Agora Debate: Does America Need More Philologers?

There is something really, really wrong with American college education, and our AGORA regulars feel the same way.

This week, noted historian-anarchist-poet Dan Georgakas, swinging lefty, takes on The National Herald’s Executive Editor Constantinos Scaros, a right-handed power hitter, in a battle of the minds over: Debasing College Education, Utterly Shunning Philology.

While the agree college education has root problems, they have different takes on how to fix it.

From time to time, an issue emerges and inspires various minds to converge, often at odds with one another, to discuss it. Hopefully, collective enlightenment will result from such conversations. The Ancient Greeks did that in the Agora, the original marketplace of ideas, and we, their modern-day descendants, aspire to continue that tradition.

We respect one another’s opinion very much, but often times we will disagree on particular issues. We would never fabricate a difference of opinion for the sake of writing an interesting column.

Rest assured, anything we write here are our sincere, heartfelt thoughts.

We will share them with you every two weeks. We hope you enjoy them, and we look forward to your taking part in the discussion as well – by contributing letters to the editor in response, and/or commenting on our website: www.thenationalherald.com

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GEORGAKAS:

Dino, I am concerned about the proposed changes in higher education being carried on nationally with the approval of President Obama’s shortsighted, politically correct allies and extreme right-wingers obsessed with privatization. The stated aim of these “reforms” is to lower the college dropout rate while also lowering administrative costs. This sounds admirable until one looks at the actual proposals. Each state is different. I will focus on New York, where I have had considerable personal experience teaching in the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY).

CUNY’s Pathways program for change allows more students to graduate and graduate quickly by lowering academic standards. The attack on standards is evident when looking at some specific areas of study. Pathways would feature basic science courses without labwork and would weaken foreign language requirements.

Brooklyn College already has announced it will eliminate the foreign language requirement entirely. In an increasingly interactive world economy, this seems to rush forward in exactly the wrong direction.

Americans are notoriously weak in science and the interactions of the United States with other nations are already greatly handicapped by the fact that most of our business people, journalists, politicians, and military leaders are monolingual.

A major weakness of most college students, and very evident in community college students and those in English-as-a-second-language courses, is poor writing skills. Improving those skills is one of the reasons for attending two-year colleges.

LaGuardia Community College in Queens, for example, has been exemplary in meeting this need. Pathways will reduce the credit requirements for this essential skill. Quick graduation by these means handicaps students when they must deal with the realities of the workplace or a four-year college. Moreover, a second-rate associate degree may not meet the standards of non-CUNY schools, which greatly limits student mobility.

SUNY’s Seamless Transfer plan is no better. A major component is to limit SUNY community college degrees to 64 credits. Imposing such a limit means reducing college programs to bare bones curriculums.

English courses might be reduced to one or two and special courses in writing and literature totally eliminated. For career-track programs such as nursing, the program could become so weak that graduates would only qualify to transfer to other SUNY schools as that is mandated by Seamless Transfer.

Online courses are an essential feature of Seamless Transfer and Pathways. Such courses deprive community college students of personal contact with instructors sensitive to their needs and interaction with fellow learners.

Various national groups such as the American Association of University Professionals and the Modern Language Association are greatly alarmed by this embrace of what is essentially remote rote learning.

They note that SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher intends to introduce Massive Open Online Courses, a very debatable and totally unproven approach. This allows for low-cost or free online courses that have hundreds and possibly thousands of students: a total reversal of the intense student-faculty relationship that is the hallmark of community colleges and advanced graduate studies. Taken to the next stage, such an approach would demolish classroom instruction and interaction. Organizations representing college faculty advocate that computer technology should be integrated into classrooms rather than replacing them.

Pathways and Seamless Transfer are examples of changes dictated from above that are framed in pleasant language to disguise what are poison pills.

SCAROS:

Dan, I am hard pressed to find a single word you wrote with which I disagree. Nonetheless, I will add to the good points you have made by focusing on where I think the real problem begins: at home. Far more important to a child’s education than, say, coming from a family of privilege is having influential adult role models – i.e., parents – that emphasize the importance of education.

Learning should be exalted as an honorable end in itself, not simply a means to a practical goal, such as gainful employment, even though that goal is of great importance and, from a practical standpoint, fulfilled much more easily when the two go hand in hand.

The word philology, in its most basic sense, means love of learning. Closely connected is the word philosophy – love of wisdom. Bluntly put, America needs more philologers. No, they do not have to be the “starving artist” types, with straggly beards, tattered clothes, and beggars’ cups. They can be CEOs, captains of industry, movers and shakers on the world stage, with villas in Malibu, Italian sportscars in the garage, and stacks of Armani suits, but it should all stem from a solid foundation: a love of learning.

When that happens, education will become the succulent, perfectly-cooked steak, the glass of Single Malt Scotch exploding with flavor, and the warm, gooey, freshly-baked batch of chocolate chip cookies – rather than the bitter medicine pill that has to be crushed and served with apple sauce on a spoon in order to go down and stay down, not thrown up. And that generation of philologers will produce educators that will, in turn, inspire future generations to produce even more philologers.

Some like to cite multi-billionaire Bill Gates – a college dropout – as a perfect example of being “successful” without finishing school. And that is precisely the problem. First of all, it enables the “I don’t need an education to be successful” pipe dream that deludes impoverished kids into thinking they’re going to be the next great athlete or music icon.

Second, Bill Gates is not exactly the traditional college dropout – he scored 1500 on the SAT and enrolled in Harvard. I think a week’s worth of education there is more beneficial than a degree from some of the diploma mills that pass themselves off as institutions of higher learning.

Finally, “success” is not all about gainful employment. It is about being something even greater than that: well-educated. And for those that take pride in working with their hands – building roads, plowing fields, and fixing engines – those are noble undertakings, too.

But there’s no reason those things can’t be done without a college degree hanging on the wall, too. “But that’s a waste,” some might say – there they go again – linking colleges to careers.

There are countless celebrities – James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley readily come to mind – whose fame and fortune we admire, but feel sorry for their tragic deaths just when they seemed to be on top of the world.

Well, Bill Gates, thankfully, is alive and well. But he has not seemed to find the time or interest to go back to school. And for that reason, we should all feel sorry for him, too. Maybe that would be a good start toward instilling in America a culture of philology.

The best way I can think of to underscore the virtues of philology is to expand on a point you made about the importance of learning more than one language, by repeating an old joke: a person that speaks four languages is quadrilingual; one that speaks three is trilingual; one that speaks two is bilingual; and one that speaks only one is American.

PART 3: WHAT’S YOUR OPINION?