EXPANSIVE POETRY ONLINE
A Journal of Contemporary Arts 

 

  Joseph S. Salemi

 
 

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 THE MONSTER APPROACHES

 

 

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Recently at Hunter College, all faculty received a directive from the College Senate. I normally throw such things straight into the garbage, but a colleague advised me to look at it.

The directive informed us, in the curiously sterile jargon of bureaucracy, that from now on every syllabus in every Hunter course had to include a specific statement of the “learning objectives” of that course. Moreover, the directive continued, the verbs learn, understand, comprehend, remember or know could not be employed in this statement—instead, concrete verbs indicating the student’s ability to perform a task would have to be used.

I pondered this. What did it imply for my students in my classes? That they “conjugate a Latin verb in the future tense”? That they “identify who Hektor is”? That they “narrate a synopsis of Ovid”? It was clear that whoever composed this directive was ruled by a na´vely activist view of the learning process. Learning at the university level is about understanding and thinking in the contemplative sense. Yes, it involves some memorization and some testable skills. But it is profoundly narrow and anti-intellectual to assume that everything taught in a college class is subject to “assessment,” like one’s time in the 100-meter dash. Only people with the crass mentality of football coaches and businessmen think that way.

Unfortunately, this is the first not-so-tentative step in the approach of something hideous—something that is already on the march all over the nation. It is the political push towards “learning outcomes,” and “assessment,” and “standardized testing.” And I use the word political deliberately. This new approach has nothing to do with genuine education, but everything to do with placating powerful interest groups on the right and on the left.

The worst things in contemporary America happen when the left and the right come to an agreement. This is true in education no less than in politics. A horrific example of this dangerous marriage is the slow, steady, and inexorable advance, like a metastasizing cancer, of standardized testing, outcomes-assessment, and top-down curricular guidelines in schools across the country.

In the lower grades, the battle is over. No teacher in the K-12 sequence has any autonomy or free choice in regard to what he or she teaches, or even how it is taught. A frightening managerial rigidity has descended on American education from kindergarten to high school. And now it is advancing upon the colleges.

The unthinking right and the agenda-driven left are both pleased with this development. They jointly initiated it (though starting from different ideological premises), and they welcome its triumph.

For the business-oriented capitalist right, the new paradigm means the chance to restructure education into another profit-conscious corporate lean-machine that will serve no interests except those of real-world entrepreneurial competition. This is the long-cherished dream of every bourgeois philistine since the poet Philip Freneau: Turn our colleges into vocational training shops! No history, no philosophy, no foreign languages, no classics! Or as Freneau himself put it in a memorably dim-witted couplet:

         Too much of our time is employed on such trash
         When we ought to be taught to accumulate cash.

The right’s attitude, which comes straight out of the business schools, expresses itself in the following mandates: Micromanage everything from the curriculum to the syllabi to the testing procedures and the grading. Get rid of tenure so as to make faculty answerable to management, the way all salaried employees should be. Besides, opines the right, these professors are mostly untrustworthy leftists anyway, so it’s best to keep them under one’s thumb. The educational policies pushed by the second Bush administration can be seen as a long-range strategy to turn academia over to corporate goals and corporate control.

For the left, this development promises the Faustian bargain that they have long lusted after: the authority to determine what other people do and think. Inside every leftist is a bureaucrat itching to get out and distribute policy guidelines. The desire to lay down the law, to regulate, to plan, and to coerce by means of restrictions and mandates is embedded in the DNA of leftists and left-liberals. So for them, the imposition of curricular guidelines and standardized tests—and more important, the precedent of administrative control over classroom activity that these policies establish—is like catnip. They have gladly joined hands with the right just to ratify this crucial shift in power from professors to committees.

As a result of this coincidence of purposes (which might be called the Hitler-Stalin Pact of contemporary education), genuine learning and scholarship will be squeezed out of the picture. Or if they survive at all, it will be as mere accidental phenomena that occur in a few corners of the new corporate-friendly and educrat-run megaschools. Businessmen will get their secure supply of middle-management types and docile workers, and leftish policy wonks will get their license to hector and browbeat faculty into line on pedagogical questions. How convenient for everyone—except, of course, traditional scholars both behind and in front of the lectern.

The conflation of Big Business’s profit imperative and Big Bureaucracy’s regulatory itch is one of the most ominous signs of our time—a sign of something a lot more destructive and evil than a few pathetic terrorist attacks. Culture and civilization can survive a scattering of religious fanatics with bombs. They cannot survive the juggernaut of rampant capitalism conjoined with administrative martinets. Big Business and Big Bureaucracy always combine to produce the same thing: Big Brother. Next to this deinos gamos, al-Qaeda is a joke.

Can individual professors do anything to thwart this oncoming colossus? Overtly, not much. The cards are stacked against us. But covertly we can do quite a bit. We can smile and pay lip-service to the new order, and then continue to teach our students exactly as we see fit. At least those are my plans. As for all the College Senates and curriculum committees and outcomes-assessment coordinators—well, they can drop dead.

Joseph S. Salemi


Editor’s Note: There’s something about the assessment racket described above that’s akin to a prevalent kind of workshop for poetry. You know the type. Gathering together to gently critique each other’s work...While this may offend, my experience with such is that, by their artless and sometimes hostile peer review, an often unsubtle attack is made on a poet's personal edge (diction, specific approach to form, subject matter).  What amounts to an ad hoc committee recommends an approved smoothness in a given poem. Such collective judging of individual use of language, form and approach to content is not a didactic but a political procedure aimed at eliminating what might contradict the committee – er, workshop's – objectives. In business, the pablum of similar products is reinforced by the artfully critical actions of focus groups. The parallel shouldn't be hard to assess.  Any writer worth a damn knows that making poetry, if you're outside of a royal court, dictatorship or theocracy, is determined by individual taste, not by a critical group of peers. Incidentally, there was one worskhop where this was not at issue, that led by the late Alfred Dorn. There, participants were pressed to discuss how well the writer had succeeded in a given poem, not how well he or she fit into the group's dynamic.

 

 

 

 

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.  His upcoming books, Gallery of Ethopaths, and a collection of critical essays, are forthcoming.

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