Sunday, November 21, 2010

Paradigms Lost

What happens when symbols lose their meanings?

It was a discouraging evening, to say the least. As I entered the scores for my students' second art history exam, the one covering the art and architecture of Greece and Rome, I faced the sort of existential crisis that every humanities teacher confronts on an increasingly regular basis: what exactly is the point of this course?

Sometimes, learning for the sake of learning just isn't enough. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy doesn’t, for example, put food on the table or pay for prescription medication.

I know that better than most, since I was a Classics major. No, not classical music, though I do know how to rock a harpsichord. No, not Shakespeare, though I also have a decent grasp of iambic pentameter. Classics, as in everything connected to "the glory that was Greece and the splendor that was Rome." Classics is the uber humanities degree, the equivalent of Aristotle's Prime Mover of academia. "Because I say so" only wins arguments when you can plausibly claim that you have read and possibly even understood not only Aristotle in Greek, but also the German commentators on his texts.

Seriously, what is the point? What can you do with a humanities degree, besides ask "Do you want fries with that?" in five languages, two of them dead?

Harvard English professor and Pulitzer prize winner Louis Menand’s libellus, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, is not as incendiary as its title promises. A fascinating treatise on the development of the modern university, Menand traces the two-phylum core vs. elective evolution of General Education requirements, the rise of professionalism, and the largely unconscious process of homogeneity that the professionalizing of academia has inflicted on its practitioners; i.e., people like me.

But while Menand poses some interesting questions, he doesn't go all the way to the conclusion I want. What is the role of general education in a for-profit career college like the one where I run a general education program? Why does my school, which focuses on practical education with immediate post-graduation earning potential, require its bachelors degree seeking students to take a two-term course in the History of Art?

    My school follows the prescriptive core model of General Education, wherein the university determines which courses students “need” in order to become well rounded health care administrators or accountants. History of Art is one of the few upper division GE courses we offer, and from the start, my students complained about the course’s rigor.

But is this really rigor? On that second test, fewer than one in four of my students correctly identified the Parthenon. Not a single one could tell me who built it, or what it signified. Art and architecture depend on a common language of symbols. If my students cannot correctly identify the building that signifies the cradle of Western Civilization, what does that say about them? About me? About our culture?

    The day after the test, I walked into the classroom. Without a word, I projected a picture of the Parthenon on the screen. I turned to the class and said, "I've been thinking about this class, and about what I want you to take from it. And what I want is this."

    I gestured to the iconic, classic, Doric stricture that in many ways defined western civilization. "I need you to know that this building is the Parthenon. I need you to know that its construction was contemporary with what many scholars consider the dawn of our Western culture. I need you to know that this temple to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was constructed by the city-state of Athens, where philosophy, democracy, geometry, logic, literature, and western art was born. I need you to see its culture’s influences all around you, in our own buildings, in our own literature, in our philosophical and political thought.”

    What happens when paradigms are lost, when, as Archibald MacLeish famously asked, “images, though seen/no longer mean?” That is the point of requiring an Art History class of the world’s future accountants and healthcare administrators. Learning about the humanities is learning about what makes us human. We few, we happy few, the humanities majors, are "the heirs of custom and tradition" that began with a building on a hill in Greece more than 2500 years ago. But we are also the ones who push the boundaries of what is possible in human thought, because that is what humans do. Why General Education? Why the Parthenon? Because we are human. Without a knowledge of our own humanity, without the language of our customs and traditions, we cannot hope to accomplish MacLeish’s call to “Invent the Age! Invent the metaphor!”

Monday, November 8, 2010

I Quit!

Everyone knows that I am really a robot running perpetual Pollyanna programming. But once in a while, I have one of those days, weeks, months, years, f*@ing decades, when I need an update or six for my reframing module, and there’s no IT guy in sight. Yes, of course I have to do my own IT. I have to do my own everything.


Dear Art History Students who decided to contract the Test Day Flu this morning: You missed a life-changing lecture on art and forgery and the nature of the real, spearheaded by a discussion of the Getty Kouros (as made famous to the non Classical world by Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a little gem of popular science). You don’t feel good enough to take a slide quiz? Well I don’t feel good enough to let you make it up either. I quit. Go complain to your Department Chair. Oh wait, that’s ME! Sucks to be you, lazy students.

Dear Progeny of Mine who cannot be in the car together for more than five minutes without erupting into screams that make a Japanese horror flick seem tame by comparison: No, you cannot ever have computer time again. Not ever. Your “I love to fart on you” song may seem whimsical or even clever to you, my dear seven year old. But it makes me want to throttle you. And you, the 11 year old in the back, if you even touch your brother again, I will call your parole officer.  I quit! Let the state take care of you and your compulsive inability to stop poking people.

And five year old, please only cry like that if you are facing imminent death—not if you drop your lollipop on the car floor, where it joins a two year food supply of discarded candy, fruit snacks, and cracker crumbs. Believe me, life will throw you much tougher challenges, and at this rate, you will be nothing but a fluffy cheerleader who drops the ball at the first sign of a chipped manicure.  

Finally, Mr. Teen Hero in the front seat, blasting your music through your Skullcandies, if you take the name of Our Lord in vain one more time, I will tell all your facebook friends that you are really listening to Justin Bieber instead of Linkin Park. I mean it. Oh sure, you say “Jesus Christ…is my savior.” But you damn well better say it like you mean it!

[PollyannaPrograms is asking for permission to update your files…Accept…]

Oh my! Today was such a lovely day! I spent the morning in class discussing one of my absolute favorite topics, art, forgery, and the nature of the real. The afternoon was pure quality time with the kiddos—they are real charmers, and so clever! They love to compose songs in the car, my middle sons are so affectionate with each other, my daughter knows that lollipops are not good for her, and my oldest is really developing a meaningful relationship with Jesus. I just don’t have the time to be negative. I quit being a Debbie Downer. I’m back to being everybody’s sunshine gal!