June 3, 2005

We need history, but not the way a spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it--Nietzsche

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.


  1. snaps. who's foucalt?

  2. snaps. who's foucalt?

    haha, nice

    'It is hard for me to classify a form of research like my own within philosophy or within the human sciences. I could define it as an analysis of the cultural facts characterising our culture... I do in fact seek to place myself outside the culture to which we belong, to analyse its formal conditions in order to make a critique of it, not in the sense of reducing its values, but in order to see how it was actually constituted. '-Michel Foucault in 'Who are you, Professor Foucault?

    snaps is right

  3. An 055:58 PM

    I will grant that there is a problem with society and that correcting it at Dartmouth will not resolve the larger issue.

    But why not solve it at Dartmouth? Must Dartmouth stoop to the low standards of the rest of the country? Must Dartmouth graduates be as illiterate and as poorly-read as those of other schools?

    It comes down to this question: what is the point of an education? To learn, or to get a job? Clearly, you tend towards the latter

  4. clearly you tend towards the latter

    I do not in fact. I think that kind of approach to education is part of the problem that needs to be corrected.

    But my point was not that Dartmouth students should stoop to the standards of the rest of the country. It was that the Review blinds itself to anything beyond this campus in its attempt to maintain their anti-administration stance. Because of this, things like a core curriculum, which is extremely problematic, are what they come up with. That's lazy thinking.

  5. An 059:58 PM

    It was that the Review blinds itself to anything beyond this campus in its attempt to maintain their anti-administration stance

    The Review is a Dartmouth publication. Its goals are to fix what it sees wrong with Dartmouth, not with the rest of the country. I don't think the Review could care less what goes on at other schools.

    You're also misdiagnosing the Review's point of view. The paper is not premised on dislike of the administration, nor does it invent reasons to justify that belief. Instead, it holds certain core beliefs about education, culture and politics that the administration does not hold, so it critiques the administration. Having spoken with several Reviewers over the years, it seems to me that their critique is a lot broader than "it's Jim Wright." It just so happens that Jim Wright is an almost ideal target for the paper.

    Read the Review's archives. The paper is a lot more ideologically consistent and a lot less opportunistic than you seem to believe.

  6. You're still missing my point.
    A critique of the situation at Dartmouth is irrelevant if larger questions are not asked, and the Review fails to ask any of those questions or even acknowledge their existence.

    Also, I disagree with the offering of a core curriculum as the sole means for curing a cultural ignorance that I find pervasive, though I would define it in much broader terms than the Review has.

    The Review is not addressing the correct problems, is addressing them out of context, and provides solutions that are both impractical and highly naive. Their recommendation is a lazy one--go back to what our grandfathers learned and (implicitly) go no farther.

    It may be simply fortuitous that such a stance allows them to attack Wright's administration, but their rhetoric belies that. I have no great love for the current administration, but I find their belligerence juvenile.

  7. A critique of the situation at Dartmouth is irrelevant if larger questions are not asked

    I still don't see your point. Yes, the Review ignores broader solutions for national education, but that's because its focus is on Dartmouth and it has neither the authority to discuss national issues nor the power to affect them.

    The Review is actually following in the classic activist tradition, with which you should be familiar: "think globally, act locally." It diagnoses a broad problem and proposes a local solution.

    Dartmouth does, in fact, exist on its own. Reforms can be made at Dartmouth that aren't made elsewhere that can improve things for Dartmouth students. That problems exist elsewhere is a travesty, but that doesn't mean the Review can't propose solutions that apply to Dartmouth alone.

    You may certainly disagree with those solutions the Review has proposed. But that doesn't mean its heart is in the wrong place.

  8. Wait, the Review has a heart? I thought it had a croquet ball wrapped in a picture of Ronald Reagan.

    My point is that they fail to think globally at all. Or possibly fail to think period, instead of just rewording their last diatribe for a new subject. What they're doing is not activism; it's regression.

    I'm tired of hashing this out with you on this entry here. If you have more to say, blitz me. Unless you prefer to hide behind "an 05."

  9. Anonymous3:55 PM

    This post is irredeemably vague. You need to restate your argument in a clearer fashion. I sense there are several beliefs you hold about the world in general that you need to make explicit for us to understand what you have in mind. For example, you harp on the 'individual in the community' as if the value of this is self-evident. Explain how this relates to the liberal arts specifically. I would advise you to lay out, concisely, what you consider to be "The Review's Argument" and also, concisely, what your argument is.

  10. Did you read both parts?

    By "individual in community," I mean a harmony of individual interests with communal interests. I think the value of this is self-evident. The Review's quote defines civilization in the space of the individual, not the community or the individual-in-community. I disagree.

    The point of this post was to identify problems with using a core curriculum as a silver bullet type solution (or even identifying it as the best solution) to the problem of cultural ignorance. The point was not to be as precise as possible in identifying alternate values or solutions to what the Review presented. I do have thoughts on that topic, but I didn't feel like adding to an already long post.

    Also, read my comments above for a restatement of my argument, as well as my post on Affirmative Action. I hope that helps.