Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Technology and the Humanities

I'm teaching Michael Herr's Dispatches in my ENG102 (English Composition II) class right now, and reading it reminds me of why I do what I do, or rather, why what I do is important.  The analogies between the Vietnam War and our ongoing conflict in the Middle East are of course limited by culture and geography, but I think most people would agree that we've expended a lot in terms of treasure, if not blood, with very little to show for it. One theme in Herr's book is the massive technological advantage of the American forces and how little that mattered, in the end:

At the end of my first week in country I met an information officer who showed me on his map and then on his chopper what they'd done to the Ho Bo Woods, the vanished Ho Bo Woods, taken off by giant Rome plows and chemicals and long, slow fire, wasting hundred of acres of cultivated plantation and wild forest alike, "denying the enemy valuable resources and cover."

It had part of his job for nearly a year now to tell people about that operation; correspondents, touring congressmen, movie stars, corporation presidents, staff officers from half the armies in the world, and he still couldn't get over it.  It seemed to be keeping him young, his enthusiasm made you feel that even the letters he wrote home to his wife were full of it, it really showed what you could do if you had the know-how and the hardware.   And if in the months following that operation incidences of enemy activity in the larger area of War Zone C had increased "significantly," and American losses had doubled and then doubled again, none of it was happening in any damn Ho Bo Woods, you'd better believe it...

Certainly technology is the biggest factor in increased productivity, and higher education has been slow to adapt to new technology.  I read Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's book The Innovative University last summer.  Christensen argues that many schools have gotten themselves into trouble by trying to be like Harvard, with a focus on narrowly-defined research, and that colleges like Ashland should primarily teach "knowledge the world can use," practical stuff like business, science, and education, and leave the metaphysical navel-gazing to the prestigious liberal arts schools that can afford it.   He writes glowingly of the possibility of "disruptive technologies" like online courses, which he believes are becoming equivalent in quality to traditional face-to-face courses.

I think he's right, to a degree.  I went to a large state university, U.C. Berkeley, for my undergraduate degree.  Many of my courses were large lectures, and if we'd had the Internet then, I could have watched them online.   Yes, many classes had "discussion sections" with teaching assistants, but the bulk of the material was covered in lecture.  Actually, a lot of the material was covered in the textbooks, a very old technology.  And in those courses, I learned a lot about what people already knew.

But because I came to Cal already pretty good at English, I was able to get into the "by permission of the instructor only" creative writing courses and honors seminars.  And in those courses, I learned a lot about myself.   I still have my first paper from Stephen Booth's Shakespeare seminar, a reader-response analysis of the St. Crispin's day speech from Henry V.   My seven-page paper came back covered in four colors of ink, with ten single-spaced typewritten pages of comments.   In my other courses, I'd be lucky if I got more than a sentence from a teaching assistant.  The comments themselves were both brilliant and humbling, and I suddenly realized I wasn't as smart as I'd always thought I was:  "Don't let your reader hear you sweat trying to be winsome," Booth wrote at one point.   "You have the confidence that allows you to go off half-cocked," he commented on another passage.  "Confidence is a good thing.  Going off half-cocked is not."

The next semester I tried to take another course with Booth, a large lecture on comedy.   The rumor was that Booth wouldn't let you take more than one course with him-- "If I have anything to teach you, you'll learn it in one semester," he told us-- but I decided to put it to the test.   Midway through the first lecture, in an auditorium with about a hundred students, he saw me, stopped suddenly, and said, "You don't belong here," and then went back to the lecture.  I dropped the course that afternoon.    He had taught me what he had to teach. 

When I see footage of a new, $400-million-a-pop F-22 fighter blasting an ISIS command-and-control center, I think of Dispatches.   And when I hear business gurus like Christensen talking about teaching only "knowledge the world can use" and the "disruptive technology" of on-line learning, I think about the value of real human interaction in the classroom-- and the value of the humanities.    Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for the New Yorker, said it well in his blog post from last year, "Why Teach English?"

No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Or, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, "The civilized man is a wiser and more experienced savage."