Visions for the Future of the University of Illinois
Feisal Mohamed, "Of Learning and Labor"

Saturday, March 27, 2010

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[On March 11, the Unit for Criticism and the IPRH hosted a panel on "Visions for the Future of the University of Illinois" featuring presentations by Hadi Esfahani, Peter Fritzsche, Feisal Mohamed, Lisa Rosenthal, Alexander Scheeline, and Ruth Watkins. Below are excerpts from Professor Mohamed's contribution.]

Of Learning and Labor

Written by Feisal Mohamed (English)

[The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of university archivists Bryan Whitledge and Linda Stahnke, as well as of Winton U. Solberg’s University of Illinois 1867-1894: An Intellectual and Cultural History (U of Illinois P, 1968).]

Most universities, we all know, display mottoes that are nonsense cloaked in Latin. Not so for the University of Illinois, which is graced with a motto, "Learning and Labor," that on the surface at least seems admirably clear. And yet in these times of ours the relationship between its two substantives seems muddied, even contentious.

We see the signs of that contention in recent labor actions by the service workers and graduate students, and in the sometimes comic confusion surrounding the implementation of furloughs, which are an affront to both learning and labor: they add injury to injury by docking the pay of employees who have already had their wages frozen, and they imply that the pursuit of knowledge is a form of punch-clock drudgery, thus depriving it of an ethical impulse.

The motto itself holds its share of ambiguity. Why the gerund "learning," as opposed to what we might expect, "knowledge/scientia" or "truth/veritas"? Does "learning" have less than nounal substance, suggesting the priority of labor? Or is it meant to imply that learning is processual, ever-developing, while labor is a static fact of life? Or is there simply an affinity for alliterated l’s in this Land of Lincoln?

When close reading yields more questions than answers, we turn to the archives, where we will find that the original seal of the Illinois Industrial College held the motto "Onward and Upward" in a ring containing the words "Farmers and Mechanics."

That the university seal is no longer graced by that sentiment is owing in no small measure to the priorities of our first regent, the pleasingly named John Milton Gregory, who carried with him from his own training in classics at New Jersey’s Union College a sense that the age called for education both liberal and practical. Liberal education alone, he recognized, might do well for Princeton, but did not suit the needs of mid-nineteenth-century central Illinois.

Many on the Board of Trustees favored a more stridently utilitarian curriculum. Appearing in a series of epigraphs to the board’s first report is a passage from Emerson that may reflect their interpretation of the new motto: "he only is a sincere learner, he only can become a master, who learns the secrets of labor." Alarmed by such decadences as the appointment of faculty with expertise in literature and history, one of the trustees, Matthias L. Dunlap, used his regular column on agriculture in the Chicago Tribune, which he wrote under the pen name "Rural," to air his disputes with the regent’s proposed curriculum, branding it as "antagonistic to the spirit and letter" of the Morrill Act, and declaring that "this school... was specially designed to improve the industrial classes, to educate them to better manage their several avocations, and not to cultivate a few in the highest branches of knowledge."

Gregory responded to such objections exactly 142 years ago today, on the March 11, 1868 official inauguration of the university, where he made a case for the golden mean between liberal and practical education first in verse by way of the university anthem that he wrote for the occasion—"Learning and Labor—fit head for fit hand— / Shall crown with twin glories our broad prairie land"—and next in prose, in an address availing itself of the age’s wonderfully inflated style. (I will quote this highly enjoyable speech at some length, though I have expurgated some of the language of its time; no one here, I trust, will see it as the university’s mission to train manly fiber, raise a noble race, and the like.)

The hungry eyes of toiling millions are turned, with mingled hope and fear, upon us, to see what new and better solution we can possibly offer the great problems on which their well-being and destiny depend.... But it is not merely the voice of our fellow citizens which has called us to this work. The Age itself, invites us.... ‘tis labor lifting its Ajax cry for light to guide its toil, and illuminate its life.... Shall we simply teach the sciences without attempting to teach their practical applications, then we fall again into the error of the old schoolmen. Our science will be bookish learning. We [will] have failed to forge the golden fetter which binds learning to labor. The industries will look in vain for skilled leaders from among our graduates. Shall we neglect all of science except its results[?]... What is this more than the old apprenticeship? For science thus learned neither educates nor enlightens. Its possession would be an evanescent dream, and its influence a mere passing shadow.... Prove that education, in its highest form, will “pay” and you have made for it the market of the world. The light which has heretofore fallen through occasional rifts, and on scattered hill tops, will henceforward flood field and valley with the splendors of the noontime sun.

This rousing effort would lead an embarrassed Dunlap publicly to extend his hand in capitulation, and to mollify his tone in his later Tribune columns on industrial education.

In our own moment, neoliberal ideas of higher education cast an eye as skeptical as Rural’s on the less than practical disciplines, claiming the market as the best setter of curricula. The recent economic collapse has exposed the benevolent market as a cruel fiction, and the employment crisis that ripples in its wake suggests especially that an education founded on skills alone will have fleeting value in the unstable years ahead. Twenty-somethings will have to be prepared not only with skills, which are likely rapidly to become obsolete, but with the willingness and capacity to be lifelong learners.

Even the Rurals of the world must concede, then, that knowledge is more than an elitist brand of recreation. Indeed, Columbia economist and Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps argues in the January issue of the Harvard Business Review that it is the past decade’s lack of support for innovation that has created an economy lacking dynamism and has damaged "long-term value creation." An active mind is valuable not only in and of itself, but as a vital, perhaps essential, resource in the tumultuous world that today’s undergraduates will have to navigate.

With our double mission in view, I would like tentatively to offer a few practical proposals:

1) That we show a commitment to the learning of all citizens, renewing our efforts in such initiatives as the Odyssey Project, as well as dusting off the machinery of the Global Campus and applying it to free non-credit online courses, along the lines of the Open Yale project. We must model the belief that higher education is a right rather than a privilege if we want others to believe that it is so.

2) Make public our own dissatisfaction with our bloated tuition rates, and with the state divestment from higher education that deprives too many of opportunity. Loudly and frequently we must declare that stable and sufficient funding of higher education is fundamental to quality of life in this state.

3) Shed those elements of the institution that serve no purpose toward our core mission. The poor Aviation School has received unwelcome attention in this kind of conversation, but why not also look to the example of Emory University and scrap costly Division I NCAA Athletics programs; and

4) Take a firm stand against the shrinking of the tenure stream, and sustain our commitment to world-class research. Students attending public universities have as much right as anyone to be taught by faculty who are at the forefront of their fields, and to do so in classroom settings congenial to interaction. I am sure that we all remember from our days as students those times when we were taught by a true master of the discipline, a rich experience made even richer if it is in a seminar rather than a lecture room of 200.

To return to the language of our first regent, the time demands as much as ever that we strike the golden fetter between learning and labor. Though decorum prevents me just now from raising an Ajax cry to guide that toil, I will say that we might like Aeneas carry on our shoulders the patrimony of Gregory’s effort out of a noble city that, with the best of intentions, has admitted within its walls the Trojan Horse of corporatization, and strive toward a future truly brilliant in flooding every field and valley with both knowledge and opportunity.


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Mark Dahlquist said...

After reading this, I'm sorry I wasn't able to attend this panel in person and participate in what I'm sure much have been an interesting discussion.

The early history of UI is a remarkable story, that I wish was more widely familiar to the UIUC community--it's surely thanks to the willingness of popular movements such as the Illinois Industrial League to question the traditional distinction between "Learning and Labor" that Land Grand Universities like Illinois were founded.

In any case, Fiesal's piece reminds me of one that I published long ago, in the now-defunct Champaign Urbana Alternative news weekly, "The Octopus." Back at the height of the GEO certification effort, in August 2001, "Tradition at the University of Illinois" appeared as an attempt to intervene in a range of UIUC issues. Focusing on J.M. Gregory's somewhat more rabble-rousing counterpart, Jonathan Baldwin Turner, the piece treats a number of themes similar to those that Feisal considers here.

In case anyone feels like dusting off this old document, here's a link to a .pdf version:

Unit for Criticism said...

Thanks, Mark, for that very interesting link! LG