Thoughts on the “Last Professor” and instrumentality in education

Stanley Fish has again given us an interesting though in the NY time article The Last Professor.  It is a review of a book by the same name; written by his former student, Frank Donoghue.  The book is about a paradigm shift that is moving away from a traditional humanities education to a functionalists model that is taught by adjunct deliverers of information, not by teneured professors.  He traces the origins of this shift to such captions of industry as Andrew Carnegie and Richard Teller Crane late in the 19th Century.  

What is unstated in this discussion is a thorough understanding of changing conceptions of what constitutes a good education.  What is the proper purpose of learning, what is the proper subject matter and what is the proper pedagogy needed?  First, the humanities traditions were designed less for the idealized purpose of a non-instrumental celebration of the mind than they were to set apart an aristocracy of church and state.  As this aristocracy no longer exists (or at least is less obvious in its operation); so the purpose of education rightfully must shift.  Furthermore, I would look to someone other than Carnegie and Crane ( regardless of their influence and power) to understand what this shift might rightly look like.  So, let’s take each of these three questions.

What is the proper purpose of learning?

It is my belief (based on my study of Vygotsky, Dewey, Mead and others) that all learning is instrumental; that learning is for doing.  This is a broad view of doing.  In the humanities we learn to do things like think, communicate, synthesize our contexts with historical circumstances, and sometime we just learn how to be good students (whatever various people may consider that to be).  It can be expected that most people’s investment in higher education might be more narrowly instrumental (think engineering, biomedical or business).  Such an undertaking as gaining a degree demands a quick return on investment (if for no other reason than for loan repayment).

What is the proper subject matter needed today?

The humanities are as important for success as is an understanding of statistics and other mathematics.  But, it is still instrumental; learning for doing.  Tools like abilities in communication are needed throughout life, but it is not some esoteric idea of communication, it is communication as a mediational tool.  Many problems in communication occur not because people can not communicate, but they are not adept at adapting the skills they posses to the context and situation at hand.

What is the proper pedagogy needed?

The internet and social media are bringing down the walls of post-secondary institutions.  One result is that it is easier than ever to immerse students into the world.  It is now easier than ever to use new skills for mediation that is other than the satisfaction of teacher assignment; to use skills for various mediational purposes.


This does not address the tenure issue, but I’ll leave that for the next post.

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