Nerds unite: how the forces of anti-intellectualism are ruining the university

More Money than Brains: Why schools suck, college is crap & idiots think they’re right
By Laura Penny

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re a nerd. Or at least have nerd-like tendencies. You work in higher education and you like reading books. Or at least reading other people’s pithy summaries of books so you can sound well-read.

And chances are you’ve experienced moments of doubt – subtle self-deprecating voices that ask you whether what you do really has any value? If you advise, teach or coach students in a university setting, you work in the service of intellectual advancement, which, these days, is pitted against the powerful force of pragmatism, and losing.

Laura Penny’s More Money than Brains is a fabulously engaging vilification of the forces of anti-intellectualism, particularly the right-wing critics of the humanities, bullies like Stephen Harper or Sarah Palin, of shallow media and greedy tycoons, and even the general public, more captivated by the balloon boy than the pitfalls of the American health care system.

Student affairs professionals will be most interested in her chapter on higher education – “Screw U or Hate My Professors” – where her own experience as a professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University comes through. Increasing credentialism, says Penny, means students are “buying a chit instead of a challenge”, rendering the professorial role to one of a potential impediment to the end goal.

We’ve seen these perspectives before, most recently in Ivory Tower Blues by two faculty members at the University of Western Ontario. But where previous critiques have been earnest and tedious, Penny is rife with irony, hyperbole and curse-words – infinitely more entertaining. Take this little tirade on the state of the current undergraduate classroom:

“When I was an irritating idealistic undergraduate, I thought everyone should go to university. My friends and I enthused about those super-civilized, culture-made countries in Europe that charged no tuition, the ones where they would pay people to go to school – like learning was important, or something.[….] Not like in dumbass, get-a-job North America, where college was simply a means to an end, a private benefit to be shilled vigorously like any other high-end product….But a decade of teaching has beaten the shining egalitarian dream of universal access out of me. There are a lot of people in university who have no business being there. Classrooms are peopled with the doomed and the dragooned, with heel-dragging heaps of burning money and wasted time. Many students are unready, unwilling, or unable to do university-level work.”

Penny’s critique crosses the Canada-US border fluidly and appropriately, as the cult of the “useful” is not unique to either nation. You will likely disagree (as I do) with some of her points but the argument is so adeptly maintained and bolstered by evidence, it’s hard to poke any serious holes.

The big question it leaves for us as a profession is this: are we part of the solution, or part of the problem? Penny doesn’t address our field specifically, but her positioning of the “student-centred” culture of universities as evidence of the customer-service – chit-versus-challenge – model at play serves as an “ouch” moment. “Good service means A’s,” she writes. “Bad grades are bad service, a finger in your chili or a mouse in your beer, evidence that the help has fucked up again. Good service means classes that are entertaining. Bad service means classes that are boring or hard.” Controversial? Yes. Worth discussion? Definitely.

— Deanne Fisher


One thought on “Nerds unite: how the forces of anti-intellectualism are ruining the university

  1. Chris says:

    As a nation, it’s time for us Canadians I think to move further away from the US. They are heading down, well the wrong direction.

    In many regards, yes northern Europe is indeed worthy of emulating. They seem to have a better mentality towards approaching many of the problems. Look at their mentality towards education (so outside of the UK, university is affordable), towards food (lower obesity rates), work-life balance (in general shorter hours), and so on. This is reflected in the living standards measurements.

    That being said, Europe certainly has its share of problems. But so does Canada today. Nobody is perfect.

    Good service in your post requires that Canadians become critical thinkers – not necessarily the best at rote memorization, but thinkers, to deal with the problems facing society today.

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