Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Future of Universities

Consider a unifying threat to the liberal arts from Republican governors as outlined in this IHE article. Among the major reforms, they would:

A. Compensate universities on how many graduates receive jobs
B. Support the slashing of traditional liberal arts programs or majors that do not directly generate employable outcomes.
C. Support professional majors that directly correspond to the needs of the market.

A, B and C are based on the assumption that university education is about "getting a job." That's it. There is no other purpose to go to university. Second, once one adopts this thesis, there seems little one can do to convince them otherwise. Or is there?

Let's start with a different theory about the university, and let us concede that one fact is people attend university is that "getting a job" is one motivation. I argue it is still possible to have a conception of the university that can accommodate this motivation of students without making all other reasons for the university's existence subsumed by it. That's the problem with the Conservative want for reforming state universities. They seem dedicated to the proposition that the only optimal reason people attend university is employment. In a wider conception of the university, the university does more than train potential employees.

Let me list what I think the university does, and we can start from there.

1. Universities transmit cultural knowledge onto a new generation of young people.
2. Universities re-socialize people into productive citizens by exposing different populations to each other in a variety of settings.
3. Universities train the mind in terms of reasoning, writing, and reading.
4. Universities innovate existing science and technologies as well as existing frameworks and knowledge.
5. Universities showcase the aesthetic multiplicity of the human condition.

Now let's set the Conservative thesis about higher education off to the side. In truth, I am only calling this the Conservative thesis in response to the article above.
6. Universities train potentially-employable people.

From the above list, 1-5 resonate on a different level than just simply being places that train people to get jobs. 1, 2, 3 and 6 are student-focused outcomes. 4 belongs to the scholars of the university alongside 5, though 5 could belong to the whole community. I would say 1 imbues every other subsequent number after it, including 6. But notice, down our list if we took the whole of 1-5 versus someone that did not attend university, the employability drastically goes up such that 6 can be an anticipated outcome. In this way, I see 6 as more of an indirect benefit from 1-5, but the Conservative thesis can be counted as a direct benefit also. I might be wiling to see it both ways. My only point is that 1-5 share a relationship to 6 even though people want to make universities all about 6.

On the list above, we can accept that 1-6 exist in harmony with each other. When one receives more attention than any other one, universities become close-minded and adopt a narrow-minded culture. Currently, the economic anxiety of college educated professionals weighs on everyone's mind, and 6 is in the driver's seat when Governors take a long look at their public institutions. However, without the public financial support or respect for knowledge in general, 6 is unlikely to carry the day without 1-5. If  people use 6 to evaluate universities, then the research culture and all other benefits of the university will be sacrificed for 6. I don't think it is slippery slope to anticipate turning public universities more and more into community colleges. For the public university, the point is to be sensitive to 6 without sacrificing 1-5.

Why Exactly are 1-5 Needed?

Assume that a university did fund a public university based on the employment outcomes of its students. The line of reasoning is that university's are accountable for the employment of their majors. This choice puts universities in the driver's seat where market forces determine them. Market forces take on a life of their own, and university's cannot be responsible for that which determines them, and in some cases overdetermines them. First, students decide on their own majors. If a student majoring in English literature never took an internship, only went to class and indulged in hedonism for four years, then the university should not be responsible for the self-determining choices of its youth. Second, as I said, market forces are in a state of constant flux often moved by factors way out of our control. Therefore, the university should not be responsible for what it constantly cannot be responsible for. Ought implies can. it. The attribution of responsibility is misplaced.

Universities can control what they charge to students. They can control how they are structured and what they implement. They CANNOT control markets such that setting them up to be responsive to markets will always be reactionary and such thinking will set universities up to fail.

1-5 are needed for the purposes of having a culturally-literate society. We want citizens to vote and make the best choices. We want people to reason well, be informed about the world and make good choices all around. We want people to draw connections between various contexts and elicit connections concealed from the surface. A person should appreciate the contexts that come before herself as well as those contexts alive in her own unique situation.

More than that, given that markets change over time, if we funded universities based on student employee outcomes, universities might inadvertently generate too much or too little of one "commodity." During recessions, many undergraduates go to law school, seeing a J.D. as an often more useful degree than an MBA. Recently, however, lawyers haven't prospered since there are too many of them. If all of a sudden accountants are no longer needed and all we did was emphasize accounting to the students for the market need over the past five years, the university has created a situation in which someone is trained only to do one thing. Another recession that takes out accountants and they're toast. However, the argument goes if the same student had taken a decent spread of liberal arts classes, that student will have the skills such education engenders and might be more-rounded to bounce back from the fate that might befall her. As such, a strong liberal arts background improves the bounce and the skills people need throughout life beyond their employment. In that way, 1-5 are best served by a liberal-arts intensive undergraduate degree with chances for the student to determine themselves.

Let's restate this line of reasoning. 1, 2, and 3 pass on skills to the student that improve him beyond simple economic focus of 6. At the same time, however, 4 and 5 support the existence of 1, 2, and 3.

What to Do?

Now that I have more clearly delineated the problem, we can do several things to reduce the cost of the university in general:

1. The Professoriate can take a much more active role in administration. The bloat of administrative cost to universities came at the cost of professors not wanting to volunteer their time while at the same time the ascendancy of university bureaucrats that specialize in administration without ever having been scholars themselves. Public universities might want to think about adopting Australian National University's model. They have two tiers of faculty: research and teaching. Developing a teaching faculty with little or no research expectations might improve the quality of teaching.

2. With the professoriate taking more of an active role in the university, cutting inefficient and redundant administrators can make a difference.

3. Introduce an Americorp benefit of reduction or elimination of student debt of Ph.D.s that decide to teach at a public institution and pay them a modest salary with benefits.

4. Restore pre-Recession support for higher education.

5. Have a nation-wide year of employment or service for college students. Pay them a modest stipend and reduction in student loans and have companies use the massive federal database to match potential candidates to future employers. Centralizing this process might make it easier to monitor the employment conditions of young people.

6. Experiment with online courses as well as online pedagogy. If Ph.D.s get involved with this from the beginning, then it is harder to eliminate our relevance when colleges do want to go this route.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Aesthetic Values Vs. Ethical Values

Scheler considers the intrinsic value of art on par with the moral values. They occupy the same level of givenness as spiritual values. I want to explore the possibility that aesthetic values are trumped by moral values. Scheler is silent on this issue since the various value-rankings receive no internal measure or prescription about values in the same ranking. Within the same ranking, various values are incommensurable with each other, and therefore inquiry is invited on this score. Here's something akin to the argument I am currently pondering:

Argument from Communal Priority

(1) Aesthetic values concern reasons that count in favor of the status of an artwork
(2) Moral values concern reasons that count in favor of why we ought to pursue a particular course of action or why we ought not pursue a particular course of action.
(3) Both aesthetic values and moral values must be instantiated in worldly goods.
(4) In order for a society to function, there must be at least some settled prima facie agreement of moral values and the corresponding worldly goods that embody these agreed upon moral values.
(5) Aesthetic values are not necessary in the settling of prima facie agreed upon moral values
(6) If (5), then aesthetic values are trumped by moral values as a requirement of civilization.
(7) Therefore, aesthetic values are trumped by moral values as a requirement of civilization.

Premise (1), (2), (3) are true by definition. (3) follows from accepting Scheler's distinction between values-as-that-which-manifests in terms of a good. Goods are valuable as "bearers of value." A hammer may be instrumental to my purposes in building a house, but the hammer could also be a holy relic manifesting some deeper truth of Holy life. Material goods can come to embody all types of value. Needless to say, we only encounter values in terms of goods, actions or persons. Given the material logistics required for civilization, I posit (4) as a criterion of what it means to be social beings living in communities.

I do not want to call (4) a definition. Perhaps, intuitive belief is the right word, an a priori belief akin to a Rossian moral intuition. Moreover, I am rather unclear what I mean by society's "functioning" on purpose. It stands to reason that if we are communal beings, and human beings require some type of infrastructure for culture to develop, then spaces must be devoted to their appearance in a functional way. Following Arendt, I think certain worldly spaces are devoted to the manifestation of certain values, and the creation of art work attests expressing some evaluation of how values manifest. Roman art work might be dedicated to the continuing endurance of Rome itself. Roman culture seemed to subsume all aesthetic expression under the Roma Aeterna ethos. In this way, art work can enhance or even destroy our ability to pick up on other values. For now, I won't worry about this here. Instead, I only want to clarify further what I intend with (4).

The real argument occurs in (5), (6) and (7) as a modus ponens. Notice within the argument, moral values receive more priority from the fact that aesthetic values are not necessary as a requirement of civilization. However, there is a strong line between necessity and how art may augment moral values once civilization has been established. Art can disclose critical reflection or open up discourses about values in new ways. However, this augmentation of discourse or opening up perception turns on the very fact that civilization develop to a point of stability. Philosophers are not ideal in a warring state, and this fact follows why Plato must ban Homeric myths from the ideal city as much as why civilization cannot entertain aesthetic values as important as moral values. Moral values establish the material condition of civilization itself. While this establishment will never be perfect, there will be at least some agreed upon prima facie beliefs that fill out the space between persons such that the business of practical life can commence.

Whence practical life can commence, participants in that lifeworld will develop the spirit of its practical life in terms of aesthetic works. Aesthetic works are the moments when spirit comes aware of itself within individuals, and an intersubjective space opens up inquiry such that one might say that the spirit of the individual comes to embody the whole. The whole becomes questioned in the reflective moment of the individual turned to spirit in art. This opening up of discourse in an intersubjective space cannot come about if moral questions are neglected, but nor can the moral questions advance in understanding if the self-reflective moment of culture never occurs in actual artworks of the society.

However, I do not want to urge the complete superiority of moral values over aesthetic values, nor do I want to oversimplify the relationship between them. In fact, the tolerance for art is directly proportional to how openly pluralistic a society can be. If the tolerance for certain avenues of aesthetic expression diminish, then there will be the diminishing of our capacity to live tolerantly with each other. Thus, the relationship between them is incommensurable, yet if some external factor reduces our ability to appreciate spiritual values in the form of aesthetic and moral values, then our society is incapable of experiencing justice or beauty as values in their own right.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Boston Museum of Art Reflections

Here are some of thoughts having visited the Boston Museum of Art today.

1. The Spaces of the Museum: As I walked through the contemporary art wing, I have noticed how museums present art work says much about how the aesthetic experience is allocated a space to affect us. The curators let the walls remain white.

This white wall coloring is true in Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, the National Gallery and the St. Louis Art Museum in their respective contemporary wings. White signifies cleanliness and purity, a neutral orientation such that any work that hangs on the wall space can be shown as it is in itself. In this way, the museum accommodates any perspective because in our time all perspectives are to be entertained, given space, and to be shared in their eminent sense. The background of white is used in photography to give the illusion of no horizon line, no definition but an indefinite world with no definition and boundary. Here, in these spaces - like photography - the white forms a background that can let the independent work come into relief. The created space that accommodates any perspective is a space that can take no direction and fulfills its function by accommodating no perspective. The space does not orientate us as other spaces. A church prepares us to feel insignificant next to the glory of God with flying buttresses or corporate buildings manifest clean lines of square glass conformity and efficient use of materials, the same efficiency that motivates the greed for profit. Neat, tidy and organized. The white space cannot be anything. It is free floating. 

Contrast the white space of any Contemporary Gallery to the historic wing at either Boston or Chicago. The European wing is dark green and a dark turquoise bordering on green. The darker colors bring out the relief of Copley's portrait of Colonial Americans, Thomas Sully's portraits and the shimmering fabrics of the aristocracy are masterfully captured in 18th century French paintings. The dark colors are not pure, but a definite color. The spaces have been decidedly lit, painted and designed. There is a decided intention of the past such as putting the past in glass containers that cut us off from our past in a different way than the free floating works of contemporary artists. The works of the past are protected from our intrusion as the white free floating pristine contemporary works. Contemporary artworks are situated in spaces that offer no historic determination. Our inability to situate contemporary works in a decided situation is exemplified with the use of white spaces. Contrary to contemporary works, the settings of historic art offer a perspective. They are situated in a room with color with a definite design, and while the art appreciator might not know what horizons of history fully determine or inform the present horizons, the presence of color signifies the presence of some definite content. 

2. The Dearth of a Perspective Embodies a Cultural Truth: With the white space on the walls, the museum respects all perspectives. This lack of a perspective might be called the result of a postmodern ethos, but I do not want to go there entirely. Instead, I only want to track the consequences of the white space walls. By creating a space open to all points of view, there is no common aesthetic field to ground our vision of what the art work is about, and also, art is given without purpose. Instead, the only thing we can say is that art resists thematization of all varieties. While art can create meaning, there is no reason for us to listen to anyone one voice. There is no privileged perspective. The white space signifies that art can be anything, and if a philosopher or critic were to assert the function or form of aesthetic experience is X, then an artist will find a way to resist such thematization. Art objects slip away from determination but he artist let alone take on a life of their own, and that life -- as you may guess -- can only be seen in the gallery with white walls. 

The embodied space of a lack of definition or boundary implies that creative artists can assert anything. Just like authors on blogs can publish anything (as I do when I finish a post here), the artist can form anything, work with any material, and intend anything. To the spectator, then, her mind need not frame or anticipate the dimensions of aesthetic experience (though Gadamer would have us believe that this is impossible). She must only be tolerant of the work, and for this reason, she does not form any sensitivity to aesthetic experience. She is only to be hermeneutically open. She must be as clean and open as the white walls,and yet openness to the possibility of art is not enough. Thus, the larger cultural problem in America presents itself, nobody is capable of experiencing the horizons of the past because life in the present requires such openness that the same sterility of the walls in the museum adorns the souls of Americans' inability to experience art. 

Now friends familiar with my Gadamerian proclivities may press that the "fusion of horizons" allows for openness and determination of the past in the form of tradition. Yet, my point is that the organization of the space in the museum's contemporary art wing is an attempt to privilege openness evinced by white walls at the expense of tradition that is pictured with designed spaces of dark walls. The pieces of the past no longer speak to us. Instead, we are illiterate about those historical horizons. We go to a museum and read the information plaques. We let the history be decided for us. The controlled intentions of the walls and the space in the museum have a conceivable effect on how we conceptualize art. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Iron Sky Review

Iron Sky is a zany movie. In some ways, it is a parody, and the movie is intelligently executed. Let me clue you in on some of my thoughts.

First, the character Renate is an idealistic proponent of National Socialism. She educates the children as the only Earthologist on the moon. Her innocence is the lens through which the plot unfolds. She teaches her little Aryan children the language of the Earth -- English --,  and she is the wife-to-be of the ambitious Klaus, the next in line to become the leader of the Nazis on the moon. Renate accompanies Klaus and a captured Black Astronaut named James Washington. James Washington was picked by the President of the United States, a perfect parody of Sarah Palin, to travel to the moon and scout Helium-3 deposits. Helium 3 is an energy source that would make the United States all but unstoppable if it secured this deposit. Too bad it belongs to the Nazis.

When Renate goes to Earth and presents herself to the President, she lectures on themes of an ideal world order, a utopian of peace and tranquility invoking the same divine imagery that often blinds the fundamentalist Right. That's the beauty of this moment. Iron Sky loses this insight to the dumbfounded antics of its zany nature, but the point is driven home when Renate's speech is worded exactly through the lips of the President.

Meanwhile, Renate's innocence is lost by living in the United States, but strangely she learns about Nazis from Charlie Chaplin's movie The Dictator. The character in the dark parody becomes awakened by the light-hearted early 20th century parody. In the end, Renate and James Washington travel back to the moon as unsung heroes to save it. The redemption of Earth is found in the embrace of diversity as a James Washington kisses Renate.

The ending, also, proves equally insightful. When the Nazis are defeated and no longer a threat, the President orders her lackey to secure the Helium 3 deposits. The coalition of spaceships that fought to save the Earth against the Nazi invasion all succumb to a frenzy of Hobbesian self-interest. The ships destroy each other, and as the camera pans out from the moon base, small flashes of light encircle populated areas of the world. The states of the world end up destroying the world, and give us the very world the Nazis wanted to bring about all in the name of "energy independence" courtesy of the United States.

Needless to say, this movie offers a perception of the US that is less than favorable. Far be it for me to say that the Europeans involved in making this film should have a different perception. I just found the perceptions offered with subtle nuances and while sometimes, these anti-American perceptions were more than central in animating the plot, yet the emphasis did not become overpowered with cynicism. Instead, the perceptions of the US were honest, and this honesty is balanced with respect to the dark comedy genre of the film. Some dark comedies are overly reliant upon cynicism to animate the film. The welcoming feature of this film is in offering us a parody of the fundamentalist strain of American politics and stark greed we have for energy independence such that this desire is more important than the safety of the world itself.

Beyond these two points, the movie is a B movie. Iron Sky suffer from overly acted scenes, cliche lines and predictable plot devices. Plot wise, the movie is not that spectacular, but rather average. It neither stuns nor shocks the spectator. Instead, the movie is ranked in the middle on Facebook.