Paul Greenberg / Oct. 5, 2011

Letter to a Businessman

Dear Sir,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your email about the recent changes in the core curriculum at the University of Arkansas’ campus at Fayetteville – and expressing honest puzzlement about why a newspaper editor should care about such academic matters.

What’s the big deal, you want to know, about requiring, say, 35 credit hours in the arts and sciences for an undergraduate degree instead of 65 as in the past? Why all the fuss?

Dear Sir,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your email about the recent changes in the core curriculum at the University of Arkansas’ campus at Fayetteville – and expressing honest puzzlement about why a newspaper editor should care about such academic matters.

What’s the big deal, you want to know, about requiring, say, 35 credit hours in the arts and sciences for an undergraduate degree instead of 65 as in the past? Why all the fuss?

Because what’s happening at the university is part of a national trend to dumb down the curriculum.

Because if we’re going to train our undergraduates in a specialty, rather than require a well-rounded liberal education, we’ll succeed in watering down not just the curriculum but a heritage. And a heritage, if not tended and even added to, erodes. Like any field that is not cared for. Weeds sprout, the soil crumbles and dries, and even the most fertile land will soon lie fallow. It’s happened before. It was called the Dark Ages.

All it takes is one generation to neglect a heritage, while it may require many to revive it. Just as it took Europe ages to emerge from the loss of the classical civilization the Romans spread throughout the known world.

—–

What happens when a student specializes too early? The state of American journalism provides many a case study. I’ve met many an aspiring young columnist fresh out of J-school. They’re an impressive bunch. They seem to know everything about how to write.

Unfortunately, many have nothing to say. That’s because they may have taken a full quota of journalism courses but have had only minimal exposure to history, literature, economics, philosophy, biology, math, foreign languages … you name it.

They may never have thought about such matters in any depth, or maybe not at all. They’ve never had to. Not at a school that doesn’t require them to. A certified, degree-bearing, newly minted journalist may have learned the latest computerized, internetted, Twittered and Facebooked tricks of the trade – but overlooked one small detail. He hasn’t been educated.

—–

Early in the last century, Jose Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher and critic-at-large of Western society, diagnosed this sad condition. Even by then it had become common. Sr. Ortega paused in his search for a refuge from the fascism that was then sweeping his world, and the communism that would follow on its heels, to coin the phrase, “the barbarism of specialization.” By which he meant the tendency to substitute training in some specialty for a broad liberal education. (Recommended reading still, even after all the years since Ortega y Gasset wrote it in 1930: “The Revolt of the Masses.”)

By dividing wisdom into academic specialties, he pointed out, we vivisect it. Just as each department of a university may now be told to choose its own “core” curriculum. Which pretty much demolishes the old idea and ideal of a common core of studies for all the students in the arts and sciences.

Meanwhile, the mathematization of the culture proceeds. Seeking to quantify wisdom, we reduce it to strictly numerical goals, aka Performance Numbers. What begins to matter most is how many students graduate, not whether they’re educated.

Behind this fog of numbers, we find Sr. Ortega’s old nemesis and modernity’s hallmark: the barbarism of specialization. One generation of well-trained technicians in every field now follows another. Quite a few of them are remarkably talented, ambitious and upwardly mobile people. They’re sure to succeed.

The name that pops into my head every time this model of education comes up is that of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and, later, minister of armaments and war production. Without ever having had a real education, he succeeded on a grand scale. For a while.

—–

All the numbers that are supposed to document the rise of the modern university may only disguise its decline. And obscure the deterioration of liberal education under the care of those who are supposed to be its stewards.

Increasingly, college students are expected to know more and more about less and less – everything about their specialty, not that much about the arts and sciences that compose the core of education, and of civilization.

—–

In his preface to “Culture and Anarchy,” Matthew Arnold said the purpose of education was to pass on “the best which has been thought and said.”

That choice – between culture and anarchy – is still before us. Look about at an educational system in which pop culture steadily replaces the real thing, and various new capital-S Studies (Black, Gender, Women’s, Ethnic, Gay, Trans-Gender, pick your favorite) supplant traditional disciplines.

When the best of what has been thought and said is demoted to just another elective, you have to wonder if anarchy isn’t getting the upper hand. As it surely will if our professoriate goes quietly along with the dismemberment of a core curriculum. And the defense of liberal education is left to just an

Inky Wretch

© 2011 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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