19 January 2009

Reading For The Love Of It

Stanley Fish has written a rather sobering blog post in the Times about the end of liberal education. Commenting on a recent book by Frank Donohue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Fish writes:
The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment.
His point, however, is that today's entire higher-education universe, with its reliance on adjunt and temporary faculty and its insistence on assessment of outcomes, is part of this trend. From where I sit as an associate professor of English and the director of a small MA program in literature, I often think he's right.

Fish doesn't think there's a way to reverse this trend. I'm probably spitting in the wind when I talk to sophomores in a survey of literature from Homer to Shakespeare about reading for the sake of ... reading.

Then again, there have always been technical schools and vocational schools. It may be that the majority of institutions are going the way of utilitarian education. But among my students, there are still a few who are studying simply for the love of literature. It's because of those that I am still in this profession.

The Offspring has been a bit nervous and clingy lately, and I suspect it's a result of the immense milestone he's just accomplished: going from being a reader of words to being a reader of ideas, narratives, information. Last night, I was trying to help articulate for him that while reading opens up many new worlds for him, any transition so big is also a bit stressful. His response:

"I LOVE reading."

Asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory famously replied, "Because it's there." We need the utilitarian folks. We need the builders of bridges (literal and metaphorical). But we also need those who seek knowledge and experiences just for their own sake.

I hope Fish is wrong.