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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
8.2 (Spring 2008)
College Professors Seek to Rediscover. Redefine, and Revivify Goals of Higher Education
Whatexactly is higher education and what syllabus or plan should students follow in order to arrive at the state of being intellectually informed and technically competent after four years of undergraduate matriculation? Most parents, sending their eighteen-year-olds away to the freshman experience, assume that the supervising experts of our colleges and universities fully understand the conditions, requirements, and goals of higher education, which the layman supposes are clear and obvious to all. It turns out that these cheery convictions might not represent the actual case. How has such a startling revelation come about? For four weeks during the summer of 2007, over two hundred American college professors from all disciplines have lived, eaten, and worked together under a sizeable federal stipendium on the campus of Ataraxia Polytechnic, a private “Contract College” used by the Texas-Oklahoma Twin-States Higher Education Consortium to “outsource” instructional services that cannot be profitably undertaken by individual, community-based institutions in the economically depressed oil-producing regions of the Panhandle. The purpose of the month-long “retreat” is no less than, in the words of the project’s organizers, “figuring out what no one has figured out in the two thousand and five hundred years during which higher education in the modern sense or something like it has existed.”
But if a thing has existed—as the statement implies higher education to have existed—more or less recognizably for more than two thousand years, doesn’t the fact that we recognize it and that it has endured in a familiar outline for so long imply that a definition or at least description of it exists?
“Absolutely not,” says Harden Klotz, who currently holds the Johnny Depp Endowed Chair for Metrosexual Studies at the Garden State Institute for Applied Graphic Arts and Food Sciences in East Orange , New Jersey . “These types of widely accepted intuitive conclusions, as held by ordinary people in an everyday context, are precisely what cloud the air in discussions of higher education policy. The main thing in deciding how to structure a curriculum is to be a unique individual by questioning authority, just like it says on the MoveOn.org bumper stickers that we all have on our Volvos. That’s questioning authority in an innovative, culturally sensitive, multi-nuanced, and cross-disciplinary way, it goes without saying. I always feel sorry for eight-hour-a-day right-wing types or so-called concerned parents who storm into the dean’s office and demand what they naïvely refer to as explanations for seemingly arbitrary course-requirements or clear thinking about the relevance of progressive curricula to economic survival in the real world. Or should I say, the alleged real world? Maybe those guys should cut down on their Big Tobacco smoking habits if they can’t pay the tab for their kids to study with highly trained professionals like me. Out here on the cutting edge of post-modern research—which Ataraxia is, I can tell you—we can see plainly that oppressive pretences about knowledge, rigor, discipline, and an orderly and well-established curriculum have, over the centuries, prevented the emergence of transgressive discourses and hindered the consolidation of the absolutely unshakeable, tax-funded departments and programs that inalterably enshrine and permanentize social change.”
Klotz, last year’s recipient of the Reggie Bannister Award for Most Immaculately Groomed Professorial Pony Tail (Humanities Division), cited his own special area as a case in point: “Five years ago, Metrosexual Studies didn’t yet exist—its development had been thwarted for hundreds of years by reactionary, bigoted attitudes towards androgyny, pan-erotic sensitivity, underarm and scrotal-sack hair-removal, and mall-shopping as an acceptable activity for adult males—not to mention cheap suits from J. C. Penney’s and bad haircuts from so-called barber shops. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities changed all that, as has the public prominence of Democratic Party presidential hopeful John Edwards. In consideration of how much the senator has done in spreading acceptance of metrosexuality, our organization is now considering the establishment of a yearly John Edwards Prize for Most Innovative Product Use by a Public Person—or maybe two such prizes, one for product use above the neck and one for below. Because of our increased profile and the eagerness of foundations to lend support, we now not only have our own quarterly journal, Exfoliations, but Abercrombie and Fitch have agreed to underwrite our annual conference—provided that all presenters submit to be photographed in their bikini-underwear for the new A & B catalogue.”
Pelvina Sporkler, the Critical Thinking team-leader at the Ataraxia retreat, hails from Cracklins College , a small liberal arts institution (formerly a ladies academy) located in Sasquatch Creek , Arkansas , where she serves as Administrative Special Coordinator for the Implementation of Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum. That term, “critical thinking”, is one that participants in the retreat use frequently, often while drinking Chablis coolers during the daily cocktail hour and listening to NPR. Porkler explains how “critical thinking” has gradually superseded the sad old garden variety of thinking, without any adjectival prefix, in the academy. “For thousands of years the oppressed masses of the Patriarchy did almost everything without adjectival prefixes. In the field of education, for example, children were forced to study stupidly un-prefixed language rather than nattily prefixed Whole Language, qualifier-free math rather than qualified New Math, and a rhetorically unadorned reading-and-writing rather than the lexically more satisfying Socially Progressive Reading-and-Writing. The same prefix-less limitations held sway over basic mental operations. Ferocious, socially regressive thought-dictators like Plato and Aristotle claimed that harsh, limiting concepts such as logic, clarity, and a basis in evidence should restrict our investigations into the world and hinder the formulation of our general statements. The oppressors of those days also made people do things standing up rather than sitting down, which is today’s enlightened preference. Frankly, progressive experts nowadays believe that the criterion of linear thinking, another word for logic, merely reflects the fact that men can sign their name in the snow without using a pen or pencil, whereas women have to squat. It’s so unfair…
“This means that lots of things that people want to be true and that should be true and that would undoubtedly make the world a flowering utopia if they were true—and typically this involves social rearrangements fervently desired by women and other marginalized people, like the elimination of urinals and mandatory coed restrooms—don’t have a fair chance in open discussion because the gatekeepers and power mongers of culture meanly declare them to be, you know, illogical or lacking evidence. What they’re really saying is, the people who justly want these things to be true and who need them to be true can’t write a syllogism in the snow without a pen or a pencil, which of course Plato and Aristotle probably spent most of their time doing back in ancient Greece . At least I think so. Research has shown, however, that ignoring evidence, avoiding logic and clarity wherever these stand in the way of a progressive conclusion—and, of course, squatting—are heartily conducive to the brave, new, heavily prefixed world of the progressive, multicultural, gender-equalized, and adjective-rich agenda. I ignored my father’s non-progressive advice not to buy a used Volvo over the Internet, and look how adjective-rich I am.”
Sporkler continued: “While favoring prefixes, critical thinking naturally remains implacably opposed to dangling modifiers—or to anything else that dangles. It’s hard to see how we’ll ever have Squat-Friendly Rules of Argumentation—to give one instance—until we get rid of the rules of argumentation, so embarrassingly deficient in any audacious qualifying prefix, or until we banish all those offensive danglers. Boy, do they make me feel uncomfortable. And we’re never going to do away with the oppressive scandal of rights (you know how humiliating those are) until we’ve established Squatters’ Rights, which is one of our primary goals in the critical thinking movement. I’d say that’s the basic definition of critical thinking: it combines an emphasis on squatting with an abhorrence for dangling and it upgrades them both by putting a fancy-sounding prefix, like post, in front of everything.” Frequently used examples of “post-non-prefixed” vocabulary, according to Sporkler, would be, “post-modernism”, “post-phallogocentrism”, and “Post Toasties”.
Many innovations that bode the way for a courageous future of American higher education have found enthusiastic advocates during the “Four Weeks of Ataraxia”. Take “ethno-mathematician” Laszlo Vëgly-Noumerant, chair of the Multi-Cultural Quantitative Sciences Program at César Chavez Community Welfare College in Oxnard, California. Vëgly-Noumerant qualified for his master of industrial arts degree from Land Grant Correspondence Academy, East Sandusky, Ohio by reading about the counting system of the stone-age Kah-Ching Tribe of the Lesser Sunda Archipelago in a public library. He hopes to apply that counting system to arithmetic pedagogy in the sophomore year, as a kind of new New Math to “cleanse” college-students of “the vestiges of Patriarchal reckoning”.
“It’s really amazing,” says Vëgly-Noumerant, “the Kah-Ching have only three numbers—one, few, and many—which they nevertheless use to compass all the tallying demands connected with the practical chores of everyday life. Compared with the decimal counting system using Arabic numerals with a zero, it’s a definite improvement in the direction of notational economy. The decimal system means memorizing ten symbols, almost as many as in the alphabet, and then there’re all those operations—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. If you say that American colleges and universities eat up billions of dollars annually of taxpayer money, what does that really mean to the average person? Nothing. It could even be intimidating. So you might as well say it’s many dollars, or even just a few, as far as construction workers are concerned. Replacing the Western decimal system with the Kah-Ching trigital system could have important implications for college administrators. Suppose some pesky state representative asks the dean, ‘of the three thousand entering freshmen from four years ago, what is the precise number that have earned a degree this year?’ The dean could answer with perfect honesty, while consulting the rosters, ‘Hmm, let me see… there’s one, there’s a few… why, there’s many. Honest to God, Mr. Representative, many seem to have graduated and only a few didn’t!’ Trigital counting could help in grading quizzes, too.”
At one point, Vëgly-Noumerant considered lobbying for a base-five counting system once in use among the warrior-caste of the West Gobi Plateau, which he had also read about in the same public library. “This was an organic counting system drawn from the fact that the male body (but not, of course, the metrosexual male body) has five prominent appendages, not including the head. But after consulting with my colleague here at Ataraxia, Professor Sporkler, I remembered that the West Gobi system belongs to what modern anthropology calls Anti-Squatism, something offensive, in a grossly dangling way, to the progressive outlook. I decided I wouldn’t want any of that, what with a supernumerary fifth token John-Thomasing around and upsetting the esthetics of the otherwise evenly balanced cardinal series. So I threw in with the Lesser Sunda style of enumeration. I’ve already received a six-figure grant—oops, make that a many-figure grant—from the National Endowment for the Sciences. I’ll be saying Kah-Ching all the way to the bank!”
Peace Studies is yet another hot topic at Ataraxia this year, one already strongly reflected in undergraduate curricula across the country. In fact, a nasty incident marring the retreat halfway through its four weeks thrust into prominence the Peace Studies team-leader, Senior Professor of Conflict-Avoidance Counseling, Jihada Alhazred-Cthulhu, of the breakaway New Miskatonic Women’s-Studies Madrassa-University of Arkham, Massachusetts. The incident, involving a mop-and-bucket, a suicide bomb-belt, and the bad luck of an Ataraxia Polytechnic janitorial staff-member in misunderstanding a nuanced non-gender-specific remark uttered privately by Alhazred-Cthulhu to Pelvina Sporkler (or so observers claimed), spoiled the Other-Gendered / Handi-Capable Grand Shuffle-Board Tournament and Multi-Cultural Karaoke Contest, long planned and eagerly anticipated. The Ataraxia organizers had scheduled this event to celebrate the fortuitous same-day coincidence during the retreat of the Toltec Huitztliputchtli Festival, in which the high priests used to put to death captured shamans of oppressive enemy-tribes, and the seventy-fourth anniversary of the Bat-Mitzvah of the late feminist Congressperson Bella Abzug. According to Professor Vëgly-Noumerant, this particular calendar-convergence happens “only once every many years or so.”
Asked why she had worn a suicide bomb-belt under her ruby-sequined black-silk chador from Vivienne Westwood, complemented by a stunning dark red faux-leather handbag from Karl Lagerfeld, Alhazred-Cthulhu spoke of her “solidarity with the Palestinian people”, “the plight of the fresh-water dolphin”, and “the backlash of dangling participles emanating from Fox News and The O’Reilly Factor”. She reminded a badly shaken crowd that “in really effective conflict-avoidance you’ve sometimes got to go beyond dialectic exchange by indulging in a little explosive monologue, which we call venting.”
The incident occurred during a brief power-failure, common during summer months in the Panhandle when air-conditioning needs draw heavily on the power-grid. Some participants suspected that a janitor, working near a fuse-box, had caused a short circuit. Alhazred-Cthulhu allegedly said to Sporkler, concerning the lights, “we need a gaffer.” The janitor, a recent South African immigrant of Zulu ancestry, overheard Ms. Alhazred-Cthulhu to have uttered the Swahili word kaffir, used by Dutch-speaking Afrikaners during the era of Apartheid as a racial slur against blacks. In a tense conversation with the offended party, Alhazred-Cthulhu agreed that gaffer is an obnoxious word that ought to be stricken from the language. She somewhat reluctantly apologized to the janitor, who is only just learning English, for, in her own words, “having held inexcusably niggardly watchfulness over my potentially hurtful rhetoric.” It was at this point that the mop came into play, fully soaked from the bucket, which fortunately dampened the black-powder fuse of the suicide bomb-belt, thereby minimizing collateral mayhem during the ensuing altercation, although it ruined the Vivienne Westwood chador.
Organizers of the Ataraxia retreat said that the federally funded conference lived up to their expectations and vindicated their rationale. “The only thing we know about higher education is that nobody really knows anything about it, and that means that parents and taxpayers have no real cause when they complain about skyrocketing costs for four years of courses that nobody in his right mind would even try to understand.”
(Thomas F. Bertonneau, Oswego, New York, filed this story.)