Monday, August 10, 2015

Agresto — "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts"

– minor editing, Apr. 7, 2016


This is a response – what became an long response – to comments in a Facebook discussion on John Agresto's Wall Street Journal essay "The Suicide of the Liberal Arts" (located here). In its simplest, and greatly simplifying, this response is to the two ideas that (1) Agresto seems off base, and (2) that the problem lies in the business style administration that has taken over higher education.

I won't quote here the comments as I believe the only resulting negative might be a sense of absence as to what was leading in to this response (as though turning on a interview on a news show a few seconds late and missing the first exchanges of the conversation). The ideas below will not suffer for being taken out of that flow.


It is an undeniable that the turn to a profit-oriented system has done great damage to the university system. Though, I do question whether it is the the idea of 'profit' or if it is more the particular methods of profit-making (methods criticized not only in education but across the business world) that are to blame: an institution that is not in some way income-oriented is a not-long-to-live institution. But to blame all the ills of US education upon that alone is facile, perhaps equivalent to blaming a driver for the performance of their car's engine. There is one quite obvious question dodged right from the start by the over-tight focusing upon profit orientation: is the turn to a poor business model itself the effect of a deeper systemic issue? After all, it is difficult to use university business models to explain the miserable quality of K-12 education in the US.

I, from conversations with others, was apparently fairly lucky in my many years of collegiate education in that I escaped, pretty much entirely, ideologically dogmatic professors like that described by Agresto:

Instead of guiding young men and women by encouraging them to read history, biography, philosophy and literature, [those who would] rather debunk the past, deconstruct the authors and dethrone our finest minds and statesmen.

Now, normally here, I would briefly digress onto – if not sidestep entirely – how the word "deconstruct" here is being used wholly against the post-structuralist ideas from out of which the word comes. Agresto uses it in the commonly seen, derogative manner, of theory over-riding the practical aspects of reading a text (or being used to justify political readings of texts). In truth, though, the very core of post-structuralist thought is turned to opposite aims: the core point of learning to deconstruct a text lies in that it is learning, at a fundamental level, how to read. Normally, I would go there only as corrective digression. But this time I go there and stay, as the use of the word here is demonstration to the point(s) I want to make.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Lost, an Ex Post Facto Review

Let me say up front, I don't watch television. Though, here and there I use Netflix to check out television shows of the recent past, if just for the sake of basic 'cultural' (and in this context that word is inherently funny) knowledge: e.g., Once Upon a Time, which had a great premise that could only last a season, and did (and just barely at that); Fringe, which never really knew what it wanted to be and was unraveling from the start because of it (didn't make it through the first season); and, of course Daredevil, which was some of the worst television I've ever seen. (I did watch it all the way through, though, just so I could say, with evidence, that that was some of the worst television I have ever seen. And this is an age of reality television.)

So, recently I decided to check out Lost. (Previously, I perhaps had seen fifteen minutes of one episode, probably first season, maybe not. As I said, I do not watch television.) I made it into the second season, and only by forcing myself. The plot lines, such as they were, by season's end were getting, well, let's face it, stupid. But even more the cause was that I couldn't bear most of the characters. The acting of the boy, Walt, was terrible. I could rarely stand his presence on the screen. This might have been mostly the fault of directing and writing, though. (I say that if just for benefit of the doubt; I found the boy not well cast, personally; unable to successfully pull off the more emotionally or energetically charged scenes.) I found his father almost as bad, and perhaps here you see why I fault first directing and writing. The character was so cardboard, so limited he constantly fell into laugh-out-loud comedy (usually when he was supposed to be at his most emotional). The counter point was his engagements with Jin and Sun: in those situations, Micheal had something to do beyond the very empty and forced father-son engagement. Indeed, Micheal's character is best when the son is not on screen, as with building the boat with Jin. (Which is evidence to what I think is a basic rule of writing, the other Wil Wheaton rule: don't add a child into an ensemble of adults. They will never fit.)