Photo by Edward F. Palm)

About Me

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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Toward a Rebirth of Glorious Irrelevance

One last rumination on the topic of academic indoctrination.  The photo, above, is of the actual Elsinore Castle, the setting for Shakespeare's Hamlet.  This photo is irrelevant to the topic, for reasons that should become apparent.

I certainly agree with J. David Bell that professors should be up front about their own convictions and do all in their power to welcome divergent points of view. In my own teaching, I’ve done just that on numerous occasions. Still, as a dean, I’ve heard from students who were reluctant to enter into any sort of point-counter-point with professors who seemed so much more articulate and better informed than they were. I’ve heard from other students who did dare to speak up, only to feel embarrassed at having their ideas discounted in front of the class. There are, of course, ways to handle these situations gently and constructively, but there will always be students who are timid or hypersensitive or both.

The fact remains that many of us have confronted students with issues they’re just not ready to tackle. I know I have, and in one respect, that may be a good thing. Education is supposed to take us out of our comfort zones and challenge us to think long and hard about that which we think we know and believe. A certain amount of pain, I suppose, is a necessary concomitant of intellectual growth no less than physical growth. Still, I don’t think it’s wise to try to engage students in the burning issues of the day.

My own college experience is a case in point, or counterpoint. I was an undergrad from 1969 to 1973. These were the last years of the Vietnam War and one of the most contentious periods in recent history. The country at large had turned against the war, and I’m fairly sure all my professors were against it. Yet the war was never discussed in class. On a couple occasions, when a student or students would press a professor, he or she would acknowledge his or her opposition. But that was as far as it went. The class was inevitably steered back to 17th-century literature, medieval history, or whatever the topic was. From time to time, that seemed to reinforce the ivory tower stereotype of the academic profession—as if the professor couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to the events shaking our world. But I have since come to realize that this refusal to engage publicly in the debate reflected a certain wisdom.

First, the academic profession encourages people to take the long view. The things that seem so self-evidently true at one point in time are sometimes revealed to have been delusions, and highly destructive ones at that.

Second, I think academics of the old school really thought that it wasn’t their business to engage with the passing scene. They saw their role as teaching us to read closely and to think critically and ethically, but with texts that had stood the test of time. In other words, they gave us the tools, but they left it up to us to decide how to use them.

Something my dissertation director at Penn, Professor Peter Conn, once had occasion to say to a group of us graduate students comes to mind. “Our role in academe ,” Conn remarked, “is not to solve problems. It is to identify and articulate problems with grace and clarity.” Whether Conn was being wholly or even half ironic, I’m not sure. But I have come to take his words at face value. Too many of my colleagues in higher education today, it seems to me, see their role as inspiring and mobilizing their students to solve some pressing problem or right some wrong.

My own undergraduate days, ironically, coincided with the great call for “relevance.” Students were beginning to demand that their curricula be “relevant”—in terms of preparing them for specific jobs and to engage with the issues of the day. And while my professors resisted the call, the academy in general did cave in to those demands. Some of the changes were necessary and good. But, personally, I think we have oversold higher education in terms of career preparation, earning potential, and social responsibility. It just may be time for a rebirth of glorious irrelevance! --EFP

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