This is part II of my response to the Review's demand for a core curriculum. I apologize for its length, but I think the topic needs a thorough response.
My second point follows closely upon the first. As culture has expanded, our breadth of knowledge has expanded. It is not all that difficult to read all the Greek and Roman classics; there is, for most intents and purposes, a limited number of them. That is simply not true of scientific fields or even the fields of the humanities. Classics as well has expanded beyond simply reading and translating the old authors. There are no limits to the pursuit of knowledge, even at the undergraduate level these days. This was not as true in the 19th Century or even the early 20th. Why do we not have polymaths like Leibniz, Pascal, or (more recently) Bertrand Russell or Alfred North Whitehead? Because there is a great deal more to learn to become an expert, or even very well-read, in any single area of study. A core curriculum that does justice to the sum of human knowledge was a reasonable practice 100 years ago; it is not now. This brings me to my third point.
College is the time, even at a liberal college, when American students begin to specialize in one or two areas of study. We do because we must; we must get a job, and as such, we need an area of expertise to market. Or we try to form ourselves as good thinkers and try to market ourselves as such, but we still need to demonstrate our capacity to think, and the most effective way to do so is to apply our analytic skills to a rather specific area of human knowledge.
In addition, we as a country are no longer alone in producing quality graduates, especially in the fields of science and engineering. We as a country need good engineers and scientists, and we need them in greater quantities than ever before. College is a limited amount of time. If those students are studying Rousseau instead of Solid Mechanics, I don’t think that’s going to help out too many people down the road.
I now find myself in a quandary: I (personally) think everyone who should know who Rousseau is and know the basics of his Social Contract, but I also think that Engineering students should be as well prepared as possible when they leave even a lib arts school. This quandary shows where the Review’s argument utterly falls apart.
This lack of cultural literacy is not simply a collegiate eyesore. It’s endemic in our society. This is not simply the fault of the English Department (though honestly I think the English 5/Freshman Seminar program could use a huge overhaul). It’s a societal problem. And therefore it should not have to be addressed in college. I would like to ask all those prep school kids out there, what the fuck were you doing away at boarding school? Taking Kaplan courses to get here? That’s about what I thought.
The Review, as is its wont, simply cannot expand its vision beyond the Connecticut River or look past Jim Wright’s administration to larger society. It plays its one note of “Resign, Jim Wright” in various octaves, but this time played totally off-key.
The quote the Review keeps hammering on is (predictably) from that ham actor Ronald Reagan (who probably could not tell Foucault from Play-Doh). “The goal of an education is to form the Citizen. And the Citizen is a person who, if need be, can re-found his civilization.” I’ll let the implicit misogyny slide, but this I will not: A Citizen is not a person in a vacuum—de novo, ex nihilo, etc. A Citizen is a part of a community. The burden of founding and re-founding a civilization should not be on a group of people who can tell you why Kant liked steeples so much. It should be on the community as a whole. If that means the huddled, ignorant masses yearning to breathe free, well, it should. We are stronger not because we know who Giambattista Vico was or what he wrote, but because we do not make distinctions of that sort—between those who know and those who don’t. It is by thinking in and through the community and not through Aristotle (actually, Aristotle believed in this very thing to an extent) that we achieve more, not by burying our heads in the sands of time, but by always moving forward, always progressing as individuals in a community.
There is certainly a place and time for Dante to be studied, to be loved, to be read, and to be used. But it is not everywhere, and it is not all the time.
The Nietzsche quip I quoted above sums this up fairly well. We cannot be loafers in the garden of knowledge. A core curriculum may yield insights into (a rather specific ) culture and it may even lead to some very relevant observations of our current world. But it is not the only means thereunto, and we cannot simply fall back on it when we feel the stress and flux of life. To do so is lazy, cowardly, and regressive.