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When he joined us for the Ricochet podcast last week, John Walker got me thinking. (To judge from the comments, he got a lot of us thinking.) One of John’s points: That as knowledge expands, each of us can know only a smaller and smaller portion of the whole. Computers, for example, used to be simple enough to enable John and a couple of his buddies to design them from scratch, then sell them. Today that would be impossible. Computers now rely on too many layers of software. John could still design a computer from scratch, of course, but it would seem so primitive, so much like a crude toy, that it would have no commercial value.
This brought to mind Jeffrey Hart, the professor who had a profound influence on me when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth—and the professor who in turn had influenced him. Consider this passage from Professor Hart’s magnificent volume, Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe:
In 1947 and 1948, when an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I studied with a professor of philosophy named Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a refugee from the Nazis. During World War I, as a soldier in the German army, he had fought at Verdun. On one occasion, during a lull in the bombardment, he wandered out into the pitted and scarred no-man’s-land. Suddenly the artillery on both sides began firing again and he took refuge in a crater….”I was a naked worm,” he told the students in the classroom. In 1933, he experienced another extreme negation in the form of the Nazi revolution…In consequence, he had thought long and deeply about education…He had two phrases he repeated so often they remained in a student’s mind.
He would say, “History must be told.” He explained various ways that history is to a civilization what personal memory is to an individual: an essential part of identity and a source of meaning.
He also said that the goal of education is the citizen. He defined the citizen in a radical and original way arising out of his own twentieth-century experience. He said that a citizen is a person who, if need be, can re-create his civilization.
No one could ever have held the whole of human knowledge in his mind—not, at least, for several thousand years. The Romans may not have known anything about electricity or the internal combustion engine, but no one man could have held in his mind all that they knew about engineering or the whole of Roman law. But could certain ancients have held in their minds the essentials of their civilizations? The intellectual kernels from which their civilizations could have been rebuilt? I think so. Moses could have re-founded ancient Israel. Pericles could have recreated Athens and Julius Caesar could have re-established Rome. Moving much closer to the present, I’d be tempted to argue that Jefferson or Adams could have recreated much of what was known and valued in the early United States.
Could anyone pull it off today? Who? To recreate the United States—the contemporary United States—what would he have to know? To put the question more realistically, what should young people learn to make them true citizens of this country—not citizens of the world, the ridiculous phrase so in vogue on campuses today, but citizens, again, of this country?