Friday, April 24, 2009

A Vision For Millsaps

One thing I keep hearing about this fight between the president and faculty at Millsaps is that some people worried the president didn't have a vision for the college. I've been worried Millsaps might lack vision too, but I don't blame Dr. Lucas for it.

The American Academy as a whole has gone so far afield of its stated purpose that I don't see how any college comes up with a meaningful vision for itself.

What people want from the college experience is to get themselves or their children into the middle class. There's actually no direct connection between academics and the middle class so colleges all over the country struggle to find ways to make themselves relevant to what people want from them.

My dad once told me "Americans want the University system for their colleges, but they're not very interested in the University Ideal. Most of them don't even know what it is."

His solution to the issue of a vision for the college was to build up the business and pre-med. departments which actually do help students enter middle class lines of work. It worked great for a while, but before too long all of the colleges we compete against developed the same plan. Dad died before he could figure out what the next step might be. He had some ideas, but none of them were developed enough to deploy yet.

Several colleges Millsaps' size decided to pick one side of the culture war and turn that into their vision, making the college a sort of extended boot camp for the left or the right. The culture war doesn't particularly have anything to do with academics, but it has everything to do with the middle class life, so it was a successful move for them. I would never attend a college like that, and I question what those parameters do to their academic integrity, but I can see their point and if that's what they want out of life, then I suppose that's the kind of college they should have. It's a steaming pile of bullshit though, and I just wanted to go on the record saying so.

Major Millsaps had a great vision for the college and we've made good use of it for over a hundred years now. The problem is, most Americans don't really care all that much about that sort of thing, no matter what they say.

If you ask most people how their alma matter is doing, they'll say how the football team did last year, or how many pledges their fraternity got, but ask them what's happening in the academic life of the college and they haven't a clue. When was the last time you heard somebody say "Wow! Dr Moore presented a great paper on the Peloponnesian War last month. I'm SO glad I took her class."

That's what college is though folks. It's not football teams or fraternity life or manicured campuses, it's the pursuit of knowledge, only we've gotten so far away from that, nobody really cares anymore.

Our motto is: "Ad excellentiam", short for "Ad excellentiam consequendam", or "In Pursuit of Excellence". The excellence it refers to is academic excellence, which is a pretty good vision for any school, if you can keep up with it. The problem is that the pursuit of excellence in knowledge for its own sake isn't what most people really want anymore. You can't have a college just for academics. Nobody will support it.

They want a three bedroom house, with two and a half baths and granite counters. They want a winning football team and their candidate to win the election. They want their favorite show to stay on the air. They want the blind kid to win American Idol. In a land of such rampant mediocracy, can you really blame Millsaps for struggling to come up with a relevant vision for itself?

I say college education, since the war, has become so a matter of course, and such a fashionable necessity, for those either of or aspiring to the vast middle class, that we espouse it as a matter of right, and we have ceased to ask, "What is it good for?"
--David Mamet, Oleanna; 1993

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