TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Community and the Future of Higher Education

On Tuesdays at the TELOSscope blog, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Maxwell Woods looks at David Pan’s “The Crisis of the Humanities and the End of the University,” from Telos 111 (Spring 1998).

Acknowledged by the London Times as the center of one of the five greatest orchestras in the world (the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra), generating some of today’s most important musicians, and declared by the renowned conductor Simon Rattle as the “future of music,” a new educational force has penetrated the international music consciousness. Yet, the educational institution producing one of the world’s most significant orchestras is not the result of the traditional bastions of Western orchestral music; instead, it is the direct consequence of community education in the barrios of Venezuela. The youth music program, “El Sistema,” functions by organizing “nucleos,” educational centers started and maintained by local leaders for high-level orchestral music that are located in and run as part of the community. Instead of being sent off to the conservatory or university, children learn how to play orchestral music in their own neighborhood from instructors who are members of the locality. And, as it was started in 1975 and has not changed its fundamental mission or model, the success of “El Sistema” is independent from the political swings of the nation. The triumphs of this system, one that is wholly alien to the American consciousness that has become acclimated to a sterilized educational structure legitimized by a sovereign authority, exemplify David Pan’s educational theory in “The Crisis of the Humanities and the End of the University.” Outlining the history of higher education in America, Pan discovers two antithetical tendencies in its record: a “system of denominational colleges,” a popular educational model for various Protestant denominations in the antebellum United States, and the university structure, which supported the ideologies of the nation-state and pure, objective, universal knowledge separated from value judgments. The latter of these theories was the basis for the research university, departmentalization, and the tenure/adjunct tracks for professors. While this model constructed a unified spirit in the university aspiring to discover objective truth, it also censored “unscientific” opinions that dissented from the national norm. The former of these two models, however, created colleges autonomous from the state and which required the financial support of particular institutions; for instance, Princeton, as a Presbyterian college, depended on funding from the Presbyterian Church. As such, this educational system allowed for the control of education and culture to occur on a community level rather than on a national scale, as is the case with the university system. It is this community-based structure that provides the alternative to the failing university. As Pan writes: “Given the impossibility of combining the various perspectives now current at the university into a single unified culture, the system of denominational colleges in the U.S. prior to the war between the states provides perhaps the best available model for the future.” Such a change “would return the college to a mission of teaching skills and transmitting culture. At the same time, the creation of culture could once again become a community activity rather than a professional one.” The inspiring effects of such a system are evidenced by the resounding successes of music education on a grass roots level in Venezuela. The future not only of music but of education as a whole lies in this renewed denominational education model, which makes a mockery of the “professionalized” university.

Read the full version of David Pan’s “The Crisis of the Humanities and the End of the University” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

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