The Last Liberal

“The University brings out all abilities, including stupidity.” — Anton Chekhov

“I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.” — Winston Churchill

I am an assistant dean in the college of liberal arts at a public urban university.  Part of my job is to help students solve the myriad of problems that can interfere with their studies.  Believe me, in my three months on the job, I have seen enough to fill several blogs and perhaps a couple of novels. 

Since I am in the College of Liberal Arts, I feel the urge to address the subject of liberal education and its decline on the modern college campus.  Liberal education is one of the few things that I find sacred; and as a professor I was a zealous disciple.  I could not understand (or accept) the fact that my students were not true believers as well.  Reactions to my teaching varied considerably.  On course evaluations my students usually wrote that “my expectations of them were unreasonable.”   On more than one occasion I even heard some of my African-American students call me a racist because I dipped freely into the Western canon for material for my history classes.  I had a few African students who had been educated in the European system.   Interestingly, they found my classes “engaging.”   Some faculty colleagues fretted that my methods would upset the classroom status quo and bring unwanted scrutiny to the department.  Others applauded my efforts, but told me privately that they were doomed to failure.  The rising generation, they warned, did not value learning—or at least, not the type of learning that was familiar to me.

I believe that we have become afraid to expect more of ourselves and our students.  Our consumer-oriented society and the escalating cost of college tuition have convinced us that education is just another product to be purchased; and thus, it must therefore be as attractive and non-threatening as possible to the largest number of potential customers.  True liberal education demands that assumptions be challenged, and ideas be twisted and pulled, and exposed to extremes of opinion.  In my view, to be educated is to be conscientiously uncomfortable.

Ignorance, to update Derek Bok’s familiar adage, is not only expensive, but also user-friendly.  Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.

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Land of the Lost

A couple of weekends ago a friend and I saw Will Ferrell’s new movie Land of the Lost, which is based upon Sid and Marty Krofft’s classic Saturday morning TV series in the 1970s.  The movie hit all of the right notes: it paid the appropriate amount of homage to its source material and contained enough wry self-mockery to keep the viewer from getting too nostalgic for the days when dinosaurs, obese black kids, and talking Great Danes were about as raunchy as cartoon fare got.  The capstone of the cinematic experience was, of course, Will Ferrell, whose reverence for and mastery of physical comedy makes him an indisputable heir to such legendary comedians as Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Don Knotts.  Indeed, Ferrell’s gleeful willingness to use his flabby, pasty, middle-aged body as his central prop was a welcome reminder that human actors will always be superior to their CGI counterparts, no matter how amazingly life-like the latter may be.

The premise of the film is simple: disgraced scientist Ferrell and his companions are stranded accidentally in a place where time has no meaning and where creatures and artifacts from other eras and planets are dumped as casually as a fast food wrapper.  Our heroes must then survive the myriad of perils confronting them in this “land of the lost” and find a way to return home, restore their reputations, and make a fortune through self-promotion.  I laughed.   I cried.   I wondered if a world like the Land of the Lost could actually exist.  It did not take me long to realize that this alien dimension was, in fact, quite real.   We know it, however, by a different name: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Now before fire and brimstone begin to rain down upon my head—and I assure you, Dear Reader, that it will—let me make a few things clear.   First, my parents and nearly all of my siblings graduated from HBCUs, as have many of my closest friends and most valued colleagues.  I began my academic career at one of the most respected HBCUs in the country.  And I have spent most of my professional life working on behalf of HBCUs by helping secure the financial, human, and intellectual resources they need to achieve their collective mission of providing education and opportunity to a population whose needs and potential have been ignored and underserved by majority institutions of higher learning.  Indeed, it is my wide experience with HBCUs that gives me the confidence to say that they embody some of the signature traits of the Land of the Lost.

For instance, the Land of the Lost is ruled by a cantankerous dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed “Grumpy”.  Likewise, many HBCUs are governed by “tyrant kings”—presidents whose philosophies and leadership styles are tragically out of step with the needs and responsibilities of the modern university.  They foster cults of personality (theirs), eschew transparency of process, and stifle debate and the free exchange of ideas among the faculty.

And what of the faculty?  They are the Sleestak, the lizard-like humanoids who inhabit the Land of the Lost.   Like the Sleestak, which are confined primarily to their subterranean realm, HBCU faculty members are prisoners of crushing teaching loads and the demands of innumerable departmental and university committees.  Rarely are they able to escape these duties and engage in the research and scholarship from which new knowledge flows.

That leaves the students at HBCUs and the prickliest analogy of all.  They are the Pakuni, the primitive, ape-like creatures who resemble human ancestors. I do not nor would I ever suggest that HBCU students—or any students, for that matter—are apes.  For me, the Pakuni represent innocence and potential.  When exposed to the right opportunities at the right moments, the Pakuni demonstrate the capacity to learn, adapt, and excel beyond what would normally be expected of them.  By and large, such has been my experience teaching and working with students at HBCUs.  However, they have also exhibited some of the less favorable traits of the Pakuni: a profound reluctance to defy group (or parental) expectations, a suspicion of new ideas that challenge established systems of belief, and a selfishness that is too often promoted and rewarded by society.

Brighter minds than mine have debated whether HBCUs still have a role to play in our “post-racial” society.  Both sides have made compelling arguments; and I doubt that I could add much.  I do believe that HBCUs should compete in the modern educational marketplace.  However, these institutions can no longer rely solely upon their historical and moral mission to survive in the twenty-first century.  HBCUs must embrace the best practices in leadership and governance, institutional advancement, faculty development, and student retention.  They must be relentlessly creative in making education relevant and continue to be a fearless advocate for those whom society would consign to the abyss of hopelessness.

If HBCUs fail in these vital tasks, they will be trapped forever in a time-warp.  And they would deserve to be.