What College should be, for real [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

Seed Award project manager and Saxifrage School founder Tim Cook shared his vision for a new paradigm in higher education on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Next Page feature

Seed Award project manager and Saxifrage School founder Tim Cook shared his vision for a new paradigm in higher education on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Next Page feature. Tim’s story begins with a critical look at Andrew Delbanco’s new book College: What it Was, Is and Should be:

The crux of “College” lies in the age-old divide between inspired reflection and production or, as Mr. Delbanco cynically describes it, the “marketable” and the “useless.”

This divide is often seen in higher education as a conflict between the sciences and the humanities. The sciences, he admits, have “an enormous advantage in the competition for university resources” because of their “ability to demonstrate progress” while the humanities are more “concerned with preserving truth.” Yet, as science builds cumulatively and impressively upward, it can fail to ask questions of purpose and possible catastrophe. Mr. Delbanco notes that the modern university, with its imbalanced valuing of the sciences, has not helped us to deal with the loss of war, the ethics of our tactics and the reconciliation with our enemies.

Certain things — humanity, goodness and peace — cannot always be valued monetarily as scientific progress is, but they do hold great value nonetheless. Liberal arts colleges develop an invaluable critical consciousness in their graduates. This “[nonsense] meter,” as Mr. Delbanco puts it (using the barnyard epithet), is “a technology that will never become obsolete” and must always be taught. He references the powerful statistic that, in a time when only 2 percent of the country attended college, nearly 80 percent of leaders in the abolitionist movement had enrolled.

After comparing Delbanco’s book with a handful of other recent critiques of higher education, Tim lays out his own conception of the purpose, value, and worth of college.

Although Mr. Delbanco and others may be remiss to admit it, there is common ground where the sciences and the humanities — where theory and practice — can coexist without detriment. Our reflection and intellectual critiques are fully realized when they result in action and invention. In “Walden,” Thoreau shouts, “[We] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports [us] at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.”

Students should be engaged in a productive inquiry. As Wendell Berry writes, “Beside every effort of making, which is necessarily narrow, there must be an effort of judgment, of criticism, which must be as broad as possible.” These broad judgments and efforts of making should not be undertaken by separate people. Rather, those of us who work in production should be trained to think critically and ask big questions about our work. Likewise, the academics among us must not be confined to the ivory tower; our critiques and artistic perspectives should be put into practice and grounded in the world of made things.

We must learn to make what is valuable and to question the value of what is made.

You can read Tim’s complete piece on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Published August 01, 2012