10.0819 o tempora o mores

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 31 Mar 1997 23:47:40 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 819.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: WILLARD MCCARTY <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (62)
Subject: how late it is

In the Washington Post for today, 30 March -- a ravishingly beautiful
Easter Sunday morning in the U.S. capital -- appears an article by George
F. Will, "The Education Bubble and a saturated job market", reviewing a
book by Anne Matthews, <cite>Bright College Years: Inside the American
Campus Today</cite>. I report the following to you directly from this
newspaper article, as I am unlikely to read the book and certainly cannot
check on the accuracy of Matthews' account. As it stands, however, the
article provokes us to think about whom we are teaching and the nature of
the world they inhabit. The question, as always, is how to communicate
humane learning, in our case with a computer, to those who apparently have
no prior commitment to it?

Matthews, teacher in the NYU graduate journalism programme and daughter of
a university professor, "casts a cool eye on an industry [higher
education] that employs 2.5 million people (more thanthe auto, steel and
textile industries combined) and constitutes 'an archipelago
nation-within-a-nation, two thousand islands in the social sea.'" It is,
moreover, a growth industry, every year since the founding of Harvard.
"Today 9 million people attend 2,125 four-year institutions (595 public,
1530 private) full time and several million more part time." (These are,
remember, stats for the U.S. alone.)

The average time they take to complete a BA is 6 years; half who
matriculate do not ever graduate; one in four drops out after the first
year. On the institutional side, 60% of the total endowments belongs to
the top 50 schools, and it is only these that are not particularly
concerned about keeping the students coming in through the front door. The
remaining schools "are... increasingly desparate for even marginal and
unprepared students... not only lowering standards (requiring only 'a
pulse in one hand, a check in the other'), they are discounting tuitions,
advertising sushi and waffle bars in the student unions and prime cable
service in the dorms where, Matthews says, some students hibernate for

(I would be dishonest with myself not to recall how much time I spent
"hibernating", or something similar, in my room or someone else's, back
when we all knew we should be reading Plato, Shakespeare, Mann, and Eliot,
and could, brilliantly if I may say so. But then perhaps our behaviour led
to the present mess?)

"Only 25 percent of undergraduates are liberal arts majors. Twenty-five
percent are business majors, most of the rest are on vocational

The bit that concerns computing has to do with "a widening chasm between
faculty formed in a print culture and students produced by a wired world."
Gone with print culture, she says, is the ability even to muddle through
Elizabethan English, and "it is shocking to hear undergraduates try to
read 19th century prose.... 'Shakespeare courses rely heavily on in-class
movies.' She tells of an art history professor showing students a slide of
a Rubens painting.
Student: 'What is the story line on this thing?'
Professor: 'It doesn't have one. It's a 17th century portrait.'
Student: 'It doesn't move at all?'
Professor: 'Unfortunately, no.'
Student: 'But I can't see things if they don't move.'"

This being the Washington Post, the article in question appears beside one
written by Henry Kissinger and doubtless will be read by many a policy
maker. Some matter for concern, perhaps?

It seems clear that even if we were inclined to bemoan the spread of
digital words and moving images, the complaint would be an utter waste of
breath. Our only choice, it seems, is more intelligent use of computing,
reaching the students through computing -- and I don't just mean with
computer-based learning software. The question I have is, how do we
communicate our subject matter as humanists to students whose implicit
model of cognition is the computer? How do they thus read poetry -- when
they do? Is there not here a wonderfully rich question to be explored?