December 8, 2009

Docenting for UC

Filed under: POV — dhi @ 1:02 pm

by Simon Sadler, professor of art history.

I took a tour of the New York Public Library a couple of weeks ago. The tour group was immediately delighted by the docent. It was as though this spritely, bow-tied, bookish and ageless New Yorker had been installed in 1911 to reaffirm the sublime mission of the institution in perpetuity.

The anecdotes about the building and the explanations for its purpose flowed freely for an hour with a confidence as abounding as the true marble structure (no fake fascias here) that contained it. And yes, the effect was relentlessly didactic and proselytizing, the Depression Era murals on the upper floor explaining the advance of knowledge from the discovery of fire to the daily press.

Twenty-first century arts and humanities tend to take a less mythic view of our techniques of enlightenment, and marble is in short supply at the UC these days. Yet the UC system too is a sort of sublime, probably the greatest public university in the world and so one of the exceptional experiments in human history. It’s part of the Californian Dream. What a puzzle it is, mused Dr. Hanna Gray, former President of the University of Chicago during her recent visit to UC Davis, that more Californians don’t treasure the UC.

Contributions to this DHI blog all ask the question, how do we explain what we’re striving to do? Indeed. As I watched that docent at New York Public Library, wandering the corridors of a structure whose classical assuredness naturalized an undertaking so audacious, so radical, so expensive, that it would be ridiculed and create outrage if undertaken today, I pondered how we at UC can rehearse our story.

“Why are we paying for the Mondavi,” a colleague reports a recently-overheard faculty conversation, “and why is the Mondavi advertising on NPR?” If we don’t know the answer, we’re not ready to “docent” for the UC. Many faculty and students are stepping up to the plate this year to explain the bottom line on why public education is vital for our economy and for social justice. Is there also a way we can talk unabashedly about the top line, the improbable ambition of the institution, its libraries and labs and gardens and concerts, its saved lives in its hospitals and classrooms, unafraid of sounding elitist because the top line too is testament to UC’s splendid publicness?

Let there be light: not a bad pitch. Abstract. Benign, but grand. Secular, yet still echoing with religious thunder. It doesn’t short-sell the purpose of the UC. We are, however, feeling pressured to invent more positivist missions with greater customer orientation and more directly measurable outcomes—more bottom lines, in short, and fewer top lines.

Just as at the UC, senior administrators for the New York Public Library are working with consultants toward “reinventing” their institutional role.  None of that, though, seemed to have got to our docent. He unhurriedly recounted the lessons the New York Public Library learned from the other great libraries since Alexandria, and stories of readers who’d come in off the street, read economics books, and gone from rags to riches, and he recalled tales of immigrants who’d been allowed to read books in their own languages denied them in the countries they had left, and he meditated on the depositing of materials for research not yet imagined. And through it all he was cannily reminding us that a choice had been made, and was still being made, between wonder and disenchantment.


  1. […] 8, 2009 in fiddling while the UC burns | by eric In this era of bottom lines, Simon Sadler asks if we might not consider the other end of things. Many faculty and students are stepping up to the […]

    Pingback by The top line. « The Edge of the American West — December 8, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  2. Excellent, Simon. Pressured toward positivist missions, indeed, and in ways oh so contrary to “UC’s splendid publicness,” as you so.. well.. _splendidly_ put it! Might you even be persuaded to extend your analogy upwards to, say, “Critical Thinking for UC,” or “Philosophizing in Public for UC”? The NYPL docent, as you’ve cast him, seems like a noble bearer or reminder or defender of the dream of a public sphere, somewhat in the manner of the enlightenment theme in the university’s pediment inscriptions or its seal, or, for that matter, in its 1960 Master Plan, but could our role be cast even higher? Raised from Privatdozent to Frau Professor Doktor, perhaps? That is, could our role be “reinventing” more than “reaffirming,” not on a model of inclusiveness born of the demographically-derived private interests that the sort of consultants you refer to are always so mindful of (and that always seems so effective at making one feel like a shopper if you are a student or a shiny [or not!] commodity if you are faculty) but instead on the model of inclusiveness of the citizen, or citizen of the world, or even that of the abstract ethical being? Perhaps I am only reaching here for what you already mean about the choice between disenchantment and wonder. Dunno.

    Comment by Blake Stimson — December 8, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

  3. A superb essay. I was a little underwhelmed by being asked to “docent” – – at first. But the term suggests a confidence in the immense value of the subject, as if we could be as confident about the value of UC Davis as your guide was about the NYPL. And then I realized, yes, we must find that confidence. Or build it. Because what we and our predecessors have done here is that important and valuable and indeed successful.

    Comment by Louis — December 8, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

  4. thanks for this simon. I’m reading John Aubrey Douglass’s The California Idea and American Higher Education. It’s a useful reminder that it was improbable that this system would ever have been built, ever have been expanded, ever have been funded by taxpayers. So what may look improbable right now is perhaps not. indeed, a cause worth docenting for.

    Comment by carolyn de la pena — December 10, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

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