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.
As the costs and casualties in the culture wars are being calculated, common sense is coming out of a coma. "However polarizing Bloom may have been, many of the issues he raised still resonate -- especially in the humanities on campus and in the culture," writes Rachel Donadio in The New York Times. The subtitle of Bloom's book still gives a jolt: "How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students."
Anthony Kronman, a law professor at Yale, shows how colleges, in abandoning the profound questions that have perplexed philosophers and writers throughout human history, have betrayed their students, depriving them of disciplined rumination before they're caught up in the urgent business of adult life. In "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life," he writes that in emphasizing the secular, professors offer no recognition of the spirit and spiritual values.
It's impossible to read King Lear or Hamlet without questioning the deepest human values. Because John Milton is a dead white man, the erudition of his poetry is discounted (or ignored). The political and religious issues he raises in "Paradise Lost" would animate any discussion of democracy, terrorism and war, but raising questions is not the aim of much that passes for higher education. Milton's debate of the devils over how to perpetuate the war against God, "which if not Victory is yet Revenge," has much to tell us about our own times.
Students arrive on campus yearning to think big thoughts and often get political polemics from little professors with small minds. Tenure depends on publishing articles in arcane critical language in scholarly journals nobody reads. Many teachers are unable and unwilling to teach outside their constricted disciplines.
When I taught English literature to college sophomores in the '60s, attitudes were quite different. We studied the grand sweep of history from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," with all of its human diversity in the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, to T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," with its instructive aridity and spiritual emptiness. Such surveys fell out of fashion, more's the pity. It was a wonderful way to spark curiosity, enabling students to choose whether to probe deeper. Many did. The Bard, dead white man though he was, would understand: Let us not to the education of true minds admit impediments.