A neuroscientist explains (why we need the liberal arts)

Why We Need the Liberal Arts

I shared these thoughts with fellow students and professors at Emory in Fall 2012 in the wake of sudden, devastating cuts to departments that were enacted in violation of Emory faculty bylaws. Although student and faculty activists have thus far been unsuccessful in fully reversing the administration’s decision, we have made progress and at the very least, opened up new spaces for dissenting voices at Emory. Originally published on the Stop the Cuts blog*, here are my reflections on some of the things I value about the academic community, and why academics should be concerned about the current corporatized trajectory:

Hello, my name is Katherine Bryant, and I am a graduate student at Emory…. I decided to go to graduate school after a several year hiatus from college. I decided to come back to academia because I missed my college experience. What was special to me about the college experience was the community. Let me tell you what I mean.

In college, I loved learning, not just from classes, but also from other students, my colleagues. I was glad to discover, in graduate school, that this was still true. Whether I’m debating about the methodology of a study in journal club, or discussing ideas with my other graduate student friends, we are all gaining something important – we learn from each other and better ourselves by working together. This sense of community is why I returned to academia.

When I talk about community, I want to make something clear. I argue with colleagues. We have heated debates. I sometimes feel competition with other students in my program, other labs. But that doesn’t mean that I feel the need to put them down, or push them down, in order to move forward myself. That’s what community means to me, and I imagine that this story may be true for many of you.

I feel that this capacity for community is under assault – in academia generally, and at Emory particularly. Although many schools feel this pressure, Emory’s strong desire to move ahead is worsening this threat to our community. I want to briefly describe to you the worrying trends I have observed. There are four issues I see:

First, back in 2006, a publication called the Washington Monthly created a new ranking system for colleges and universities, in an effort to provide an alternative to the US News and World Reportrankings. They objected to the methodology of those rankings on many grounds, including how they neglected to account for scientific and humanistic research, and how well it performs as an engine of social mobility (for example, helping students move up from lower to higher economic brackets). They specifically called out Emory back then. Let me tell you what they said:

Emory, 20th on the list of U.S. News [for undergraduate colleges], comes in at 96th on our list. It ranks lowest on our list of any of the U.S. News top 25, and it’s a full 42 spots behind runner-up Carnegie Mellon. Its social mobility score puts it at 104th place. (Its number of Pell recipients is low, its SAT scores are relatively high, yet its graduation is relatively low.) By spending its money on recruiting applicants with high SAT scores (a way of boosting one’s U.S. News ranking) Emory has apparently decided reaching out to poorer students is a low priority. Nor does it do especially well in public service or research. That’s not great for a school with an endowment of $4.5 billion, the eighth-highest in the nation. [1]

The second issue is our false reporting of inflated undergraduate SAT scores to US News and World Report, the US Department of Education, Peterson’s, and others, which occurred over 10 years. In line with the criticism from Washington Monthly, this was also done in order to boost our rankings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that news was released on a Friday afternoon as well.

The third is our current situation – the sudden and nontransparent decisions which betray the trust of the Emory community, made in the name of seeking eminence.

The last thing I want to bring up is our new partnership with Coursera, a massive online open-source coursework provider. While I think many of us would embrace new possibilities for sharing our scholarship with others, there are several issues about the Coursera partnership that worry me. First, Coursera is for-profit. The content Coursera will demand from us will necessarily reflect the market demand from online users. What this will ultimately mean for the course offerings at Emory, I have no way of knowing. But what it suggests is that new pressures, beyond the administration, will be brought to bear on faculty and graduate students. These pressures will be market pressures. This is important to note because I see here an inherent conflict between the process of scholarship in a community, and the capricious, fast moving, and fluctuating nature of market demands, and the desire to always be eminent compared to our competitors. As many have said before, it is much harder to build something from scratch after you’ve torn it down, than to maintain a scholarly community that is already established. This isn’t Coke versus Pepsi, or Mac versus PC. This is about a community of scholars creating an academic tradition over years and generations. This is about a community of scholars creating an academic tradition over years and generations. And it’s about serving the needs of new students, who will come here with new ideas and combine these traditions in new and unexpected ways. And that won’t work if we break down programs based on the whims of the market.

When a community seeks eminence, it doesn’t make decisions about the future of the community which are devastating to some members, without discussing it with those members of the community first.

When a community seeks eminence, it doesn’t obfuscate information about its finances, and it doesn’t try to cover up which individuals it is hurting.

When a community seeks eminence, it doesn’t kick out members that it feels don’t measure up. We pull ahead together, or we are not pulling ahead at all. This is what I learned in college, and this is what I hope Emory can be. Achieving excellence is not a zero-sum game.

[1] Emory’s overall ranking has risen to 32 thanks to new initiatives. Yet its social-mobility score has dropped to 171, out of 258.

via A neuroscientist explains (why we need the liberal arts).

Emory community members gather to speak out against departmental cuts. Fall 2012

*Thanks to Claire Laville (@clearthecity) for chronicling the ongoing activism at Emory in wake of the cuts since the beginning, in September 2012. Check out the blog to learn more about efforts by students, faculty, and staff to hold the Emory administration accountable for its actions, as well as for a comprehensive aggregation of media coverage.



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