Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

The Disappearing Agora

For most of us, the agora is electronic rather than physical. We now meet mostly online, missing the shared ‘witnessing’ known to early democracies and even early television viewers.

The idea of a central meeting place goes hand-in-hand with the idea of democracy.  A location where leaders and citizens are can be heard and exchange ideas is an essential feature of a civil society. Of course it was one thing for the several hundred citizens of a young democracy like ancient Syracuse in the 5th century BC.  They would gather in an open space.  It’s quite another thing when the political unit is scaled up from a city-state to a nation spread over a continent.

The romance of a New England town meeting retains some of the aura of a simple agora.  We have sentimentalized the idea even in classic television programs like Newhart or the Gilmore Girls.  Yet there is still truth in the romance. Even if most of us live in larger cities, we can still interact with local leaders. And though most of us rarely exercise the opportunity, it can be empowering to put a municipal leader on notice with our grievances or occasional praise.

Living within political boundaries containing thousands or millions obviously changes how we can connect to each other.  With regard to the federal government, most of us have only known the quasi-agora of national television news. Growing up in the 50s, my family mostly used one of three choices for connecting with the rest of the country.  NBC, CBS and a weaker ABC beamed out seemingly urgent news, such as the 1969 landing on the moon.  Life paused in most Colorado households in time to catch early evening newscasts narrated by Walter Cronkite at CBS or David Brinkley at NBC.  The announced death of President Kennedy in 1963 came to most of the nation through the words of the venerable CBS anchor.

CBS News announces president’s death

Nov. 22, 1963: In an emotional moment, Walter Cronkite tells the world that President John F. Kennedy has died, half an hour after being shot in Dallas, Texas.

The agora is now clearly electronic not in real time. We now “meet” mostly online: a change from early live television, where limits on technology meant that Americans witnessed the same momentous events more or less at the same  time.

We need to be careful about citing digital “advances.” To be sure, chatter in the culture has never stopped.  We are engaged with others in an endless spectrum of online communities.  But in no sense should we consider Twitter or Instagram as comparable vehicles for meaningful public “discussion.”  If we need a comparison, the typical social media post more closely resembles a shout issued from a passing car.

At the same time, the idea of a common civic space has withered. Readership of the nation’s largest newspapers is in decline.  Reliable online news (much of it aggregated from the remaining national news outlets) occupies less of our time.  The resulting fragmentation of the nation into specific audiences means that it is less likely that Americans will pay attention to significant events, or even  the same informational sources. If you ask friends what they are watching on online or via networks such as CBS or Netflix, the odds are good that “their” programs are not what you are watching. Neil Postman had it at least half right: we are “amusing ourselves to death,” but now with ever more esoteric ‘narrowcasting’ that satisfies personal rather than national interests.

I see this most dramatically in younger Americans, who have not only lost the newspaper habit, but the news-seeking habit as well.  There are too many other choices that offer more immediate forms of gratification.  Add in the double-threat of disinformation efforts from sources ranging from this White House to the Kremlin, and we are ill-prepared to enter any kind of agora as informed citizens.

Of course a national disaster brings lots of us momentarily back to CNN, NBC or Fox news.  But many more of us stay in touch–if at all–through other online venues offering their own unique perspectives and agendas.  Given these changes, its little wonder that the congressional Agora envisioned by the founders of the republic is now dysfunctional.  No one looks to Congress for momentous debates on the issues of the day.  In structural terms, it has always run a poor second to parliamentary forms of government for hosting spirited legislative debate.  The mute Congress is a symptom of our problem, but our fragmenting media now also seem ill-equipped to bring us together to ponder great national issues.

Trust the Liberal Arts

                              Gitenstein  Library,  TCNJ

There is a tendency to want the university to be a trade school rather than a place to cultivate analytic competency.

Parents who usually accompany their high school juniors or seniors on a campus tour are quick to seek reassurance that a given degree will lead to a job.  It’s a natural concern. No parent wants their teen to follow a dead-end career path. There are reasonable estimates that perhaps as many as one-third of college graduates start their working lives in jobs that do not use what a good BA or BS degree would allow.

The standard parental hedge against under-employment is to usually steer high school graduates toward professional majors in college that sound like job categories: for example, a marketing major rather than a history major, accounting rather than art history, finance rather than philosophy. There is a tendency to want the university to be a trade school rather than a place to expand intellectual competence.

In my own field of Communication Studies its a virtual given that visiting parents will want to see our campus television studio.  No one bothers to ask about the library.  The reason is obvious.  The studio seems like a workplace; parents are reassured. By contrast, the library looks less useful as a space where one simply “studies,” whatever that is.  Nice, but less tangible.

A door at Oxford University representing Astronomy and Rhetoric, two of the seven original Liberal Arts.

My own view is that parents could better help their teens by flipping these priorities over, for several reasons. One is that the job a young student imagines today is not likely to exist in the same form in five or ten years. The title may be similar, but the intellectual skills will change.  We still have librarians. But if they are going to assist patrons, they now need to be creative users of digital media.  In addition, the nature of information is less linear; library staffers need to have minds that will bend in different ways.   And, for the record, film and television majors do not spend most of their time inside a studio. They are usually out in the community shooting material.

Choosing a brand of soap may be easy, choosing a path for oneself and a family needs the advantage of high and wide horizons.

Parents are too quick to dismiss the value of a liberal arts degree.  The widespread view is that it is a kind of intellectual smorgasbord focused on disciplines the faculty may like to teach, but have less relevance to the “real world.” They are wrong for a couple of reasons.

First, the original and still relevant meaning of a “liberal arts education” is the education of a free person.  Even in these days of fraught politics, many if not enough students are fortunate to have the resources to construct a life for themselves that will open up their options. American life presents a huge ranges of potential choices. And while choosing a brand of soap may be easy, choosing a path for oneself needs the advantage of high and wide horizons. It makes sense to enlarge the circumference of the area of what we know. This also has the subtle but real advantage of enlarging the circumference of the expanding borderlands of the unknown.  We are actually smarter for knowing the limits of our knowledge. Probes that have led a person to explore everything from logic to anthropology make us more empathetic and curious partners, parents, consumers and citizens.

I recently listened to the recorded rants of David Koresh, the Waco, Texas religious leader who sacrificed the lives of 79 members of his sect to the bullets and fire of federal ATF agents. His failed life is an extreme case.  Even so, it seems likely that this high school dropout with a primitive theology would have been less lethal had he possessed the wider parameters of a decent education.

Second, the processes learned when studying sociology, psychology, reasoning, human communication or music are eminently practical in increasing a person’s choices later on. For example, most students who get undergraduate degrees in philosophy do not wither away, as some might think, nor do they typically become professional philosophers. My experience is that they tend to be whip-smart analysts of data and trends. The same could be said for a host of people trained in the fields of American literature, contemporary American history or interpersonal communication.  These days, education is more about understanding systems and processes than static facts.  So analysis and criticism—the essence of most Liberal Arts disciplines—is the perfect match for fields that want innovators, creative disruptors, and problem-solvers. The most evident self-starters I see on my own campus seem to be writing for the campus paper, producing plays and videos, or organizing special-interest clubs. They are not intimidated by engagement with members of a diverse community.

The value of these analytical skills was affirmed in a conversation with the parent of an applicant a few months ago.  At an open house she mentioned that she worked on wall street for an investment firm, noting that they were especially interested in hiring people whose paths through college didn’t necessarily include majors in a business curriculum.  She was suggesting that her firm wanted people who understood human and organizational problems, not just economic equations.