George W. Bush is poised to choose Southern Methodist University in Dallas as the place for his library and museum. Lots of students and alumni are pleased, and several other schools, including Baylor and Texas A&M, wanted the library. The presidential libraries can teach something about presidential policies and politics the students might not otherwise learn. This is what the academic discipline of a liberal education is supposed to be about.
Presidential libraries are something else, too -- shrines to burnish the memory and legacy of presidents. Except for the Nixon library, they're administered by the National Archives at taxpayer expense. They're a rich source of information that is otherwise hidden amid the politics, something you might expect every professor to dream of. But not at SMU. In an astonishing admission of ignorance of how the world works, even the world on a cloistered campus, 150 of the university's 600 professors say they're afraid academic freedom and political independence would be compromised by the arrival of new information. One professor frets that the public might confuse the Bush Museum with the university. (Only if they can't read.)
Professors, at least in theory, are dedicated to opening the minds of students, to teach the intellectual discipline and rigor that enables the young scholar to make discriminating judgments. Access to information, even information about how a president made the momentous decisions over his eight years in office, is crucial to education. This, alas, is a naive view on many campuses, where learning is dumbed down to make it fit the professor's own cramped understanding of politics.
This controversy is focused now on SMU, a private church school catering to upscale Texas families (and once a mighty college football power), but it goes to the heart of what's wrong on many other campuses, where the focus is less on education for citizenship than on force-feeding pre-digested and distilled ideology posing as learning. Universities differ in the ways they suffer this post-modern malady, but many -- and maybe most of the most prestigious schools -- have moved a long way from John Stuart Mill's idea that a liberal education should be concerned with civic education.
"The proper business of a university," Mill wrote, "is to give us information and training, and help us to form our own belief in a manner worthy of intelligent beings, who seek for truth at all hazards, and demand to know all the difficulties, in order that they may be better qualified to find, or recognize the most satisfactory mode of resolving them."