Tag Archives: Columbia

More Hiking in Boulder

Earlier today, Columbia football lost its 17th game in a row and yet another consecutive homecoming game. I couldn’t go so instead I went hiking in Chautauqua Park in Boulder. Today was unusually warm (reportedly actually record-setting), so it was probably the last really nice weekend day to go hiking this fall. It’s also the last weekend before daylight savings time ends and probably one of the last before the trees all lose their leaves, so it’s a good time to go hiking. There were quite a few people out today since the weather was so nice.

I ended up going up the Chautauqua trail and then down the Bluebell-Baird trail to the Mesa trail. I followed the Mesa trail almost to where it meets the Skunk Canyon trail before I turned around. Instead of following the same path back, I took the Flatirons Loop instead of the Bluebell-Baird trail. That was much rockier than I expected but overall the hike wasn’t too difficult. I ended up doing around 9 km of actual hiking.

On Studying the Classics

While the New Republic is still getting some mileage out of it’s articles on the Ivy League, it has also just republished an interesting article from 1991 on studying the classics in college. Debates on the “classics,” or what might also be described as the “western canon,” are often portrayed as a dispute between stuffy traditionalists and free-thinking modernists or between conservative reactionaries and liberal revolutionaries. The article attempts to make the point that this framing is false. People from around the world and from many different political and social backgrounds have found inspiration in the classics. An education in classic works of literature need not be limited to inculcating beliefs in traditional values. There are many different ways to analyze literature and one might be surprised at how non-traditional the traditional western canon might seem. Subversive and even potentially radical viewpoints can be found in works such as Boccaccio’s Decameron (challenging religion through satire and bawdy jokes that might seem offensive even today), Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (viciously attacking his political opponents in the Inferno), and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (perhaps challenging the traditional gender roles in an incredibly patriarchal Athenian society).

The article also points out that the “classics” or the “canon” is an idea rather than a strict list. What constitutes the “classics” is constantly changing, but at the same time we can’t pretend that history never happened and that every class of people is equally represented in the canon at all times. Prior to the last few centuries the western canon is almost exclusively written by men of European descent because western culture – to the extent it even exists as a coherent concept – is largely just western European culture and because wealthy European men were more or less the only people given the opportunity to produce great works of art and literature. Things aren’t like that any more, so we might expect the canon to continue drawing from an ever more diverse cast of authors in the future.

It’s important to acknowledge that the canon is Eurocentric, but the author suggests that this is not a bad thing. I tend to agree. Drawing from a single tradition is helpful from a pedagogical standpoint because the works share common artistic values and cultural context. Trying to draw a bit from every tradition leads to a confusing, incoherent syllabus where everything seems like tokenism. Even then, it will be impossible to include everything so choices have to be made at some point anyway.

The article mentions the decline in liberal arts requirements, which seems to have only increased in the 20+ years since it was written. A few schools still maintain strong humanities cores. The most notable examples are Columbia and Chicago, both of which have extensive Core Curricula and a liberal arts focus at the undergraduate level. St. John’s College has an all-Great Books curriculum, which is an interesting idea for those interested in the humanities, but not particularly useful for many fields of study. Having attended Columbia, I find that I agree with most of what is said in the article. One of the most important things that I got out of my core classes was to look critically at everything – even the concepts of the canon and western culture.

Don’t Send Your Kid To Ivy League Schools: The New Republic

Every few months someone writes an article blaming elite colleges – and in particular the Ivy League – for all of the problems in higher education in the US.

This time, it’s the New Republic. This author, William Deresiewicz, actually comes from within academia, so he at least has some first hand experience. However, he wastes most of the article attacking a caricature of the Ivy League which, in his mind, is the root of all evil in education.

Ultimately, the author wants more investment in public education. He would like to see the current annual college admissions frenzy calm down, and would like students to spend less time on resume building and more on following their real interests. He would like colleges to have more economic diversity and to focus more on education as an intellectual exercise than as professional training.

These all address real problems in American higher education, yet his focus on the Ivy League (and similar institutions) as being the foremost group perpetuating these problems is misguided. Nowhere does he mention the need-blind admissions process – where students are admitted without direct knowledge of their financial situation (though this can often be gleaned from the rest of the application) nor the generous financial aid policies making elite universities even more affordable than even the local flagship public university for most families. He uses unwarranted hyperbole, stating that elite college students have completely eschewed politics and academia in favor of finance and consulting. In fact, the elite colleges do a better job addressing these problems than many less selective institutions.

Deresiewicz faults the Ivy League for its lack of economic diversity and  yet notes that the Yale admissions session he was involved in actually penalized a student for seemingly trying too hard to build a resume while giving a boost to applicants with hardship indicators, such as having parents who never attended college. There certainly aren’t enough students from poor or even middle class families, but one cannot say that the colleges don’t care enough to even try to do something about it.

The author complains that students’ education is focused solely on professional development yet he spent his entire academic career at Columbia and Yale, neither of which even offers professional undergraduate majors outside engineering. Professional development at these schools comes outside the classroom. In the classroom, they are some of the foremost proponents of arts an sciences education (Columbia in particular). Anyone who has spent time among undergrads at elite colleges would laugh at the assertion that students come to class looking like they are prepared for a job interview.

Deresiewicz declares that society is too focused on prestige yet somehow Williams and Pomona are examples of elite bastions of privilege while Wesleyan and Mount Holyoke are merely “second tier” and thus offer a better education. Making such distinctions is absurd when all the institutions are elite and all largely draw from the same pool of high school graduates. Even more absurdly, he believes that it is typical for upper middle class communities to scorn those to go to such a lowly institution as Penn State. To the best of my knowledge no such community exists. Perhaps everyone the author knows lives in a Park Avenue coop and obsesses over getting their toddler admitted to one of the most selective preschools on the Upper East Side. Even there, I suspect that children are more likely to end up at a place like Penn State than at Penn. It seems that the problem is more with the author than with the institutions he criticizes.

It’s convenient to blame the elite institutions for the problems in education but ultimately wrong. If the author wanted to argue for more support of public education, he should have actually written about public education. Things like declining public support, reduction in tenure track faculty, de-emphasizing traditional arts and sciences fields, and lack of affordability are important issues to write about. Of course, that will get fewer views than attacking the top private colleges.