What H.G. Wells wrote in 1920, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe,” is by Gayle Greene’s hard-won judgment even truer today. Her title, “Immeasurable Outcomes,” describes how the culture-redeeming “pay-offs” of liberal arts education, celebrating the humanities, have been gutted by top-down, quantitative assessment models that fail to measure the glories of higher education. That begins by evaluating what happens to developing brains not by numbers but by the human survival skills refined by deeply digesting great, classical literature and art, in her case, Shakespeare’s plays.
Perpetual testing measures factual recall, but not the personal discernment to listen, to think clearly, and make sense of complex life, relationship and of course work problems. No doubt, many big cap CEOs, betraying their own prestigious university educations, have stopped valuing the messier questions: “how to combat climate change,” “are there moral choices here?” or “where do I fit in the grand scheme?” “Liberal” here comes not from politics but root origins, “to liberate, to set free” and “grow up,” even “belonging to the people.”
My simple review categories: a good book defends an important thesis or position with logical clarity and persuasive argument. A very good book adds significance, linking the well-made thesis so we understand the wider human relevance. A great book persuasively establishes overriding, inter-related problems, packed with expert evidence, integrates the whole, then broadcasts the full global significance. Understanding the big pictures allows us to then appreciate the effectiveness of restoration plans. Gayle Greene’s masterpiece satisfies my greatness thresholds, enhanced by a witty, conversational style rarein popular or academic education treatises. Sparkling with anecdotes, she walks the very humanistic, civilized walk she talks so entertainingly
Her subject is expansive in range (highlighting college but spanning lower grades shredded by cut arts budget) and over time, at least from the 1980’s to right now. Greene brings a classical, humanistic perspective to what’s at stake: education, humanities, democracy and civilization, working hand in hand. Rife with hard-hitting support quotations, she explains the tragic whys and wherefores behind the destruction of once the world’s most democratic, high-achieving national college systems. The book’s subtitle, “Teaching Shakespeare in the age of the algorithm,” puts in context her forty years of teaching her Scripps College Shakespeare seminars (among others). Greene provides amusing, provocative (composite) narratives that dramatize the range of students and revelatory class epiphanies. She demonstrates how even reticent students learn well in small classes where the dedicated teacher knows every student, customizing her approach to situational class dynamics, inspiring or less so.
What Greene addresses time and again is cultural “emotional intelligence” – advanced not by rote learning but from profound, brain-to-brain coupling with literature, visual arts, music, film, dance and theatre. In conjunction with intellectual/literary training (close reading, ambiguity, interpretation, history, philosophy), true “intellectual capital” counts more and lasts longer than long-forgotten high school factoids. For Greene, not honoring the humanities sabotages the very humanity on which we claim to base civilization and democratic governance. No computer report yet explains romantic love or grievance, let alone how “all [people] are created equal” – nor how best to teach students to listen and think clearly for themselves, especially when facing complex, contradictory trials. Teaching is an art, not a computer language, and Greene, the master ever willing to learn, captures the performance dynamic: “Teaching is a high-wire act without a net.” Caught at times by great art from geniuses.
Schools, forever a battleground
Recognized by all (hello, backward Florida) as the pre-eminent transition between learning to walk and learning to vote, education is a constant battle ground whether for censorious rightwing partisans or corporate-think forces who want education to “pay off” in “business terms.” No surprise that business overlords resist subsidizing independent, skeptical, inquisitive workers, biased instead towards a pliant, orchestrated “credentialed” workforce. Independence makes such a fuss. Dubious technocrats serve the corporate agenda, promoting high-demand skill-sets and the enormously profitable economic and political status quo.
Ironically, for Greene, the war against the humanities nixes exactly the out of the box innovation spawning major new ideas, even creative chaos. Fifty years ago, preceding the mind-bending, idea explosion (home computing, internet, streaming, connectivity, communications, medical breakthroughs and more), one in five students were liberal arts graduates. Now it’s only one in twenty – and we now endure the shocking falloff in compassion, literacy, discourse, understanding (especially basicscience, law, the Constitution), and politics. Coincidence? Not for Gayle Greene.
The masterful, potent Greene matrix:
1) a detailed, historic, readable overview of how extraneous, statistical models have warred against the core mission and unique rewards of higher education, now too often reduced to the instruction (and measurement) of narrow, pre-set, technical skills and business/employment credentials. Real names and bad programs are blasted.
2) how the subsequent, predictable cultural shrinkage, evidenced by unthinking rejection of certified elections or violence to crush the administrative state “to save it,” erupts in polarized tensions, leading to a disabling, cynical descentin public discourse and campaigning, even comprehension how rational governance works. In short, the triumph of culture-warsoundbites over logical, independent, consensual problem-solving.
3) that teaching the enduring magnificence of the humanities (seeding human enlightenment) is under assault from a myriad of pressures, including the tunnel-vision that reduces intangible, “immeasurable” outcomes to “woke” awareness (by which dim politicians then rail again funding “useless” humanities studies). True learning absolutely “pays off” in money and consciousness but over time and only when done expertly.
4) Greene’s own teaching achievements provide the renewal model to counter the anti-knowledge, anti-humanities challenges that end up closing down not just educational but personal and career freedoms. Her best, time-tested solutions call for restoring the value and preeminence of liberal arts from top to bottom. Her classroom dialogues prove that life-changing, mind-expanding peak experiences strike when diverse students join together in safe, uncensored, smallish classes customized for group needs, openness and sophistication.
To that end, Greene warmly shares both her teaching methods and the subsequent, positive student enlightenment, dramatizing how students truly internalize key skills and lessons, aided by like-minded comrades (vs. disembodied internet classes). That Greene’s down-to-earth, humane readings of the wonderful ways that Shakespeare envelops his audience (routinelycomplicating our simple, comfortable responses) is a bonus incentive to those needing reminders how to embrace (or brush up on) this transcendent English writer.
Aptly, the final chapter honors her students’ retrospective reminiscences, movingly displaying how vital Scripps experiences often redirected their lives and seasoned their expanded, adult perspectives. Many remain loyal partakers of high culture who still ponder perennial issues raised by the classics: the relations of men and women, the nature of justice, how selfish, fallibleleaders corrupt politics, plus the nature of love, power, jealousy, greed, ambition, anger, certainly public lying – and how courageous characters check grievous power-mongering.
Ultimately, in this compact book, Greene juggles all that’s critical to understand what it is to be human and what good citizenship requires: no easy answers, great ambiguity, and the need to confidently unpack tough moral calls, even unearth wisdom. This book also exemplifies the blessings from a savvy elder with energy and the perspective to assess what does and does not work, and the immense challenge of systemic education reform.
If nothing so far makes you grab a copy, herein find an elegant introduction to my favored belief system, rational, secular humanism, by which evidence feeds knowledge in turn keyed to interpretations and sound conclusions. Finally, this masterpiece costs one-third of what many overpriced academic books cost. Miracle to behold. This read deserves a place on your upping-your-literacy bucket list. You will thank me.
Disclosure: Ms. Greene is a friend and neighbor in our sometime Northern California paradise. She provided her book; I provided the review.