This week’s issue of the New York Review of Books takes a stance on a hot-button issue that just happens to be the subject of a major new documentary. If you watch Oprah, read the Nation or Time magazine, or, you know, listen to conversations with President Obama on the nightly news, you know that Davis Guggenheim, director of the Academy Award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth (shoutout to Al Gore and polar bears!), helms a new movie about the fate of public education in America and the plight of five children competing for admission to in-demand charter schools. Waiting for “Superman” paints a provocative portrait of the rise of a new generation of charter schools, many funded by the government but privately run, and each presenting an alternative to troubled U.S. public schools.
But as Diane Ravitch notes in the NYRB article:
Waiting for “Superman” and the other films appeal to a broad apprehension that the nation is falling behind in global competition. If the economy is a shambles, if poverty persists for significant segments of the population, if American kids are not as serious about their studies as their peers in other nations, the schools must be to . . .
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Earlier this month the State University of New York at Albany announced “that the university was ending all admissions to programs in French, Italian, Russian, and classics, leaving only Spanish left in the language department once current students graduate. The theater department is also being eliminated.” Over the weekend the New York Times asked a panel of scholars to respond to this news, wondering how necessary the study of French really is. Among their respondents was Gaye Tuchman, author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, who argues that “ending programs in the arts and humanities because they are not making money transforms universities into trade schools. This corporatization of colleges and universities has already squelched the notion that higher education is a public good.”
The process of corporatization is one Tuchman has studied extensively, as seen in Wannabe U, which tracks the dispiriting consequences of trading in traditional educational values for loyalty to the market. In a recent essay for the Chronicle Review, Tuchman examined the effects of one particular trend that universities have borrowed from corporations: an obsession with measuring success numerically. After detailing the various ways faculty and administrators have collaborated in developing an “audit culture,” Tuchman . . .
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The September 14th issue of the London Review of Books features an extended, combative review by Elif Batuman of a recent book from Harvard University Press, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Though Batuman takes issue with many of McGurl’s points, her essay is the sort of review any author ought to be happy to get, one that takes the book seriously enough to engage deeply with its ideas.
Ultimately, however, Batuman is simply much more critical of university writing programs and the fiction they’ve spawned than McGurl is, arguing, among other things, that their ahistorical approach to fiction is a short-sighted, narcissistic mistake. “Literary scholarship,” writes Batuman, “may not be an undiluted joy to its readers, but at least it’s usually founded on an ideal of the collaborative accretion of human knowledge.”
Batuman’s essay brought to mind one of our books, D. G. Myers’s The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880, which takes a longer view than McGurl’s book, surveying and analyzing more than a century of debate over how—and even whether—creative writing should be taught. Myers draws on a wide range of writers—including Longfellow, Emerson, Frost, John Berryman, John Dewey, . . .
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