Sunday, December 17, 2017
Opinion

Column: Welcome, Professor Bieber (w/video)

Justin Bieber has been lowering the behavior bar lately (against stiff competition) in the struggle for top slot in the Annoying Celebrity Act-Out stakes. He's been accused by a next-door neighbor of egging a house in California, arrested on DUI charges in Florida after drag racing in a rented yellow Lamborghini, caught on YouTube urinating in a bucket in a restaurant kitchen, etc.

So here's a modest proposal: Why not ask one of our major universities to step up and make Bieber a professor? We have (forgive the oxymoron) a "new tradition" of celebrity hires at institutions of higher learning. As universities "corporatize," the profession of teaching is being redefined.

Once, the modicum of "star quality" that attends educators inspired films (Goodbye Mr. Chips, To Sir With Love) or canonical novels celebrating the self-sacrificing lives of prairie schoolmarms. And the unsung, in-class magic of an "ordinary" qualified teacher opened student minds to worlds beyond the self.

The university of antiquity (universitas magistrorum et scholarium) was a "universe," or intact world, run by teachers (magistri) and scholars, with the well-rounded enlightened consciousness of graduates as its goal.

This ideal defined liberal arts education for centuries. Popular culture, business and technology operated in another universe. The arts and humanities taught aesthetic, empathetic and timeless lessons — like the revelation that the dead and the living converse through philosophy, science, art, history, languages and literature: Knowledge leads to wisdom.

But, please, who needs a well-rounded, enlightened consciousness, or magistri, when Big Data is on the syllabus and the Power of the Brand is at hand? Colleges and universities have spawned a new stratum of administrators who have taken over the role of internal governance once held by faculty, including the hiring of instructors at all levels, final tenure decisions, the fate of graduate programs, degrees and departments and internal merit review.

Time to forget that no student ever came to college to study with an administrator. These handsomely paid deans, "deanlets" and vice whatevers now outnumber full-time faculty, along with NTT, or non-tenure-track, adjunct faculty, who teach many more courses for far less pay than their tenured colleagues. ("Adjuncts on food stamps providing a $250,000 education," cracked a colleague of mine.)

Meanwhile, tuition costs have risen astronomically and many schools enjoy fat endowments as administrative cost-cutting (read trimming all budgets but their own) cheerfully Walmartizes campuses.

Kickin' it new school may mean phasing out teachers altogether! Universities are no longer content with recruiting from the academic galaxy; they seek supernovas from beyond. The star-search rockets past predictable Nobel laureates in science or literature to big names with no old school scholarship on their resumes. Former military leaders. Rap moguls. Politician-actors/actor-politicians. So what if most of these hires won't ever get to know the inside of a classroom; their institutes and policy centers will spark innovation.

Back in the Dark Ages, my businessman father insisted his creative daughter take a summer course in typing as a skill to fall back on, since poetry and business never spoke to each other. Now we have "arts and entrepreneurship" and venture capitalists defining what creativity is for us all.

My mother recited great poems she had come to know by heart in a vastly different cradle of education — the prairie schoolhouse — where she learned (in elocution class) these lines from Wordsworth: "The world is too much with us / Getting and spending we lay waste our powers."

Too late, Mr. Wordsworth! The world is not just too much with us, it is getting and spending us. Higher education is being reinvented for a selfie age in which the humanities may cease to exist as a field of scholarship. Students who spend a mint and get a college degree encounter a postgrad world in which jobs for those who are educated in critical judgment and cultural knowledge are disappearing. Now it makes sense to be trained as — yes! — a creative consumer or that elusive entrepreneur, a job creator.

So back to the Biebs: Let's knock over the already crumbling ivied walls between the marketplace, pop culture and academia by recruiting the hyper-product that is JB. Scholar of stardom, our little prince of petulance and simper-singing: Professor Bieber!

And in the matter of his employment qualifications: He holds an "O-1" work permit, which qualifies him to stay in the United States as long as he wants, because of his "extraordinary ability" and achievement in the arts.

Carol Muske-Dukes, former poet laureate of California, is a tenured professor at the University of Southern California.

© 2014 Los Angeles Times

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