Last month was decision time for the many academics who left their tenured jobs to work in the Obama administration. Universities standardly grant leave for at most two years, at which point a professor must either return or resign. Some, of course, can hope to be rehired later, but prudence often rules. Many of my acquaintances made the choice to return to writing and teaching. A few have stayed on. For a long time I’ve been comparing my free and sheltered life to those exposed and difficult lives, with a mixture of relief and guilt.
In my last column, I argued that Singapore and China, so often praised for their achievements in education, are terrible models, bad even at generating a creative and accountable business culture, and hopeless in forming the preconditions of stable democracy. Rejecting their guidance, however, does not mean that we should turn away from Asia for insight. The humanistic traditions of both Korea and India offer much that we should applaud. Korea today is the only nation in the world, outside the U.S., that strongly promotes a liberal arts model of college and university education.
American leaders, impressed by the economic success of Singapore and China, frequently sound envious when talking about those countries’ educational systems. President Obama, for example, invoked Singapore in a March 2009 speech, saying that educators there “are spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do. They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career.
These are grim times for the academic humanities. Seen as useless frills, which nations can prune away to focus on the “things that really matter”—by which the speaker so often means “things that contribute to national economic growth”—the humanistic disciplines are being cut at all levels, from elementary school to college and university. Even worse, they are being asked (on pain of extinction) to refashion themselves as tools of profit, demonstrating the (economic) “impact” of their inquiries.
A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First CenturyBy Cristina Nehring (Harper, 328 pp., $24.99) Women today are too risk-averse in love, charges Cristina Nehring. We “settle,” and seek comfort rather than passion. In flight from pain, we end up too often with mediocre and cramped relationships.
COVERING: THE HIDDEN ASSAULT ON OUR CIVIL RIGHTS. By Kenji Yoshino(Random House, 268 pp., $24.95) I. IN 1998, A Missouri court granted custody to a lesbian mother, after finding that “the children were unaware of Mother’s sexual preference, and Mother never engaged in any sexual or affectionate behavior in the presence of the children.” Many courts have gone the other way, after determining that same-sex parents engaged not in overt sexual conduct that would be inappropriate for any parent to display before any child, but in displays of affection, such as hugging or holding hands, which clear
In The Clouds, Aristophanes' great comedy about Socrates, a young man eager for the new learning goes to the Think-Academy run by that strange and notorious figure. A debate is staged for him, contrasting the merits of traditional education with those of the new discipline of argument. The spokesman for the old education is a he-man. He favors a tough military regimen, including lots of gymnastics and not much questioning.