August 27, 2021

This week I returned to teaching at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, where I was a student from 1969 to 1973 and a full-time faculty member for 32 years beginning in 1989.   As an English instructor, now adjunct, I am returning to that enclave of education known as the liberal arts, and within that to the smaller temenos or magic circle of the humanities, those subjects which preserve and promote the imagination in its purest form. 

Baldwin Wallace was founded in 1845, and its oldest surviving buildings date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marting Hall, which houses the English Department, was built in 1896 of Berea sandstone, once a universally popular building material.  In 1969, when I first set foot on campus at the age of 18, the stones were blackened with age and partly ivy-covered, complete with rainspout gargoyles that over the years have produced picturesque winter photos of gargoyles vomiting ice for our promotional materials. The ivy is long gone, and just as well, since Baldwin Wallace has always been the opposite of “ivy league” in its aspirations.  Today, however, such surviving buildings evoke no cloistered haven but rather a medieval castle under siege. 

The enemies of humanities education are no less sinister for being invisible.  The plague which swept the world of the Middle Ages is staging a return engagement.  We are teaching masked, with universal testing of students upon entry, which is still an improvement from the Age of Zoom last year that reduced us to being medieval hermits learning and teaching from our cells. The pandemic will recede eventually, but the collapse of the middle and working classes into a proletarian underclass is predicted to accelerate, which will in turn accelerate the enrollment decline that has been underway for a dozen years. We have been told to expect a 15% further enrollment decline in the next 15 years:  the prediction is that half of all private colleges in our area will close their doors. Some students can no longer afford college, or at least a full four-year college.  Others are fleeing an economically declining area.   Last year, Cleveland lost more population than any other major U.S. city.  What students remain are understandably terrified by grim predictions and are staging a lifeboat-retreat into what are supposed to be “practical” majors.  English is not one of them:  the number of English majors has declined by more than half in the last decade. 

The cause is not an overall “bad economy”:  the overall economy is doing just fine by the usual measures—if you belong to the upper third of the population, including the elite 1% plus an educated, professionally-skilled remnant of the middle class.  The elite are not my concern:  when such elite organs as the New York Times speak of “the crisis in higher education,” they usually mean that the competition among children of the privileged to get into privileged institutions has become cutthroat.  They show little concern about what is happening outside of the gated community of the rich and famous and are often ill-informed when they bother to pronounce upon it. 

BW’s enrollment still includes children of the second group, the educated professionals, though the number is shrinking. But the two sections of the class I am teaching, College Composition, consist largely of the bottom two thirds of our class system.  The question is, what can the imagination mean to students who all too frequently are (1) educationally deprived and underprepared, (2) at times mentally unwell, suffering from depression and anxiety clearly provoked by their stressful lives, and (3) frequently juggling work schedules and family responsibilities along with school.  Often enough, they do not even have adequate computer access.   Sometimes they do not even have enough to eat.  How can imagination mean anything to students in such bare-survival circumstances?  Is the very word not a remnant of ivory-tower bubble thinking that is by now long obsolete? 

My mentor Northrop Frye, despite being the most famous and influential literary critic of the twentieth century (by widespread estimation, not just mine), preferred to teach undergraduate rather than graduate courses. In other words, his center of gravity was, like my own, general rather than specialized or professionalizing education.  In 1963 he published a book that has become a classic and has never been out of print, The Educated Imagination.  In its original form, it was in fact a podcast ahead of its time, consisting of six radio lectures addressed to an interested general public, hosted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  To my delighted surprise, I have found that you can access the original radio talks on YouTube.  I recommend The Educated Imagination to anyone interested in the theme of “the imagination as the home of human life.”  Frye wrote frequently about education, and his starting point is the observation that times are always bad for the humanities. He ought to know:  he entered Victoria College of the University of Toronto in 1929 as the Great Depression was bringing down the elite’s house of cards.  Despite clear evidence that he was not just gifted but a genius, he was only able to attend by winning a scholarship due to his performance in a typing contest.   (What good is training as a classical pianist?  It might bestow a manual dexterity enabling you to type as fast as your own secretary—and win a typing contest scholarship). 

Why are times always bad for the humanities?  In addition to pandemics and economic inequality, education faces actual hostility. The external threat currently comes from the reactionary right, which attacks education, and always has, because the word “liberal” in liberal education, while it does not necessarily imply political liberalism, does imply a kind of education that liberates people from the kinds of social brainwashing that makes them easily controlled.  Sometimes the attack is on subject matter, as with the present hysteria over “critical race theory,” which is in fact a specialized law-school theory not taught in general education at all.  The hysteria really signifies a fear that students will be taught real history instead of the whitewashing, in all senses, that whites out not just the history of racism in U.S. history but all other social problems and shortcomings as well.  The attack on “wokeness” moves in the same direction.

Other attacks are not external but are design features, built into the education system itself as byproducts of some of the unhealthy features of our society.   One systemic form of anti-intellectualism is “assessment,” the requirement that all inquiry be reduced to that which can be bean-counted—quantified and thus made comprehensible to educational bureaucrats who have garnered themselves the power to grant or withhold accreditation.  The teaching of Kafka is judged according to numbers ticked off on a rubric, a fact that would not have surprised Kafka, whose novels are about bureaucracy as the modern version of hell.  The system works, however blindly and inadvertently, to make university education as economically inaccessible and debt-ridden as possible and, again more or less blindly, strives on all levels to steer students away from the humanities disciplines that teach students to think and ask questions and towards STEM subjects and various forms of professional training.  Finally, as liberal education depends upon a certain amount of leisure, upon a kind of Sabbath-day contemplative detachment, the system works to make sure that both students and faculty are as overworked and stressed out as possible. 

Let me be clear:  this is not in general an attack on the universities themselves. In all these things, they are largely the victims of outside social forces which they have little ability to resist.  Most universities do their best to push back heroically against the dehumanizing forces encroaching from the outside.  Luckily,  higher education is not very vulnerable to outright hostile takeover of the type that made Dolores Umbridge “High Inquisitor” of Hogwarts in Harry Potter.  That is a real danger in lower-level education, where Umbridge types, true to the name, not content with turning school board meetings into shouting matches, run for the board themselves and, if elected, become complete obstructionists.  I know: we had one in our community a few years ago, and prayed for a poltergeist to cane her out the door.  All this may sound like an operatic aria sung by Cassandra, yet the attack on education is not mere progressive conspiracy thinking but a real and present danger. 

But I do not intend to end with the politically caustic.  There is too much of that everywhere as it is.  My message is the opposite:  half a long lifetime in academia has left me more idealistic and hopeful than ever.  Higher education has been undergoing a historical process of progressive recreation of the type I describe in Part 3 of The Productions of Time.  We inherit the phrase “liberal education” from the first universities, established in the Middle Ages.  All human knowledge was divided into seven liberal arts: three whose vehicle was language (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), and three whose vehicle was mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy)—the trivium and quadrivium respectively.   Liberal knowledge is supposed to be that which is good for its own sake as opposed to that which is practical and gets you a job.  Nonetheless, the main task of medieval universities was to provide trained professionals in theology and law to serve the ruling elite, who might not even be literate.  With the fading of monarchies and aristocracies from the 17th through the 19th centuries, liberal university education became focused on the training of a new elite figure, the “gentleman,” whose polished manners, social connections established in an upper-class school, and general rather than specialized knowledge prepared him for his place in administrating the official British or unofficial American empire.  During this period, “liberal” meant liberated from the crude practical necessity of earning a living. 

But at the same time, a democratic movement towards egalitarian mass education was growing up to challenge—as it still challenges—the old idea of a supposedly meritocratic grooming of the privileged.  Sometimes this counter-movement merely reversed the earlier gentlemanly ideal and devoted itself to practical education, education that will pay the rent.  But very often that utilitarian impulse was regarded as means to an end, and in these best moments “liberal education” came to mean what Blake meant by “expanding eyes,” the education that liberates us through what he called cleansing the doors of perception.   Using Biblical language, Blake said that when anyone casts out error and embraces the truth, the Last Judgment occurs:  an old reality is destroyed and a new one is created. 

My own Baldwin Wallace University was founded by a man who dedicated his whole life to this vocation of helping people—all people, not just an elite—to liberate themselves through education.  From the first, John Baldwin admitted women (we had a co-ed dorm a hundred years before Oberlin did), African Americans, and even Native Americans.  Motives are always impure, and the realization of any ideal flawed, but on the whole the motive of these admissions was neither social conformism nor colonialist assimilationism. As BW history professor Indira Gesink says in her book Barefoot Millionaire: John Baldwin and the Founding Values of Baldwin Wallace University, the school “was not training the women to operate within society as it was then organized; it was training them to create a new, ideal society in which men and women, black and white, Methodist and Catholic were treated with the same regard to human value.  The women trained did not go back to their mothers’ kitchens to await a wedding ring. They became professors and professionals” (77).  Elsewhere she says, “The inclusivity of the institution was intended to provide equality of opportunity.  The early graduates were not obsessed with spreading Methodist Christianity but rather with spreading literacy and hygiene” (185), in other words the old Greek ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body expanded from its original Greek restriction to an Athenian aristocracy. 

Yet it is not just founder and faculty who have been idealistic.  The humanities, the subjects that provide a vision of human concerns, have always been beleaguered, and yet students hunger for them.  Some students, anyway, but more than you might think—statistics about the number of humanities majors do not tell the full story.  I have met many students who wished they could take more English courses if only their practical schedule allowed for it, and former students who have become friends often remember their humanities classes as the most fulfilling time of their lives.  We have a thriving Institute for Learning in Retirement.  Yes, we are living through multiple crises, but that is always true, and the liberal vision enables us to endure.  A pandemic?  BW has already lived through one, in 1918.  Been there, survived that. Economic meltdown?  Indira Gesink writes, “The Depression did not destroy higher education in America. Enrollment did suffer at expensive and specialized schools that offered degrees in areas where jobs were limited… However, enrollment climbed at schools where tuition remained affordable” (173).  It was no picnic, but BW came through: “Everyone at the institution accepted a 45% reduction in pay, but no one was fired” (173). 

The American Dream has been misunderstood.  It is far more than a dream of progressive material success over generations.  Mind you, that in itself is not an ignoble dream.  I am teaching students for whom higher education promises the opportunity to fulfill Abraham Maslow’s physiological and safety needs, and, as I have written in a recent newsletter, the expansion of that opportunity is necessary if democracy is to survive.  Those who are presently trying to restrict voting rights claim that underprivileged people (especially non-white underprivileged people, of course) should not be allowed to vote because they are uneducated and in their ignorance vote for politicians who promise them all kinds of free stuff.  No wonder such people are hostile to education:  expansion of educational opportunity takes away their excuse.  It is for this reason that Jill Biden has continued to teach freshman English in a community college even while serving in two presidential administrations, and I am honored to join her in the same endeavor. 

But the American Dream has always included a higher level of expanded imagination.  Baldwin Wallace was early on associated with the Lyceum movement, in which cultural figures like Emerson gave talks all over the country.  All such educational phenomena are imperfect, and the Lyceum movement was criticized for the kind of pretentiousness that TED talks are at times criticized for now.  However, recently the advent of social media has caused an explosion of non-academic educational phenomena that amount to a new Lyceum movement.  Podcasts and newsletters are everywhere:  you can educate yourself without going $30,000 in debt to get a college degree.  I am fascinated by this relatively new phenomenon—so much so that I now have one of each!  (My podcast, Expanding Eyes, is available on major podcast distributors, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. See this page on my website for other ways to listen). But I think of my podcast and newsletter as non-academic extensions of a teaching career now entering its fifth decade.   The vehicles are new but the message is the same:  the possibility of imaginative expanded vision available to everyone, the possibility that reality, both individual and social, is not unchangeable but can be decreated and recreated.

This sounds grandiose and inflated, but it isn’t.  I have had students tell me that in their entire schooling they have never had anyone allow them, let alone encourage them, to write something that belongs to them, something that they wrote because they wanted to express something rather than something that fulfilled an assignment.  The moment they produce something that they feel they own is the moment that the imagination begins to awaken.  I am satisfied if I can provide the occasion of that.  For once the awakening begins, there is no telling where it might end. 

Note: 

Indira Gesink’s Barefoot Millionaire was published in 2013 by Baldwin Wallace University.