Sunday, March 31, 2019

The wind song of the Earth in ancient Chinese thought

Recently I took part in a roundtable on Music, Sound, and Nature in an Age of Environmental Degradation, at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston. I gave a short illustrated talk on the sound of climate change. I’d meant to offer the roundtable in the discussion that followed a quotation from the Tao, by Zhuangzi, which reveals the concept of earth song (as Thoreau called it), or the sounds of nature, as understood in early Chinese thought. I'd quoted this passage before, in a talk on "Thoreau and the Music of the Natural World" that was published in 2015 by Northeastern University. Thoreau was familiar with ancient Asian thought and may well have absorbed some of his ideas about the soundscape and the earth song from the Tao. Zhuangzi wrote, there, about the sounds of wind, the sounds of air, and of the breath; Thoreau was concerned with wind, echo, and the sounds of insects and animals, particularly birds, crickets, and amphibians. As some of the roundtable participants are following this blog, let me give the quotation here:

Zi-Qi said, ‘. . . You may have heard the notes of Man, but have not heard those of Earth; you may have heard the notes of Earth, but have not heard those of Heaven.' Zi-You said, 'I venture to ask from you a description of all these.' The reply was, 'When the breath of the Great Mass [of nature] comes strongly, it is called Wind. Sometimes it does not come so; but when it does, then from a myriad apertures there issues its excited noise; —have you not heard it in a prolonged gale? Take the projecting bluff of a mountain forest; —in the great trees, a hundred spans round, the apertures and cavities are like the nostrils, or the mouth, or the ears; now square, now round like a cup or a mortar; here like a wet footprint, and there like a large puddle. (The sounds issuing from them are like) those of fretted water, of the arrowy whizz, of the stern command, of the inhaling of the breath, of the shout, of the gruff note, of the deep wail, of the sad and piping note. The first notes are slight, and those that follow deeper, but in harmony with them. Gentle winds produce a small response; violent winds a great one. When the fierce gusts have passed away, all the apertures are empty (and still); — have you not seen this in the bending and quivering of the branches and leaves?' Zi-You said, 'The notes of Earth then are simply those which come from its myriad apertures; and the notes of Man may just be compared to those which (are brought from the tubes of) bamboo; —allow me to ask about the notes of Heaven.' Zi-Qi replied, 'When (the wind) blows, (the sounds from) the myriad apertures are different, and (its cessation) makes them stop of themselves. Both of these things arise from (the wind and the apertures) themselves: —should there be any other agency that excites them?’" —Zhuangzi, The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Taoism, trans. James Legge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891), pp. 177-8.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Are Progressive Colleges Unsustainable?

       One of my recurring topics has been the cultural sustainability of the liberal arts at colleges and universities in the US. I’ve written about their transformation over the past 50 years from the collegial to corporate values and governance, how and why this occurred, and the dangers it poses to liberal arts education that nourishes intellectual curiosity and the free play of ideas at the expense, perhaps, of career goals. The head of the Board of Regents at my graduate alma mater, the University of Minnesota, once asked me why education in the humanities was so inefficient. I'd replied that intellectual curiosity requires time to explore and ponder ideas. A curious mind is going to follow them here, and there, into barren ground and back to fertile fields where they can grow. Ideas don't live well when they're gulped down and regurgitated back up, and out, on tests. Now comes news that one of the few colleges that’s retained collegial, horizontal governance and an exploratory atmosphere, Hampshire College, is in serious financial trouble. They’re looking either to close the college or to partner with another, more financially stable institution—although how that partnership would work is uncertain.
       Hampshire is of special interest to me because it’s one of the Five Colleges in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts: Amherst (my undergraduate alma mater), Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts are the other four. Hampshire was founded in the middle of the 1960s, the year I graduated from Amherst; it opened in 1970 as an experimental, progressive college: no tenure for the faculty, an open curriculum, no grades for the students, and decisions made with input from all stakeholders—including students. Students and faculty worked together to design individual curricula for each student, suited to their intellectual interests and the faculty’s capabilities. Instead of grades, students received from their professors detailed evaluations of their demonstrated strengths, weaknesses, and overall performance in each class.
        A college like Hampshire—and there were others, many founded around the same time—appealed to students looking for something more participatory and less authoritarian, more experimental and less prescribed, while they spent four years immersed in a world of ideas and a close intensely social atmosphere. The lack of prescribed structure meant that some students floundered about for a while, looking to find out what truly interested them. Some knew they wanted a broad education that encompassed the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences; most tended to concentrate within only one of those four areas. Having followed where their curiosities led them, along the way developing their abilities to think, write, and converse critically, they were able to gain entrance to the best graduate and professional schools and to become lawyers, doctors, and professors; and they were able to succeed in the business world, if they wanted to, because in the highly participatory college atmosphere they’d developed superior social, communication, and thinking skills.
       In the 21st century Hampshire and similar colleges—one, for example, is in Maine, the College of the Atlantic, and several are in Vermont, Goddard College being the best known—have fallen victim to a dwindling pool of qualified applicants interested in this sort of education. Changes in the US economy, the shrinking of the middle class, the growth of income inequality, and a new instrumentalism that values career preparation at the college level, are some of the most important reasons. Financial mis-calculations by some of these colleges also have contributed to their plight.
       It's important to me that Hampshire be able to sustain itself. I admire their values and form of governance. I agree with the progressive ideals they embody in their curriculum. I wouldn’t want to teach there, for reasons that have to do with me, not them. Nonetheless I've felt close to Hampshire over the years. For one thing, it's in the town next to Amherst, where I spent my own undergraduate years; and I should add that some of the people I knew at Amherst College helped to found Hampshire and participated in its operation during its first decades. For another, the two children of a couple I've been friends with for more than 30 years went there and had the benefit of a good experimental education. For yet another, one of the students in the Brown doctoral program I led for 27 years has been teaching at Hampshire ever since she got her Brown PhD. And another reason is that when I was a visiting professor at Amherst some 25 years ago, some of the most interesting students in my classes were from Hampshire. The “five college” arrangement encouraged students to take courses at any of the five colleges, especially those that weren’t offered at their home college. Many more students signed up for my classes than Amherst would officially permit, but along with a few from Smith and Holyoke and a majority from Amherst I admitted several from Hampshire officially, and several more unofficially.
       The occasion for this blog entry—I’ve gotten around to it at last—was an article that appeared in the March 4 New York Times, by one of its education reporters, Anemona Hartocolis, whose name suggests a flower. Students, she reported, have been occupying the office of Hampshire’s president for the past five weeks. That is a long time for a student sit-in. They're of a mind that the college administration hasn't done enough to prevent the looming financial disaster. The college doesn't have much of an endowment to carry it through hard times, and it's dependent chiefly on tuition income. Evidently only 75 of their applicants for next year's freshman class were able to meet the admission standards; normal class size is around 300. Given the current turmoil, it's hard to see how they'd be able in good conscience to admit anyone. 
        Hartocolis contextualizes Hampshire’s problems by looking at the difficulties other “alternative” colleges are facing, and offers a few reasons of her own for those problems: high tuition (although many students are on scholarship); a dwindling college-age population; competition among too many progressive colleges for too few interested students; small endowments because the graduates of these colleges tend not to be attracted to high-paying jobs; and so on. Some colleges that were progressive in the 1970s, like Sarah Lawrence in the Bronx, have become conventional today, emphasizing STEM courses, and where once they were like Hampshire in not giving letter grades, today they most certainly do. Not being able to admit a full class to Hampshire would, I think, result in a death spiral unless they can find a partner school—but on what terms? How could they keep their residential arrangements, their faculty, their participatory government, their democratic curricula, and the close, in-person nature of their daily education if they partnered with another school? And how could they find enough money to keep going without changing their nature beyond recognition?
        It seems, in other words, as if this particular progressive model for liberal arts education is unsustainable in the US in the 21st century. And yet what the current moment needs more than anything is a well-educated citizenry to become high-information voters and to choose our leaders and policies rationally based on facts and truths, not propaganda and lies. And this is precisely what liberal arts education encourages, and what experimental colleges like Hampshire, when they succeed, are able to accomplish. Hampshire’s horizontal governance shows what democracy can be like at its best (and also, be it said, at its most demanding, and annoying).
Some students and faculty at Sterling College, Vermont, 2018
     Are there other models that might succeed where Hampshire is having such difficulty? I've mentioned the College of the Atlantic, which has a curricular focus and strengths in environmental science and the environmental humanities. On a much smaller scale, the environmental college in Vermont that I wrote about, Sterling College, appears to be succeeding, with a similar focus. Possibly a focus such as the environment, which of course is timely and could be viewed as career preparation for a life as a scientist, or for working in an environmental organization, will enable an experimental college to be resilient. At the same time, though, it's impossible for these colleges to offer the depth in the liberal arts curriculum that Hampshire has offered. Yet for now this may be the only kind of adaptive management that maintains resilience and the sustainability of the progressive educational model among small US colleges.