Thursday, July 23, 2009
The Descent of Man
I think this was also purchased for Elizabeth Grosz's course when I was in graduate school. I should note that if I bought a book for a graduate school course, I almost certainly purchased it at Talking Leaves Books. However, in this instance, I have a vague recollection that Grosz, newly arrived in Buffalo at the time, ordered her books through the campus bookstore, and that we had to purchase them there unless they happened to be in stock in the same edition at TL.
The campus bookstore at SUNY Buffalo sits in a sort of hidden corner of the student shopping mall at the center of the campus. Said shopping mall is, for me, at the heart of everything that is wrong with modern higher education, at least insofar as it is practiced at SUNY Buffalo. The min-mall contains restaurants, bookstores, a travel agent, a tanning salon, etc.(Or, at least it did then). Add to that the fact that every student's ID card doubles as a debit card that can used throughout the campus and you start to see that the model for present day university education is not the Jeffersonian one, wherein those that want to attain knowledge for its own sake seek out the university and the great minds housed therein in order to attain it from them.
Rather, today's system is based on a consumerist model. Students are taught to save, shop and manage debt. All valuable real world skills that have nothing to do with higher learning. This kind of thinking is then extended into the classroom, where students are given the opportunity to shop around for two weeks before deciding on a class, thus shortening the actual semester by two weeks and wasting the time of those students and professors ready on day one.
But the most insidious element of all is that the students see their education purely and simply as a commodity. They are paying tuition in order to get the grades required to be accredited for future employment. Professors are seen as sales reps who help the students shop around for a career they might enjoy and then cash them out at the end of the course with one more necessary piece of the career puzzle.
When I was teaching, I was continually amazed at the students' incredulity when given a bad grade, or their inability to admit error, failure, lack of effort, cheating, lax thinking, or anything else. Most of them had completely assimilated the consumerist mindset:
"I am paying you money, you give me what I want. I don't care what it is or how it is packaged, I just know I need it to get something else I want (more money) and I've got the money to pay for it so give me an "A." Now."
This is not really an argument for a grading system or anything of that sort -- I would prefer the Jeffersonian model -- but if you are going to have a grading and merit system in education, then it should at least count for something. In the current situation, the consumerist model undermines any effort to create a truly merit-based system and renders the idea of a Jeffersonian one a fool's paradise.
Anyhow, enough of my yakking.
From The Descent of Man:
The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind- such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs- as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it; and I have given the evidence to the best of my ability. We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system- with all these exalted powers- Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.