Thursday, August 01, 2013

Monsters University and the rigors of radical uniqueness

Susan Henking's recent post on ChicagoNow directs us to this masterful spoof of the standard university website, courtesy of the movie Monsters University.

Reading through that website's exquisitely unoriginal prose, I experienced a painful twinge of recognition with regard to the three points I suggested in my revised part 1 responding to David Shiner's questions.  Monsters U may not lean too heavily on the radical side of things, but it is full of unique rigor and rigorous uniqueness. If President Gross was up to date on the latest "disruptiveness" sociobabble, it would no doubt be full of uniquely rigorous radicalism too.  And just to belabor the point, it is full of those things because all universities and colleges are full of them, or at least imagine themselves to be.  Nothing, in short, is less unique than uniqueness.

Monsters University website

This isn't just a pleasant exercise in Hegelian logical maneuvering. It leads us to a specific problem: a lot of the things that are true and important about Shimer College sound exactly like the insincere blather mouthed by hundreds of other institutions -- most of which, in my humble and thoroughly biased opinion, are unique in only the most trivial sense, inasmuch as they are all unique in the same way.   (And many of which are no longer really educational or even nonprofit institutions, having become increasingly pure exercises in credentialist rent-seeking.  But they still talk like such institutions, and with their funds rerouted from academics to marketing, they can make the case for what they aren't more convincingly than ever.)

"How to think, not what to think"? Been there, heard that. "Small classes and a real commitment to teaching"?  Well, that's original.  "Close-knit and supportive community"? C'mon, pull the other one, it's got bells on.   Heck, even Shimer's motto isn't exactly one-of-a-kind.  (Note: the aspersions cast in the previous paragraph do not necessarily apply to the specific institutions linked.)

When Shimer's own brand signal is so weak and the truth about Shimer sounds so much like the lies and half-truths that other schools tell, it's no wonder our recruitment efforts end up relying heavily on word of mouth and serendipity.

Thinking about it this way, it becomes clearer why Shimer has gravitated so much toward the "Great Books" aspect of its identity, even though Shimer's version of the Great Books isn't quite what most people would expect.  Being a Great Books college is far from the only (or even most significant) way in which Shimer presents a radical alternative in higher education, but it is one that's relatively easy to make the case for. It's a particular aspect of rigor that is hard to fake (and unlikely to be faked).

This also helps to explain the fetishistic focus on the Oxford program in the current Shimer video and viewbook: for all its value, the Oxford program wouldn't naturally suggest itself as a major selling point, but at least it is a concrete distinguishing characteristic (and a photogenic one too).

I'm not sure how we can extricate ourselves from this particular trap, but thinking about this does make me increasingly convinced that we need better and more specific ways of making the case for what Shimer does.

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