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January 2, 2009

Out With the Old

The old guy with a scythe steps aside for the new babe in a diaper, and our usual reflection for this time of year is one of unusual anticipation of what the babe and the new president will bring us. Hopes are particularly high this year, despite the hard and immutable fact that some of the mistakes brought to us by the old guy with the scythe are bound to be transferred to a new generation.

“Youth is wasted on the young,” George Bernard Shaw famously observed, and an old fogie’s knowledge gained through experience is usually wasted, too. An African proverb gets it just about right: “When an old man dies, a library burns.” But education and experience is there for the new generation if it only looks, an intellectual and emotional foundation for collective experience. The victors get to write history, but it’s up to the rest of us to be critical and creative in interpreting that history.

We’re counting on the new president to save jobs, salvage homes, extend health care, win wars in two places, receive immigrants who seek a better life and repel those who want to do us harm. And that’s just before lunch. We organize ideas through the political parties and can only hope that the leaders put in positions of power act on reflections forged by educated minds.

Many roads lead to Washington, but we can be sure of detours along the way – and none of us can be sure of what lies at the end of the road we take. Robert Frost said it well in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” Some will veer left, others right and still others the straight and narrow path in perilous times. But whatever road we choose to follow, we ought to be able to unite behind the importance of what our children learn. We want the next generation to be prepared with knowledge based on “the best that’s been thought and said in the world,” in Matthew Arnold’s famous formulation. Sadly, such education is being lost.

Most college graduates today have studied only a smattering of great books, and those often taught with ideological bias. This failure filters down to the youngest among us, narrowing opportunities for an expansive education because their teachers are trained by academics that show disdain for our cultural past.

In a provocative book titled “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life,” Anthony Kronman, once dean of Yale Law School and now a professor of the humanities there, blames two intellectual viruses that have infected teaching at the highest levels: an emphasis on arcane research that is unreadable even by professors trained to write the unreadable and political correctness.

By focusing on ideological distinctions, students are deprived of the great works that explore patterns common to humanity that transcend politics. Not everyone agrees on all the titles suggested by “great books,” nor should any list be carved in stone, but surely we can agree on the classics that should be required reading.

The National Great Books Curriculum Academic Community in Chicago (www.nationalgreatbooks.com), funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, helps professors and colleges set up and teach classes in great books for minority and nontraditional students, and at practically no cost.

According to Bruce Gans, who founded the program and teaches at Wilbur Wright Community College in Chicago, it offers students who are victims of a poor education “the chance to be enlightened and deepened by the central ideas that shaped our civilization through a rich and challenging liberal education.”

The courses not only provide opportunities to increase “cultural literacy,” but the students “gain analytical skills, acquire the ability to read complex texts.” They gain the self-respect that accompanies accomplishment. Great reading encourages great writing.

At his inauguration, Barack Obama will take the oath of his presidency on the Bible where Abraham Lincoln placed his hand to swear to uphold and defend the Constitution. Lincoln’s father was illiterate, but the boy persevered by candlelight, reading great books, sensing something special in words and how they are ordered. “He became what his language made him,” writes Fred Kaplan in “Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer.” “No TVs, DVDs, computers, movie screens, radios or electricity, and no sound-bites.”

Not even our wondrous electronics enable us to turn back the clock, but we can organize a core curriculum for the next generation, a curriculum that offers alternative “wisdom” to the mouse clicks of information that often merely entertains. We might all resolve in the New Year to think about how to help the new president accomplish that.


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