Festivals, Departments, And Academic Separatism

I walked about the campus this afternoon after my last work-hour, which was a shift in the English cafe. Of course, it’s festival time on campus so all the students were out eating roast pork and drinking booze; that means the English Cafe was almost empty, and I ended up just drinking a tea and watching the last half of the movie of the day, which was Resident Evil.

Afterward, wandering among the stalls the different student clubs and department groups had put up, I noticed that the vast majority of them were selling the same thing. It seemed to me that the festival was organized just like the English classes and probably all of the classes on campus: by major, or by club.

Students have told me (repeatedly, today) that they go drinking at their major’s beer/rice-booze tent. The students I saw in the tents by late afternoon were all in the tents designated for their majors. So it’s more of a drink-with-your-classmates party than something that brings the student body together. Is this why I so often meet couples who have the same major? Do students even routinely meet new people outside of their departments? I don’t know, but I know that for English courses, they very rarely mix with other majors freely; usually, their major department controls even what time and with whom they take their elective classes.

There were a few exceptions to the standard food-and-booze spots: some groups were standing around with spiked wooden cutouts, offering the chance to pelt water balloons at students at a rate of 3 for W1000, which is roughly a dollar. The theology majors were selling old-fashioned candies and religious music CDs. A few girls were wandering around with sandwich boards offering to photograph passersby. But mostly it was just segregated tents and liquor and food. After about twenty minutes I saw all it seemed there was to see, and left for home.

Maybe it’ll liven up tonight. Still, I fully expect most of the attendees to drink mainly in the tent dedicated to their major. The major-segregation thing is a bone I love to pick because I think it really hurts students to be partitioned off in this way. Often, major is assigned by high school grade along a pseudo-meritocratic hierarchy: if you do well on multiple-choice tests, and are good at language and math, you’ll do well on the college entrance tests. This means you’ll get accepted into a better major, and often despite your own personal career goals and wishes, you get to major in something even better than you hoped for. (Or, if you do badly, you get stuck in a crap major.) Either way, you can spend four years studying something that means nothing at all to you.

This, one would think obviously, is bad.

But what’s even worse is that students get stuck in a little world dominated by their department classmates, by the rulings and expectations of their department, and they seem to get a very clear message that nothing else matters much besides it. Music students skip half a semester of an elective class—enough sessions to be failed on attendance alone—to attend rehearsals for an extracurricular choir, and then expect it to be okay because music is, after all, their major. I understand wanting to be in a choir, of course, but I don’t understand the inability of the choir to practice in a time when fifty or more students have the same elective class; nor do I understand the inability of even one of those fifty students to speak up about the problem that they’re skipping too many English classes and they won’t know enough even to pass the final exam, and ask that rehearsal be rescheduled.

Music students come up because they’re the worst in this area, but there is a kind of weak impermeability that surrounds students, it seems. When I was a music student I saw some of it too: most of the students I got close to were music majors. Most, but not all: there were enough interesting people from other majors in my elective courses—in classes with departments like English Literature, Religious Studies, Geology, Sociology, and Philosophy that my horizons were effectively widened, not narrowed, by my studies. I became a better music student because I began to use analytical skills I learned in elective classes, and I was able to transfer those skills better when I changed my concentration to include literature because I’d already been transferring skill-sets from the beginning of my university studies.

It made me more well-rounded, sure, but more importantly, it made me more adaptable. Nobody can expect young people to be well-rounded in the sense we think of meaning the Renaissance man, the person who can do extemporaneous exegesis on a poem, fix a car with only a Swiss army knife, and who can calculate differential equations in his or her head. We think of people who know their capabilities and their strengths, who can use their analytical and planning skills on all kinds of unforseen tasks, who can adapt their abilities to new environments or work.

To me, that seems the whole point of an education. That isn’t to say specialization should be avoided: specialization is necessary these days, and has been for a long time. But the better specialists are people who are not exclusively specialists, not specialists who know near-nothing about any subject outside their majors, who have no idea how people with other backgrounds do their own work or how they think.

But, in Korea, as in Canada, it seems to me that University is much more about training than it is about “education”. Sure, people will respond, but that’s the world today. You need to specialize and you need to specialize early. Nobody has time to fiddle-faddle studying things they don’t need. That stuff is just there for some variety, early on, to keep you interested until you’re too far in to drop out without losing on the time and money you’ve already invested. And maybe this is true.

But to me, it constitutes a betrayal of our respective societies. It’s a betrayal because we’re simply certifying people who have jumped through a certain number of hoops and fulfilled our criteria in a certain way. The “certain way” tends sometimes to be all too post-industrial, meaning semi-automated, intrinsically unimportant, more of a gesture.

And what we’re not producing, not these days, are people who are canny, well-rounded, academic-yet-realistic. We’re not producing scholars anymore, we’re producing professionals. We’re not producing people who know how to talk about books, we’re producing people who know how to produce unreadably (and therefore eminently publishable) theses about theories that are ostensibly about books. And worst, we’re betraying our grandchildren. By retooling university education as a kind of dues-based guild system, we’re burying the idea that education is anything more than a kind of certification. We’re murdering the idea of a liberal education in general. And we’re robbing our non-immediate descendants of a powerful tool for ensuring the flexibility, canniness, and effective intelligence of our descendants, who will, like us, be their ancestors. Not that all those kids we’re ripping off would be all that flexible, canny, or effectively intelligent, but I think even in the least prestigious schools in the contemporary world, we’re sabotaging a number of students who potentially would be.

And that strikes me as hardly fair to anyone involved.

3 thoughts on “Festivals, Departments, And Academic Separatism

  1. I agree with you on the absolute necessity of conserving liberal education, an invaluable inheritance from our ancestors that should be imparted to our descendants.

    I hope you won’t mind if I share a few links on this theme with you and your readership.

    It might be helpful to remember what a University is and where it came from:
    A Gift From the Middle Ages.

    Here is the complete on-line edition of that classic by the conservative defender of liberal education:
    Newman Reader – Idea of a Univeristy.

    Finally, here are some choice essays from that work:
    Modern History Sourcebook:
    John Henry Newman:
    The Idea of A University, 1854


  2. Joshua,

    Thanks for the links. I’ll point out, however, that what I think we owe our ancestors is parents whose education prepares them for the world we were even now finding ourselves in the middle of—one that is rapidly changing, one that demands flexibility and a high degree of transferability of skills and knowledge.

    I most decidedly do not think the theological aspect of Medieval Universities belongs in the mainstream modern university. Of course, if some professors and students and administrators want to build a religious -themed University, or theme park, or strip club, or whatever, then that’s their business. They’ll find a demand and that’s just capitalism functioning. No big issue. (And no big complaint: I work at such a school and I’m not up on the hill decrying the fact students are forced to go to chapel to pass their year, even if they’re Buddhist or atheist, even if they sit there not listening or get their cards scanned at the door by friends. And yeah, they do scan student cards at the door of the chapel, to track attendance. Or at least, I saw it happening at least a couple of times, when the chapel was still in the student union building.)

    Frankly, I’m a whore for whatever system benefits us as a whole. And when I say us, I mean the species. The thing is, secular humanist states tend to be better for more of their citizens than other states. (This holds true even if we consider the Middle Ages, in which the educated elite was extremely small and most people were farming tubers or milling grains.) So I am more strongly for public (or private) Universities that espouse a clearly secular humanist worldview, because they’re likeliest to foster that kind of society. (As opposed to a society that tolerates political corruption via religious fraternalism, as Koreans sometimes complain about to me.)

    Of course, I’ve heard of educations that give ours a run for its money. One, related to me by my friend Ritu, was from ancient India, where, in these kind of residence-schools, young people of any social status could be “enrolled” and learn all kinds of stuff, princes and paupers studying side by side, up till a certain age. They studied things like ethics, brahma, religion, literature, and so on to develop their intelligence, health, and morality (as far as I remember… it’s a hazy recollection). It sounded somewhat like Montessori For Monarchs, really.

    I certainly also think that as much as we want to point out the Middle Ages weren’t as dark as we like to think, a lot of the stuff that was taught in Universities was crud. Hell, take something far removed from religion, such as the idea of love-sickness. At Montpelier, the center of medical studies for Europe for a time, physicians debated heatedly the merits and demerits of different treatments for the illness of love-sickness… because some Arab manuscript that had somehow ended up in their hands very clearly claimed that such an illness existed. They didn’t even think to question or reject the idea, or to question why it was (very nearly) only rich men complaining of it, whilst poor men whined of witches ensorcelling them. Rather, the physicians argued about whether violence against the lovesick, or gentle goading, or therapeutic sex, was the preferred and most effective treatment.

    Such fawningly devout, unquestioning acceptance of the claims of an authority is, I believe, symptomatic of a system of scholarship centered on theological, rather than on a logical, skeptical, empirical basis. And so I am for the latter.

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