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College Quarterly
Fall 2015 - Volume 18 Number 4
No-Nonsense Guides
Various Authors

Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines

Very Short Introductions
Various Authors

New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty
Abstract

A consensus is emerging or, more likely, is already dominant in postsecondary education. It is especially obvious in the variety of institutions known as colleges, but it is also evident in the generally more prestigious universities.

This is it: The chief objective of education is the preparation of students for employment and the best way to assess the quality of education is to measure and compare the salaries of graduates. That “metric” will allegedly tell us all we need to know about the “value” of a specific certification. By comparing the relationship between investment (tuition, living expenses, the cost of books and deferred income) versus the potential pay-off (higher incomes in more prestigious occupations), we are told in indisputable (and indisputably narrow) terms whether getting an education is “worth it.”

Assuming this rather crass market model of education as investment in a capital asset capable of yielding financial benefits, all sorts of consequences have followed over the past several decades. Within higher education, they include the transformation of “administration” into “management,” the shift from scholarly excellence to “curriculum delivery,” the recasting of the professoriate as the precariat, as Associate Professors are replaced by the academic equivalent of Walmart Associates, and the acceptance of the supreme authority of the Business Model.

The current “paradigm shift” has, of course, been accompanied by governments’ retreat from their public funding responsibilities and unconscionable increases in tuition and subsidiary fees charged by postsecondary educational institutions. Colleges and universities have been mainly redefined as corporate job-training centres, many of which also offer cheap, subsidized research facilities. Research itself is decreasingly directed toward the advancement of knowledge (particularly in the humanities), but is increasingly given over to product development activity resulting in monetized outcomes, mainly to the benefit of corporate sponsors. At the same time, students are redefined as “customers” to whom a predictable, bland and commodified curriculum is “delivered” and by whom academic credits are accumulated in exchange for cash contributions to strengthen the institution’s “cash flow.”

The bones of this tale of corporatist woe are well-known, though rarely acknowledged, among both the perpetrators and the victims of the scheme. Further exploration of the implications for curriculum in the competitive domain of marketable learning materials is needed.

I

The consequences of corporatism are vast and they insinuate themselves into all aspects and dimensions of higher education. They include the competitive postsecondary market of rival “brands” from Harvard and MIT to East Rubber Boot Community College in Duck Pond, Louisiana. They involve a chaotic mixture of online and in-the-flesh teaching in both “bricks-and-mortar” and cyber-linked virtual classrooms. They also present questions about inchoate notions of “competency-based” assessments, “portfolios” versus transcripted academic records, and all manner of “personalized” learning experiences replete with “accommodations” for students in courses on public speaking, who must be tested in private because they lack the self-assurance to address groups of more than one.

With all of this in mind, let me now present the reason for this little ramble; it is the “challenge” of finding appropriate things for post-literate generations to read in colleges and universities wherein the main available textbooks are expensive encumbrances in the lives of young people for whom the task of reading more than 140 characters at a time is considered a transitory evil to be endured in especially rigorous courses, but never to be taken to heart.

The consequent conundrum for teachers is to find bits of writing for undergraduates to read and, with luck, to understand and maybe even absorb to the point where reaction and considered criticism can be deployed. If successful, such students have every chance of opening up, displaying actual curiosity, developing considered opinions and learning to express them in cogent and convincing writing of their own. Some, mirabile dictu, may even go on to lead fulfilling intellectual lives as engaged citizens in a culturally satisfying world of thought and action. To make this miraculous transition is, of course, to overcome the obstacles that are regularly put in place by what I have come to understand (pace President Eisenhower) as the “publishing-administrative complex.”

II

I am quite willing to acknowledge that my personal student experience is so antique as to seem inapplicable to circumstances and events today, but I nonetheless cling to the memory that the most expensive books I purchased as an undergraduate were thick hard-covered tomes: one was Lewis Mumford’s The City in History (1961), which cost $11.40 and another called Physical Science which I purchasing for about $12.00 as well. Most of the others were priced between $1.95 and $3.95, with a few bargain items such as The Pocket Aquinas, which ran as low as 45ȼ. Indeed, in those days, what we now call textbooks were quite uncommon, especially after the first year in a liberal arts college.

Instead, especially in the so-called “soft” subjects in the Humanities and Social Sciences, unwieldy comprehensive “door-stops” were rare; rather, in each course we were expected to read a dozen or more serious books from Plato to Marx, Chaucer to Sartre, and Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma to John Porter’s newly published The Vertical Mosaic. In fact, only in introductory courses in Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics, Psychology and Sociology do I recall using textbooks of the current sort in which fifteen to twenty theme-specific chapters covered whatever conventional knowledge was deemed safe and accessible to otherwise empty minds, and even these were treated as “default matter” to be read (if at all) in conjunction with other meatier volumes.

Currently, however, the bulk of our students come to class with the assumption that they should learn just as much as is necessary from a predesigned and predigested monstrosity that may sell for $90-$150 (and up) and contain ideas and information that have been so thoroughly masticated by any number of marketing committees and so painstakingly passed through the strainer of uncounted focus groups and test sessions that almost anything of genuine value and residual taste has long since been extracted and expunged.

What to do? How to help students break the habit of memorizing disconnected factoids, absorbing elements of a banal “lesson plan,” and responding mechanically to short-answer, multiple-choice and true-false questions in order to be deemed to have “mastered” a subject to the disembodied satisfaction of some cookie-cutter rubric? How to let loose curiosity, imagination and creativity and not just “motivate” students to go desultorily through the motions of negotiating an upper-level version of “quick notes” and “flash cards,” especially when every prod to actual intellectual engagement rips them out of their “comfort zones,” makes them yearn for a “trigger-warning” and, quite frankly, confuses and/or terrifies them.

III

I am happy to report that people, in two entirely different parts of the publishing world, have come up with a spectacularly obvious insight. Back in the good old days, scores of paperbound editions from Anchor, Bantam, Dell, Mentor, Penguin, Vintage and many other blended academic and trade publishers used to fill students’ book shelves with inexpensive editions of the classics in any number of fields as well as original works of substantial scholarship and creditable criticism. Many of these and other admirable commercial contributors to cultural literacy still exist and some still thrive, though others have been swallowed up in the trend toward media oligarchy and have fed the growth of gigantic corporate entities of dubious motives, morals and methods. Where they can be found, however, I heartily recommend that they be considered among the first choices for class use.

At the venerable Oxford University Press, some extraordinarily distinguished scholars have been cranking out “very short introductions” on about 500 topics over the past fifteen years. They range between roughly 125 and 150 five-by-eight inch pages, normally with about a dozen mostly appropriate black-and-white images and illustrations. They are priced below $15 each. The subject matter ranges from American Legal History to Astrobiology and from Witchcraft to the World Trade Organization, with plenty of accounts of the work influential philosophers and scientists. As is to be expected, no such volume will please everyone.

John Monaghan and Peter Just’s excursion into Social and Cultural Anthropology, for example, pays what I think is insufficient attention to the history and theory of anthropology, while concentrating too much on case studies that lack proper foundation. James Gordon Finlayson’s summary of Habermas, in my opinion, leaves out too much of his “universal pragmatics” and his neo-Kantian discussion of the “ideal speech situation.” I have similar quibbles with many others in the series. But, and it is a very big but, I find it quite easy to use supplementary material to make up for what I take to be “soft spots.”

So, I’ve used a number of these small books to great advantage over the past decade. Together with variously combined additional readings (preferably through “coursepacks” using my preferred publisher of subsidiary materials, the Canadian Scholars Press in Toronto), I’ve managed to assemble a serviceable selection of ancillary studies to wrap around these books and to thereby fashion what I believe is a much better course than could be build on the foundation of one of the big publishers’ generic, interchangeable and indigestible textbooks.

Meanwhile, a smaller and newer “progressive” publisher, Between the Lines in Toronto (associated with Verso Publications in London, UK), has a visually similar list of books on a narrower range of topics including Climate Change, Global Finance, Terrorism, Religion, Democracy, and the forthcoming Rethinking Education which I am eagerly anticipating—an inventory of about forty in total. They are suitably called No-Nonsense Guides.

Between the Lines books fit well with my professional commitment to what’s called “critical pedagogy.” Following the familiar language of Henry A. Giroux, I take education in all domains from Accounting and Agriculture to Axiology and Zoology to be an inherently moral and political project: moral in the sense that it seeks to assist students in distinguishing between right and wrong, and political insofar as it is concerned with encouraging what is right and inhibiting what is wrong. Far from being biased and doctrinaire—a charge more easily made against the neoliberal ideology implicit in the curriculum and pedagogy of corporate education—it promotes rigorous analysis wholly within the empirical tradition.

With this in mind, I regard what are deemed to be “radical” accounts as more illuminating and far more evidence-based than the common boiler-plate narratives that pass as instructional manuals and disciplinary compendiums of reliable knowledge. If, therefore, you are prepared to be a little adventuresome, then you may find Between the Lines books are for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer more tranquil publications, Oxford books do nicely.

There are, of course, problems with Between the Lines publications. The fact that they deal more with current events and crucial public issues, means they can quickly become dated. Discussions of economic inequity, ecological degradation, human rights abuses and issues of war and peace can and do change almost with the headlines. As with Oxford, however, these problems can easily be ameliorated with a deft selection of ancillary materials. So: I use Monaghan and Just plus a large number of supplementary essays in my course on Cultural Anthropology; I have used six Oxford books in my course in Modern Political Thought, and one Oxford and one Between the Lines text with identical titles and prices for my course in Globalization.

I am sure that there are similar series elsewhere and I do not wish to disparage them by exclusion. I have, however, highlighted the two collections that have caught my eye and I recommend that people consider both them and others that may be on offer elsewhere; in fact, I’d love to hear about other choices. Meanwhile, the best thing I can say about both the “Very Short Introductions” and the “No-Nonsense Guides” is this: They work.


Howard A. Doughty, teaches Cultural Anthropology, Modern Political Thought and Globalization at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com