Like Heraclitus’ remark about the river, so too with the large urban university where I work: I can no longer step on the same campus twice. In fact, I cannot step on the same campus once - a battalion of bulldozers is sculpting a new world. It is a world dominated by the sciences and technology - a world wished for by the 2006 US Department of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education - and by sports and fun. Along with a spanking new wellness centre (climbing walls soaring above a valley of mirrored exercise spaces), our colleges of business administration and hotel and restaurant management colonise once empty expanses. The ground thrums with the building of a new sports stadium. Just as the football team desperately seeks a franchise player to reverse its fortunes and make good this massive investment, so too do the sciences offer gobs of money for researchers who trail behind them the glitter of grants.
As for the future of the arts and humanities, the commission’s report was silent, a silence made visible in the ageing and decaying buildings we inhabit. I wager my experience is little different from that of colleagues in the humanities at most state universities. According to The Fiscal Times, less than 3 per cent of US students now enrol in the traditional liberal arts. We have become a sideshow - the clowns who pile out of the small car and run around in circles while our administration’s eyes are on the lion tamers of the sciences of hospitality and superconductivity.
But are the students watching our antics? Little more than a decade ago, Murray Sperber argued in Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education that the vast majority of state universities, unable to carry out their mandate of forming well-read and well-rounded citizens, decided to distract them with football games and tailgate parties instead. To be sure, the beer still flows while the sports circuses are housed in ever-more-impressive pleasure domes. But Sperber’s world has, in a sense, been miniaturised and multiplied thanks to the forces depicted by Nicholas Carr in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. With the metastasis of social networks and the proliferation of handy platforms, Carr claims that distraction has become our default state. No longer capable of reading, we now linger at the mirror-like surface of screens. Like you-know-who staring at his image in the pond, our technological gadgets serve only to reflect our own selves.
Or, perhaps more accurately, our iSelves. According to a spate of recent studies, narcissistic personality disorder is on the rise among American youth. Psychologists lay the blame of this and related “iDisorders” at the virtual feet of what one critic, Cory Doctorow, has called “an ecosystem of interruption technologies”. Facebook, Twitter and the like not only pull their users away from deep reading and reflection but also towards an excessive sense of entitlement and self-worth.
More worrisome, the academy’s mad rush towards massive open online courses, distance learning and other technology-driven innovations are, from this perspective, the disease for which they pretend to be the cure. Like the Sirens in the Odyssey, they lure with the promise of knowledge. Yet there are kinds of knowledge, as the Greeks understood, which are the fruit of conversation and dialogue. Moocs will bury, not build, a lasting foundation for knowledge; they will suffocate, not sanctify, the life of the mind.
What is to be done? Simple: send in the clowns. When not piling out of their offices as if they were wheezing, brightly coloured jalopies, humanities professors do what Shakespeare’s fool does: not only does he question the values and ambitions of the powerful, but, as with Lear, he also leads us to understand and empathise with the king’s flaws. Yet he does so not in a circus tent, much less a king’s palace, but in the theatre - a place set apart from the noise and business of everyday life, a place where the audience forgets itself, all the while attending to the meaning of other lives.
Like theatre, the classroom throws a wall between the chatter of the outside world and the serious matters of reading and reflecting. Just as theatregoers are asked to turn off their smartphones, so too do we ask the same of our students. Moreover, just like actors, we have a script - but it is subject to the quirks and quarks of human interaction. What Tom Stoppard said of theatre applies equally to the classroom: “There’s always some kind of ambush involved in the experience. You’re ambushed by an unexpected word, or by an elephant falling out of a cupboard.”
When not dodging falling words or elephants, professors and students keep bumping into strangers who strangely resemble them. Forget loose talk about the Socratic method; if anything, what we do is closer to the Stanislavsky method. When I sit down with students in an undergraduate seminar and we take up, say, Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre, our conversation - if we succeed - leads us both inward and outward: outward to those past lives recreated by Davis, inward to our own present lives and the ways in which we might reassess them in light of the past. History requires empathy, of course. But empathy doesn’t only bring the past closer to us; it also offers a less cramped and self-satisfied understanding of our own selves.
Tennessee Williams once quipped that the theatre is the place where one “has the time for the problems of people to whom one would show the door if they came to one’s office for a job”. In an age of deepening distraction and spiralling self-infatuation, one of the few sources of resistance is the traditional classroom. By forcing us to turn off our technologies, it invites us to be that very person knocking at the office door.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor in the Honors College, University of Houston.