Thursday, December 4, 2008

Article on the State of Higher Education

Pretty much I find anything by Victor Davis Hanson worth reading.

Hanson is an interesting character. He was born into a Central California farming family shortly after World War Two, and was named after a relative who was killed in the Pacific campaign of that war. He grew up as a farmer, then went to college (U.C. Santa Cruz, if I remember) in the early seventies. Somewhere along the way he became interested in the societies of ancient Greece and Rome, and the way they fought wars, so he became a classicist, military historian, and professor of Greek and Latin.

And his insights as a farmer from a military family were somewhat unique within the academy; after all, when everyone else read about an ancient army cutting down all the olive orchards of their defeated foes, everyone else thought of this as just random, wanton destruction; but only Hanson really knew how much work it really took to cut down a mature olive tree. Cutting down an olive orchard may be destruction, but it is neither random nor wanton.

He's written about a range of topics--everything from culture and history, to Mexican immigration (which, being a California Central Valley farmer, he has much personal knowledge of), to the Peloponnesian war. And today I ran across an article of his about the state of higher education in this country.

I found it very thought-provoking. Check it out.

In a nutshell, he gives a description of the older view of what a university was expected to do: it was to give a holistic core curriculum that covered the whole of the Western Canon--philosophy, literature, art, music, history, theology, and so forth. By becoming exposed to this Canon, scholars would become acquainted with the problems of history and how they were solved, and would become acquainted with the ways of thought that were employed throughout history. They would learn both a comprehensive body of knowledge and the critical thinking skills necessary to understand and add to it. By the time the scholar graduated, he would be well equipped for informed citizenship, personal leadership, and further personal study--possessing strong written and oratorical skills and a keen and well-prepared mind.

He explains how this view of the purpose of the university has been fading. "General Education" courses are now selected not as part of a strong core curriculum, but as a "one from column A, two from column B" hodgepodge selected to fulfill graduation requirements. As he puts it,
As classical education declined and new approaches arose to replace it, the university core curriculum turned into a restaurant menu that gave 18-year-olds dozens of classes to choose from, the easiest and most therapeutic usually garnering the heaviest attendance. The result, as many critics have noted, is that most of today’s students have no shared notion of education...
The schools are increasingly becoming vocational institutions, where people go to learn Engineering, or Business, or Nursing, or Journalism, etc. The idea of tying everything in to the grand sweep of human history, or to Western Civilization, is mostly abandoned by this point.

Furthermore, he argues that the traditional standards of academic free inquiry have been turned upside down. Instead of presenting the great ideas of the past in their own light, and allowing the scholars to come to their own conclusions, so often anymore the teachers will begin with a doctrine (whether Marxism, or postcolonialism, or feminism), and teach all the earlier material through that lens. (In what ways did sexism and class-ism affect the philosophies of Plato? Of Kant? Of Nietzche?) The old philosophers are not allowed to speak in their own voices; the new education attempts to analzye them and deconstruct them instead of listening to the actual points they were trying to make.

He argues that these changes, ironically, don't so much make the schools more relevant, as they make them obsolescent. After all, if you're just trying to go for classes in your major study area, if you're not going to use your degree for anything except as a professional certification, if you don't care about going for the full, interdisciplinary sweep of Western Civ, then the University itself becomes unnecessary. You can get your professional training online, or at any number of vocational schools that specialize in teaching the specific subject you're trying to learn; and these institutions can do it more quickly, more cheaply, and without all the politics of the college campus.

And it leaves a hunger among the would-be scholars. What if your teachers have only looked at the Founding Fathers from a Marxist or race-history perspective? What if the scholar is left wondering, "Yeah, but what did they actually do?" The student is left on his own to find it out, on his own time and by his own efforts. Hanson points out that this may already be happening: there are some good historians out there who have sold millions of copies of well-written biographies and histories to a public hungry to learn this stuff, which they never got in school. He mentions David McCullough, whose excellent bio of John Adams graces our bookshelf. (He could also have mentioned David Hackett Fischer--pretty much anything by him is good.) Hanson also mentions the lectures available on audio and DVD by The Teaching Company, three of which we own--and which are also very good.

In all, he paints a curious picture--one in which there's a hunger in the general populace for the things a University used to provide, which is increasingly rare; and simultaneously one in which the Universities themselves are rejecting this demand, and are slowly turning themselves into politicized vocational schools that are in danger of losing in the marketplace to real vocational schools and other adult training institutions. He concludes:
Once academia lost the agreed-upon, universally held notion of what classical learning was and why it was important, a steady unraveling process removed not just the mission but the mystery—and indeed, the beauty—from the American university. How ironic that the struggling university, in its efforts to meet changing political, technological, and cultural tastes and fads, willingly forfeited the only commodity that made it irreplaceable and that it alone could do well. And how sad, since once the university broke apart the liberal arts, all the religious schools, self-help courses, and CDs couldn’t quite put them together again.
In all, an interesting and thought-provoking article. And I think that at some point there's likely to be a backlash in the general population against the university system. Hanson claims that
While the public may not fully appreciate the role that classical education once played, it nonetheless understands that university graduates know ever less, even as the cost of their education rises ever more.
With a college degree currently being absolutely necessary to get into many professional jobs, and the current costs of higher education spiraling out of control, and a growing sense in the population that just because someone graduated from a University, it doesn't mean they're well educated, eventually something is going to break.

I, for one, am curious to see what that "break" looks like. I actually suspect it will be good for society, but I'm a hopeless optimist that way.


alina said...

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Cris said...

I have enjoyed your posts on homeschooling (found you thru a related link) and wanted to say thanks for sharing this article and for introducing me to the writing of Mr. Hanson. Read you again soon.