Saturday, June 2, 2001

It is, of course, always refreshing to see professors blaming and taking action against their own administration. That the administration stands as the bouc émissaire of modern academia only translates the profound malaise we've been into for some time, and which will only get worse in the decade to come. The truth of the matter is that American academia has expanded considerably beyond its means since the second world war. There was first the GI Bill which pulled for the first time in history a much larger number of men and women into higher education (or as Hobsbawm noted, we now have more students than peasants), then came all the special programs that were added to the departmental units to accommodate America's new role as a superpower and as a guardian against communism, not to mention all the new programs that were the outcome of changing values at home, so that anything from civil rights and the rule of law to gender values and feminism, and the suspicions raised against imperialism, colonialism, and orientalism, or, in short, anything that monitors the relationship between the west and the rest of the world, had to find some kind of niche of its own and be accommodated in higher education. Then, thanks to French post-war thought (the pre-war folks, such as Bergson and Durkheim, are now considered dépassés), we've been told by Foucault and Derrida, which have been endlessly and monotonously rehearsed by their American disciples, that we're into discourses of power 24 hours a day no matter how much we deconstruct the logo-centric discourse of the west.

The proliferation of such programs, side-by-side to the more traditional departments, has created since the 1950s and 1960s up to the present, an army of bureaucrats, which with the security of tenure combined to their non-demanding but paying audiences, have become like a soviet politburo. A fortunate combination of historical and political event within the last two decades has suddenly rendered many of those services redundant. Consider, for example, all the so-called "area studies," which, to be sure, were meant to let America understand the world it had just begun to dominate. Europe had to be reassessed and looked upon closely simply because the US had poured billions of dollars to save the European economies form devastation after a deadly war; Japan had been finally secularized and brought down to earth thanks to a new constitution; the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 has reshaped since then all the political map of the Middle East; and, last but not least, the Chinese revolution might have posed a threat to the rest of Asia, so it had to be contained, hence Korea and Vietnam. But all such issues mattered simply because of the temporary di-visions created by and articulated throughout the cold war. After the fall of the Berlin wall, however, it was as if those "area studies" had suddenly lost their alphabet. More importantly, their raison d'être has become a problem all by itself, and with one superpower in sight there was not much to fight for anymore.

The Arts in particular became crowded with instructors and professors who on their own, and for the specialty they were in, could not even cover the costs of their tenure appointment. So all kinds of courses and programs had to be devised so as to keep this bureaucracy busy, and we tend to forget --now that administrators have become the target-- that both an administration and its faculty are structured around the same --or at least similar-- bureaucratic principles, which inevitably led to an academe dissociated from the interests of its clients. In fact, we tend to forget that the students make a living out of their diploma, no matter how poorly they perform. Moreover, and unlike Europe where there's a tendency to separate among professions so that a law student would be always with other fellow law students, American academia mixes all brands together in those venerable colleges of arts and sciences, so that all the pre-laws and pre-meds, are side-by-side with business and arts students. All of them are now held hostage to bulky, costly, and ineffective programs, mostly (though not exclusively) in the form of "core" requirements, and which for the most part are not even remotely linked to their own interests. There are very few courses, if at all, in a typical arts curriculum, which address the professional needs of pre-law, pre-med, business and economics, the natural sciences, and computer science students, who as a group --which are the most well paid professionals in the US-- must numerically be close to half of the student body in an arts & sciences college. Instead, and in a typical four-year framework that leads from the freshman entry-level year to graduation, those future professionals have to limit themselves to their raw-material major courses, which are oblivious to history, anthropology, and philosophy, on the one hand, and the more general arts courses, on the other, which mostly cover western civilization as a socio-cultural unit. But it's that missing "in-between" that would have made precisely all the difference and that would have provided those professionals with a sense of balance: I mean all those courses that would have provided them with a sense of history, anthropology, and philosophy (epistemology) of their own disciplines, but which regrettably hardly exist in any curriculum.

So, the truth of the matter is that across the nation (the American umma, as the Arabs would say) departments and programs have been overstuffed far beyond their needs, and the creation of all those so-called "core" requirements was only a cynical and short-sighted measure to distribute teaching hours and students among faculty who otherwise would have been at God's mercy. But, and in spite of all those busy core sections filled to the last student, core programs end up financially as a losing enterprise, a loss that in wealthy universities is covered by their endowments, and in less prominent colleges the loss generates endless debates about the beauty of the Greek and Roman cultures every time the administration proposes cuts. But now there's a realization among administrators that a more compact core would be more attractive to students. By giving them more opportunities to make their own choices with a reduced core, students might be more inclined to go for a particular college that would not push them for an endless array of arts requirements. But in some of the wealthier universities, such as The University of Chicago, proposals by administrators to make core programs more attractive have only backfired, and with the ex-president's resignation in mind, the new one will not be tempted soon enough to reopen the lid.