Academics under the Tuscan sun and other musings

Tuscany in late June.  The hardworking farmer’s son Lucca, a charming young man of 19, is singing an aria from Puccini’s Tosca while mowing a small field of burnished grass in a minuscule valley directly below our hill-top villa. His tiny tractor makes loops around the field preparing the hay for baling into the huge round cylinders we see strewn about the Tuscan countryside of patchwork fields, rolling hills, and medieval castle towns.  His resonant voice echoes and spills over the surrounding forest and fields. Lucca has discovered the perfect amphitheater, unaware of the delighted audience above.  We hang over the rough-hewn rails of the perimeter fence astonished at his performance.

Later, the sun has traced its path of light and shadows over the layers of rolling hills. It hangs in momentary stillness, a poppy red orb, before disappearing below the skyline. Dusk thickens as the wind sings through the chestnut trees. At this moment I am with some faculty friends. And after several glasses of the regional Chianti, the conversation has turned to academic politics and American culture. There is such a deep contrast between the beauty of our surroundings and the depth of our existential despair. This grief derives from more than mere nostalgia for some fictitious past. It is poignant sorrow at the passing of old friends and values — the extraordinary teacher or the Dante expert, for example, leaving the academy — both scholars who have devoted their entire lives to the deep mastery of a difficult subject that American culture appears to care nothing about in its current frenzy of the superficial: reality TV and Hollywood bling. To many older professors this is a grim trend towards further degradation of intellectual life: an adulation of mediocrity, even stupid short sightedness. Some call it American anti-intellectualism. Some wear it as a badge of honor.

We have experienced a change in the academy as well that feels potentially devastating: short-term profitability as the operative ideology among many new administrators has permeated the academy in terms of “operational needs.”  More students but less time to prepare for class; more pressure to publish but less time for research; rising standards with declining resources; the cult of “accountability” devoid of substance.  And so we are trapped in the Wal Martization of the public university:  the weakening of collective bargaining to allow for management’s needs of just-in-time instructors with no job security and shrinking benefits. The public appears to think that most academics are lazy louts who are teaching their children nothing useful, at least from most of the media coverage of academics.  And where are the faculty we need to write the op-eds and public commentary necessary to establish a counter discourse?  What will it take to change this? Faculty are too busy teaching too many courses while trying to raise a family, or too busy writing and publishing peer reviewed articles, a requirement established by “Retention, Tenure, and Promotion” documents that do not count publications in public newspapers as valid for achieving tenure. We have written ourselves out of public discourse and we need to write our way back in.  If not, the cultural trend now casting a heavy spell over America will continue its momentum away from moderation and the capacity to compromise.  And we will have become silent participants in our own intellectual death.

Current Thoughtful Commentary or Commentary for Thought:

From Johann Hari’s “In the Age of Distraction, We Need One Thing More Than Ever: Books”:

“In his gorgeous little book The Lost Art of Reading — Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, the critic David Ulin admits to a strange feeling. All his life, he had taken reading as for granted as eating — but then, a few years ago, he ‘became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.’ He would sit down to do it at night, as he always had, and read a few paragraphs, then find his mind was wandering, imploring him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. ‘What I’m struggling with,’ he writes, ‘is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.’

From Kim Brooks’ “Is It Time to Kill the Liberal Arts Degree?”

….”Well,” I sometimes say, “what are  they (sic: current college graduates) going to do?”

The answer, at least according to a recent article in the New York Times, is rather bleak. Employment rates for college graduates have declined steeply in the last two years, and perhaps even more disheartening, those who find jobs are more likely to be steaming lattes or walking dogs than doing anything even peripherally related to their college curriculum. While the scale and severity of this post-graduation letdown may be an unavoidable consequence of an awful recession, I do wonder if all those lofty institutions of higher learning, with their noble-sounding mission statements and soft-focused brochure photos of campus greens, may be glossing over the serious, at-times-crippling obstacles a B.A. holder must overcome to achieve professional and financial stability. I’m not asking if a college education has inherent value, if it makes students more thoughtful, more informed, more enlightened and critical-minded human beings. These are all interesting questions that don’t pay the rent. What I’m asking is far more banal and far more pressing. What I’m asking is: Why do even the best colleges fail so often at preparing kids for the world?

In response, let me say that the only thing that might prepare an instructor to talk about what is happening globally is a trip to Shanghai and having read the “Financial Times”  for the past five years.  How is anyone supposed to “prepare” a student to comprehend the rapid change that has taken place with globalization combined with  the collapse of the economic bubble in 2008?  The world changed and the U.S. economy has serious structural problems unless you are among the super wealthy.   Globally, there are millions of graduates  looking for jobs now, from Cambodia, China, Tunisia to the United States.   We need economic policies in the United States at both the federal and state levels that produce the opportunities for high quality jobs. That sort of investment is not happening. And when/if it does, it takes ten years to kick in.  Currently, a graduate has greater opportunity for upward mobility in the EU than  the U.S.

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