Next Steps?

Last Wednesday, Professor Carl Amrhein came to the Arts Faculty Council to offer a slide presentation in which he responded, generally, as Provost and VP Academic, to the financial questions posed to him by almost 90 members of the Faculty in a letter of 19 March 2012. In the course of conversation afterwards, Professor Amrhein claimed that he wished to see Arts “move to center stage” at the University, along with the other faculty that is part of the traditional core of the University, the Faculty of Science. He is, however, not certain what arguments we would like him to be making on our behalf to Government to help us achieve this. He nevertheless assured us that if we send him “information” and “materials” in the form of “visual media” and “technology” that will “compel” the attention of government, he will put them to good use.

There may be particular things that can be showcased about our Faculty of Arts, and we understand that these are in fact summed up, annually, in a report prepared for the Provost. But as Professor Janice Williamson noted at the Arts Faculty Council there is nothing new about the arguments that need to be made for Arts. As many of us have been asserting from the start of this campaign in relation to the cuts facing the Faculty of Arts for 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, our Faculty is the Faculty of critical thinking and creative imagination, and we are all busy in the Faculty either creating art forms or producing and share thought, knowledge, and scholarship in the forms of books, electronic journals, conference presentations, and (last but by no means least) our teaching. The mass of this production will not, however, fit into Professor Amrhein’s briefcase for transport across the High-Level Bridge to the Provincial Legislature or necessarily translate into artifacts — pictures or charts — that can be presented in the form of a slide-show. The fact remains that we need “words, words, words” to explain what we do, and defend the Arts as a public good. In a global culture of commodification in which, as Professor Williamson suggested, the Arts and Humanities are under attack, “we need to argue for intellectual labour that does not have practical applications and is not easily commercialized.”

Whatever our arguments, they need to be repeated, clearly, firmly, and urgently, if we are to communicate broadly to the public and especially to government the vital importance of a liberal arts education. Can we use this space to get further with this project? We began this campaign to fight cuts to the Faculty this year and the next, and many have been contributing to this in email discussions. But once again we would like to urge all members of the Faculty of Arts whether or not they have been part of any conversation to date to use this space to suggest what steps we may take or arguments we may make to ensure the health and vitality of the Faculty.

Here is UC Berkeley political scientist Wendy Brown restating, in fresh terms, an enduring and immensely important argument for an education in the liberal arts. Professor Brown is speaking in the first instance about post-World War II social commitments to a liberal arts education, but her remarks are focused on our current situation:

The notion that all colleges and universities ought to offer a liberal arts degree, and that such a degree is one to which all intellectually qualified citizens should have access, heralds a society and polity in which the masses would be educated for freedom. . . . For the first time in human history, higher educational policy and practice was oriented toward the many, tacitly destining them for a life of freedom rather than only toil, of intellectual engagement with the world rather than mere economic servitude or survival. In this respect, far more than class mobility and equality of opportunity are advanced by a liberal arts education generalized across society. Rather, the ideal of democracy is being realized in a new way insofar as the demos is being prepared through education for a life of freedom understood as both individual sovereignty (choosing and pursing one’s ends) and participation in collective self-rule. . . .

If the remarkable postwar extension of liberal  arts education to the many did not generate true education, let alone social, equality, this extension importantly articulated equality as an ideal . . . . This ideal never ceased to be a liberal one, but it was a liberalism of profound egalitarian commitments, rich humanism, and a strong ethos of the public good. . . . .

Crucially, citizens educated in the liberal arts are not merely being trained for jobs but for what Aristotle called the ‘good life,’ one that involves cultivation of the higher human faculties for two distinct ends: thoughtful civic engagement and eudaimonia, that special Greek term for happiness comprising rich fulfillment through elaboration of human possibility. . . . A liberal arts education . . . is the most comprehensive affirmation of this truth contained in Western history. . . . [D]epreciating liberal arts higher education for the masses retreats from the promise of upward socio-economic mobility, emancipation from being born to place in a class-stratified social order. But it retreats as well from the value of a citizenry educated for democracy, that is, for governing together, and from the idea that education offers the prospect of intrinsically richer and more gratifying lives, along with an enhanced capacity to participate in public life and contribute to the public good. . . . The survival of a liberal arts education depends on recognizing its value for democracy and resisting its vanquishing by the market.”

Or as Professor Michael O’Driscoll put it in the course of an extended on-line conversation amongst the signatories of the March 19th letter to the Provost, the fact that the Faculty of Arts “does not always or necessarily contribute to the goal of economic growth . . . may well be its greatest and most important virtue.” It would also be fair to say that some of us in Arts would like to grow a different kind of economy, and for that the critical and imaginative capacities inculcated and taught by the liberal arts are absolutely crucial. 

Wendy Brown’s article ends on a note of alarm: “The survival of democracy depends upon a broadly and deeply educated people resisting the neoliberalization of everything, including themselves. There is not much hope and not much time.” Certainly we should be gravely concerned that in the name of “budgetary constraints” imposed by a Government presiding over a resource-rich province the University is proceeding with a “rapid-strike” reorganization. The pressing question is this: what can we do, now and over the next several weeks, to ensure that as The Umbrella Committee proceeds with its reorganization of the University its members will have a deep, abiding, and indeed guiding sense of the importance of a liberal arts education in the foreground of their minds? Is there any interest in offering the TUC a collective statement on this issue?

We would also like to encourage members of the Faculty to share any ideas that they submit to TUC here. And if anyone would like to offer a fuller account of the Provost’s presentation to the Arts Faculty Council, please do! As Professor Lynn Penrod noted at the Arts Faculty Council, as the members of a Faculty of Arts, we do not necessarily have any single unified voice. We have many voices, many views . . . .

Wendy Brown’s remarks are excerpted from her article “The End of Educated Democracy,” which appeared in the Fall issue of Representations (vol. 116.1).

This entry was posted in alberta funding for post-secondary education and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Next Steps?

  1. Julie Rak says:

    I have been asked by the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Arts to contribute in some way (left unspecified right now) to creating a flatter system of governance, presumably for the Faculty but perhaps for the university as a whole. I have agreed to be part of a conversation, but I’d like to ask my colleagues here: what kind of governance would be best for our faculty? Do you know of good examples of good governance systems upon which I can draw? Thanks!

  2. Julie, what does “flatter system of governance” mean?

    • Julie Rak says:

      In my question, I asked if it were possible to think about a governance system for the university which felt more inclusive and less top-down, because I said that many faculty members (and not just in Arts) do feel that our senior administrators make major decisions and then ask for cursory feedback. But that’s the limit to our involvement. I gave the Umbrella Committee’s decision to ask for online suggestions as an example. I said that this is part of the source of morale problems, because even in my time here, I feel increasingly that I have little opportunity to be part of the university as a whole. Prof Amrhein replied that he thought the system of governance was as flat as it could be, and that he has relatively little power to influence what Deans do. He gave the FEC as an example. Vice-Dean Zwicker, however, wrote to me to say that she sees my point, and that perhaps at least at Faculty level we could work on a way to make structures less hierarchical. I hope that this explains what I meant by “flatter.”

  3. David Kahane says:

    One element of ‘flatter’ may involve the departments — supporting their democratic role, making sure that they are given genuine authority over things that they are best positioned to decide, etc.

    Another element — one I research and care about a lot — is inviting and supporting grassroots collaboration, deliberation, and involvement around major themes, challenges, and decisions. Too often, ‘involving the grassroots’ ends up meaning people at the top hand picking those they think can be helpful in a particular deliberation or decision — this, it seems to me, is what happened with TUC. (And perhaps in Dr. Zwicker reaching out to you to help with flattening governance in Arts!)

    I wrote to Dr. Zwicker about this a little while ago, in connection with TUC:

    I think that the time is ripe for more ‘deliberative’ and ‘collaborative’ methods to be used in tough decision processes at the University and in the Faculty. And it may be that such methods could support the work of TUC, and/or Arts input into TUC.

    * There are well tested online technologies and methods to support the crowdsourcing, collective development, and collaborative ranking of ideas. The software is out there, or we could use internal programming capacity. I found it aggravating that the Provost and others invoked the need for speed as a reason for keeping electronic input into TUC unidirectional — the multidirectional version need not take longer. It does, however, require a commitment to wide-reaching (even grassroots) democracy and accountability.

    * There are facilitated face to face methods for generating ideas in large, diverse groups; getting deliberation on these ideas; and developing recommendations. These can take months, or hours.

    Methods like these, well designed and well used (“well used” includes ensuring that the ideas that come out of such processes actually get uptake rather than disappearing into the black box of someone else’s decision process), can bring in ideas that might not otherwise have arisen and give a clear representation of how a community regards trade offs and ways forward. As importantly, when such processes are well calibrated to goals and setting, well executed, and authentic, they enable a community to feel some ownership of and trust in tough decisions.

    [Prediction: when TUC comes out with its recommendations — I’m thinking, for example, of possibilities being mooted around a tenured ‘teaching stream’ — these are going to be seen by many as originating in an unaccountable and unrepresentative process (people hand picked from above), and thus illegitimate and imposed. The ‘fast’ solution will suddenly seem less efficient and effective.]

    Anyhow. Getting something more deliberative going — something authentic and useful — will require decision makers who genuinely see the helpfulness of such a process and are committed to letting it inform their work; administrative (and possibly technological) support; considerable time and energy from people who’ll design and host the space(s); and probably some resource to bring in experienced practitioners at key points.

    I’d suggest that if there’s interest from the Dean’s Office in flattening governance structures in Arts, they could take this very issue as a test case for involving the broad community of the Faculty in innovative ways. Let’s face it, even our most collaborative design and decision making moments in recent years (e.g. the “Arts in the 21st Century” process, the development of the “Dare” documents) have been extensions of our conventional ways of meeting, learning, and deciding. We desperately need daring and creativity here. Our Faculty should a the place where this daring and creativity get modelled.

  4. Julie Rak says:

    Very interesting stuff David. I like these ideas very much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s