Jane Jacobs and Baby D

When I was in high school, my adopted aunt, Dorothy Holtz, (Baby D we called her behind her back) introduced me to reading Jane Jacobs. Dorothy was one of the foremost city planners at the time–she created the first urban pedestrian mall in downtown Minneapolis and helped put Minneapolis as a leader in the “new” city beautiful movement. Aunt D was a brilliant urbanist, an eccentric, a wise old lady and a pal of Jane Jacobs.

The Death and Life of American Cities was referred to like fundamentalists quote scriptures. I’m glad we’re reading it. But at the end of her life, Jane Jacobs got pretty depressed about that “life” that was supposed to happen in American cities. She put her critical eye on education, which I think might be germane to our discussion.

In her last book, Dark Ages Ahead, Ms. Jacobs returned to one of the pillars of decay that she heralded for the Dark Ages. Here’s a link to an article she published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, which was in part the basis of the second chapter of her book, Dark Ages Ahead


For those who don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s an excerpt:

After World War II and then the Korean War, the government provided tuition and encouragement for veterans who had the desire and qualifications to attend universities or colleges. Tens of thousands of former GIs, many from families in which nobody had ever before been given a chance at higher education, took advantage of this opportunity. On the whole, the veterans were noted for applying themselves more seriously than students just out of high school. They also swelled student enrollments. When the stream of GI students ran dry, their hunger for education was missed in university communities, along with their government-guaranteed tuitions. Credentialing emerged as a growth industry in the 1960s, just when universities needed it to address problems of their own.

The more successful credentialing became as a growth industry, the more it dominated education, from the viewpoints of both teachers and students. Teachers could not help despairing of classes whose members seemed less interested in learning than in doing the minimum work required to get by and get out. Enthusiastic students could not help despairing of institutions that seemed to think of them as raw material to process as efficiently as possible rather than as human beings with burning questions and confusions about the world and doubts about why they were sinking time and money into this prelude to their working lives.

Students who are passionate about learning, or could become so, do exist. Faculty members who love their subjects passionately and are eager to teach what they know and to plumb its depths further also exist. But institutions devoted to respecting and fulfilling these needs as their first purposes have become rare, under pressure of different necessities. Similar trends in Britain have begun to worry some educators there. My impression is that university-educated parents and grandparents of students presently in university do not realize how much the experience has changed since their own student days, nor do the students themselves, since they have not experienced anything else. Only faculty who have lived through the loss realize what has been lost.

just keeping up my end of the conversation

The short form

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4 Responses to Jane Jacobs and Baby D

  1. BTW: Cut and paste the link. Linking is beyond my capacity tonight.

  2. Sandra Cheng says:

    Thanks for posting Charles. Your link got me to thinking one sad consequence of the credentialing effect is the cheapening of education. The focus on the degree turns the whole experience into a process of attaining rubber stamps and less a reflection of getting an education. It’s a bleak addendum to the Death and Life of American Cities excerpt, which seems more hopeful, optimistic. As for the reading, what stuck with me was the ‘togetherness’ vs ‘nothing’ dichotomy and how the dynamics of students’ personal communities play out in the classroom and affect their college experience. The choice to share much or nothing was extremely useful in framing the elevator episode of the child trapped and crying for hours. If I heard those screams today I would be by that elevator, 30 years ago-not knowing any better-I would’ve stayed behind locked doors for fear, self-preservation, etc. It got me to thinking how I and the university need to work harder to foster community to encourage students to ‘share’ and breakdown resistances to interaction, and thus make them more amenable to the whole educational experience. The university needs to be a safe space, and I don’t mean more security guards, but safe in the sense that it has to be open to multiple and diverse ways of interaction as in the street corner bodega because as Jacobs noted community can’t be scripted.

    • The University, the classroom itself, must be a safe space. I feel strongly that the classroom should be safe to fail. We learn from failure, but students want a linear path from concept to done deal. (Don’t we all.) As a writer most of my work is failure (throw away, rewrite) all the way up to when I publish. Each discipline has its own type of discovery and failure. Scientific and mathematical research is the most telling example of how failure leads to success.

      What can we do? Let’s not bring on more “academic security guards.” Let’s not spoon feed students. Let’s celebrate failure and cognitive dissonance. BUT LET’S SET UP AN ATMOSPHERE OF CARE AND SUPPORT.

  3. Sandra Cheng says:

    Just came across this video of Jane Jacobs on cities & economy, nice to put a face to the reading–http://archives.cbc.ca/society/education/clips/6895/

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