Friday, 23 October 2015 16:20

On Research at a University

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On Research at a University

Thomas Martin

Thomas Martin teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. You may contact Thomas Martin at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Visit the campus of almost any university in the land: you will find its classrooms packed with students, its conference rooms buzzing with the activity of faculty and administrative committees, its computer screens overflowing with electronic memoranda detailing new policies and procedures and apprising all and sundry of the latest round of internal assessment and external review of curriculum, of teaching, of research, of diversity--with goals and objectives distinguished and reduced to "bullet" or laid out on an Excel spreadsheet. You will hardly escape without subjection to at least one PowerPoint presentation. If your visit is hasty and unreflective, you may even suffer the delusion that some form of education or scholarship is taking place. . . . The frantic motion to and fro on most campuses, however, holds the same relation to genuine academic activity as the stampede of the Gadarene swine to the discourse of rational men. Like the luckless pigs, the university has been possessed by a legion of unclean spirits: there is feverish movement and a demonic semblance of life, but the soul has departed and all that remains is the cadaver of an educational institution.

These words belong to R. V. Young, a Professor of English at North Carolina State University, and are from the introduction of "The University Possessed," in this spring's issue of The Intercollegiate Review. When I first read Professor Young's autopsy, I wanted to weep. A cadaver? Surely, Professor Young, there is still life in the minds of some professors on university campuses who can quicken a student's soul without the glitz of a PowerPoint presentation.

Then again, if Professor Young were to tour my campus, he would find the same "frantic motion to and fro" with the construction of new "residential" halls, the addition of "smart" classrooms, the computers lining hallways for students to surf the web between classes, the various Starbucks, the General Studies Committee busily at work preparing for the next external review [willfully oblivious that the recommendations from the last two reviews of five and ten years ago have never been addressed], yet another new Strategic Plan, the mega-message sign announcing the employee of the month from custodial services, and the multitude of offices dedicated to assessment, diversity, research, enrollment, retention, women issues, etc.

The modern university is an expensive resort, with wads of money spent on technology, food-courts, resident halls, skyboxes, and administrator's salaries, and very little time spent on teaching students to read beyond the level of an elementary student.

This week two educational studies in national newspapers confirmed Professor Young's postmortem. The first is the finding of a 2005 survey of 14,000 college students by the University of Connecticut that Seniors had flunked the civic literacy exam with an average score of 53.2 percent; more than 53 percent could not identify the century when the first American colony was founded at Jamestown, Virginia; fewer than half, 47.9 percent, could identify the Declaration of Independence as the source for this line: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." The second confirmation, a report by The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation's report card, surveyed transcripts of 26,000 high school students, comparing them with an earlier study of student coursework in 1990. The results found that the reading skills of 12th graders tested in 2005 were significantly worse than those of students in 1992. The share of students lacking even basic high school reading skills rose to 27 percent from 20 percent in 1992. The share of those proficient in reading dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 35 percent. Yet, get ready for this, the high school students in 2005 had averaged 360 more hours of classroom time than students in 1990. Finally, the kicker, the grade point average was a third of letter grade higher than in 1990.

Let's think about this for a minute. One in four high school seniors cannot read and only one in three are proficient in reading. Soon one-half of those high school graduates go to college where under half of the surveyed seniors can identify the Declaration of Independence as the source for the line: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

This is ludicrous. It would be like birds sending their chicks to aviaries to teach them the intricacies of high flying or dogs sending their pups to canine academies for agility training and ending up with birds that can only walk and dogs that sleep all day.

How can this be? The answers are simple: very few students have parents who read to them as children, the students are hooked on way too many electronic gizmos, and fewer and fewer teachers read formative character literature in which the student seeks to imitate the virtuous characteristics of the hero in his own life. Ergo, students do not read, like to be electronically stimulated, and do not see the point of stories that have nothing to do with them.

Not long ago I attended a dinner for honor students where a university president told his audience that the goal of modern education is to create lifelong learners, that their generation has more information (thanks to computers!) than previous generations, and that those who can readily adapt to new technologies will continue to be "marketable" in the ever-changing global economy. Swell. Obviously, a university diploma should no longer certify that a student has a mind and is able to read the Declaration of Independence with understanding; in other words, not only where the line "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" comes from, but what it means, and how it just might apply to the end of his own life when he might hope to face the creator who endowed his rights. With such leadership at the university level, is it any wonder that the world has no other goal than unbridled economic growth so that the feeding frenzy of consumerism can be fueled?

In actuality, modern education is creating students who are life-long forgetters. Most modern teaching, even at the college level, is about isolated facts (information) disconnected from a philosophy of the whole. In the words of Joseph Pearce, he is a "Techno-man, devoid of any metaphysical understanding, [who] knows how to do things without knowing why or whether they should be done." Modern man is being schooled by sociologists who compile what is, without any sense of what has been or ought to be. Our computers have memories, but no remembrances. We have mistaken access to information for wisdom. The modern university is being run by capitalists who view human beings as ciphers to be manipulated in the service of economic efficiency.

Fortunately, a university is more than her buildings, science laboratories, classrooms, and dormitories. The soul of the university is the members of her student body and faculty who are doing research in the eye of the storm's "frantic motion to and fro," which has nothing to do with the quality of rational discourse on a university campus.

Professor Young understands that when a student enters a university he has stepped on a plane with his intellectual ancestors to continue, with the assistance of the faculty, the search for the truth of what it means to be a virtuous human being, a steward of the earth.

For sake of simplification, this search takes on two forms. There is external research, that of looking out upon the world, and the internal research, that of looking within oneself for the fine art of what it means to be a good and happy human being. In the origin of the word research, the prefix "re" means again, and, when placed before "search," it means to look again.

The nature of the subject being studied determines the method of research being conducted. The study of nature, conducted in the natural sciences, differs from study of man in the humanities. Research in the natural sciences is objective; it is about an object that can be grasped by the senses, be it in biology, chemistry, or physics. Research in the natural sciences builds upon its previous discoveries and does not have to rediscover the cell, table of elements, or gravity each semester, though it does require the ability to read about and understand those discoveries.

Science advances by scientists solving problems and moving on to the next set of problems: engines fueled by hydrogen, drought-resistant seed corn, and smoother blends of whiskey. This is all fine and good in that it provides for man's mobility, appetite, and entertainment. Furthermore, one does not have to be a scientist nor understand the scientific method to benefit from the discoveries in genetic research, of drugs that stabilize blood pressure, or in order to fit five trillion songs on an "I-pod."

The humanities does not have the success rate of the natural sciences in manipulating nature because man's nature has not changed in the course of history. Research in the humanities differs from research in the sciences. In philosophy, the problem of what it means to be a human being--to know thyself--begins anew with each student. Self-knowledge is not a scientific investigation but an individual quest where being literate is the necessary proficiency.

The aim of Plato's Republic, for example, is to show that justice and the virtues of wisdom, courage, and moderation are in everyone's best interest and are required for true happiness. This search begins anew with each student who, like all previous students, was born ignorant of the fundamental answers to the questions necessary for a thoughtful existence: Who are we? Why are we? What separates man from the animals? Is man a slave to his desires? What is a soul? What is the function of reason? Do we have a higher nature that can rise above greed and lust? Does might make right? Do we have a higher purpose than self-gratification? Should we ever return a harm with a harm? What is a moral principle? Does moral law precede civil law?

These questions are problems that are not solved; they must be lived with each decision made. So, while there are new and improved aorta valves that can be surgically implanted, there is not a new and improved program which can be downloaded on a student's hard drive that will solve the problems he will face in life. The price for answering the questions from Republic is being able to read because, if you cannot read the questions, you surely cannot seek the answer throughout your life in your quest for your own happiness and that of your children. *

"A Parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people." --Walter Bagehot

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