The first hint of autumn, a sudden cool night making a sweater feel right and a bright day without the stifling humidity of summer, fills us with the remembrance of the ambivalent emotions about "back to school." We remember the pleasure of seeing old friends, but we remember as well the hard chairs that overnight replaced the sensuous luxury of beach towels on sand. We wax nostalgic about the delight in discovering new ideas in books, but few of us miss the adolescent pressures of high school.
This "semester" we're getting a white-hot debate over how to prepare the rising generation for life in the 21st century. It's about time.
No public-school program generates more controversy than the "No Child Left Behind" legislation of 2001, or as one cynic describes it, "No Child Left Alone." The motives behind the legislation were mostly good -- to get all children proficient in reading and math -- but teachers have often been required to "teach to the test," and critical thinking is limited to figuring out how to answer questions so that test scores are high enough that school districts don't lose federal money. The goals perpetuate the notion that children and teachers are like Xeroxed copies of each other.
An emphasis on reading and math, however laudable, has had the unintended consequence of converting the humanities into a second-class muse. This pervades higher education, too. On many college campuses, there's a solemn dirge sung softly over the decline of the humanities as multiculturalism and political correctness continue to poison the wellsprings of critical thinking.
But finally other voices in other rooms are rising above stale thinking, examining what we've lost since the great books were reduced to relevant and trendy treatises. Allan Bloom, who wrote a bestseller in 1988 called "The Closing of the American Mind," railed against the dumbing down of the university, of how the idioms of rock and rap had infiltrated the Academy and diluted an appreciation for great writing. He won the argument, but lost the war. Identity politics trumped all. But the traditionalists who were routed haven't been idle, and reinforcements are cantering, if not yet galloping, to the rescue. There's a revival of the idea of free inquiry, an alien doctrine little understood and fiercely resented in many faculty lounges.