"I can date my sense that something was going badly wrong in my own teaching to a particular event. It took place on evaluation day in a class I was giving on the works of Sigmund Freud. The class met twice a week, late in the afternoon, and the students, about fifty undergraduates, tended to drag in and slump into their chairs looking slightly disconsolate, waiting for a jump start. To get the discussion moving, I often provided a joke, an anecdote, an amusing query. When you were a child, I had asked a few weeks before, were your Halloween costumes id costumes, superego costumes, or ego costumes? Were you monsters—creatures from the black lagoon, vampires and werewolves? Were you Wonder Women and Supermen? Or were you something in between? It often took this sort of thing to raise them from the habitual torpor.
But today, evaluation day, they were full of life. As I passed out the assessment forms, a buzz rose up in the room. Today they were writing their course evaluations; their evaluations of Freud, their evaluations of me. They were pitched into high gear. As I hurried from the room, I looked over my shoulder to see them scribbling away like the devil’s auditors. They were writing furiously, even the ones who struggled to squeeze out their papers and journal entries word by word.
But why was I distressed, bolting out the door of my classroom, where I usually held easy sway? Chances were that the evaluations would be much like what they had been in the past: They’d be just fine. And in fact, they were. I was commended for being “interesting,” and complimented for my relaxed and tolerant ways; my sense of humor and capacity to connect the material we were studying with contemporary culture came in for praise.
In many ways, I was grateful for the evaluations, as I always had been, just as I’m grateful for the chance to teach in an excellent university surrounded everywhere with very bright people. But as I ran from that classroom, full of anxious intimations, and then later as I sat to read the reports, I began to feel that there was something wrong. There was an undercurrent to the whole process I didn’t like. I was disturbed by the evaluation forms themselves with their number ratings (“What is your ranking of the instructor?—1, 2, 3, 4 or 5") which called to mind the sheets they circulate after a TV pilot plays to the test audience in Burbank. Nor did I like the image of myself that emerged—a figure of learned but humorous detachment, laid-back, easygoing, cool. But most of all, I was disturbed by the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervaded the responses. I was put off by the serenely implicit belief that the function of Freud—or, as I’d seen it expressed on other forms, in other classes, the function of Shakespeare, of Wordsworth or of Blake—was diversion and entertainment. “Edmundson has done a fantastic job,” said one reviewer, “of presenting this difficult, important and controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way.”
Enjoyable: I enjoyed the teacher. I enjoyed the reading. Enjoyed the course. It was pleasurable, diverting, part of the culture of readily accessible, manufactured bliss: the culture of Total Entertainment All the Time.
As I read the reviews, I thought of a story I’d heard about a Columbia University instructor who issued a two-part question at the end of his literature course. Part one: What book in the course did you most dislike; part two: What flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you? The hand that framed those questions may have been slightly heavy. But at least it compelled the students to see intellectual work as confrontation between two people, reader and author, where the stakes mattered. The Columbia students were asked to relate the quality of an encounter, not rate the action as though it had unfolded across the big screen. A form of media connoisseurship was what my students took as their natural right.
But why exactly were they describing the Oedipus complex and the death drive as interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? Why were they staring into the abyss, as Lionel Trilling once described his own students as having done, and commending it for being a singularly dark and fascinatingly contoured abyss, one sure to survive as an object of edifying contemplation for years to come? Why is the great confrontation—the rugged battle of fate where strength is born, to recall Emerson—so conspicuously missing? Why hadn’t anyone been changed by my course?
To that question, I began to compound an answer. We Americans live in a consumer culture, and it does not stop short at the university’s walls. University culture, like American culture at large, is ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images. We Americans are six percent of the world’s population: We use a quarter of its oil; we gorge while others go hungry; we consume everything with a vengeance and then we produce movies and TV shows and ads to celebrate the whole consumer loop. We make it—or we appropriate it—we “enjoy” it and we burn it up, pretty much whatever “it” is. For someone coming of age in America now, I thought, there are few available alternatives to the consumer worldview. Students didn’t ask for it much less create it, but they brought a consumer Weltanschauung to school, where it exerted a potent influence.
The students who enter my classes on day one are generally devotees of spectatorship and of consumer-cool. Whether they’re sorority-fraternity denizens, piercer-tattooers, gay or straight, black or white, they are, nearly across the board, very, very self-contained. On good days, there’s a light, appealing glow; on bad days, shuffling disgruntlement. But there is little fire, little force of spirit or mind in evidence.
More and more, we Americans like to watch (and not to do). In fact watching is our ultimate addiction. My students were the progeny of two hundred available cable channels and omnipresent Blockbuster outlets. They grew up with their noses pressed against the window of that second spectral world that spins parallel to our own, the World Wide Web. There they met life at second or third hand, peering eagerly, taking in the passing show, but staying remote, apparently untouched by it. So conditioned, they found it almost natural to come at the rest of life with a sense of aristocratic expectation: “What have you to show me that I haven’t yet seen?”...
The classroom atmosphere they most treasured was relaxed, laid-back, cool. The teacher should never get exercised about anything, on pain of being written off as a buffoon. Nor should she create an atmosphere of vital contention, where students lost their composure, spoke out, became passionate, expressed their deeper thoughts and fears, or did anything that might cause embarrassment. Embarrassment was the worst thing that could befall one; it must be avoided at whatever cost.
Early on, I had been a reader of Marshall McLuhan, and I was reminded of his hypothesis that the media on which we as a culture have become dependent are themselves cool. TV, which seemed on the point of demise, so absurd had it become to the culture of the late sixties, rules again. To disdain TV now is bad form; it signifies that you take yourself far too seriously. TV is a tranquilizing medium, a soporific, inducing in its devotees a light narcosis. It reduces anxiety, steadies and quiets the nerves. But also deadens. Like every narcotic, it will be consumed in certain doses, produce something like a hangover, the habitual watchers’ irritable languor that persists after the TV is off. It’s been said that the illusion of knowing and control that heroin engenders isn’t entirely unlike the TV consumer’s habitual smug-torpor, and that seems about right.
Those who appeal most on TV over the long haul are low-key and nonassertive. Enthusiasm quickly looks absurd. The form of character that’s most ingratiating on the tube, that’s most in tune with the medium itself, is laid-back, tranquil, self-contained, and self-assured. The news anchor, the talk-show host, the announcer, the late-night favorite—all are prone to display a sure sense of human nature, avoidance of illusion, reliance on timing and strategy rather than on aggressiveness or inspiration. With such figures, the viewer is invited to identify. On what’s called reality TV, on game shows, quiz shows, inane contests, we see people behaving absurdly, outraging the cool medium with their firework personalities. Against such excess the audience defines itself as wordly, laid-back, and wise.
Is there also a financial side to the culture of cool? I believed that I saw as much. A cool youth culture is a marketing bonanza for producers of right products, who do all they can to enlarge that culture and keep it humming. The Internet, TV, and magazines teem with what I came to think of as persona ads, ads for Nikes and Reeboks, and Jeeps and Blazers that don’t so much endorse the powers of the product per se as show you what sort of person you’ll inevitably become once you’ve acquired it. The Jeep ad that featured hip outdoorsy kids flinging a Frisbee from mountain top to mountaintop wasn’t so much about what Jeeps can do as it was about the kind of people who own them: vast, beautiful creatures, with godlike prowess and childlike tastes. Buy a Jeep and be one with them. The ad by itself is of little consequence, but expand its message exponentially and you have the central thrust of postmillennial consumer culture: buy in order to be. Watch (coolly) so as to learn how to be worthy of being watched (while being cool).
To the young, I thought, immersion in consumer culture, immersion in cool, is simply felt as natural. They have never known a world other than the one that accosts them from every side with images of mass-marketed perfection. Ads are everywhere: on TV, on the Internet, on billboards, in magazines, sometimes plastered on the side of the school bus. The forces that could challenge the consumer style are banished to the peripheries of culture. Rare is the student who arrives at college knowing something about the legacy of Marx or Marcuse, Gandhi or Thoreau. And by the time she does encounter them, they’re presented as diverting, interesting, entertaining—or perhaps as object for rigorously dismissive analysis—surely not as goads to another kind of life.
As I saw it, the specter of the uncool was creating a subtle tyranny for my students. It’s apparently an easy standard to subscribe to, the standard of cool, but once committed to it, you discover that matters are different. You’re inhibited, except on ordained occasions, from showing feeling, stifled from trying to achieve anything original. Apparent expression of exuberance now seem to occur with dimming quotation marks around them. Kids celebrating at a football game ironically play the roles of kids celebrating at a football game, as it’s been scripted on multiple TV shows and ads. There’s always self-observation, no real letting-go. Students apparently feel that even the slightest departure from the reigning code can get you genially ostracized. This is a culture tensely committed to a laid-back norm.
In the current university environment, I saw, there was only one form of knowledge that was generally acceptable. And that was knowledge that allowed you to keep your cool. It was fine to major in economics or political science or sociology, for there you could acquire ways of knowing that didn’t compel you to reveal and risk yourself. There you could stay detached. And—what was at least as important—you could acquire skills that would stand you in good financial stead later in life. You could use your educations to make yourself rich. All of the disciples that did not traduce the canons of cool were thriving. It sometimes seemed that everyone of my first-year advisees wanted to major in economics, even when they had no independent interest in the subject. They’d never read an economics book, had no attraction to the business pages of the Times. They wanted economics because word had it that econ was the major that made you look best to Wall Street and the investment banks. “We like economics majors,” an investment banking recruiter reportedly said, “because they’re people who’re willing to sacrifice their educations to the interest of their careers.”
The subjects that might threaten consumer cool, literary study in particular, had to adapt. They could offer diversion—it seems that’s what I (and Freud) had been doing—or they could make themselves over to look more like the so-called hard, empirically based disciplines.
Here computers come in. Now that computers are everywhere, each area of inquiry in the humanities is more and more defined by the computer’s resources…. More humanities courses are becoming computer-oriented, which keeps them safely in the realm of cool, financially negotiable endeavors. A professor teaching Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper,” which depicts the exploitation of young boys whose lot is not altogether unlike the lot of many children living now in American inner cities, is likely to charge his students with using the computer to compile as much information about the poem as possible. They can find articles about chimney sweepers from 1790s newspapers; contemporary pictures and engravings that depict these unfortunate little creatures; critical articles that interpret the poem in a seemingly endless variety of ways; biographical information on Blake, with hints about events in his own boyhood that would have made chimney sweepers a special interest; portraits of the author at various stages of his life; maps of Blake’s London. Together the class might create a Blake—Chimney Sweeper Web site: www.blakesweeper.edu.
Instead of spending class time wondering what the poem means, and what application it has to present-day experience, students compile information about it. They set the poem in its historical and critical context, showing first how the poem is the product and the property of the past—and, implicitly, how it really has nothing to do with the present except as an artful curiosity; and second how, given the number of ideas about it already available, adding more thought would be superfluous.
By putting a world of facts at the end of a key-stroke, computers have made facts, their command, their manipulation, their ordering, central to what now can qualify as humanistic education. The result is to suspend reflection about the differences among wisdom, knowledge, and information. Everything that can be accessed online can seem equal to everything else, no datum more important or more profound than any other. Thus the possibility presents itself that there really is no more wisdom; there is no more knowledge; there is only information. No thought is a challenge or an affront to what one currently believes.
Am I wrong to think that the kind of education on offer in the humanities now is in some measure an education for empire? The people who administer an empire need certain very precise capacities. They need to be adept technocrats. They need the kind of training that will allow them to take up an abstract and unfelt relation to the world and its peoples—a cool relation, as it were. Otherwise, they won’t be able to squeeze forth the world’s wealth without suffering debilitating pains of conscience. And the denizen of the empire needs to be able to consume the kinds of pleasures that will augment his feeling of rightful rulership. Those pleasures must be self-inflating and not challenging; they need to confirm the current empowered state of the self and not challenge it. The easy pleasures of this nascent American empire, akin to the pleasures to be had in first-century Rome, reaffirm the right to mastery—and, correspondingly, the existence of a world teeming with potential vassals and exploitable wealth.
Immersed in preprofessionalism, swimming in entertainment, my students have been sealed off from the chance to call everything they’ve valued into question, to look at new forms of life, and to risk everything. For them, education is knowing and lordly spectatorship, never the Socratic dialogue about how one ought to live one’s life.
These thoughts of mine didn’t come with any anger at my students. For who was to blame them? They didn’t create the consumer biosphere whose air was now their purest oxygen. They weren’t the ones who should have pulled the plug on the TV or disabled the game port when they were kids. They hadn’t invited the ad flaks and money changers into their public schools. What I felt was an ongoing sense of sorrow about their foreclosed possibilities. They seemed to lack chances that I, born far poorer than most of them, but into a different world, had abundantly enjoyed.
As I read those evaluation forms and thought them over, I recalled a story. In Vienna, there was once a superb teacher of music, very old. He accepted a few students. There came to him once a young violinist whom all of Berlin was celebrating. Only fourteen, yet he played exquisitely. The young man arrived in Austria hoping to study with the master. At the audition, he played to perfection; everyone surrounding the old teacher attested to the fact. When it came time to make his decision. The old man didn’t hesitate. “I don’t want him,” he said. “But, master, why not?” asked a protégé. “He’s the most gifted young violinist we’ve ever heard.” “Maybe,” said the old man. “But he lacks something, and without this thing real development is not possible. What that young man lacks is inexperience.” It’s a precious possession, inexperience; my students have had it stolen from them.
But what about the universities themselves? Do they do all they can to fight the reign of consumer cool? From the start, the university’s approach to students now has a solicitous, maybe even a servile tone. As soon as they enter their junior year in high school, and especially if they live in a prosperous zip code, the information materials, which is to say the advertising, come rolling in. Pictures, testimonials, videocassettes, and CD-ROMs (some hidden, some not) arrive at the door from colleges across the country, all trying to capture the students and their tuition dollars.
The freshman-to-be sees photographs of well-appointed dorm rooms; of elaborate physed facilities; of expertly maintained sports fields; of orchestras and drama troupes; of students working joyously, off by themselves. It’s a retirement spread for the young. “Colleges don’t have admissions offices anymore, they have marketing departments,” aschool financial officer said to me once. Is it surprising that someone who has been approached with photos and tapes, bells and whistles, might come to college thinking that the Shakespeare and Freud courses were also going to be agreeable treats?
How did we reach this point? In part, the answer is a matter of demographics and also of money. Aided by the GI Bill, the college-going population increased dramatically after the Second World War. Then came the baby boomers, and to accommodate them colleges continued to grow. Universities expand readily enough, but with tenure locking in faculty for lifetime jobs, and with the general reluctance of administrators to eliminate their own slots, it’s not easy for a university to contract. So after the baby boomers had passed through—like a tasty lump sliding the length of a boa constrictor—the colleges turned to promotional strategies—to advertising—to fill the empty chairs. Suddenly college, except for the few highly selective establishments, became a buyers’ market. What students and their parents wanted had to be taken potently into account. That often meant creating more comfortable, less challenging environments, places where almost no one failed, everything was enjoyable, and everyone was nice.
Just as universities must compete with one another for students, so must individual departments. At a time of rank economic anxiety (and what time is not in America?), the English department and the history department have to contend for students against the more success-ensuring branches, such as the science departments, and the commerce school. In 1968, more than 21 percent of all the bachelor’s degrees conferred in America were humanities degrees; by 1993 that total had fallen to about 13 percent, and it continues to sink. The humanities now must struggle to attract students, many of whose parents devoutly wish that they would go elsewhere.
One of the ways we’ve tried to be attractive is by loosening up. We grade much more genially than our colleagues in the sciences. In English and history, we don’t give many D’s, or C’s either. (The rigors of Chem 101 may create almost as many humanities majors per year as the splendors of Shakespeare.) A professor at Stanford explained that grades were getting better because the students were getting smarter every year. Anything, I suppose, is possible.
Along with easing up on grades, many humanities departments have relaxed major requirements. There are some good reasons for introducing more choice into the curricula and requiring fewer standard courses. But the move jibes with a tendency to serve the students instead of challenging them. Students can float in and out of classes during the first two weeks of the term without making any commitment. The common name for this span—shopping period—attests to the mentality that’s in play.
One result of the university’s widening elective leeway is to give students more power over teachers. Those who don’t like you can simply avoid you. If the students dislike you en masse, you can be left with an empty classroom. I’ve seen other professors, especially older ones, often those with the most to teach, suffer real grief at not having enough students sign up for their courses: Their grading was too tough; they demanded too much; their beliefs were too far out of line with the existing dispensation. It takes only a few such incidents to draw other professors into line.
Before students arrive, universities ply them with luscious ads, guaranteeing them a cross between summer camp and lotusland. When they get to campus, flattery, entertainment, and preprofessional training are theirs, if that’s what they want. The world we present them is not a world elsewhere, an ivory tower world, but one that’s fully continuous with the American entertainment and consumer culture they’ve been living in. They hardly know they’ve left home. Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students—steeped in consumer culture before they go off to school; treated as potent customers by the university well before they arrive, then pandered to from day one—are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be enjoyed without effort or languidly cast aside?
So I had my answer. The university had merged almost seamlessly with the consumer culture that exists beyond its gates. Universities were running like businesses, and very effective businesses at that. Now I knew why my students were greeting great works of mind and heart as consumer goods. They came looking for what they’d had in the past, Total Entertainment All the Time, and the university at large did all it could to maintain the flow. (Though where this allegiance to the Entertainment-Consumer Complex itself came from—that is a much larger question. It would take us into politics and economics, becoming, in time, a treatise in itself.)
But what about me? Now I had to look at my own place in the culture of training and entertainment. Those course evaluations made it clear enough. I was providing diversion. To some students I was offering an intellectualized midday variant of Letterman and Leno. They got good times from my classes, and maybe a few negotiable skills, because that’s what I was offering. But what was I going to do about it? I had diagnosed the problem, all right, but as yet I had nothing approaching a plan for action.
I’d like to say that I arrived at something like a breakthrough simply by delving into my own past. In my life I’ve had a string of marvelous teachers, and thinking back on them was surely a help. But some minds—mine, at times, I confess—tend to function best in opposition. So it was looking not just to the great and good whom I’ve known, but to something like an arch-antagonist, that got me thinking in fresh ways about how to teach and why."
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From the book Why Read? by Mark Edmundson.