[Julie Hayes asked me if she could re-post her May 2013 President's Column on the blog, and I agreed. Take a look, and hit "Reply" if you want to add to our ongoing discussion on the uses of literature and the humanities--DM]
Julie Candler Hayes
My spring column is somewhat delayed this year (as was spring itself, in our region). The good feelings and intellectual recharge born of the April ASECS meeting in Cleveland quickly disappeared in the late-season avalanche of institutional demands. I continue to work through my stack of books on the state of American higher education. Having looked last time at Clayton Christensen’s less-than-edifying vision of disruption fueled by underpaid adjunct faculty and government-subsidized student loans to for-profits, I’m turning to two defenses of the humanities and liberal arts, Mark William Roche’s Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (2010) and Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (2012). I wanted very much to like both of these books, and there is much to enjoy in them: both are well-written, thoughtful meditations on the value of a liberal education. And yet…
I heard Mark Roche speak nearly fifteen years ago at a summer chairs’ seminars run by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. At the time, he’d recently finished a stint as chair of the German Department at Ohio State and had moved to Notre Dame as Dean of Arts and Letters. He spoke on ways that department chairs could promote their departments and the ideas came so quickly that I couldn’t write fast enough to get them all in my notes. I picked up his 2010 book hoping for an equally intense blast of arguments for the humanities and strategies for changing the anti-intellectual bent of so much recent debate. This is a more philosophical book, however, an extended answer to the question asked by so many parents: “What can my child do with a major in…?” For Roche, the answer is three-fold. The liberal arts have intrinsic value, inspiring learning for its own sake; they cultivate the “intellectual virtues … requisite for success beyond the academy”; and they lead to the development of a sense of vocation, which he defines as “participation in a higher reality, a commitment to the transcendent.” Because the points are simple ones, the book defies simple paraphrase. It’s worth reading both for the subtlety of the ideas and for the moving evocations of personal experience, especially in the classroom. And I could not have agreed more on the reasons for serving as dean: “One can only assume such a role and persevere in it because one identifies with the goal of fostering learning, scholarship, and formation, and one recognizes the potential to impact the world more deeply in a position of leadership, even if at some level the impact is less embodied and more abstract than when working with many students and writing or researching full-time” (150).
I sighed, therefore, when I encountered an all-too familiar suggestion that college education too often fails in its mission by faculty who substitute “low ambitions” for great ideas and teach only “mediocre books that derive from faculty research interests or ideological perspectives” (32). Roche points to Stanley Fish’s May 2003 Chronicle essay, “Aim Low.” It’s unfortunate, because while Roche and Fish might never be able to speak the same language of morality and higher calling, they certainly both champion rigorous thought and eschew platitudes—Fish’s chief target in his essay.
I experienced a similar momentary disappointment in Andrew Delbanco’s book. Delbanco’s sense of what college is “for” is as high-minded as Roche’s, but as the title suggests his approach is historical and polemical. Delbanco underscores the fault-lines in self-congratulatory narratives about expanding educational access, arguing that colleges and universities “have lately been reinforcing more than ameliorating the disparity of wealth and opportunity in American society” (122) and drawing analogies between the decline of students’ educational experience and that of faculty careers: “the gap is widening between the majority and the select few” (142). His final chapter, “What is to be done?” is maddeningly brief, offering glimpses of a few “high-tech” and “low tech” solutions, before focusing, oddly, on the need for “teachers who care about teaching.” Given his own analysis of the social, political, and economic challenges facing higher education, why turn to the evils of professionalization and the purported disconnect between teaching and research?
Both Roche and Delbanco are literary scholars. Presumably, we all came of age during the same period, riding the wave of the theoretical turn in literary studies in the 1970s. Their experiences were perhaps different from mine. I remain unconvinced that attentiveness to form, to the rusing strategies of language, to the imbrication of discourses within one another, is somehow alien to intellectual ambition, to educating for democracy. Au contraire, collègues!
 Fortunately, the talk was published: Mark W. Roche, “Strategies for Enhancing the Visibility and Role of Foreign Language Departments,” ADFL Bulletin Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 1999), 10–18.