place of God in our colleges? The basic human experiences that remind man that he is not a machine, and not merely a temporary cog in a technological civilization, are not fostered within the university. God is as irrelevent in the universities as in business organizations; but so are love, death, personal destiny. Reliigion can thrive only in a personal universe; religious faith, hope, and love are personal responses to a personal God. But how can the immense question of a personal God even be posed and made relevant when the fundamental questions about the meaning and limits of personal experience are evaded?

"God is dead... What are these churches if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?" Nietzsche asked. But much of Western humanism is dead too. Men do not wander under the silent stars, listen to the wind, learn to know themselves, question, "Where am I going? Why am I here?" They leave aside the mysteries of contingency and transitoriness, for the certainties of research, production, consumption. So that it is nearly possible to say: "Man is dead... What are these buildings, these tunnels, these roads, if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of man?" God, if there is a God, is not dead.

He will come back to the colleges, when man comes back.

-- Michael Novak, "God in the Colleges," Harper's (1961)

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Susan Jackson's boyfriend

Susan Jackson's boyfriend is Brandon Patchin, a blond guy who taught Susan how to Salsa! Hot doggidy, if this isn't sizzlin news, I don't know what is!! Eric Wallace, eat your heart out! Hubba-hubba!