Published on September 10th, 2012 | by Thompson4
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.