August 19, 2010

Here I go again on my own

It's that time of year again when I prepare to piss in academia's collective cornflakes. Yes, the Beloit "Mindset List" is out for the class of 2014. Ostensibly created 'way back when to keep college instructors "aware of dated references," it instead inspires my annual full-body cringe, because in spite of its intention, it appears to me to be a thinly-veiled excuse for the most educated people in society to gloat over the ignorance of their charges. Why? I don't know, but it's probably because they fear death.

But let's get this out of the way first. I know it's a list, and on the internet lists validate everything, but explain to me what can possibly be meant by "11. John McEnroe has never played professional tennis." Sorry, but W? T? (to the) F? Can I say that "John F. Kennedy never lived" because I was born in 1964? Could Chaucer say that the Norman Conquest never happened? Can baby boomers everywhere say the Holocaust never happened? (I know genocide is a touchy subject, but check out, if you will, #32).

Isn't there a better way of saying what you mean, whatever that is?

Or are we really just implying that college students are incapable of knowing anything they didn't personally experience? If you really believe that, why are you spending your time trying to educate them?

Listen: public higher education is suffering greatly at least in part because academics in many fields spent more than a generation insisting on, even reveling in the very irrelevance of their gloriously postmodern enterprises. Maybe they were saying it because it was "true," but given that there is (it turns out) no such thing as "truth," I doubt it. It's just unfortunate that they were so successful in teaching a generation of policymakers that part of the lesson. Now everybody knows that you don't need to know about Beowulf, Sir Gawain, Elizabeth Bennet, or Molly Bloom, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the Industrial Revolution, in order to be a successful legislator or even president. You want to chuckle wisely over the stuff these students don't know? They're the least of our worries. You want to alienate them on the first day of class? Hand this list out and gloat a little because at least you know who Beavis and Butthead are.

Guess what, folks: we think our students are ignorant? Well, our professors thought we were ignorant. Their professors thought they were ignorant. Educators have always bemoaned the crappiness of their students and the moral decay of the system (check out Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle, 1955). Their ignorance is our livelihood. The Gawain poet says that heroes were really heroes back in King Arthur's time. Yes, those were certainly the days.

Oh, but I forgot. Like the Depression, like Watergate, like the K-car, those days probably "never happened."

The list? There's some interesting stuff there, I guess ... but gang, it's about how out of it we are. And if you're getting ready to walk into that classroom and rock their worlds and change their lives, think twice about leading off by using this list as a "Let me tell you how little you know" toy. I don't know whether that approach will fit with their "mindset."

And for the record, I hate the word "mindset."

August 01, 2010

D. I. Whine

Because I like to take on home improvement projects, people sometimes ask me how I know how to do stuff. The short answer is, I usually don't. So I read books, ask my dad, do a Google search, post questions to relevant message boards, and dive in.

Notice what's not in that list? Home improvement TV, namely the cable network known as DIY. Now, I'll admit, I watch a lot of DIY ... but let's face it, it's not about doing it yourself. In fact, the point of the network is largely about NOT doing it yourself. Most of the shows fall into one or more of the following categories:

1. Stuff you can buy (e.g. Cool Tools, one of my favorite shows, because yeah, I like to buy stuff, and because Chris Grundy is funny);

2. Houses that are too cool for you (e.g. Blog Cabin or the new This New House) ... okay, you can have it if you're the one who wins it, but you see what I'm saying;

3. The terrible things that can happen if you try to engage in home improvement (e.g. Renovation Realities) ... okay, I watch this one, because I'm all about the Schadenfreude, baby. On this show, couples take on absurdly difficult projects with impossible deadlines and very limited experience or knowledge, and none of what I'll talk about below in point 4. Their experiences are edited together and sprinkled--dare I say festooned--with snotty little comments about their mistakes that don't shed any instructive light on them but instead gloat about the victim's ignorance and direct viewers to the network's website;

4. Experts that come to your house and lead you through the home improvement project of your choice (e.g. Man Caves, Desperate Landscapes). Ostensibly these shows are about experts like Amy Matthews showing you how to do stuff for yourself, but in fact they're pretty much the opposite. The pros come in with their crews and wind up giving the homeowners some low-stakes project to keep them out of the way, just as my grandpa would hand me a piece of worn-out sandpaper.

This last model of home improvement show is the most insidious, because it reinforces the idea that you can't do anything. I guess it shouldn't surprise me that a generation raised on Barney will apparently sit around idly staring at the wall until the big purple dinosaur (or attractive licensed contractor) shows up to tell them whether or not it's load-bearing. "Tell us how to have fun, tell us how to paint a wall, because we're utterly helpless and devoid of imagination! Tell us what to do, whatever you do."

I guess instructional TV isn't entertaining enough to be lucrative ... if it were, there'd be something else on the History Channel besides how the world is going to end in 2012. Still, I don't think it would kill them to put some honest to garsh how-to on every now and then.

Guess I shouldn't complain. When the zombie apocalypse happens, maybe I'll be able to trade attractive and comfortable handmade furniture to my fellow survivors for ... I don't know, vegetables?