Books,  higher ed

Who are the reality instructors now?


Stephen Downes has a long, thoughtful piece on the implications of the financial crisis for society, entitled 'The Monkeysphere Ideology'. It's a 'make yourself a cup of coffee, sit down and read' post, in which he raises many issues. One of which is this:

"I read this headline in the New York Times: "In tough times, the humanities must justify their worth." Not business, which caused this mess, not media, which propagated the monkeysphere ideology, not accounting, law or political science,
which participated by stumbling around each other in their haste to see
who could be corrupted most quickly. No – humanities. And arts."

I had a similar feeling the other day when two chaps from a commercial company were bemoaning their experience in working with higher education. They complained of some 'pencil pushing idiot sitting in an office' who blocked their decisions, and claimed they were trying to 'drag education into the 20th century, let alone the 21st.'

Now I don't know the particular details of their situation, maybe their complaints are justified. But I've come across this attitude many times. The key feature is this: the commercial world is the holder of the absolute truth. I had often asked myself why this particular truth trumps all other truths. And the answer was, I guess, money.

People from the commercial sector who believe they have some truth to reveal to the misguided people in higher education see themselves very much in the role of what Saul Bellow terms 'Reality Instructors.' The reality instructor is referenced in the marvellous Herzog, ("Moses was irresistible to a man like Simkin who loved to pity and to poke fun at the same time. He was a Reality-Instructor. Many such. I bring them out") but the character is a constant theme in Bellow's novels. It is usually manifest in a male, street-wise character who delights in teaching the main, intellectual character some truths about the 'real world'. But it's worth pointing out that the main character is aware of this, enjoys it, and that these truths are rarely as valuable and as robust as the reality-instructor believes.

The reality that the commercial world wants to reveal to higher education is that of expediency, toughness, and hard work. And rather like Bellow's characters we have been rather accepting of this. But if the financial world represented the core of these realities, and that has been shown to be very unreal, then why should higher education feel obliged to listen anymore? Indeed, have the roles reversed? Instead of universities being told how to operate in a tough financial climate, maybe businesses should be coming to them and asking 'you have managed to maintain a viable business and role in society for hundreds of years. You have adapted without completing ruining your entire system, and, ahem, throwing the world into a deep crisis. How do you do it?'


  • Sarah Horrigan

    Oh my good grief… I know a ‘reality instructor’ currently working in HE. He drives me insane… but is spectacularly ineffective all at the same time.
    At last – a term which fits! :o))

  • Sarah Bartlett

    Loved this raging polemic. Even people like me who work for commercial organisations can appreciate the underlying spirit of this fantastic rant. Commercial players need to understand the very real and valid drivers in education rather than overlaying education with their own preoccupations, which, as you suggest, are frequently ill-founded or maybe obvious.

  • Guy

    Thank you for pointing out the Downes’ post – it was very stimulating and afterwards I felt grateful for having done a Literature and Philosophy degree (I have occasional but regular crises of doubt, thinking I should have done something more ‘useful’).
    I’ve got a copy of Herzog but haven’t read it. I imagine Cantabile from Humboldt’s Gift would qualify as a ‘reality instructor’ though.
    Cheers again,

  • Martin

    @Guy – sure, lit and phil isn’t the path to riches but you’re rich in your soul 🙂 Cantabile is probably the best reality instructor Bellow has created, I think he’d really refined it with him. There are a few of them in Augie March.

  • mojo

    i love that sarah bartlett comes in and starts instructing us about reality (or maybe obvious) and noone says a word! nice job dipshits!

  • Avian

    Yes, yes, and yes. On all accounts. Books of a relevant nature include Bellow’s own colleague Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” and perhaps even go as far as Goethe. Maybe this Downes mentions them in his bit. Noam Chomsky, too, has narrowed down what exactly is carrying out this “progression” of change in values. I don’t think I’m being too general when I say all this.

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