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The Hollow Core

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It's all over but the post-mortems as the politicos and pundits do their endless thing after every election, analyzing and re-analyzing the entrails to explain the results and predict the future.

Who won, who lost? What does it all mean? Each party will try to put the best face it can on confused things. The real winner, as always, will be hubris. Much the same triumphant declarations that were made after the Millennium arrived two years ago with the presidential election may now be made by the opposite but equally over-excited party. The more things change ... the more they must be rehashed.

All that's really happened, as it regularly does in midterm elections, is that the political pendulum has swung back once again in an attempt to keep the ship of state from listing too far to one side.

Despite all the hoopla as the returns poured in, a far more important, and formative, election was held here in Arkansas weeks ago -- part of a disturbing national trend. It took place on Thursday, October 14, on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Last week's midterms may determine the country's course for the next a couple of years, but this vote could shape a couple of generations.

Because in this referendum, the faculty of the university's college of arts and sciences decided to hollow out its curriculum. By a 2-to-1 vote -- 75 to 37 -- the faculty agreed with the administration to cut the core requirements for undergraduate students from 66 credit hours to only 35, or just about in half.

Why? To assure that the university will grant more degrees. Never mind whether the degree will be worth as much in the future; what counts is the degree itself, the paper credential, the sheer number of college graduates in the state, not how well they're educated. A degree is a degree, right? Who'll know the difference?

What matters isn't the quality of the education a student may receive, but the number of diplomas granted. Because the more degrees per capita, the more economic development. The statistics and graphs and pie charts and PowerPoints all say so. The more degrees, the higher per capita income. Correlation is causation!

So let's churn out more degrees and the state will prosper. This theory is also known as ignorance is bliss. There are few things more frightening, as Goethe noted, than ignorance in action. Unless it is assuring that future generations will be more ignorant still.

The news story that reported the faculty's vote noted that the university's core curriculum "is known for being thorough and extensive." Make that was known. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni may have put the University of Arkansas on its A list when it came to course requirements, along with schools like Baylor, the University of Texas and the City University of New York.

To the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fayetteville, William Schwab, the old curriculum was "bloated." And had to be cut down to size.

So now, for example, physics and biology majors may not need to have a foreign language. Why, sure. Why should students in the sciences need a foreign language any more than students in the humanities -- literature, say, or history -- need to know anything about biology?

Under the new regime, each department can designate its own required courses. The common core of courses that all students of the arts and sciences at the university once shared will be split up and dealt out among the different departments, like the spoils of war.

Jose Ortega y Gasset saw all this coming long ago -- in "The Revolt of the Masses" (1930) -- when he called it "the barbarism of specialization." The phenomenon will be well known to anyone who was ever buttonholed by some specialist so well trained in his own field that he considers his ideas about all other subjects authoritative. For example, the financier who knows how the country should be run, the politician who considers himself an intellectual, the doctor who knows everything about everything. ... The barbarian as specialist is a familiar enough type. They're everywhere.

To quote Ortega, whose words from the last century still resound so powerfully in ours, if only anyone were listening:

"The specialist 'knows' very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest. ... For previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought under either of those two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter his specialty; but neither is he ignorant because he is a 'scientist,' and 'knows' very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line. And such in fact is the behavior of the specialist. In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitudes of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully a nd with self-sufficiency...."

No one is more of a specialist today than the educantist who is bent on reducing the widest spheres of knowledge to his own narrow limits and obscure vocabulary. The barbarians of specialization are no longer at the gates; they're in the citadel. They're even in charge of administering it. And their will must not be defied. To quote the dean's statement after the faculty vote: "It's behind us now. We can move forward in creating a new core." No doubt a specialized one.

Yet there were members of the faculty who stood fast in defense of the old requirements. The university's mathematics department passed a resolution against this mutilation of the university's core requirements. And then there were the valiant Thirty-Seven who voted against it at this meeting of the faculty. One thinks of Cavafy's poem:

Honor to those who in their lives are committed and guard their Thermopylae. Never stirring from duty; just and upright in all their deeds, but with pity and compassion, too . . . always speaking the truth, but without rancor for those who lie. And they merit greater honor when they foresee (as many do foresee) that Ephialtes will finally appear, and in the end the Medes will go through.

Despite those who defended their academic honor to the end, the barbarians have broken through once more, as they have again and again at universities across the country that have chosen to engage not in education but deconstruction, and for whom the old standards with their height and breadth are but outdated impediments.

For these bureaucrats, the task of the new, improved university is to issue more and more degrees, and so produce more and more ranks of learned ignoramuses, certified specialists in their own tiny, cramped, isolated, thought-proof compartments, certain that they know best. If you seek them, just look in the administrative offices.

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