Critical Words: Reviews from the Archives

A nice blast from the past courtesy of Robert Paul Wolff’s blog, The Philosopher’s Stone.

Here is, as he puts it, “a bauble from his files” in the form of a hilarious and apt review of Alan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” one of many late 80s petulant squibs from cranky humanities types bemoaning–as I vaguely recall–things like the fact that his undergraduates listened to Tracy Chapman and read Kate Chopin (presumably, instead of reading Chapman’s Homer and listening to Poland’s Chopin).

The beginning of the review from

Aficionados of the modern American novel have learned to look to Philip Roth for complex literary constructions that play wittily with narrative voice and frame. One thinks of such Roth works as My Life as a Man and The Counter Life, Now Saul Bellow has demonstrated that among his other well-recognized literary gifts is an unsuspected bent for daring satire. What Bellow has done, quite simply, is to write an entire coruscating funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades. The “author” of this tirade, one of Bellow’s most fully realized literary creations, is a mid-fiftyish professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name, “Bloom.”…

Bellow's novel about Bloom.
Bellow’s novel about Bloom.

And of course, Bellow, perhaps inspired by Wolff?, did go on to write a novel about Bloom, who turned out to be–and I say this in the nicest way possible, someday hoping to be be one myself–an effete homosexual.

The whole review is worth a read, and Brian Leiter, whose great blog tipped me off to Wolff’s piece, points out that the Nietzsche scholarship in “The Closing of the American Mind” is inept. So is the argument about foreign language study, not enough of it for Bloom and the cause of many ills–missing the point that this is a long-running battle in higher ed, not something that the 60s foisted on us. Whether to teach languages, which languages to teach, and to what end is a continuing friction point in the curriculum. Nineteenth century academics were as outraged as Bloom that “modern” languages like French and German, and contemporary texts in those languages, were replacing Latin and Greek as core curriculum. That battle has more to do with what languages we offer now that those baleful hippies and feminists of the 60s that so vex B.

But Bloom was an appealing scold for the time: he was an intellectual whom anti-intellectuals could love. And in a somewhat paradoxical way  his popularity came from the reassurance that it turned out you didn’t have to feel guilty for blowing off your reading in college (particularly that Nietzsche course!) nor should you regret it if you missed out on college. Not a problem because all those things people were teaching, listening to and doing in college were the WRONG things, and bad, so very, very bad. Whereas, reading his book was doing “the right thing” and best of all was having a high-minded argument about it after a quick skim, and in between filling out your MBA applications.


Image from the 1820 edition of "The American first class book, or, Exercises in reading and recitation: selected principally from modern authors of Great Britain and America, and designed for the use of the highest class in public and private schools." From the 19th Century Schoolbook Collection at the University of Pittsburgh.
Image from the 1820 edition of “The American first class book, or, Exercises in reading and recitation: selected principally from modern authors of Great Britain and America, and designed for the use of the highest class in public and private schools.” From the 19th Century Schoolbook Collection at the University of Pittsburgh.

Reasonable Words: MOOCs

Much of the energy around MOOCs has been focused on access to science and technical courses from elite institutions. I’ve been intrigued about how this revolution will affect the humanities, which so often seem associated with the seminar room and coffee house, small groups of intense young people (goatees and gitanes optional but strongly recommended) getting at just how wrong Kant really was about geometry and whether Allan Bloom should be ostracized. (Guess it shows that I went to college in the 80s, huh?)

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Quaint, but probably no wireless. Kenyon College as it once was.

The LA Review of Books has a panel discussion about MOOCs with engrossing takes by three profs, with observations, pros and cons. Here is a bit I liked from Ray Schroeder, whose college experience, like mine, was on a tree-lined campus, with a beautifully undigital library, and Shakespeare read aloud and listened to under oak trees. But things have changed…

Over the past decade, I have taught only online. Students in my classes are far-flung — two from Alaska this term among the others from the lower 48. In the past, I have had students from assorted countries; they bring a diversity, a richness of perspectives to classes that I never experienced previously. I taught eduMOOC in the summer of 2011; we had students in 70 countries. Engagement and interaction came through “meet-ups,” such as the group in Christchurch New Zealand who met weekly at the McDonalds (free wi-fi, don’t you know) to engage and discuss the future of learning. Brazilians tolerated our English language panel discussions and then met in their Portuguese language wikis. Still others engaged in Google Hangouts. The social constructivist principles of what scholars of education call the “community of inquiry” thrive online through teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. Those are the very same principles that led to the success of the liberal arts college experience decades ago.

Other views as well, though. Ian Bogost is not so sanguine.

MOOCs are a kind of entertainment media. We are living in an age of para-educationalism: TED Talks, “big idea” books, and the professional lecture circuit have reconfigured the place of ideas (of a certain kind) in the media mainstream. Flattery, attention, the appeal of celebrity, the aspiration to become a member of a certain community, and other triumphs of personality have become the currency of thinking, even as anti-intellectualism remains ascendant. MOOCs buttress this situation, one in which the professor is meant to become an entertainer more than an educator or a researcher. The fact that MOOC proponents have even toyed with the idea of hiring actors to present video lectures only underscores the degree to which MOOCs aspire to reinvent education as entertainment.

The whole roundtable is worth reading, if you’ve been following this world.

Reasonable Words: SJSU says no to Michael Sandel’s edX Justice Course

The beginning of some bits and bobs from recent reading:

The Case Against MOOC’s to teach a social justice course, eloquently put by the the Philosophy faculty at San José State University explaining why they won’t be using Michael Sandel’s edX course.

One excerpt:

There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we
have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that
long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online
courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to
MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious
compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case
of social injustice.

From The Chronicle of Higher Ed, article at And tipped by Brian Leiter’s great blog.

I haven’t made my mind up about MOOCs, beyond being bummed by the fact that instead of some new, innovative curriculum and structure, they seem to be embodying Marshall McLuhan’s point that the first thing we do with a new medium is put up content from a previous format. (Vaudeville on Radio, Radio on TV). College curriculum and structure reflects educational ideas and political, social norms of a century ago. (We go to school Sept-June not because there is anything intrinsically sacred about it, but because our once agrarian nation needed farm labor in the summer. We have lectures, in part, because when books were rare and expensive, it was a reasonably efficient use of the medium of print to read books to a large group. Now we can, as the letter suggests, read them ourselves.)

What I hadn’t seen was MOOCs as basically an automation solution to the crisis of funding in higher ed. Once upon a time professors taught you, then grad students and adjuncts filled this role, and MOOCs give a computer this task, with “pedagogical mechanical turks” that grade things. The SJSU letter’s concern about financing brings up such thoughts, and they are right in my view for fighting to teach courses they have staff to teach. But what about the case when the course is already gone and the MOOC becomes the option faute de mieux, for lack of anything else? As Sandel might say himself, what’s the right thing to do? I suppose you could check one of his books out of a public library.

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MOOCs before there were MOOCs…the reading room at New York Public Library. Freely available, and there’s a local “franchise” in your town.

MOOCs: Madness of Crowds or Unmet Need?

An interesting take on MOOCs from the Chronicle last December that I’m just catching up with.

For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?
‘Disruptions’ have the buzz but may put higher education out of reach for those students likely to benefit the most.

A few choice bits:

A ‘Mass Psychosis’

Higher education does have real problems, and MOOC’s, badges—certificates of accomplishment—and other innovations have real potential to tackle some of them. They could enrich teaching, add rigor, encourage interdisciplinarity, reinforce education’s real-world applicability, and make learning more efficient—advances all sorely needed.

But the reinvention conversation has not produced the panacea that people seem to yearn for. “The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis,” a case of people “just throwing spaghetti against the wall” to see what sticks, says Peter J. Stokes, executive director for postsecondary innovation at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies. His job is to study the effectiveness of ideas that are emerging or already in practice.

He believes that many of the new ideas, including MOOC’s, could bring improvements to higher education. But “innovation is not about gadgets,” says Mr. Stokes. “It’s not about eureka moments. … It’s about continuous evaluation.”

Even more trenchantly from the president of Trinity College in DC who suggests a “follow the money” line of inquiry.

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When does the MOOC bubble burst? Is there a Coursera Stats course I need to take to find out?


“The idea that they can have better education and more access at lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous,” says Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. Seventy percent of her students are eligible for Pell Grants, and 50 percent come from the broken District of Columbia school system. Her task has been trying to figure out how to serve those students at a college with the university’s meager $11-million endowment.

Getting them to and through college takes advisers, counselors, and learning-disability experts—a fact Ms. McGuire has tried to convey to foundations, policy makers, and the public. But the reinvention conversation has had a “tech guy” fixation on mere content delivery, she says. “It reveals a lack of understanding of what it takes to make the student actually learn the content and do something with it.”

Amid the talk of disruptive innovation, “the real disruption is the changing demographics of this country,” Trinity’s president says. Waves of minority students, especially Hispanics, are arriving on campus, many at those lower-tier colleges, having come from schools that didn’t prepare them for college work. “The real problem here is that higher education has to repeat a whole lot of lower education,” Ms. McGuire says. “That has been drag on everyone.”

Much of the hype around reinvention bypasses her day-to-day challenges as a president. “All of the talk about how higher education is broken is a superficial scrim over the question, What are the problems we are trying to solve?” she says. The reinvention crowd has motivations aside from solving higher education’s problems, she suspects: “Beware Chicken Little, because Chicken Little has a vested interest in this. There is an awful lot of hype about disruption and the need for reinvention that is being fomented by people who are going to make out like bandits on it.”

Overall, the Chronicle piece is a little muddled, befitting the topic. How do you describe a bubble from the inside anyway? It looks beautiful and shiny, and then it pops.

Of course, I’ve got MOOC musings of my own, but will save them for another day.

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