“It’s Up to You!”

Staff of "The Campus," Sarah Lawrence College student newspaper, 1950s.

I’ve been reading the Hicks translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (sold as The Emperor’s Handbook), and there’s a phrase that keeps jumping out at me. Of course, it helps that it was specifically called out in the introduction, but nevertheless, “it’s up to you!” resonates beyond its obvious hokeyness.

There are so many permeations and variations on the phrase, and countless adoptions of it, that at times the simple meaning of it can be lost. I went to an all-boys school for five years as a kid, and our motto was “sua sponte” – “in your hands.” It wasn’t until the last few years that I learned that the Army Rangers have the same motto, only translated more formally as “of their own accord.”

Anyways, I guess what I’m trying to say is that one of what seems to be the big problems in modern society is the total lack of agency, and that Aurelius’ writings remind me of that.

Things suck right now, on a deep, fundamental level (much more on that next week). Between economic malaise and my total, total disillusionment with American politics, I don’t know what I even want to do any longer. But it’s not totally out of our control. It’s up to us in all sorts of ways. We have an entrepreneurial spirit unmatched by few in the world.  And if I can’t find a job, or something meaningful to do, then it’s time to literally make something of, and for, myself.

Goliath Online

After a nearly two-year hiatus, I’m pleased to announce that GOLIATH will return for an exclusive upcoming DJ gig at Sarah Lawrence College’s end-of-year Bacchanalia bash (for those of you who don’t know, I did a little DJing back in the day and even tried to keep up a middling electronic music blog).

But that’s right, I’m now officially an international DJ. Which is pretty awesome, but also means I won’t be around for the next week or so (only a few hours til takeoff). As usual, busy yourself with some interesting websites, and don’t forget the new additions.

I imagine I’ll be back early if something really ridiculous happens.

The Church of Knowledge

Kevin Carey writes in Democracy Now about the ‘quality’ of colleges in the United States. Comparing higher education to the Catholic church, he describes the modern university as in institution terrified of actually trying to evaluate how well they’re teaching. Answerable to no one, accountable to none, non-profit colleges try to maximize reputation rather than profits, including gaming the U.S. News & World Report rankings. I can speak from experience here: my own undergraduate college was unceremoniously dropped from the list in 2005. This came solely because we stopped looking at S.A.T. scores, which were a quantifiable measure of – I don’t know, something – an ability to take tests, and we were duly punished. Yet, the college flourishes, admission has only grown more selective, and I don’t for a minute think less of Sarah Lawrence for her absence from the USNWR tables.

After moving from the unique style of an SLC education to that of the British university, the biggest difference is in fact the alumni donation/endowment-based system of private American colleges. It seems like a bad idea from the start – too close to a business/consumer model, but not actually responsible in the same way. The British schools can count on receiving their funding from the Exchequer each year; they have the benefit of stability. But it’s in fact the endowment system that allows students to change their educational experience while it’s happening. Schools that rely on alumni donations (especially true for those with smaller endowments) must address the needs of current students, whether they be shortages in the curriculum or draconian alcohol policies. Otherwise they risk losing a lifelong source of income, in a state of even further dependence than a business.

Carey misses this almost entirely: “If bad teaching created negative publicity or materially affected the ability of college presidents to recruit students and raise money from alumni, presidents would have much stronger incentives to tackle reform head-on.” So then, is the problem that the alumni of prestigious schools are all idiots, unable to realize they were fleeced? Not sure how to remedy this.

It could be pointed out that the future alumni donation model merely ensures that the wealthiest students have the loudest voices, but I’d have to disagree. A college doesn’t know who’s going to be wealthy or not down the road. It could produce a world-renowned director/producer or a White House Chief of Staff who majored in dance. It’s the ultimate equalizer, and the inverse relationship between the size of a college and its dependence on alumni donations means that the most supportive, responsive colleges will be the tiny liberal arts ones. The big universities are too big to learn. Lectures tell you, seminars engage you (even if some smart people think otherwise).

Carey’s prescription is for new modeling and quantitative assessments of teaching quality and other intangibles. The problem with this (as with all sociological attempts at structuring human behavior) is that it’s too individualistic and subjective a measurement to boil down to a formula. The NSSE and the CLA, even if accurate, merely tell you how a given college is. What’s truly needed is an instrument to change how that college will be. Students should affect their own destiny.

What it comes down to is a need for decentralizing higher education. Harvard as the Ma Bell of universities?