The Academy: A Place for Thoughtful Discourse in a World that is Shallow and Cheap
It’s a great luxury for a society to take it’s 18 to 21 year olds and to let them develop as thinkers.
Elisa "Lisa" New is Professor of English at Harvard University. Her areas of study include American poetry, 19th century American literature, religious literature, and Jewish literature. Her books include The Line's Eye: Poetic Experience, American Sight (1999), The Regenerate Lyric: Theology and Innovation in American Poetry (1993) and Jacob's Cane: A Jewish Family's Journey from the Four lands of Lithuania to the Ports of Baltimore and London (2009).
I think that what we’re doing right in the contemporary academy is a very traditional thing. We are instructing the young. And the value of instructing the young, persons between 18 and 21, is not to be underestimated. It’s a great luxury for a society to take it’s 18 to 21 year olds and to let them develop as thinkers. But it’s a luxury that will make us a more humane, thoughtful, as well as informed society.
So I would defend against really any comer the traditional role of the liberal arts. Sitting in a classroom with eight people who are there to sit and talk about a chapter in Moby Dick offers the people in that room instruction not only in this text, but in a certain kind of civil discourse in a certain kind of human conversation. And in some way, the naughtier the text, the better the instructions. Solutions aren’t simple. Issues have many twists and turns, many levels, and it will often take time to get to the bottom of something.
Sometimes when I teach a story by Melville, an ah-ha moment happens when everyone says, “Oh. Oh. Oh, oh, oh.” Is a half an hour in or 45 minutes in or an hour-and-a-half in. And we believe in our very fast culture that we can get things immediately. And in fact, you can get some things like that, but to get to the bottom of a hard question actually takes people sitting together in a room together and thinking about it over time. And I think to have that model of human intercourse that we give to people 18 to 21, this is what it can be to operate as an intelligent person in the world with other people. I think that is a luxury we have to afford.
Having said that, having made a case for that luxury, I hope I see the day that we in the academy turn around and face out into our societies. I believe that there should be partnerships, multiple partnerships around the edge and periphery connecting every university to its community. In my life, I teach high school teachers. I’m involved in a program where I teach high school teachers and that the intellectual resources of our great universities so much of our energy goes inward, goes into our specialties, goes into preserving the value of these institutions and is not angled outward to the society means to me that we aren’t really doing our jobs.
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