June 10, 2005

Addendum to my response to a Core Curriculum

Since I've been home, I've done some more thinking about The Review's championing of a Core Curriculum as a sort of panacaea for Dartmouth's educational woes (which pretty much amount to being bad at the 1870 version of Trivial Pursuit). Here are a few more points I have thought of:

1. The Review presents the Western Canon as a source of universal values, but the scope of their critique is limited to the local--the Dartmouth campus. This seems rather discontinuous to me. Here's why:
If the Western Canon is truly a universalizable value, then some print and some time should have been spent writing about the place of the Canon outside of Dartmouth, at least as an ancillary argument for the Canon's importance. If the Canon is the best society has to offer, as the Review claims, there is an obligation implicit in making it the focus of their latest issue to put it in a larger societal context.

Questions like "Should the Canon be taught at night schools?" "Should it be taught at public universities?" "How about tech schools?" "How about non-Western universities?" do not have to be answered, but they merit a consideration, even in The Review's Dartmouth-centric scope. Since that consideration is absent, I assume it must be irrelevant to The Review's staff and Dr. Platt, in which case I have to wonder, if they truly believe that the Western Canon is the best education a person can have, why is it irrelevant to those not at a school like Dartmouth? In my humble opinion, it is simply pedagogical elitism--not education adapted to the needs of disparate communities, but education adapted to privilege--that drives the Reviewers.

2. In regards to the attack on the English Department's abandonment of the Writing Program, well, I agree fully that the greatest emphasis should be placed on making the Writing Program excellent and effective. I have to ask, though, why should there be a concern that English/Writing 5 is being outsourced to faculty other than those of the English department? Shouldn't we ask why the Review believes a computer science prof teaching at Dartmouth is incompetent as a teacher of grammar and effective composition? I tend to assume that if a person has been hired to teach at Dartmouth, s/he's a)pretty damn smart and b)except in special cases, has a considerable command of the English language and effective argumentation. Obviously there are professors that are better at this than others, and it is my hope that there is a preponderance of that type of professor in the English Dept. than in any other, but to cast outsourcing as a certain sign of the apocalypse as far as instruction goes is complaining for its own sake and shows a(n unwarranted) lack of trust in the capabilities of the Dartmouth professorate (not to mention a disturbing lack of real thought by the author).

I believe what is needed is not making the Writing Program the English Dept.'s exclusive province, but rather that a more stringent and universal list of educational objectives, specific grading guidelines, and common methods be drawn up. (Note: this is not a recommendation of a certain common body of texts to be used in the classes, but of a certain methodology and teleology that would be held in common among all classes.)

Also, one final thing: If we should be concerned that compsci or physics profs can't teach how to draft an effective paper, doesn't that say something about the writing programs of their college years? Maybe not much has changed.

3. The idea that you can only develop the skills of literary analysis or attain knowledge of the human condition based on the classics or those books that address "the Great Issues" is bogus. Some of the most illuminating conversations I have had at Dartmouth (or elsewhere) have sprouted from extraordinarily mundane, dull topics. I feel that one can say just as much about film technique after watching The Rock as one can after seeing a film by Ernst Lubitsch. I can use and sharpen my analytic skills on poor arguments like those of The Review just as easily and just as efficaciously as I can when tackling Hegel. I can have as deep a conversation about the human experience while talking about The Game's lyrics as I can while talking about Brahms. It's not about the subject, it's about the process.

Thanks for reading.


  1. An 057:00 PM

    1. Most Review readers couldn't give two shits about the Canon's applicability to UC Santa Barbara, Yale, or Montgomery College in Maryland. The Review cannot sell the importance of teaching a subject at Dartmouth by pointing out its applicability elsewhere, just as one cannot sell the idea of a local tax by pointing out its uses or absence elsewhere. The Review is not trying to sell the importance of the Canon as something that should be universally valued but rather its importance as something that should be valued at Dartmouth. One can hold universal values and make arguments for them based on local, discreet bodies of evidence without being hypocritical. One's scope need not always be large and grandiose to make a good point.

    Besides, that their argument was incomplete by leaving out other schools does not make their argument wrong. But is their point to be complete, or to be complete at Dartmouth? After all, TDR is not the Chronicle of Higher Education.

    2. You're arguing that CS and physics profs are good at writing and thus able to teach a composition course? Having experienced such professors myself, I would very much beg to differ. In an ideal world, they would be able to teach writing, but in the real world, they cannot.

    You also say that these professors were probably poorly-educated in writing themselves. Beyond contradicting your first argument that they are capable of teaching writing, is this any excuse for allowing Dartmouth students to write poorly? Writing should be taught by those best able to teach writing--and farming it out to those disinclined or unable to teach writing seems a poor idea.

    3. "It's not about the subject, it's about the process." What good is learning the process if you have nothing to process? You can learn the process of applying history to the present, but without a knowledge of basic history (which the survey demonstrated) such a skill is useless.

    It's interesting: even though you declare the Review to have poor arguments, you have written three lengthy posts critiquing the articles. If they were really so useless, you wouldn't have gotten such a bee in your bonnet.

  2. 1. You totally missed the thrust of my first point. My point was that The Review is a bunch of elitists, a point with which you seem to concur. I find educational elitism wrong and destructive. Apparently you do not.
    Also, I simply supposed that if The Review dedicated an entire issue to the topic of a Core Curriculum, at least they could be thorough. As you said in an earlier comment, one should "think globally, act locally." The Review fails utterly at thinking globally or even broadly and that narrowness undermines the value of the Canon.

    In comparing a local tax to the Canon, you are comparing the proverbial apples to oranges. The Canon is by its nature, intended to be the superlative educational experience and therefore is a universal value, just as happiness is supposed to be a superlative emotional state and therefore also a universal value. A local tax is not designed to be superlative anything. It is designed to fill a specific mission. If The Review is arguing that the Canon is only suited to Dartmouth, then it loses all claims to address Great Issues or to be the highest form of education, for what is truly great or good cannot be localized. (Hint: See Kant)

    2. I am not arguing that CS profs are all good at writing, I'm saying that they should be if they're teaching at Dartmouth, and if they're not, perhaps neither this time nor this place (Dartmouth) is alone in writing incompetence. That is not an attempt to justify the current state, but to purposefully blind oneself to a larger context, as the Review does repeatedly, is to invalidate one's argument. The Review asks no questions of their own assertions, and it is that spirit of ridiculous self-assurance that I am attacking.

    Also, this is the text of the last paragraph of that point, which you think contradicts my earlier point:
    "If we should be concerned that compsci or physics profs can't teach how to draft an effective paper, doesn't that say something about the writing programs of their college years? Maybe not much has changed."
    The words 'if' and 'maybe' tend to introduce hypothetical or propositional claims. Where did you learn English? I was not contradicting myself, I was introducing a secondary point that was hypothetical in nature and designed to attack the Review's critique from a different position--ceding the position that no one but English profs should teach the course, but then following that up.

    3. I argued specifically that there is always a subject to be discussed, even in pedestrian topics. My point was that the subject is a variable quantity, not a null set.

    4. Like I said, I find this to be an important topic. The strength of the arguments I am attempting to reply to is inconsequential. What is consequential is the topic at hand, not the way it was discussed by the Review. I do not believe in letting even bad arguments go if they bring up an important topic.

  3. Anonymous4:22 PM

    Andrew, methinks you're missing a major point. You're confusing the "Canon" with the "core curriculum. "All students in teh country should be familiar with the Canon of Western lit and all that. At Dartmouth, the Review wants it to be taught by way of a core curriculum of basic courses. It's the ideal and application of that ideal, and you're confusing the two.

  4. The way the Review (specifically Dr. Platt) lays out the proposed core curriculum, it amounts to the Western Canon. There is a suggested core curriculum which, besides a few texts by Arabic authors, is all Western white males. There is an intrinsic philosophical link between why the Canon should be taught by way of a core curriculum and what it is, and it is that link--the idea that it is universal, necessary, and irreplaceable--that I am trying to refute.