This post is based on Colin’s talk at Saint Mary’s College, delivered on the 75th anniversary of the Collegiate Seminar department.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard anyone use the term “big data.” I was at a faculty retreat with my department, Collegiate Seminar at Saint Mary’s College, and I had no idea that this moment would mark a sea change. One person had been appointed to bring some drinks to the weekend retreat and in a jocular moment on the first evening someone moaned at the particular choices of wine they had bought from Trader Joe’s. They responded in a similar tone of conviviality that they weren’t a mind reader, de gustibus non disputandum est— in matters of taste, one mustn’t argue. The implication was that inevitably someone would be disappointed. It mirrored a thousand conversations I’d heard over the years—it was a very human moment. But then a third voice jumped in: “What we need here is big data”.
The department I teach in at Saint Mary’s College of California is not normally a place where data is talked about often. Or it hadn’t up until then. As a department it recently celebrated its seventy fifth anniversary. I have only been in the department for eight years, but even just in that brief time I’ve noticed a marked shift in the way most people in the college talk about our work. When I started here, the understanding was that we were hoping to introduce students to the Great Books of the Liberal Arts Tradition. The emphasis was on reading whole texts that mattered, or ought to matter, to well formed people; people with souls. These were courses that the College considered the “core of the core” and which were explicitly about more than a job or more than an education, even more than the goals of the program itself, like “critical thinking” or “oral communication.” In fact when I started in 2009 each course listed the vision statement for the department; a statement I was asked to hold forth on when I was hired here to teach. That statement reads:
“The Collegiate Seminar Program seeks to provide its students with a solid grounding in the world of ideas as expressed in great texts of the Western world and exposure to its encounter with other traditions. The Program seeks to help them develop as curious, thoughtful members of an intellectual community. Designed to serve Saint Mary’s goals of liberal education, the Program strives to put students in possession of their powers to think clearly and articulate their ideas effectively—powers that will serve them for the rest of their lives.”
I was surprised by all of this when I was hired. In the curricular wars that have been fought throughout Higher Education for the past few decades the Seminar department had mostly been overlooked, and it usefully found ways to adapt. I used to have friends on the political left who teach in great books programs at other schools look over our reading list and pedagogical documents with envy for our consistent inclusion of women from each era and our serious attempt to think through how the west was, and always is, in conversation with other traditions. Similarly, and perhaps more obviously, faculty acquaintances on my political right who teach in more modern departments of Higher Ed would look longingly at our department for our consistent adherence to traditional education. When I was hired I thought I’d landed in paradise. Here people were keeping the tradition alive; and that life was one of arguing about what books were great and which were merely good.
But over the course of years there has been a marked change in the way Seminar is talked about by the faculty who I share the department with. The conversations have shifted from focusing on the content of the reading lists, the ideas in the texts and the texts themselves, and towards a focus on “skills development” or “the method” used to discuss the texts. I think this is a turn for the worse and the longer our department has focused on it the worse I think it has gotten. It is not a surprise that the vision statement I laid out above has been dropped from the freshmen course—perhaps we don’t want to shock them with our use of the term “Western,” but I think the vision statement’s disappearance is more about the emphasis on method. Over the same period the trainings that the department puts together have shifted to match the language from a focus on robust arguments about texts that we all think may matter to conversations about how to have conversations well.
Let me tell you, few conversations are more banal than conversations about how to have better conversations…
Returning to that moment, the one where the word data entered the department’s retreat, here was the moment where, looking back, I saw the shift taking place. On this particular faculty retreat we were talking about some texts that we’d all read and we spent the day arguing about them. There was also going to be some conversation about how to have better conversations. Faculty do need to be trained in andragogy. The gentle human ribbing of the person who had purchased the drinks started when from across the room a voice jumped in and said: “What we need is big data”. A quiet hush ran over the room, they responded to the hush by continuing, “yeah, we need to just gather up everyone’s preferences and then get whatever drinks the data says, then, no complaining.” In the moment it seemed eminently reasonable. Indeed at future soirees I’ve noticed more and more that rather than merely sending someone to grab bottles, a host will send out a questionnaire to gather data, and people no longer casually complain about the drinks, at least not in the same way.
Well something rather like that has happened with the department as a whole. When I started, the reading list was something that was constantly complained over and argued about. But slowly, year by year, more and more questions about exactly what texts were working and what texts weren’t and which do I prefer and which do I not, have been asked of us and as that data piles up there is a sense that the department is perfecting the study of the liberal arts. This has of course freed us to work on the supposedly harder thing of learning how to teach the students whatever the data has decided we must teach them. People still complain about the reading list, but not with the same gusto, certainly not with a sense that anything they say about it will impact what gets into the list. That’s been decided already by a spreadsheet.
Our college is probably too close to the corrupting influence of Silicon Valley. When I point this out some respond in puzzlement. How could this be a bad thing, they wonder. Well, to return to the first time I heard someone talk about applying “big data” to the mundane task of gathering booze I didn’t know it then but I notice now. The complaint about another person’s choice of drink is human. To assume we can optimize the selection and thus remove the criticism, if it really succeeds in removing the criticism, is to optimize the situation for something not human. This is to say, the application of “data” to problems of human life, particularly where those “problems” are not real problems, is to court transhumanism—the idea that what humans really ought to be up to is figuring out what the next stage of human development is going to be and work towards that. Whatever Christian education is, it needs to remain decidedly human. Upon reflection the change I think I’ve sensed in my department is a loss of the sense that humans are grounded in something real and unchanging; the human soul.
When I started here I worked among old wolves who were teaching young wolves how to hunt. Now we are still old wolves, but there isn’t any need to hunt, we’re just taking the young wolves out and teaching them the value of exercise, which, we are told, is what the hunting was all about all along. If that sounds like a description of how wolves were domesticated you’re exactly right.
The vision statement’s disappearance, the mechanical training of faculty to have optimized conversations, the data oriented approach to the reading lists; it all points in one direction, the loss of the soul at the heart of our department. Computers don’t need a vision statement but humans do. Humans crave vision, meaning, purpose. And the better and higher and more beatific that vision is, the better.
Colin Chan Redemer is an Associate Adjunct Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California and a Fellow of the Davenant Institute. He loves teaching on the intersection between History, Philosophy, Literature, and Christianity. His writing has appeared in the Englewood Review of Books, Evansville Review, Sojourners Magazine, The Federalist, and the Tampa Review. He lives in community with his beautiful wife, kids, and fellow church members, in Oakland, California.