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Published on September 10th, 2012 | by Thompson


The New University

I’ve always been interested in the future of University curriculum mostly because I’ve been disappointed with what our current University system has to offer.  This disappointment has arisen strictly from my undergraduate experience, and the ease of which I completed two programs of undergraduate study only to find the things I really wanted to learn, and the people I really wanted to read, were made available in graduate courses.  I think much of what we learn in required graduate courses in English (i.e. intense critical and rhetorical theory) should be taught to undergraduates before they step out into the real world with misconceived notions of what socialism and rhetoric are.  I guess the main issue I have with undergraduate studies in the limited University systems with which I have experience (University of Washington and Montana State) is that undergraduates aren’t learning enough, and perhaps the rigid structure of disciplines prohibits students from learning what they should to broaden their minds rather than learning what’s required for a future job.  We shouldn’t simply teach students how to perform tasks to pull down a paycheck, but to encourage creativity and individuality so we’re not creating submissive slaves but unique, free-thinking individuals that can communicate across multiple disciplines.

Wayne Booth’s idea of a University appeals to me, and I’d like to think it appeals to Pirsig as well.  Phaedrus may deliver the Church of Reason lecture to tell his students “you have to have faith in reason because there isn’t anything else.  But it was a faith he didn’t have himself” (Pirsig, 190).  It’s reasonable to take the knife to University studies and divide it into disciplines, but as Booth notes, it sure makes it hard for students to effectively communicate and comprehend across disciplines.  “But for even the most learned amongst us, the circle of what we might call participatory understanding does not extend very far,” (Booth, 232) and “perhaps the largest circle of those who claim to understand one another would be found in English and other modern language studies” (Booth, 235).

Phaedrus disliked teaching rhetoric because of the way in which he was told to teach it, not because it didn’t seem like a worthwhile discipline.  Teaching students rhetorical tricks to sharpen their arguments’ persuading properties wasn’t a very effective way to teach rhetoric.   “He had wanted his students to become creative by deciding for themselves what was good writing instead of asking him all the time.  The real purpose of withholding the grades was to force them to look within themselves, the only place they would ever get a really right answer” (Pirsig, 253).  Though withholding the grades didn’t work like Phaedrus hoped, the idea of allowing the student to uncover or discover their own education is one that deserves more consideration.  “The whole idea of individual creativity and expression in the classroom was basically opposed to the whole idea of the University,” (Pirsig, 253) and it still is.  “When spontaneity and individuality and really good original stuff occurred in a classroom it was in spite of the instruction, not because of it,” (Pirsig, 254) and it still does.  I remember my undergraduate days in film school when my best work was a result of bending or breaking the rules provided by my professor.  Of course, grades were rarely given due to the quality of work but the inability (not so much) or unwillingness (mostly) to follow instruction.  I still value my education in film much more than I would have had I not been willing to break some rules.  The one rule I wish I could have broken more is to acquire degrees in more disciplines.  I was only able to get two degrees and three minors, but the whole time during my undergraduate studies I wanted to expand my knowledge of all disciplines.  I wanted to be a modern-day Renaissance man, but our current University system makes it hard to obtain a circle of knowledge of that width.

“The range of human knowledge today is so great that we’re all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him” (Pirsig, 170).  This is Booth’s pet peeve.  “Must we not admit, then, in all honesty, that we are indeed a pack of ignoramuses, inhabitants of some ancient unmapped archipelago, each of us an island…living at a time before anyone had invented boats or any other form of inter-island communication?” (Booth, 236).  With everything becoming so specialized it forces us to rely on “experts” who we hope are telling the truth.

Instead of hoping our experts tell the truth, why not teach undergraduates how to identify rhetorical situations and use rhetorical theory to decide for ourselves?  “We are experienced both as practitioners and students of rhetoric,” and can “improve our quality as a university, if we all studied how such peculiar yet rational persuasion works” (Booth, 237).  I think rhetoric should be taught to all undergraduates regardless of discipline because “knowledge is confined to what experts discover at the frontline, and if understanding is confined to participation in full dialogue at the frontline, then we operate ourselves without knowing what we do and without understanding each other.  If we know and understand only what we can prove – with empirical observation, or with statistics, or with rigorous logical deduction – we will never know whether a colleague is worth listening to or promoting, unless we ourselves can follow his or her proofs, in detail, and then replicate them.  All else is dubious, all else is guesswork, all else is blind faith” (Booth, 238).  I love Booth for his bluntness.  What good is it to send students out into the world if they still haven’t realized not to believe everything they read?  And how can they legitimately make decisions in building their life narratives if they are to rely on the honesty and intelligence of experts for their information?  The hyper-specialization of the University prohibits students from developing a broad knowledge of multiple disciplines that could protect them from being misled.

Removing the specialized disciplines in the current University system may be a bit too ambitious, but to allow students to discover their education is not a new idea.  I believe they do something like this in Missoula, where you invent your degree program by taking classes you already have an interest.  It’s the journey that makes it fun, and once you take the journey out of education, the fun comes in shots of whiskey and mugs of beer.  “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive,” (Pirsig, 144) and when I arrived at my graduation day, I can’t say I was pleased with my education.  I tried to undermine the University’s structure, but their rules and regulations kept me from truly travelling.  “A university run by a faculty whose members, while cultivating their own gardens, insist on looking over the garden fence and even visiting with the neighbors – such a university has no need for a department of rhetoric.  With most faculty members now pursuing new specialties, discovered where previous disciplines had overlapped without their defenders’ quite knowing it, just about everyone practices rhetorology in order to teach the rhetorics better” (Booth, 251).  That’s a university I’d pay to attend.

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

4 Responses to The New University

  1. Siyeh says:

    As a new applied economics graduate student, I’m amazed at how little logic many of the undergraduates have. Not to mention that many of them are lacking in basic math skills.

    Why would a producer ever sell you something for negative prices? Cigarette consumers have more alternatives than producers?

    Economics is suppose to model the world! How could you ever come up with these conclusions?

    I feel it comes down to sub-par high school education. Students are simply not prepared to think on a level we’d like them to.

    There is another discussion about the public paying for you to broaden your own intellect, rather than learning a specific useful skill….

  2. Bret says:

    You’ve got a lot of points in here that I’m diggin’ (I hope you’ll excuse me, but I’m going to be meandering to clear and crystalize my thoughts). In particular, the notion of what is disappointing about the way a university conveys knowledge, and what knowledge is considered worthy of conveyance. It seems odd that ideas like, as you say, “intense critical and rhetorical theory”, are deemed not undergraduate material. It seems that this is largely good-intentioned “they’re (the students) are not ‘ready’ for this” malarkey, but it does seem like a larger systemic issue. What dictates whether someone is “ready to learn” something? Shouldn’t there be an effort to bring in ideas to expand? If we spend all this time assuming that people are or aren’t ready for certain kinds of knowledges, we are limiting their pool of potential knowledge wells to drink from.

    How do we change that? I personally drift away from a “let’s burn this mother down, pookie!” mentality, as revolutionary/rebellion would likely not be something I’d be all that good at. That said, I think that, in a way, the best solution to show the power of rhetoric is to use it. If you use that power people will notice. I have personally taken to expressing the power of rhetorical ideas in the classes I teach. I like giving speeches, fiddling with all the elements and thinking about how to use them for greater affect. When this is seen to happen, and when I overtly ask those questions of why what works does works, people’s interests are piqued.

    Admittedly, is very pie-in-the-sky optimism… but it is also not were I feel the whole of the solution is. The solution is lots of little things, but I honestly feel that it has to subtle, and persuasive, and powerful… That is not to say I feel anything you’ve said(typed) isn’t, I’m just kind of hung-up on thinking about subtlety now.

  3. jenny thornburg says:

    Oh, I see, you are Thompson. The pic of the professor(Booth) had me fooled. Wow. That’s an interesting commentary on the power of image. I really thought this was some scholarly site on which you had an elusive link or page. And I am unfamiliar with your name, so that didn’t help.
    That cross-disciplinary study is right up my alley, as I was a Geology major for 3.5 years, then graduated in Liberal Arts and Writing. I remember talking to Doug about coming from an intense science background, and he kindly pointed out that this was a positive factor. It gave me a different perspective, which meant I could bring that energy to the table in a sometimes static environment.
    I underlined that quote about students having to look at themselves, too. As a creative person, I have found that in some instances, originality was actually punished. That’s frustrating. In fact, soul killing.
    I wonder, if we approach an age where as Pirsig says about the mountain, “No books can guide us anymore.” Perhaps the intuitive senses will prevail, will Liberal Arts majors, the Renaissance Folk will rise…

  4. ARRIVES says:

    I find your argument against specialization interesting. When I was reading, I thought back to teaching high school. On more occasions than I can count, I heard students remark, “I can’t wait to get to college. Then I can take the classes I’m interested in and not be forced to take classes that are stupid.” Inevitably, the implied accusation here was that English was stupid and they couldn’t wait to not have to take it anymore. I would get a small amount of sinister joy by explaining that for most of them, they would still be required to take 1 or 2 semesters of composition. The scowls would return. In the secondary education system, we argue that forced exposure to a different variety of disciplines might allow students to discover an interest in something that they would not have thought interesting otherwise. Does this really work? Or do we really decide what we are interested in at a very young age? Why do we then repeat this cycle with general education or core courses in college? To make sure secondary teachers did their job and taught the students something? I’m not sure, but it’s something I’ve thought about for some time.

    What I’m trying to get at is that I’m not sure we should get rid of specialization. I do think we need people who are specialists in a given trade. It goes back to the old saying, “Jack of all trades and master of none.” I want masters teaching me and not Jacks. I do, however, see the need for “interdisciplinary” education. I also realize that what gets accepted as “interdisciplinary” is far from it in most cases. Having students reading in science does not make science interdisciplinary. Having students write in math also does not make it interdisciplinary. I realize I’m looking at this from an English educator’s standpoint, but that’s what I am. Those basic skills should be part of each discipline rather than being seen as “interdisciplinary.” Booth’s description of “interdisciplinary” seems to be more effective. He writes:
    But suppose we imagine a fish-scale in which each separate scale is not a scale at all but some kind of organism, perhaps like an octopus, with many tentacles, some of them reaching only to one or two adjacent scales, some leaping across to the opposite sides of the whole fish as it were. The tentacles often intertwine, and they are somehow able to send half-intelligible, scrambled, but still not worthless messages to scales in unpredictable parts of the whole. (245-246)
    In other words, one does not have to be a master of rhetoric to include it in another discipline. As long as there is an effort to make a “half-intelligible” meaningful connection, then the university or larger education system as a whole will be more successful. I like this idea. We do need to reach out and understand more, even if we do not become “masters” in that area.

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