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Who Killed Scholarship?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

I love a mystery, don't you? Doesn't everybody? Carolyn Greenberg, student of Latin and devotee of murder mysteries, certainly did. My late wife left shelves of detective stories, mainly English, on the downstairs bookshelves, lined up like Beefeaters at the Tower of London.

Among her favorites were the quartet of donnish novels by the (alas) late Sarah Caudwell, the British barrister who was called to the chancery bar before going over to Lloyds Bank -- to do tax planning, naturally. For the rise of the Inland Revenue has mirrored the decline of no longer Great Britain. There's an inverse ratio between taxation and greatness; it's a pattern amply illustrated by the history of every empire at least since Rome's.

Ms. Caudwell began the first of her Hilary Tamar quartet of detective novels, "Thus Was Adonis Murdered," with a few words about the fate of the scholar at the modern university. She knew something about the subject, having done her undergraduate work in classics at Aberdeen and read law at St. Anne's College at Oxford. The law, they say, narrows the mind by sharpening it. Counselor Caudwell seems to have been the exception to that rule, to judge by the opening lines of her book:

"Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but Truth. It is not for the sake of material reward that she (Scholarship) pursues her (Truth) through the undergrowth of Ignorance, shining on Obscurity the bright torch of Reason and clearing aside the tangled thorns of Error with the keen secateurs of Intellect. Nor is it for the sake of public glory and the applause of the multitude: the scholar is indifferent to vulgar acclaim. Nor is it even in the hope that those few intimate friends who have observed at first hand the labor of the chase will mark with a word or two of discerning congratulation its eventual achievement. Which is very fortunate, because they don't."

These days the scholar gets even shorter shrift at prestigious universities across the country -- as opposed to the academic climber who winds up either in administration or warming an endowed chair to no clear purpose.

Rush Limbaugh

The latest institution of higher learning seeking to lower it is the University of Arkansas, which is out to attract more students to its campus at Fayetteville in the beautiful northwestern corner of the state. And what better way than to whittle way at the core of the core curriculum it once offered -- indeed, demanded -- of those who studied there? Never mind how much or just what those students may learn; the important thing is the number of students handed a diploma, whether they can read it or not. Gosh, are university diplomas still in Latin? It scarcely matters; English may be equally indecipherable to some of today's graduates.

Scholarship is scarcely the highest priority of this state's public universities. That minor detail comes pretty far down -- if it makes the list at all. A list usually headed by football, the established religion in these parts no matter what the First Amendment says, and followed at a respectful distance by the kind of coveted research grants that have some industrial or commercial application. Or just promise a lifetime stipend.

These days the biggest concern at this state's four-year universities is their low graduation rates. It seems many are called to these schools, but only 38 percent are chosen to graduate within six years. That statistic -- statistics are very big in higher ed -- made the front page of the paper a few weeks back: "Arkansas' university graduation rate 38 percent." The graduation rate at two-year community colleges is even lower -- 17 percent.

But some of us are less concerned about the number of graduates from Arkansas' colleges and universities than whether they're learning much while they're there. I live for the day when the front-page headlines are about how little a college degree means in these grade-inflated days -- rather than about how many are being handed out.

Citizens are supposed to be shocked, alarmed and moved to action by the low number of entering freshmen who manage to become graduating seniors in this state. But what else would you expect when you consider how poorly the kids are being prepared for college?

Last time I checked, more than half the graduates of the state's high schools (54.6 percent last year) needed to take remedial courses in math, English or reading to learn what they should have learned in high school.

The reaction of the state's educators has been pretty much what you'd expect: Churn out more graduates by lowering standards even further. (I say educators because scholars seem to have been largely replaced by educators, just as learning has been replaced by expertise, teachers by facilitators, and education by educanto.) For sad example, the chancellor of the university's Fayetteville campus -- G. David Gearhart -- has announced that its Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences is going to be requiring a lot less art and science.

The university's core curriculum is to be reduced from the current 66 to 35 credit hours. "What we're trying to do in the state," explains the chancellor, "is get more students with baccalaureate degrees. Anything we can do to make it seamless and make it an easier transfer (from smaller colleges) to the university is good." And he may mean anything.

To quote Jim Purcell, who directs the state's Department of Higher Education: "We're in a state where we're really trying to increase our graduates." It's the number of graduates that count, you see, not whether they're being educated. Franz Kafka would understand.

Arkansas' new Act 182, which was supposed to establish some statewide standards for student transfers, is being used to rationalize this dilution of the university's standards. Sue Madison, a state senator from Fayetteville who voted for the act, sounded surprised: "It never entered (our) minds to dumb down the curriculum." But that's just what happens when graduating students becomes more important than educating them.

After all, why should a scientist know something of Shakespeare, or a student of foreign languages take geometry? Why study a foreign tongue at all when everybody in the world now speaks English, or should? Why should a degree of familiarity with the King James Bible be expected of any but pre-ministerial students? Or a course in genetics be of any interest to students in the humanities? Such notions are so ... classical.

A broad liberal education is the antithesis of a technical, specialized education, which is what results when each department of the university decides for itself what general education courses it will require for its specialty.

Education, like modern society itself, is now to be broken down into specializations. What are Athens and Jerusalem to us, or to anyone not majoring in history or religion? For this is the oh-so-advanced 21st century, not somewhere back in benighted B.C. Or even back in the 19th century with the Victorians. Why, we know so much more now than they did then! Forget that it is precisely they -- their thought, their experience, their discoveries, their poetry and wisdom -- that we know, or should.

But now we know that the important thing is to make a good living, not how to lead the good life. Economic development is what counts, right? Even at the cost of any other kind. No wonder the highest desideratum in a thoroughly modern university president is not that he be a great scholar but a great fundraiser.

Why should not all students, whether in physics or phys ed, be required to have much the same core curriculum, or liberal education? They're all going to be citizens and voters, aren't they? Lest we forget, the term liberal education derives from the concept of an education suitable for the free -- those who enjoy liberty. Rather than being enslaved by their own ignorance.

If there is any consolation in having lost a Sarah Caudwell, scholar and barrister, writer and logician, it is this: If she lamented the low estate in which scholarship was held in her time, at least she didn't live to see what we're doing to education now. Its corpus can usually be found sprawled on the floor of a university administrative office, and it's no mystery whodunit. The culprits may be found at the top levels of every once great American university.

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