Academic Skills, history, Pedagogy, teaching

There’s something about summer and rumination…

Just as I observed yesterday that it seems like the school year is hardly over before the next project or challenge commences, I’ve also come to the realization that the “downtime” (if it can really be called that) seems to encourage a lot of reflection. Perhaps it’s the less frantic daily schedule I have, which increases my ability to read things that I otherwise might put off while planning assignments or giving feedback on student work, but I always seems to come across thought-provoking stuff in the summer that makes me reflect on my past year teaching and also begin looking forward to the next one (weird right?).

This morning, that dynamic took hold while reading Swarthmore history professor Tim Burke‘s blog entry on the financial bubble developing the realm of higher education. While the post began by looking at the nature of the bubble in academia and the institutions most likely to be hard hit by it’s eventual burst, the essay went on to deal with the values of a generalist humanities education that empowers students to think in critical, adaptable ways. A lot of this post spoke to me as a teacher and historian, so I thought I’d excerpt some of the lines I found most striking, thought-provoking, and generally dead-on for the vitality of the humanities and history.

The best secure way for ambitious, bright, competitive young adults to find their way in a 21st Century world, both as human beings and as workers, is through an education which emphasizes critical thinking, adaptability, creativity. Students can’t just study something in a fixed way in order to apply to a fixed short-term career objective. They have to be capable of making normative judgments about what to study and how to study it, about how to choose which methodologies or tools they need to engage a particular problem, about how to assess what audiences and customers need or want. Students need to figure out what matters and why it matters, and that inquiry always has to include the possibility that something that an authority (professorial or otherwise) thinks is significant is not.


One of the stupidest things about the alleged rationalization of higher education in the United Kingdom has been the horrific damage to humanistic inquiry as a whole but also to any experimental or innovative programs in the name of a dystopian fetish for metrics of productivity. That’s not the way that selective colleges and universities in the U.S. are going to prove that they have a specific educational design that guides students through making creative, flexible choices about knowledge and interpretation. In riding out a bubble, humanists will need to excel at what they already excel at, the making of normative judgments and avoiding simple reductions of inquiry to instrumental ends, but social scientists and scientists will also need to enable students to think broadly, to make choices, to creatively apply one way of knowing to other ways beyond the specific intent or instruction of their teachers.


Generalism itself has best practices, it has rigor and structure, it has its own kinds of depth, and as a result, can be taught. Moreover, it can be taught in parallel to specialized inquiry from the first day to the last day of an […] education, within and alongside courses. It can be embodied in the work of faculty, expressed in the work of research and publication, legitimated in the small daily gestures that compose collegiality.

Read the entire entry (before I unwittingly copy and paste it here) over at Burke’s blog.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten myself intellectually pumped up, it’s time to continue working on revising my 15,000+ word article down into a 6,000 word encyclopedia entry. Ah, a post for another day!


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