One of the highlights of a busy day yesterday at the Bok Center was an impromptu discussion with a few colleagues and student fellows about what I suppose one might call the ecology of making these days in the arts and humanities.
As one colleague put it, it is hard to witness the phenomenal success of a historically-themed show like Hamilton without wondering (perhaps quite seriously) about why we want our brightest 27 year-olds writing dry historical dissertations rather than creating lots and lots of Hamiltons that will reach a much wider audience. This is, of course, not an either-or case: what I suspect we can all agree we really want is to have our brightest young creative people doing both. Some should write PhDs, some should find a more artistic expression for their scholarly interests, and the two communities should educate and inspire each other. (And perhaps even collaborate.) But my colleague's thought experiment is well-taken, and does raise some really interesting and important questions about the place of the university within that larger ecology of creative output. Though we may not often think of it in these terms, the fact of the matter is that the university already has staked out a significant position in this world: just think about how many of our most exciting authors are sustaining themselves by teaching in university creative writing programs these days. In that sense, at least, the university has already decided that it wants to be a patron of adventurous writing—not only for its own sake, but because, in theory, a few dozen undergraduates each year will benefit from being taught be these authors. In other ways, however, the university has been much more reluctant to serve as a hub of arts and humanities innovation: I wonder how many faculty think they could earn tenure, for example, by making a film in a traditionally "book-based" discipline, or by creating an arts internship for their undergraduates.
In the age of Hamilton, I think these are important questions to be asking about the university writ large. But I also think that they point to a seismic shift in the way that we think about the aims and content of a college education. For quite a long period in the history of universities, one might say that college education consisted largely of guided reading. (It's an obvious point, but that mainstay of college teaching, the lecture, comes from "lectio," or reading—the professor would read aloud the text at the center of the course [say, a section of Aquinas' Summa Theologica] while the students followed along, glossing sentences and passages to enrich the students' understanding of what they were reading. Though the medieval lecture has long since disappeared, this assumption that the point of college was, essentially, to go and have the smartest people tell you which books to read and how to think about them has only really faded in the last generation or so. What has replaced it is an assumption that college is about two other things: skills acquisition and, increasingly, making. This is not to say, of course, that students no longer read, or that earlier generations of students never acquired skills or made anything. (The other component of the medieval university education was disputatio, the debate, in which students would practice making their own arguments.) But the relative emphasis given to these activities, and (more importantly) the causal relationship between them has changed quite radically, in my opinion. Whereas writing once served the ancillary purpose of enhancing one's reading of texts, reading is now the preliminary task to be completed as efficiently as possible in order to make room for all of the writing and the making that students must do. I suspect that this has something to do with why students now report so much difficulty around reading, and why a lot of the conventional rituals of a college education (including, of course, lecture) seem to make so little sense to students who are being enticed ever more strongly to devote themselves to entrepreneurial certificate programs and app incubators. This, then, is another way in which the university has already taken a position on its place in the making economy: where once a college education could be summed up in a reading list, now it should culminate in a pitch meeting.
Or am I just playing the role of a cranky old humanist here?
This post was contributed by Bok Center Associate Director for Teaching and Learning Adam Beaver