Archives For Culture

One of the ways to analyze culture is to look at film. This year’s Oscar nominations for best picture are quite impressive. Unlike previous collections, this batch of movies are thoughtful and possess unique cohesive themes. While summer blockbusters are usually an inch deep and a trillion dollars wide, this year’s Oscars are an impressive canon—instructing, initiating, and instilling a larger cultural conversation.

While it would be silly to argue they each have the same message, viewing them canonically unearths some interesting insights. Each of the Oscar nominations for best picture have some reflection on time. Some reach back in time, others skip through time, and a few are centered on the relationship of the past to the present.

Moonlight quickly moves through stages of Chiron’s life. Lion likewise jumps ahead in Saroo’s life from a young child to a college student. Saroo can’t move forward without first going back in time. La La Land is a throwback to old musicals and has a key scene at the end where Emma Stone reflects on how a different choice could have altered her life. Arrival is about the gift of language to humans which allows them to transcend time. Fences reaches back in time and centers of Troy Maxson and his wrestling with the past and present. Hidden Figures retells a familiar story and discloses strands of this story that were neglected. Manchester By the Sea brings the past into the present in the tragedy of a young family. Hacksaw Ridge tells an unlikely heroic narrative of the past and Hell or High Water is framed around the ethics of the past bank crisis.

Whether it be the intersection of the past and the present or the possibility of the future, each movie educates about life in the present and gives us quite a bit to digest in our current cultural moment. Four lessons come to the surface: (1) the past always extends into the present, (2) beware of nostalgia (3) don’t let the past derail the present, and (4) the future can be hopeful.

The Past Always Extends Into the Present

Although we tend to think of the past as locked away, its fingers find their way into the present almost like sugar ants inevitably find their way into a house. One of the most powerful portrayals of this comes in Manchester by the Sea. Lee Chandler is a sullen man who is asked to take care of his nephew when Lee’s older brother dies. What viewers find out part way through the movie is that Lee had a previous life. In this life he was happily married with three kids but a tragic mistake takes the life of his three children. Lee’s marriage unravels, and he now has to face his past in the city where his life was torn to shreds. In one telling scene he bumps into his remarried ex-wife and her newborn baby. She expresses remorse about how she treated him and asks to reconnect but Lee says, “There’s nothing there.”

Although the entirety of La La Land does not reflect on the intersection of the past and the present, the last scene reveals that if Mia and Sebastian had made a different choice their present would look different. The past decision of Mia going to Paris radically altered her life. Moonlight gives time montages of Chiron building the background of the story of a young black man and his struggles with identity and sexuality. The director Jenkins jumps through time to show the struggles Chiron has a kid are never really resolved although he matures.

The point is that in each of these films the past plays a major role in the development of the story, if not the most critical one. The movies teach us that we can’t siphon off the past as if it never happened and simply “move on” with our lives. Rather, the past always haunts us and causes us to reflect and ask different questions for the present and the future.

I believe this directly speaks into the racial discussion our country is having. I see pictures of white men holding up signs about how they never enslaved anyone, and hear those claiming the past is not their fault. But maybe Oscars help us see that this is stunted view of reality. We can’t siphon off the past and think that because it was in the past it does not have some effect in the present and the future. The past molds and shapes the present in ways that we can’t see unless a director fast-forwards through time. The past bumps into the present and reaches into the future. Acting like the past doesn’t play into the present and future is a very godless and deistic way to think of time. Time is a progression, but it is also unified.

Beware of Nostalgia 

A few of this year’s Oscar’s warn also of nostalgia of the past. La La Land is the most explicit with this theme. La La Land leads viewers through the motions of an old musical only to break their hearts at the end. The director Chazelle purposively lulled his viewers into sleep only to upset their expectations in the last few scenes. Chazelle warns his viewers to not escape into nostalgia. Not everything in the past is as it seems, so don’t get lost in the past.

Yuval Levin argues similarly in his book The Fractured Republic. Both liberal and conservative American’s nostalgia for the past has led to today’s polarized national life. Liberals to miss the economic arrangements of social liberalization in the 1960s while conservatives miss the 1980s. But today our society is more fragmented and fractured than either of those eras so we need different solutions to some of the same problems.

The films also in a similar way urge us to widen our perspective of the past. It is not just that the past reaches into the present, but that we have a rather limited view on what happened in the past. History is complex—thousands of threads combine to tell a story and not all those stories have the same point. Hidden Figures recounts a well-known space race story from the 1960’s but urges us to look deeper at some of the players that did not receive the credit they deserved. While we might think we know our history or the history of the nation, our perspective on the past is always at best incomplete. Our view of the golden age may have not been golden for others.

Hacksaw Ridge in a similar way told a WWII story but from the perspective of hero we may have never heard of and may not agree with ideologically. Hacksaw displays that those not like us, those who we might fiercely disagree with, are not necessarily bad people just because they have different perspectives. They are not cowards for not fitting into the current ideology. It takes more strength to take a step to a different tune. Sometimes those who are most unlike their generation are the trailblazers for the next generation.

Don’t Let the Past Derail the Opportunity of the Present

While the movies portray the importance of the past for understanding the present, they also warn that the past can derail the present. In Fences Tory Maxson is so wrapped up in the glory and tragedy of his past that he can’t seem to move his family into the good of the present. This is most evident with his interactions with their son Cory. Cory is a promising young football player but Troy refuses to let him pursue this dream because he thinks the white man will never let him succeed. Ultimately, Troy looks for happiness outside of his family which destroys the family. Toward the end of the movie Cory is tempted to also let bitterness define his identity by not going to his father’s funeral. But Rose (his mother) is a voice of reason. She tells him that she loved Troy, despite his weaknesses and that part of Troy still lives in him and he needs to conquer where Troy failed.

Hidden Figures in the same way tells of the story of four black women at NASA in 1961 who were instrumental in the space race with Russia. Rather than letting the past define these women’s roles they all push forward to become more than what the current culture would normally allow. They do this by being excellent at their trade and having a never-give-up attitude.

In one way, this point challenges those who would give a hearty “amen” to my first point. While a few of the movies show that the past can never fully be discounted, a few others caution against letting the past define the present. Don’t just blame the past and get stuck in protest and forget to see the opportunities right in front of you. If the first point challenged those acting like they are innocent in the racial tension, this point dares to address those so preoccupied with the past that the discourse has been poisoned before it started. It warns through the image of Troy and emboldens through the images of the three black women working at NASA.

The Future Can Be Hopeful

Finally, this year’s Oscars direct our eyes to a hopeful future. This comes in spite of a checkered past, and the danger of the past derailing the present. Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks who is asked to decipher the language of aliens who have landed on earth in twelve spacecraft’s. When Louise learns they want to offer a weapon, fear takes over the globe. But Louise argues the symbol can be interpreted as a “tool” or “technology.” Louise then learns that this weapon is language that changes their perception of time. Viewers realize that Louise’s flashbacks are really flash-forwards. Louise foresees that Ian will father her daughter Hannah, but will leave discovering that their daughter will die of a rare disease. Nevertheless, Louise agrees that she wants to have a baby.

Arrival argues the solution to fear is a shared language. A hopeful future arrives by transcending the current nature of our discourse. We need a reversal of Babel where fear is not the controlling factor—rather hope is. Love hopes the best. The present danger is that we won’t learn from our past, we will neglect the reality our past, or we will let the past derail the present, but hope is found in communication, honesty, and transparency.





Through Ecumenical Glasses

August 28, 2014 — 3 Comments


In George Marsden’s fascinating book on the first twenty years of Fuller Seminary he briefly covers one of their faculty members who was hired in 1948 and then dismissed, Béla Vasady.

Vasady was a highly accomplished Hungarian Reformed theologian. Fuller was trying to position itself in the midst of fundamentalism as a non-separatist school because separatism had plagued the movement and Fuller increasingly viewed the rifts as destructive and embittering. Worst of all, separatism hurt evangelism.

Harold Okenga, the president, was therefore made a bold move in hopes of cultivating their image and gain an entree into the mainline denominations. He offered a faculty position to Béla Vasady, a man of international credentials. But Vasady, according to Marsden, had two strikes against him. First, he had some admiration for Karl Barth. Second, he was among the founders of the much-maligned World Council of Churches, feared by most evangelicals as part of a modernist effort to dilute the faith.

Marsden says the episode between Fuller and Vasady was a microcosm of Fuller’s struggles to determine whether Fuller was a fundamentalists movement or if they were more open.

Vasady came to Fuller, but he became puzzled over the divisive state of American churches. He published in Religion in Life a short essay called “Through Ecumenical Glasses,” which contributed to his dismissal.

501618He sought for unity, but his Presbyterian friends were telling him his work at Fuller made him too “divisive” to be fit for the local Presbyterian ministry, while his colleagues at Fuller concluded he was too ecumenical to remain with them.

Ecumenism Today

These historical happenings are interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is because in every generation ecumenicism is a topic of conversation. Learning from past theologians about their reasons for ecumenism can both encourage ecumenical efforts and guard against missteps.

Most recently Peter Leithart has called for more solidarity between Protestants and Catholics, and a few Baptist theologians are working towards more unity. There will even be a session at ETS on the topic.

Through Ecumenical Glasses

Because I found Vasady such an interesting figure in Fuller’s history, I did some research and found his short article which contributed to his dismissal. The entire article is linked here, but I have highlighted the main points.

Vasady begins with the following.

Now that the World Council of Churches has been formed in 1948 at its First Assembly in Amsterdam, the question of what it means to be an “ecumenical Christian,” a member of the universal church of Christ, must become a pressing concern to all of us. We must examine ever more closely just what obligations are involved in viewing and evaluating all national and international, all economic, social, cultural, and political issues, but chiefly all churchly and theological problems, always through ecumenical glasses.

The aim of this article is to answer these questions in three concise statements.

Through ecumenical glasses! This means, first of all, the consistent fostering and cultivation of a one-church-consciousness.

Christ himself did not think in terms of the “fold,” i.e. the institution, the external, visible organization and its oneness. Rather did he anticipate the oneness of the “flock,” which is oneness ins spirit and in truth. Ubi Christus, ibi Ecclesia–“Where Christ is, there is the church. The one, ecumenical church! This is the church of which we read in the New Testament that it is the “body of Christ – Corpus Christi. Its members stand in a living, organic relation, first of all with Christ, the one head, but also with one another. This is how the communion of saints (communio sanctorum) comes about.

It must be apparent this one-church-consciousness is not quantitative, but qualitative; that it is the awareness not of a physical, but a spiritual, dimension. For this reason it requires, first of all, a superdenominational attitude. To view and appraise all things through ecumenical glasses demands that we become more than just Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Eastern Orthodox, or what have you.

Through ecumenical glasses! By this we mean, in the second place, to live constantly in a state of creative tension.

To be seeing everything ecumenically presupposes, then, that I must live in a historically and geographically determined denomination and congregation. I must take part in its worship services, its prayer meetings, its Sunday-school work, its administration and its benevolences. At the same time, however, the mainspring of all my church work must be found in my own divine dissatisfaction, to wit, that my congregation, my denomination, my historically and geographically determined “church” is still very far from being identical with Christ’s “one church”!

The more deeply I experience this creative tension between “the church-as-men-have conceived-it” and “the church-as-God-intended-it,” the more powerfully I shall confess the new evangelical catholicity and the more irresistibly I shall seek spiritual communion with other congregations, with other denominations, with members of which which differ from my own geographically, historically, racially or nationally; and the more diligently I shall strive for a community of prayer and work with them, that we may come to know each other’s faith, each other’s soul, every more fully. In so doing, I shall become increasingly aware of the implications of being an ecumenical Christian.

Through ecumenical glasses! By this we mean to see everything from this catholic standpoint requires a daily about-face for the sake of Christ, right in that congregation and denomination in which God has called us to serve.

Our world and churches are threatened with disruption…[But Jesus] refuses to be party to any individual, racial, national, or denominational self-centeredness. He is insists on being the Shepherd of the whole flock, the Head of the whole body….No single denomination or church can appropriate him. Rather, he expects the members of every church to run the risk of a complete about-face, to subject their so called human, economic, and social values, all their accustomed national and international prejudices to a radical revision, until these no longer stand in the way of an absolute obedience to him, of an unconditional surrender to him as the Lord and Savior.









Excellent Sheep.What do students want from their teachers?

  • Information?
  • Good grades?
  • Friendship?
  • Leadership?
  • Knowledge?

Slate produced a helpful excerpt from William Deresiewicz’s book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, where he argues students want two things from their teachers. They want their teachers to:

  1. challenge them
  2. care about them.

My years in the classroom, as well as my conversations with young people about their college experience, have convinced me there are two things, above all, that students want from their pro­fessors. Not, as people commonly believe, to entertain them in class and hand out easy A’s. That’s what they retreat to, once they see that nothing better is on offer. What they really want is that their teach­ers challenge them and that they care about them. They don’t want fun and games; they want the real thing.

What they want, in other words, is mentorship.

That is why many times the best classrooms are run as a mix of lecture and seminar.

Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another. “Educate” means “lead forth.” A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students. To put it in the language of computers, you can download all the data you want, but it won’t be any good to you unless you have the software to make use of it. That software, the ability to operate on information—to understand it, to synthe­size it into new combinations, to discover and create with it—is what college is meant to “install.” But here the analogy breaks down, for unlike actual software, the installation isn’t quick and easy, and it certainly isn’t passive.

The purpose of a seminar is to enable your professor to model and shape the mental skills she’s trying to instill. She conducts a discussion about the material, but she doesn’t simply let you talk. She keeps the conversation focused. She challenges asser­tions, poses follow-up questions, forces students to elaborate their one-word answers or clarify their vague ones. She draws out the timid and humbles (gently) the self-assured. She welcomes and en­courages, but she also guides and pushes. She isn’t there to “answer questions,” at least not for the most part; she’s there to ask them. Some of those questions should be ones she doesn’t know the answer to herself. Discussion in a seminar should be collaborative and open-ended, alive with serendipity and the energy of immi­nent discovery—a model, too, of how to think together.

Teacher-ShortageHow are teachers to both challenge students and care about them? What skills do you need to have? The first step is to be yourself.

For all the skill that teaching involves, you ultimately only have a single tool: your entire life as you have lived it up until the moment you walk into class. “The teacher, that professional amateur,” said the critic Leslie Fiedler, “teaches not so much his subject as himself.” He provides a model, he went on, “of one in whom what seemed dead, mere print on the page, becomes living, a way of life.” I developed a rule of thumb in graduate school. If a professor didn’t mention something personal at least a single time—a reference to a child, an anecdote about a colleague—then it was a pretty good bet that I had nothing to learn from him. It’s not that I needed my teachers to be confessional; I just needed them to be present. “Mortimer Adler had much to tell us about Aristotle’s Ethics,” Saul Bellow wrote about the University of Chicago eminence, “but I had only to look at him to see that he had nothing useful to offer on the conduct of life.”

Students want you to be honest, not least about yourself. They want you to be yourself. You need to step outside the role a bit, regard it with a little irony, if only to acknowledge the dissonance between the institution and the spirit. It often feels that there are certain things you cannot say inside a classroom—the most serious things that you want to say, the most genuine things. You want to say that life is tragic, that we are dangling above a void, that what’s at stake, when you read a book, is nothing less than life itself. But you feel your institutional surroundings holding you as if between quotation marks. You fear that your words will fall to the ground with an audible clink. That is where a little distance from the situ­ation is of service. Just because I say this stuff in class, I used to tell my students, doesn’t mean I don’t believe it.

There are two things that kids invariably tell you about their favorite professors. The first one is “she teaches about everything.” That’s never literally true, of course, so what does it actually mean? Great teachers, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus remark, are not bound by disciplinary ideas of what they’re allowed to say. They connect the material at hand, in a way that feels spacious and free, with anything to which it might be relevant. They connect it to ex­perience, and so they shed light on experience—on your experience. Just as great art gives you the feeling of being about “life”—about all of it at once—so does great teaching. The boundaries come down, and somehow you are thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, and instead of seeing things as separate parts, you see them as a whole. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. A student put it to me this way, about a professor in an oceanic studies program: “He made marine ecology reflect universal truths.”

You know great teaching the moment you encounter it. Yes, you feel, this is it—this is what I came for. It reaches deep inside you. It satisfies desires that you didn’t know you had. It makes the world feel newly large and meaningful—exactly, again, like art. The other thing that students say about their favorite teachers is “he changed my life.”

These insights are not only relevant for the academy, but for the church.

Maybe that is why the Bible was so wise to call the pastor not only a teacher, but a shepherd, an overseer.

The great suburban build-out is over….We shall have to live with its consequences for a long time. The chief consequence is that the living arrangement most Americans think of as “normal” is bankrupting us both personally and at every level of government….A further consequence is that two generations have grown up and matured in America without experiencing what it is like to live in a human habitat of quality. We have lost so much culture in the sense of how to build things well. Bodies of knowledge and sets of skills that took centuries to develop were tossed into the garbage, and we will not get them back easily. The culture of architecture was lost to Modernism and its dogmas. The culture of town planning was handed over to lawyers and bureaucrats, with pockets of resistance mopped up by the automobile, highway, and real estate interests.

You might say the overall consequence is that we have lost our sense of consequence. Living in places where nothing is connected properly, we have forgotten that connections are important.

Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 245-46.


Geography of Nowhere

Ivory Tower

August 3, 2014 — 2 Comments

Here is the trailer for a documentary about higher education that questions the cost — and value — of higher education in the United States.

The New York Review of Books had a review of the movie which I am posting below.

Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower prods us to think about the crisis of higher education. But is there a crisis? Expensive gambles, unforeseen losses, and investments whose soundness has yet to be decided have raised the price of a college education so high that today on average it costs eleven times as much as it did in 1978. Underlying the anxiety about the worth of a college degree is a suspicion that old methods and the old knowledge will soon be eclipsed by technology.

Indeed, as the film accurately records, our education leaders seem to believe technology is a force that—independent of human intervention—will help or hurt the standing of universities in the next generation. Perhaps, they think, it will perform the work of natural selection by weeding out the ill-adapted species of teaching and learning. A potent fear is that all but a few colleges and universities will soon be driven out of business.

It used to be supposed that a degree from a respected state or private university brought with it a job after graduation, a job with enough earning power to start a life away from one’s parents. But parents now are paying more than ever for college; and the jobs are not reliably waiting at the other end. “Even with a master’s,” says an articulate young woman in the film, a graduate of Hunter College, “I couldn’t get a job cleaning toilets at a local hotel.” The colleges are blamed for the absence of jobs, though for reasons that are sometimes obscure. They teach too many things, it is said, or they impart knowledge that is insufficiently useful; they ask too much of students or they ask too little. Above all, they are not wired in to the parts of the economy in which desirable jobs are to be found.

A fair number of the current complaints derive from a fallacy about the proper character of a university education. Michael Oakeshott, who wrote with great acuteness about university study as a “pause” from utilitarian pursuits, described the fallacy in question as the reflection theory of learning. Broadly, this theory assumes that the content of college courses ought to reflect the composition and the attitudes of our society. Thus, to take an extreme case that no one has put into practice, since Catholics make up 25 percent of the population of the United States, a quarter of the curriculum ought to be dedicated to Catholic experiences and beliefs. The reflection theory has had a long history in America, and from causes that are not hard to discover. It carries an irresistible charm for people who want to see democracy extended to areas of life that lie far outside politics.

An explicitly left-wing version of the theory holds that a set portion of course work should be devoted to ethnic materials, reflecting the lives and the self-image of ethnic minorities. But there has always been a conservative version too. It says that a business civilization like ours should equip students with the skills necessary for success in business; and this demand is likely to receive an answering echo today from education technocrats. The hope is that by conveying the relevant new skills to young people, institutions of higher learning will cause the suitable jobs to materialize. The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, believes this, and accordingly has pressed for an alternative to college that will bring the US closer to the European pattern of “tracking” students into vocational training programs. Yet the difficulty of getting a decent job after college is probably the smaller of two distinct sources of anxiety. The other source is the present scale of student debt.

Unpaid debt from student loans today exceeds credit card debt. The national total is more than a trillion dollars. And unlike an underwater mortgage, where the owner’s immediate trouble ends with foreclosure, arrears from unpaid student loans follow the student ever after.

This situation came about as a remote consequence of a generous idea. The Higher Education Act of 1965 laid the groundwork for Pell Grants and other loan programs, but the following decades saw a weakening of the belief that the federal government should subsidize intellectual curiosity. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, led the withdrawal of support by the states for higher education; and many other states gradually cut back the appropriations with which they once helped universities to function well. The difference was passed on to students in the form of rising tuition costs; and tuition had to be paid for by reliance on loans in ever-enlarging quantities. The federal government will make $184 billion in profits from student loan debt over the next decade.

The financial crush has come just when colleges are starting to think of Internet learning as a substitute for the classroom. And the coincidence has engendered a new variant of the reflection theory. We are living (the digital entrepreneurs and their handlers like to say) in a technological society, or a society in which new technology is rapidly altering people’s ways of thinking, believing, behaving, and learning. It follows that education itself ought to reflect the change. Mastery of computer technology is the major competence schools should be asked to impart. But what if you can get the skills more cheaply without the help of a school?

A troubled awareness of this possibility has prompted universities, in their brochures, bulletins, and advertisements, to heighten the one clear advantage that they maintain over the Internet. Universities are physical places; and physical existence is still felt to be preferable in some ways to virtual existence. Schools have been driven to present as assets, in a way they never did before, nonacademic programs and facilities that provide students with the “quality of life” that makes a college worth the outlay. Auburn University in Alabama recently spent $72 million on a Recreation and Wellness Center. Stanford built Escondido Village Highrise Apartments. Must a college that wants to compete now have a student union with a food court and plasma screens in every room?

The question comes up in Ivory Tower because these are the sorts of things college recruiters boast of when they talk to prospective students. The model seems to be the elite club—in this instance, a club whose leading function is to house in comfort thousands of young people while they complete some serious educational tasks and form connections that may help them in later life. Corporate decisions, in such an organization, naturally require an administrative balcony of corporate heft. There are college presidents who now command salaries well over a million dollars a year.

“What gets measured gets improved,” runs the motto of the nationwide body culture franchise LA Fitness. Obedient to the same assumption, the administrative bureaucracy of universities has grown at a rate that far outpaces the growth of faculties; and much of the expansion goes to build up a regimen of institutional self-monitoring and self-measurement. But is it true that what gets measured gets improved? An obvious protocol of measurement is the consumer satisfaction survey. In colleges and universities, these are known as student evaluations. Much interested energy has been expended on the design and revision of these forms. And yet good and bad teachers were spotted easily enough in the days before evaluations. A hidden danger both of intramural systems and of public forums like “Rate My Professors” is that they discourage eccentricity. Samuel Johnson defined a classic of literature as a work that has pleased many and pleased long. Evaluations may foster courses that please many and please fast.

At the utopian edge of the technocratic faith, a rising digital remedy for higher education goes by the acronym MOOCs (massive open online courses). The MOOC movement is represented in Ivory Tower by the Silicon Valley outfit Udacity. “Does it really make sense,” asks a Udacity adept, “to have five hundred professors in five hundred different universities each teach students in a similar way?” What you really want, he thinks, is the academic equivalent of a “rock star” to project knowledge onto the screens and into the brains of students without the impediment of fellow students or a teacher’s intrusive presence in the room. “Maybe,” he adds, “that rock star could do a little bit better job” than the nameless small-time academics whose fame and luster the video lecturer will rightly displace.

That the academic star will do a better job of teaching than the local pedagogue who exactly resembles 499 others of his kind—this, in itself, is an interesting assumption at Udacity and a revealing one. Why suppose that five hundred teachers of, say, the English novel from Defoe to Joyce will all tend to teach the materials in the same way, while the MOOC lecturer will stand out because he teaches the most advanced version of the same way? Here, as in other aspects of the movement, under all the talk of variety there lurks a passion for uniformity.

One of the rock stars, the Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun, becomes in Ivory Tower the subject of a separate character study. “There’s a red pill and a blue pill,” says Thrun (a theorist of artificial intelligence) to explain the new path he has chosen, “and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your twenty students. But I have taken the red pill.” The sci-fi rap is just a way of saying he quit his job at Stanford to teach for Udacity. “For me,” says Thrun, “this is an interactive medium that exposes the student—just very much like in a video game.”

How much do we want teaching and learning to resemble a video game? But at this point, the appeal to amusement value shifts to an earnest profession of democratic concern. “We take the focus away from the professor,” says Thrun, “and put the focus back on the student.” Pause there for a moment. The AI innovator was asked to record his lectures because he is a star. At the same time, by rendering less glamorous types redundant in thousands of classrooms, Udacity says it will “put the focus back on the student.” How does that work exactly? In what educational state of nature was the “focus” on the student before the teacher came and took it away? And now that Udacity has put the focus back—as if the very presence of the teacher was an aberration which the MOOC format has corrected—will the company at last render even the star redundant?

A MOOC lecturer may interact with a small cross-section of students, but in the nature of the artifice, where class enrollments may soar upward of 100,000, this will never be more than a specimen group. A conventional delivery system for “the personal touch” in the MOOC format is the so-called “flipped classroom.” Here a teaching assistant circulates in a roomful of students who have watched the assigned video, and helps them to sort out questions about details. The assistant—as Ivory Tower suggests with a single understated caption—will often turn out to be somebody who was once a professor but whom economies facilitated by MOOCs have demoted to the status of section leader. At the heart of the MOOC model is the idea that education is a mediated but unsocial activity. This is as strange as the idea—shared by ecstatic communities of faith—that the discovery of truth is a social but unmediated activity.

Still, however fanciful the conceit may be, the MOOC movement has a clear economic motive. Many universities today want to cut back drastically on the payment of classroom teachers. It is important therefore to convince us that teachers have never been the focus of real learning.

As things worked out in Silicon Valley, reality checked the dreams of Udacity. In 2013, the company was awarded a trial of its offerings in a contract with San Jose State University; and in July of that year, scores were posted for its spring term entry-level courses. The pass rate in elementary statistics was 50.5 percent; in college algebra, 25.4 percent; in entry-level math, 23.8 percent. Teachers have been fired en masse for results like these by administrators or politicians who would not sit for an explanation.

A less pretentious alternative to university teaching and learning is suggested by Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal, who is described in Ivory Tower as a leader of the “UnCollege movement.” Thiel awards scholarships to persons of college age to support their self-education out of school. Some live, for that purpose, in the communal quarters of Education Hackerhouse in Silicon Valley. Thiel and his followers break down higher education into three goods that students are hoping to come into possession of: first, knowledge; second, a network of peers; and third, a credential. His approach, he thinks, may free them to work up the knowledge they need from the possibilities thrown open by digital technology. Along the way, living arrangements like the Hackerhouse offer a usable network of fellow students. As for the credential, it will come from whatever chance they make for themselves by following this elective path.

Thiel is wrong to suppose that all knowledge worth having can be quantified, that the main social good of four years of college has always been supposed to come from networking, and that intellectual authority is reducible to a credential. But the students on Thiel Fellowships who are interviewed in Ivory Tower seem alert and mentally alive. In a curious way, they show more spontaneity and more pleasure, and seem far less relentlessly organized, than many students now attending the better colleges and universities. Is it the absence of hand-holding—the sense that they are on their own—that has given them something of the freedom of college forty or fifty years ago?

Ivory Tower manages to encompass, though in foreshortened segments, a wide sample of the varieties of higher education as it is now experienced. We are shown the attractions that draw out-of-state consumers to risk the hazard and pay the price of a “party school” famous for pleasures as much as credentials. There are also dramatic moments of the sixty-five-day student occupation of the president’s office at Cooper Union, in a protest against the new requirement of tuition at a historically tuition-free institution. And we are shown the first day of the school year at Harvard, where CS50 (Introduction to Computer Science) has become the most popular course and its office hours draw hundreds seeking tutoring in two long lanes of tables.

The most instructive parts of the film are the segments on Deep Springs College in California and Spelman College in Georgia. The footage dealing with Spelman, a school for African-American women, illustrates the paradoxical fact that diversity of mind and intellectual self-confidence may flourish most where students from similar backgrounds, or sharing similar aims, live together and encourage each other. Deep Springs makes the point in a vastly different setting. The school offers the first two years of college to a small group of men—it is in the process of becoming coeducational—and its students undertake (as one of them describes it) “a two-year commitment to, in effect, drop out of the world.”

The pillars of education at Deep Springs are self-governance, academics, and physical labor. The students number scarcely more than the scholar-hackers on Thiel Fellowships—a total of twenty-six—but they are responsible for all the duties of ranching and farming on the campus in Big Pine, California, along with helping to set the curriculum and keep their quarters. Two minutes of a Deep Springs seminar on citizen and state in the philosophy of Hegel give a more vivid impression of what college education can be than all the comments by college administrators in the rest of Ivory Tower.

Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities at Columbia University and author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), is the steady voice behind the film, a sort of chaperone or cicerone for the nonacademic viewer, and his explanations go far to organize the miscellaneous richness of the subject matter. We see Delbanco walking to his office and working at his desk, and hear him reflect on the crisis; and on the whole, a better and more reasonable voice could not be asked for. He wants much of the life of liberal education as he has known it to continue, and he detects the dangers in several of the up-to-date nostrums. Teaching at a university, he says, involves a commitment to the preservation of “cultural memory”; it is therefore in some sense “an effort to cheat death.”

Probably it is. But so are many other things in life: having children, founding a company or a charity, tending one’s garden. There is a pressure and a demand for human continuity beyond the dreams of standardized tests, cost-benefit readouts, and human resources questionnaires. “How shall a generation know its story/If it will know no other?” Edgar Bowers said it like that in his wonderful poem “For Louis Pasteur,” and the question may serve as a reminder of an elusive value that Ivory Tower conveys through other words and images. Universities exist not to answer the question but to register and reiterate its force.

HT: Matthew Arbo

Fascinating chart posted here by Conrad Hackett of the the percentage change in the number of employees in higher education from 1975-2011. I have done administration and believe in the value of it, but where a school puts their money shows what they value.


percent of change in college