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.  

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.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Related Articles

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less

NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Keep reading Show less