Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
“In looking at [a teen-ager leaving home for the first time] we are forced to reflect on what he should learn if he is to be called educated; we must speculate on what the human potential to be fulfilled is. In the specialties we can avoid such speculation, and the avoidance of them is one of specialization’s charms. But here it is a simple duty. What are we to teach this person? The answer may not be evident, but to attempt to answer the question is already to philosophize and to begin to educate….
“The University has to stand for something. The practical effects of unwillingness to think positively about the contents of a liberal education are, on the one hand, to ensure that all the vulgarities of the world outside the university will flourish within it, and, on the other, to impose a much harsher and more illiberal necessity on the student– the one given by the imperial and imperious demands of the specialized disciplines unfiltered by unifying thought….
“The Cornell plan for dealing with the problem of liberal education was to suppress the students’ longing for liberal education by encouraging their professionalism and their avarice, providing money and all the prestige that the university had available to make careerism the centerpiece of the university….
“It is becoming all too evident that liberal education–which is what the small band of prestigious institutions are supposed to provide, in contrast to the big state schools, which are thought simply to prepare specialists to meet the practical demands of a complex society–has no content, that a certain kind of fraud is being perpetrated.”
I have planned for weeks to quote some passage from Bloom’s phenomenal book, without having decided on which part of the book to focus. Now that universities across the US are shutting down for the foreseeable future or the entire spring semester, I think it’s worth asking what students will lose by taking their courses online. Just the other day Elon Musk was quoted for noting that “you don’t need college to learn stuff.” The online availability of knowledge is free in many cases or can be accessed for relatively little expense compared to a college degree. So what is the purpose of college and what does it mean to be educated? Can universities deliver the kind of education that happens on campus and in classrooms through online learning at a distance? It seems that there must be an undeniable benefit from living among other students and interacting personally with professors because families and students are still spending exorbitant prices for spots at top colleges and universities.
More importantly, are universities actually delivering a worthy education, whatever the method? When I attended a liberal arts university, only a few years after The Closing of the American Mind was published, I was required to take certain courses in the “core” curriculum, as well as two classes in each of the major academic disciplines (Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences). I was not required to take a history course, and I had already fulfilled my language and math requirements with high school AP classes. I recall the experience of reading through the course catalog, thinking that everything sounded interesting. And yet, I did not know what was necessary. As an English major, I took many classes in esoteric areas of literature such as “Literature of Medieval Women,” “Blasphemy” and of course, “Critical Theory.” This was not my mother’s English major, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I followed up my undergraduate degree with a Master’s and later a J.D. I wouldn’t call the pursuit of professional knowledge useless, but it certainly was expensive and time-consuming.
In comparison to my mother’s education, at a big state school, I think mine falls short. With the assistance of Bloom’s insights, I understand that a major shift occurred in the late 1960s. That my parents never quite understand my criticism of my experience stems from the fact that they were fully formed, married adults by 1969. They attended college before the new theories took hold. As those theories have continued to seep into the academy, the purpose of a university education seems increasingly to be navel-gazing rather than pursuit of truth or knowledge. Many students surely take refuge in professional tracks and scientific majors, but what about those students left unmoored in the subjects of the humanities? These appear to be dividing rapidly instead of unifying around our commonalities.
Also, will coronavirus school closures have the unintended result of reducing the negative effects of university attendance, such as alcoholism, depression, micro-aggression-motivated protests, hate crime hoaxes, and the supposed campus rape epidemic? I’ll be interested to see the data when everyone goes back to campus.Published in