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Education’s goal: Build inquisitive minds, not widgets for the gears of commerce

By Paul Lindholdt Guest columnist

For many years now, critics have been blasting higher education. Charles Krauthammer, George Will and other reliable reactionaries flog the topic and repeat each other’s angry allegations. Enter now the newly minted secretary of education, Betsy DeVos – she who explained that teachers need to carry guns in classrooms to defend against grizzly bears.

DeVos accuses professors of indoctrinating students. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, she cautioned the wide-eyed pupils in attendance that “faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”

There’s a dizzying circularity to these accusations – telling students what professors are telling students and denouncing it all as a pack of lies.

John Leo of U.S. News and World Report wrote a like-minded column that appeared in these pages several years ago. It was titled “Today’s students offered real swill time.” It was broken down as a commentary on “intellectually perverse, ethically inert professors.”

Neither Leo’s column nor its headline meshes with my perceptions of higher education in America today.

The value of liberal arts edification is being forgotten in our dissonant culture wars.

Right-wing critics condemn boutique courses at leading colleges. It’s true that classes in rock music, sports and porn are being listed as electives on some campuses, even if not at Eastern Washington University. Worse than pop-culture trivia, Leo wrote, there are the “tens of thousands of courses on gender, sexuality, feminist theory and ‘queer theory,’ heavily politicized and crowding out much of the broader, traditional curriculum.”

Such charges are hyperbolic. Contemporary cultural issues, scrutinized closely, can prod students into thinking carefully and critically about the atmosphere around them.

Not all professors are liberals. Roger Scruton, whom I met 14 years ago at a symposium in Paris, comments for Forbes, National Review and the Heritage Foundation. Roger loved his foxhunting – until Britain outlawed it. One of Roger’s recent books, “The Soul of the World,” is “a defense of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism.”

In the beliefs of traditionalist E. D. Hirsch, the Greeks, Romans and Renaissance masters form the legitimate core of our time-tested “cultural literacy.” But some conservatives give readers the illicit picture that Homer and Shakespeare are being booted from curricula by radicalized Ph.D.s who want to titillate with “Deep Throat” and “Star Trek.”

What’s a vigilant citizen to do? The likely step – after damning colleges for smut and politics, neglect of the past and shock tactics – is to advocate student vouchers and charters, like DeVos is doing.

Let’s entrust education to commercial exchanges, such critics cry. Businesses have demonstrated they can do a more efficient job.

If you agree, read the new book “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”

While some commentators get righteously exercised about the state of higher education, others choose to lampoon campus excesses. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau has taken many a jab at the laughably relaxed standards at Walden College, the alma mater his fictional “Doonesbury” characters attend.

At Walden, students litigate if denied an “A.” Research papers are acquired online. Commercial interests triumph over intellectual rigor every time. Just as Michael Doonesbury’s nose is impossibly long, so the slackers in his comic strip are more ditzy and superficial than in real life. American humor relies on exaggeration. So do such cultural critics as Bill Watterson, author of the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” who also took on higher education.

One wag offered a solution to all the storm and stress. If classrooms include nothing written in the last 50 years, then we would be secure. Then we would know that the works that constitute our curricula have withstood the test of time. Then scholars would have ample opportunity, like the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” to think deep thoughts.

Some environmentalists revile academia for different reasons. An issue of the now-defunct journal “Wild Earth” condemned academic deconstruction. In deconstructionist views, one pundit said, reality is socially constructed. There is little or no “there” there in the natural world, except insofar as society has fractured and reassembled nature’s image in us all.

In those pages David Orr wrote, “While we argue among ourselves, others are busy bulldozing, clear-cutting, mining, building roads, and, above all, lobbying the powers that be to ensure that those destructive activities continue.” He decried an “arcane, indoor, and ivory tower kind of environmentalism.”

In the age of Trump, Orr’s concerns are just as acute for battles over race, class and gender as for the environment.

Talk, most agree, is awfully cheap. Energies would be better spent eradicating social illnesses and injustice.

That’s why professors need not only to teach well and perform research, but also give back to their communities in the form of service work.

Intellectually perverse and ethically inert? Not in my experience, and certainly not at EWU.

Most of my colleagues are making commendable efforts to enlighten students in the face of sophisticated commercial appeals and moneyed interests that hypnotize and stupefy.

Make mine a pitch for the riches of liberal-arts degrees.

Educated in the Evergreen State, I gained a foundation to serve today on a resource advisory council for the Bureau of Land Management and as a contributing historian for “HistoryLink.” Last week I spoke at the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival, last summer at a symposium on the French Riviera. And whenever newspaper editors like these will have me, I trespass within journalistic circles.

Professor Paul Lindholdt has taught English at Eastern Washington University for 23 years. His latest book is “Explorations in Ecocriticism.” He’s filling in for columnist Shawn Vestal, who’s on vacation.

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