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Something is Missing

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Walker Percy called it a Repetition, a re-enactment of a past event in the same setting so it can be savored for its own sake, without all that has transpired in the intervening years getting in the way. All those things that, as he put it, clog time like peanuts in peanut brittle.

The hero -- well, the protagonist -- of his novel "The Moviegoer" would go back to see the same movie from time to time. The movie was the same; he wasn't. Seeing it again gave him a gauge by which to judge how much he'd changed since he first saw it.

Every year I have my own Repetition. I go back to talk to the kids at Governor's School at Hendrix College here in Arkansas, a summer program for promising high-school seniors. Outwardly, little has changed. The campus auditorium is much the same. So is the hot, sticky Arkansas summer. And I am on the same stage delivering some of the same opening lines.

But something is different. There's something missing. A feeling. A feeling I grew up with. A sense, an assumption almost, that our generation would do better than the one before us. Not just in material terms, though that was certainly part of it, but the confidence that we would be freer, stronger, have more choices, or just make more choices for ourselves, than our parents did, or could.

But as I read the papers, and scroll through the blogs, and talk to young people, that old feeling is missing. They seem so ... careful. So inclined to play it safe. Rather than follow their heart's desire. Some want to know what college major will assure them a steady job after graduation.

Maybe these things go in cycles. National moods ebb and flow. For the moment, the old confidence seems to have been misplaced, or rather replaced by a vague miasma, a feeling that America isn't what it was. And worse, may never have been. For we all tend to project the present into the past as well as the future.

Binx Bolling, the moviegoer in Walker Percy's novel, called it The Malaise. It seems to hang heavy this summer of 2011. You can sense it here at Governor's School. The feeling that America isn't exceptional at all, but a nation like all other nations, with a rise and fall, not one ever renewing itself. And now we're in decline, much like the ancient Romans.

For the past year, I've had a fine old time getting into it with various educators of the more credentialed kind over whether the classic liberal-arts curriculum at our great universities should be preserved intact. Or if it isn't time to Get Real, to scatter all those useless, abstract courses like philosophy and history and literature and languages throughout the curriculum rather than retain them as part of a core. Why require them of all students? This is the age of specialization. Let's get practical.

The purpose of education, it's now said, is to turn out productive citizens, not idlers and dreamers. Where do you see Poetry listed among the goods and services tallied in the GDP? Poets can be dangerous. They might even be -- and this is the gravest of sins in our times -- unhappy. Unentertained. They might not even watch television. Or live vicariously through professional sports. Can't have that. It might get people to thinking.

Whenever I defend the liberal arts, I can expect to be told how outdated a liberal education is, that I'm living in the past. And indeed I am. For what is each of us in this present but the total of our past experiences? And whatever we make of them now.

Every time I write about the importance of preserving a liberal-arts curriculum at our colleges and universities, I'm sure to hear from administrators who are very proud of their efforts to dilute that same, traditional liberal-arts curriculum. They're making education practical, useful. In a word, Relevant. And, as an Extra Added Bonus, raising graduation rates at the same time! How? By downplaying the importance of those old courses once considered essential to an education -- like the classics. No modern, upward-bound young American would be interested in such antique disciplines anyway.

I tell the kids that the best definition of the aims of a liberal education I know was offered by a humanist named Pietro Vergerio some six centuries ago as the dark ages were finally lifting in Europe. And the Renaissance, that great rebirth of classical values, was dawning.

"We call those studies liberal," he wrote, "which are worthy of a free man, those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom, that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and mind which ennoble men and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only, for to a vulgar temper, gain and pleasure are the one aim of existence, (but) to a lofty nature, moral worth and fame."

I don't know about fame as a worthy goal to pursue -- it sounds more like a curse to me -- but Pietro Paolo Vergerio the Elder, who was not only an advocate of the humanities but secretary to two popes in the course of his mortal arc, had a point about the end of education being moral worth. An education that does not fit us to be free, that does not aim to inculcate the virtues, will be less an education than fit training for servitude.

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