Friday, November 12, 2010

Ralston College: the Future of the Liberal Arts?

Earlier this week, Stanley Fish—professor of law, literary critic, and New York Times columnist—published a piece in the Times, “The Woe-Is-Us Books,” in which he surveyed recent books on the crisis in higher education. From Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus’s highly visible book Higher Education? to his own Save the World on Your Own Time, Fish argues that this body of work presents a set of diagnoses as disparate and confusing as they are self-confident.

After running through some of these arguments (including those of a book on which I worked, Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus), and “while [he] was trying, and failing, to make sense of all this,” Fish suggests that maybe, just maybe, higher education has found its savior: Stephen Blackwood, and his still-under-construction Ralston College. The story is this. Ralston is a new undergraduate institution that will be built in Savannah, Georgia. It will insist on a thorough grounding in the liberal arts. Tuition will be paid for all students. And Blackwood, a recent Ph.D. recipient whose background is in religion and classics, will be its first president.

Here’s how Fish describes the academic experience:

“When they get to Savannah, the students of Ralston College will find that the school year is the entire year, 12 months, that they are expected to dine together and wear academic gowns, that they will all be reading the same texts organized around a yearly theme (in successive years, the Self, God, Nature, Community and the Beautiful), that the texts will be ‘supremely difficult’ and begin with Greek and Roman authors, many of whom will be revisited the next year under the aegis of a new theme, and that they will also be receiving instruction in the visual arts, mathematics, the sciences and foreign languages (at least two).”
Although the plan incorporates some elements from the various other books that Fish discusses—Taylor similarly suggests the importance of organizing themes, rather than departments—in many ways it seems more radical. “Back to the future!” Fish writes. “Plato and students under the plane tree in Savannah. It is as if Blackwood had been reading the same books I had been reading, noted, as I have, the staggering number of problems liberal arts education apparently faces, and said, ‘Why don’t we just start all over again?’”

Ralston does not truly signify a new beginning: the insistence on the primacy of a classical canon is an essential part of the culture wars, and books like Hacker and Dreyfus’s represent just the latest iteration. All universities cope with the pressure of the canon in some way—the University of Chicago’s Common Core curriculum and Columbia’s Core Curriculum are two examples—and so do smaller colleges. St. John’s College, in Annapolis and Santa Fe, demonstrates a similar dedication to the classics through its Great Books Program; Deep Springs College, in the California desert, also emphasizes commitment, seriousness, and intimacy.

But Ralston and Blackwood are making an effort, and they’ve got admirers: “Either blissfully unaware of the obstacles rehearsed in the woe-is-us books or wrapped in the armor of faith and innocence like a modern St. George, Blackwood, without very much experience or money, has so far managed to secure a promise of buildings to house his new enterprise [and] gained the moral and honorific support of Harold Bloom, Hilary Putnam and Salman Rushdie.” (Fish doesn’t mention here that he’s among the official supporters, a member of their Board of Visitors.) In fact, one of the only visible online manifestations of that effort—their Twitter feed, which seems somewhat contradictory to their “Back to the future” approach—is largely dedicated to cataloguing the support and biographies of those admirers. Here’s one series of tweets:

Ralston College is delighted to announce that Sir Salman Rushdie has agreed to become a founding Patron of the College. 3:16 PM Nov 3rd via web

Sir Salman is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the recipient of many other awards and honors. 3:26 PM Nov 3rd via web

His novel "Midnight's Children" won the Booker-McConnell Prize in 1981 and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. 3:36 PM Nov 3rd via web

It also won the Booker of Bookers award in 1993 and the Best of the Booker award in 2008. 3:54 PM Nov 3rd via web

Sir Salman is a noted defender of civil liberties: he famously declared in December 1991 that "free speech is life itself". 4:25 PM Nov 3rd via web

These words come from an address (which he risked his life to deliver) marking the 200th anniversary of the First Amendment. 4:30 PM Nov 3rd via web

In a Latin translation they are the motto of Ralston College: Sermo Liber Vita Ipsa. 4:35 PM Nov 3rd via web

Ralston College salutes Sir Salman's defence of freedom of thought and expression and intends to emulate him in this respect. 4:38 PM Nov 3rd via web

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, my boyfriend and I like to play academically themed games with one another. While Crisis in Campus was still in production, we talked about what an ideal college might look like. We plan classes. We’ve extensively discussed opening a small school in New York that would function much like an arts-based Mountain School (or any other exchange program for high school students). And so, I applaud the effort here, and especially Blackwood’s can-do spirit—so much so that I was even able to stifle my amusement at Ralston’s requirement of gowns, to refrain from asking the question, “But will this be fun?
But I couldn’t contain myself when reading this Twitter feed, which might as well be written by any painfully aspiring college freshman. Its voice is tinny, plaintive, and self-congratulatory: “Ralston College salutes Sir Salman's defence of freedom of thought and expression and intends to emulate him in this respect,” “The College is most honoured by and appreciative of Dr Fish's very generous remarks,” “The NY Times: ‘If there's any hope for liberal arts education, might it take shape at a new college planned for Savannah, Ga.?’ We think so.” Such comments reek of smarm. But even worse is how blatantly the Ralston feed disregards the point of Twitter—to produce independent, pithy commentary. Don’t like that format? That’s fine: don’t use it. But the effect of these interrelated bio-tweets, sent out individually, is of a little voice piping non-sequiturs:

Many consider him to be the world’s foremost literary critic. 1:00 PM Sep 27th via web

Instead of working and playing with the demands of a new media form, the Twitter feed, Ralston flatly imposes a traditional format on it. A biography will take shape!—even if it needs to be divided into 140-character chunks. It’s this—well, and maybe the tone of the tweets—that worries me most about Ralston. If they’re this inflexible (and, ultimately, unsuccessful) with something as simple as Twitter, what will the college look like? Although I too believe in the primacy of reading and writing, I'm not sure this is the way to save higher education—or the humanities.

Ralston: I’ve got my eye on you.

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