Alas, for Days Gone Bye*:
“Dear Committee Members” Reviewed

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“… I fear we are the last remaining members of a dying profession. We who are senior and tenured are seated in the first car of a roller coaster with a broken track, and we’re scribbling and grading our way to the death fall at the top.  The stately academic career featuring black-robed professors striding confidently across the campus is fading, and though I’ve often railed against its eccentricities, I want to proclaim here that our mission and our way of life to have been lovely, steeped with purpose and worth defending.  But we are nearly at the tipping point, I suspect, and will soon be a thing of the past.”
—Julie Schumacher, “Dear Committee Members”

First, let me say that The American Catholic is an unlikely venue for the review of this fine work, but I’m not sure what other blog I  should use to convey this book’s message.  Before I expound on the relevance of that message for us non-academic American Catholics, let me set the stage.    I get books for my wife at the local library. Since we’ve both done time in the academic jail, I thought this reminder of “days gone bye” might be a welcome change from her usual fare of English mysteries and romances; I had no serious purpose in mind.

THE PLOT LINE

Here’s a very brief summary of this Thurber Prize winning novel.  (There are many good reviews; the best, I think, is that from the New Yorker, linked above.)  The story is told by letters, mostly letters of recommendation (LOR). Almost all of these are excruciatingly funny.  (My wife, reading the book, would burst from time to time into loud guffaws—question: can an elderly lady “guffaw?”)

These letters are written by a tenured English faculty member at a “second tier” private university.  As the opening quote suggests, he is fighting a losing battle against a university administration that believes the future lies with the hard and pseudo-sciences, physics, economics…, those disciplines where quantitation supposedly demonstrates truth.  The English department is being starved of funds for student and material support (as shown in these excerpts from a letter supporting the reappointment of a temporary English department head, Ted Boti, a sociologist):

“…for example, his [Boti’s] mild amazement when informed that English has shrunk in the past five years by more than 20 percent.  See the wrinkle in his snowy brow upon learning that our student fellowships have been slashed, our graduate programs defunded,…,the student literary journal paid for by donations collected on street corners in tin cans…Even more: having spent his tenure-seeking years in the gleaming spaceship of Atwell Hall, Boti—like a wealthy traveler touring the slums—is suitably horrified by the state of our building, with its intermittent water supply, semioperational [sic] light fixtures, mephitic odors, and corridors foggy with toxins.  Yesterday, on the metal bookshelf in my office, I came across a cluster of insects—a beetle, two moths, a centipede, and several bluebottle flies—writhing together like dirgeful companions in their final death throes, presumably poisoned by vapors from the second floor.” —Julie Schumacher, “Dear Committee Members”

RELEVANCE TO AMERICAN CATHOLICS

So, where’s the relevance to Catholics of our conservative bent (doctrinal, liturgical, and political) of this fuss about the decline and fall of literary academe?    The disease of lowered standards, unrealized expectations, is infectious.  Victorian and Edwardian England could support not only Trollope and Hardy, but also Newman and Chesterton.  But where are the Dickens and Meredith of today, where are  the Catholic scholars who make doctrine alive and meaningful?

The Derridas, modernists, postmodernists, and neo-modernists of literature have their counterpart in theology.   Scholars and priests marching along the trail of a mutable, evolving God, a pathway blazed by de Chardin and Whitehead, deny Catholic dogma and doctrine.   Academic administrators belie Catholic morality  by giving honorary degrees to advocates of abortion and euthanasia (they call it “pro-choice”).

There are a few forts in the wilderness, Catholic institutions of higher learning that promote not only a classical education (call it “The Great Books”), but also sound theological principles:  Thomas Aquinas, Christendom, St. Anselm, Benedictine, Thomas More.   (By the way, my son attended the progenitor of this trivium and quadrivium pedagogy, St. John’s College, of which it has been said that Jewish faculty teach Protestant students how to become Catholic.)   But I suggest that these few  are not sufficient to stem the tide.

When secondary schools, public and private, lower standards so that students can be admitted to high rank colleges;  when concessions to politically correct standards of sexual and family identity suborn history and civics; when free speech is stifled so that sensitive snowflakes will not be afraid;  then rigorous scholarship and learning are on their deathbed, and there will be no resuscitation.

TECHNOLOGY, THE AGENT OF INFECTION

Like the fleas that carry bubonic plague, technology is the agent of this decline and fall in learning.  When, rather than a two page letter, communication is “R u  : > ( ,”  then who needs synonyms or antonyms?   When the “Readability” utility for WordPress authoring admonishes me that my “Readable Index” is above that for easy reading, that my sentences and paragraphs should be shorter, that I have too many dependent clauses, etc., etc., the temptation to emulate Henry James (the novelist who wrote like a philosopher) rather than William James (his brother, the philosopher who wrote like a novelist) vanishes.

Technology makes everything too easy—looking up past history, who did what in science, the 21 interpretations of quantum mechanics.   God Bless, God Damn Wikipedia!   I recall doing research some 54 years ago in the library at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon) for the one good piece of science I’ve done. I was trying to find an article by Julian Schwinger, the Nobel Prize winning theoretician who had taught my quantum mechanics course at Harvard. The article, mentioned briefly in my course notes, gave a method by which I could develop a correct theory for paramagnetic nmr shifts (search “Kurland-McGarvey equation“).   Delving into old volumes of Physical Review, being led astray by interesting, but non-relevant works, I spent three weeks finally getting to the key article.   But it was worth it.

GOODBYE TO BETTER TIMES

So, as in fourth and fifth century Britain, I watch the Legions leave and await the onslaught of the barbarians. Oh, for a time machine to go back 50 or 60 years and relive that time.

NOTE

*In doing an internet search for the correct spelling of “bye,” I found that “Days Gone Bye” was the title for the pilot of a post-apocalyptic TV series, “The Walking Dead.”   Gee!  I hit it out of the park, without even knowing!

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8 Comments

  1. Delving into old volumes of Physical Review, being led astray by interesting, but non-relevant works, I spent three weeks finally getting to the key article. But it was worth it.

    I think the service you were looking for was called Science Abstracts in that era It was later sectioned (A, B, C) and then succeeded by three indexing and abstracting services, one for Physics, one for Computers and Controls, and one for Engineering. Our buddy Chris Johnson could have located the article for you in < 1/2 hour if you'd asked him.

  2. Thanks, A.D. … Probably a good librarian could have found it for me in an hour or so, but it was much more fun (and educational) looking for the article on my own. All I knew was that it had to do with density matrix treatment of magnetic susceptibility. I thought Schwinger had something to do with it (since it was in his class notes), but I wasn’t sure…in those days there was no rush. And like now, I wasn’t the best organized person to deal with “Science Abstracts.”

  3. Thomas Sowell, our national treasure that he is, dissected the
    ongoing disintegration of our so-called “higher education” in
    a portion of his book Economic Facts and Fallacies”. I
    highly recommend the entire book in general, and that chapter
    in particular.

  4. Thomas Sowell, our national treasure that he is, dissected the
    ongoing disintegration of our so-called “higher education” in
    a portion of his book Economic Facts and Fallacies”. I
    highly recommend the entire book in general, and that chapter
    in particular.

  5. Education and training costs are a big problem. In the good old days a taxpayer funded high school diploma made it possible for a person to find a good paying job at a factory. The worker didn’t have any edu-debt to pay off.
    *
    Today education costs are through the roof. The financial model for edu-debt is the same as the one that powered the housing bubble. In financial terms this method of funding is called leverage. The student is speculating, hoping to flip their education for a good paying job. Debt based education is in its own way an alternative form of faith-based education. With an education having no cash surrender value the student is financially underwater for their education related debt. With the way things are going with the pace of change in the job market, I’m not sure if the job skills will end up lasting long enough to retire the associated edu-debt. The payments that are made to retire this edu-debt is money that is not available to fuel the consumer economy. It can also cause young people to delay marriage, having a family, and buying a house. I’ve heard that some people can have edu-debt when they are approaching retirement age.
    *
    I don’t think that the employers have much, if any, financial skin in this game. Having a chronic oversupply of workers can work to drive wages down, so there is the possibility for job marketplace manipulation. It is the business world that demands a college degree on a person’s resume. They are the ones priming the demand pump and the associated price inflation of a college degree. They are the ones who are many times looking for a free college education paid for by the worker. It is often said that the world was here first and doesn’t owe us anything. To me this goes a long way towards explaining why the world is so economical with the truth. I mean, figures don’t lie, but lairs figure.
    *
    The financial model of education reeks of Wall Street, big business ethos. Things have gotten to the point that college is looking like the new kinder, gentler company store.
    *
    You take sixteen credit hours, what do you get?
    Another semester older and deeper in debt
    Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
    I owe my soul to the educators.
    *
    With apologies to “Sixteen Tons”

  6. GregB, I love that verse…I can hear Ernie Ford singing it. And your thesis about the economics of student debt hits the mark. The problem is that we need plumbers, electricians and welders, not more purveyors of “…. Studies.” Vocational secondary schools and apprenticeships should be the educational model. Remove 90% of the institutions of “higher learning” and turn the faculty onto farms and city cleanup crews (my own cultural revolution.)

  7. “Delving into old volumes of Physical Review, being led astray by interesting, but non-relevant works, I spent three weeks finally getting to the key article. But it was worth it.”

    I never open a volume of the law reports without finding something I was not looking for catching my eye; sometimes, it comes in useful years later.

    One of my favourites was a judge’s retort to counsel citing one of his own previous decisions: “The matter does not appear to me now as it appears to have appeared to me then.” Andrews v Styrap (1872) 26 LT 704, 706 per Bramwell B.

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