LONG ISLAND – Nearly concealed amid the abstractions, generalizations, redundancies and non sequiturs of President Selma Botman’s apologia for the repositioning of the academic entities at the University of Southern Maine, there appears a specific example.

It is one, however, which fits not at all her boast that the new USM will offer an “up-to-date” education, whatever that is. Like a small drop of dye that at first contains itself within itself, this example permeates the cell wall and discolors the whole pool.

If we extrapolate from the one example — and who these days would trust abstractions and generalizations? — then the direction for USM is not forward but backward.

According to Botman, USM is being reorganized not to be a serious university but to revert to a previous role by assuming an old identity.

That USM will become a Gorham Normal School again is the import of a recent column (“University’s changes real, and hardly random,” June 25). It will offer “an undergraduate teacher education program.”

“Now undergraduate teacher education, once the academic foundation of this institution, when it began as the Gorham Normal School, will return.”

The “this” refers, I assume, to USM, but Botman’s grasp of the basic rules governing English usage seems fragile, so you can’t be sure what she means.

President Botman is apparently ignorant of the history of USM. She should look back at the politically forced merger of 1970-71 and the fierce fight the Portland faculty fielded to prevent the merger.

They were aided and abetted by a segment of the Gorham faculty, mostly new appointments who had fled the publish-or-perish doctrine that prevailed at all advanced institutions. (Gorham Normal cared nothing for that requirement.)

That small segment of the Gorham faculty and the Portland faculty, who did not want to be associated with a teacher’s college, opposed the change.

There are a number of soft spots in President Botman’s presentation and one or two sinkholes, but it would take pages and pages to unscramble the tangled syntax and rinse the vocabulary.

President Botman sounds more like a pitchman for a traveling circus than she does like a college president, and her thinking seems dominated by the corporation metaphor. “A university that does not respond to the changing needs of its students ends up losing them.”

Walmart calling! Education should never be touted because it is not a product that can be warranteed or returned or, except by educational processes in life itself, be repaired. It has no trade-in value and cannot be replicated because each student is his or her own knowing entity.

Providing large numbers of students a university education is probably an oxymoron. You may admit them, process them through a set number of courses, graduate them and still not educate them, because that is up to them. Becoming educated is an action by the student.

If that were not so, students would never survive an incompetent teacher or thrive with no teacher at all. I do not know what an up-to-date education is as Botman uses the term.

A friend of mine majored in physics at Harvard and went on to become a very successful doctor. We were speaking of physics one day and he said, “Yes, I majored in physics at Harvard and what I was taught we now know was all wrong.”

If an up-to-date education means that courses be presented in the light of most recent, verifiable knowledge, then by all means we need it even if next year it changes.

If on the other hand it means keeping pace with the appearance of each new cell phone, pocket encyclopedia, iPod, etc., then we are in danger of losing ourselves in speed itself.

It would be well to remember that away from the racetrack, the computer, the newest Facebook entry, there is a time scheme in which we live.

In that frame of reference, even trees grow old and die and the tides keep their appointed rounds and there is no progress, only diurnal change — which is to say, finding new voices to carry the old sad song of humanity.

In our time, that song has become more absurd than sad.

 

– Special to The Press Herald