Friday, September 24, 2004

Another note on liberal education 

Just another note relevant to my previous discussion of the status of liberal education. We may also have to consider the status of traditionally arts and humanities subjects, and opposed to those of the sciences that contribute to the liberal curriculum. Once upon a time, these subjects were considered to be of like kind, but their separation into different colleges has long marked the existence of an intellectual divide. Interdisciplinary work promises to help address this divide, but it remains to be seen what the result will be. In this context, I want to bring to readers’ attention the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), which seeks to establish collaborative research projects by faculty from universities around the world. Currently, medieval studies is the only field embracing traditional humanities subjects sponsored by the WUN. This is an important recognition of the prominence of medievalists in the forefront of contemporary interdisciplinary work, and, of course, pleases me enormously. But it also indicates how far we need to go put the humanities on an even playing field.

I also wish to point out that the WUN project is currently limited to a selection of participating research-oriented universities. This leaves scholars at non-research universities who could benefit by participation in collaborative projects, and could benefit the projects through their collaboration, out of the loop. A lot of good talent is being wasted, and organisations like this have the potential, if they can see it, to combat the increasing trend for well-trained scholars to sink into obscurity under the pressures of heavy teaching loads and diminishing commitments to research at many universities.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Practices in Liberal Education 

I found Carol Geary Schneider's views on Changing Practices in Liberal Education thought provoking, though I haven't had a chance to fully process the article. I thought I'd put the link up and come back to it. I'll re-edit this entry with some comments later.

After a couple of days of processing, here's a bit of discussion. In looking at Schneider’s article, I am continually reminded that I did not have a “liberal education”; my Scottish degree did involve two years of “general education”, but they consisted of medieval history, philosophy, and Greek, during which I time I also did my general survey English courses. They were all full-year courses, which makes for a very different dynamic. Schneider paints the general twentieth-century model for “liberal education” in America as one that emphasises “breadth” and “depth”. Clearly, my own background leaned more towards the latter, and I am partial to it. So that is where I am coming from.

Schneider actually makes a more sophisticated analysis of the history of liberal education in this country, arguing that the model has shifted over the course of the twentieth century from one in which the general education courses designed to encourage breadth simultaneously formed the foundation for the disciplinary courses to follow to a model in which the general education courses were essentially disconnected from the disciplinary field (major) selected by the student. All sorts of factors have contribute to this: the increasing popularity of “professional” majors and the tendency for general education courses to be taken at community colleges (or even at high schools if the students take Advanced Placement courses which allow them to skip lower-division requirements at the university level). Essentially, the disciplinary major (whether in traditional or “professional” fields) can no longer provide education in depth. I will return to this point below.
This scenario has far-reaching consequences for those teaching in the liberal arts. First and foremost, their fields are likely to be marginalised, as they become associated with lower-level study. This will add to an already present tendency in our society to see studying these fields as anything more than a luxury. Funding will be diverted in other directions.

Schneider suggests that we meet this challenge by adapting our curriculum. She summarises the common themes of current innovative thinking (the “New Academy”) as follows:

I confess that a lot of this doesn’t look very new to me. Much of it is old rhetoric about the value of a liberal arts education. Some of it reflects the same thinking motivating my own university's attempts to become more learning centred. Schneider argues that the new generation of faculty members should be prepared to embrace innovations in the curriculum to meet today’s challenges. She provides a number of suggestions for how graduate education can be adapted to better prepare graduate students to work in this environment. I’ll comment on these in another entry soon.
But as far as undergraduate education goes, what seems to get lost in the attempts to find a new model curriculum is the requirement for depth of learning, and, as I have mentioned above, this now seems like an impossibility at the undergraduate level. Here is one opportunity for educators in the liberal arts to make their case for relevance in today’s world. They can at least strive for a properly integrated educational experience, whereas the “professional fields” are simply two-year introductions. Furthermore, since study in professional fields is so limited, it really conveys no advantages. A liberal arts student will easily close the gap with a few months of on-the-job training. This case must be made to potential employers. One way in which students in “professional” majors have an advantage is through organised internships. Liberal arts majors must engage in the same practices. This means a variety of things. Those who are inclined towards graduate school in their field must become assistants on their professors’ research projects. Those who wish to go out into the work force must have experience prior to graduation. Departments and universities must make programmes available to encourage students along this route. In particular, departments should have well-advertised student assistant opportunities, and business and government internship opportunities should be clearly open to all students, not just those in the relevant majors.

Our society’s “widespread resistance to the very idea of liberal education” might also be countered if standards were raised in liberal arts majors (even in lower-division courses). If we can show employers that liberal arts majors are better qualified, they will hire them; a field such as English will be more esteemed as a subject, and more people will want to study it. A common complaint about university graduates is that they “know nothing”. This is the problem we must really tackle. How can we teach students to acquire and retain knowledge. This is the most vital intellectual skill.

I think I agree with Schneider that the loss of “depth” is a result of the fragmentation of the curriculum, and I would add that a side effect has been the loss of the ability to acquire a body of knowledge. For the liberal arts, this is increasingly dangerous, as liberal education courses are being relegated to lower division work. In my view, this was actually always the case; one got a BA or BSc before going off to, say, a medical or law school. But what is happening is that the BA/BSc is being reduced to two years (or the equivalent thereof in units) and the professional schooling is begun earlier. But what are the implications of this? Should we be giving upper-division English courses a more vocational orientation?
Well, I find I’ve run out of energy on this topic. I want to write about the implications for graduate education at another time, but hopefully I’ve generated enough issues for comment.

Why We Look So Bad 

Regina Barreca in The Common Review writes of the sartorial habits of professors:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an academic, even one given a clothing allowance, will dress like a schlemiel. Historically, academics have been the subject of both high and low humor. From the sixth century onward, how we look has prompted nearly automatic laughter from onlookers, even if the onlookers were dressed in twigs and had painted their faces blue. Why are we, as a group, so sartorially impoverished that we make other professionals, even those in the actuarial or previously owned vehicle sales forces, look good? (Just to make sure we're all clear about this one point: I include myself in this group. And I am including you, dear reader. Trust me on this one–the following observations are not about other people.)

I don't know. I dress like James Dean. Right?

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Some New Links and Some New Readers 

Mike Drout has kindly mentioned me at Wormtalk and Slugspeak, and that has pushed some new readers over to this web space. Although this is the busiest of times for me, I've tried to welcome them by some new and reciprocal links. So welcome all new readers. I hope to have some more changes and new material in the coming days.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

I may not know about art... 

The theft of Edvard Munch's The Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo prompts Tom Utley to speculate about the value of art in an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph. How much does it matter, he asks, if The Scream is never returned and is therefore unavailable for public viewing? After all, we have plenty of photographs. Would anyone miss the original if it were replaced with a poster?

These philistine thoughts have been prompted by my first ever visit to the Louvre, where I went with my family last week. Like so many other visitors, we made a bee-line for the Mona Lisa, because everyone knows that this is the painting that you just have to see when you are in Paris.

I couldn't help noticing that in the great stream of tourists following the signs to the Leonardo, hardly any of us glanced for more than a couple of seconds at the hundreds of masterpieces we had to pass on the way. Perhaps if they had put price-tags on the paintings, instead of the artists' names and dates, we might have been more interested.

When I finally saw the Mona Lisa, after my 50 years on this Earth, I found it a terrible disappointment. I don't know quite what I was expecting. I suppose that I was hoping at least for some glimmer of understanding of why this was the most talked-about painting in the world - at best, for a rush of joy at the sheer beauty of this, the real thing.

What I got instead was, well, the Mona Lisa - looking exactly as she does on a trillion coffee mugs, posters and tea-towels the world over.

There was a very slight "coo" factor - the thought that these brush-strokes had been made more than 500 years ago by Leonardo's own hand, and that the master must once have stood exactly where I was standing in relation to his work.

But it was no greater than the coo factor that you get from seeing the suit of armour once worn by Henry VIII, now displayed at the Tower of London, or the prayer book that Lady Jane Grey was holding when she was beheaded. As far as aesthetic pleasure went, I confess that I got more from looking at the pretty American tourist in front of me in the queue than from contemplating La Gioconda's peculiar smile.

Utley sees the journey to the Louvre not as a quest for "aesthetic pleasure", but "just to tick the box marked 'Mona Lisa'." He suggests that to seek more would be nearly impossible, at least at the Louvre:

In our defence, it must be said that if we had given the other paintings and statues in the Louvre the attention that the cognoscenti say they deserve, we would have been there for the rest of our lives. There are just far too many of them for any of us to begin to appreciate them. But, if I am right, most of us don't get a great deal of pleasure from paintings - and we wouldn't appreciate them very much no matter how long we stood gazing at them.

We traipse around galleries because we know that this is a civilised thing to do. We certainly try to enjoy what we see, and of course some paintings strike us as quite pleasing. But not as pleasing as all that. Not as nice to look at, anyway, as the girl in front of us in the queue.

Given, the relatively little payback he gets for viewing the original paintings, Utley questions their value full stop. He tries to put some perspective on the £30 million value of The Scream.

To put it into some sort of perspective, £30 million is about the equivalent of the per-capita income of 108,000 Indians for an entire year. How can anybody in his right mind claim that the aesthetic pleasure to be had from owning an original of that silly, swirly picture (not even the original, since Munch painted some half a dozen versions of it) is worth that much?

But of course, the art market isn't really about aesthetics. A mere difference of attribution can make a hundredfold difference in the amount that people are prepared to pay for a painting. "After" Vermeer? Let's call that £140,000. "By" Vermeer? Stick a couple of noughts on the end. Never mind that the picture is exactly the same - no more or less beautiful - whether it was painted by Vermeer or the girl next door.

Utley can only dream that the never-ending journey to stare out paintings without real appreciation -- "half pretending, half longing to enjoy them" will someday be rewarded when a painting lifts the "philistine scales from [his] eyes."

Utley makes two enormous mistakes if he wants to really appreciate original paintings. First, he seeks pure aesthetic value from them, forcing them to communicate pleasurable epiphanies. Second, he commodifies art; his obsession with the "art market" accurately reveals that it is absurd to quantify the value of an individual work of art. I think he plays down the "coo" factor a bit too much. Physical proximity to the same artefacts that were handled by historical figures--not to mention great historical figures--does help to give us an emotional connexion to the past which our society sadly lacks. But he also hints at the real reason for his lack of appreciation of the Mona Lisa; he hasn't given any of the lesser known paintings any sort of attention. Or, to use Utley's terminology, he hasn't tried to "appreciate" them either. He lacks a context. He can coo at seeing a painting which he is told is historically significant, but he has no idea of its actual significance. The Mona Lisa, The Scream, a painting by Vermeer, they all have value because he is told they have value by the "cognoscenti"; but not being one of the cognoscenti--and apparently not knowing how to become one--he is forced to commodify paintings, following a paradigm for value with which he is presumably more familiar.

Utley's Philistinism is, as my last sentence indicates, not entirely his fault. I would criticise him for failing to see that the Mona Lisa in a museum surrounded by other Renaissance paintings studied and displayed by experts is a very different context from the Mona Lisa on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. But what if the museum curators are also at fault for not making this context useful his "appreciation" of the paintings. What Utley fails to recognise is that appreciation follows from understanding. You can't really appreciate a painting just by staring at it; you have to learn something about it. It is the job of the museum curators to help convey this understanding.

But museum curators have long been divided about how--and whether--to do this. There is a school of thought that information about the paintings be kept to a minimum, lest the viewers be distracted from the paintings themselves. In the United States, many curators have attempted to provide more information--particularly through multimedia presentations--to those who are interested by placing a small section to the side of the exhibit where people can who wish to learn, rather than appreciate, can go to find out more. Needless to say, this is not a perfect solution. But I don't want to fault the museum curators too much; they are trying, and doing so with small budgets and severe limitations of physical space. One innovative approach was recently tried at the Michaelis Collection in Cape Town, where the curators turned all the paintings back-to-front. As one curator pointed out, "Researchers, collectors and curators always look at the backs of paintings because they have a lot of information on them, such as signatures, dates and notes from collectors, which the general public don't have access to." This is the sort of historical information which helps the public understand that original paintings, unlike reproductions of coffee mugs, have histories. One visitor even pointed out an attempt at forgery--of a Vermeer, as it happens. Sadly, the curator's approach may not have been as educational as it might have been; the curator of the exhibition admits that it is "conceptual": "I'm trying to refigure the notion of what a museum is all about," he says. "I want to subvert people's expectations so that they're forced to look at familiar objects in a completely different way."

What I am trying to oppose here is the idea that art can or should be appreciated in a vacuum without study. The point is perfectly illustrated by Mike Drout's commentary on the response of Peter Robinson in National Review Online's The Corner to the horns on Michelangelo's Moses. Robinson states:

What we see in Moses here--Moses the law-giver, Moses the chap who has just had an awful (in the old sense) encounter with God--is the results of an artist's effort to represent visually something that exceeds the boundaries of the representable: the horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding. That, anyhow, is how it appears to me at first blush. (The proper question here, I suspect, is not 'What does it mean?' but 'How does it feel?' That is, the issue is less one of symbols and semantics than one of aesthetic force and religious passion.)

Herewith, at last, a completely satisfying explanation of what Michelangelo was attempting. The convention of portraying Moses with horns may very well have arisen because of a mistranslation of one or two terms of Hebrew into Latin. But Michelangelo uses it not out of confusion or ignorance but for the high purposes of his art.

Drout points out that this passage is characterised by "gooey, unsupported assertions of greatness and sublimity", rather than genuinely enlightening discussion. The importance of the mistranslation as the origin of Moses's horns should not be dismissed. Well after the mistranslation was discovered, the horns persisted in the "visual tradition" of art: something that can be verified by placing beside Michelangelo's Moses numerous other contemporary and earlier works of art containing the figure. The horns were an essential part of Moses' identity. As Drout points out, the idea that the horns are an "objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness" does not explain "Why horns?" and does provide a convenient analysis with which one can't disagree, "since there's no arguing with how something feels." Drout concludes:

Look, it's great to appreciate art, and art should make you feel something. But the job of the critic is to attempt to explain what the art does and why it works that way.

I would add that to appreciate art the viewer must also make an effort to understand what the art does and why it works that way.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

New Site Search Feature 

Blogger have just added a navbar at the top of the screen which contains a Google site search form. Some time ago I tried to install the Google site search form with miserable results. I ultimately opted for a service called Free Find, which did the job beautifully. However, with the advent of the new navbar, there is no need for the Free Find search form, and I have disabled it. The only problem is that the navbar does not tell you that it is for a site search, as opposed to an internet search. It would be nice if Blogger changed this.

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