Thursday, January 16, 2014

Common Pursuits

D.G. Myers remarks, I believe correctly, that "In my teaching, I have learned that I cannot assume any common background knowledge, not even in English majors." This is in response to the critics of an earlier post in which he discusses the want of a common pursuit and the fragmentation of the curriculum.

Well, that has been going on for a while. In Pictures from an Institution, published 60 years ago, there is the genteel old professor who
must have had in the depths of her wistful soul a Gift or Daemon that once or twice a year awoke, whispered to her a sentence she could repeat--to the world's astonishment--and then turned back to sleep. Dr. Rosenbaum had first been aware of this Daemon when Miss Batterson retorted, to a colleague's objection that all Benton students read that in high school: "There is no book that all my students have read. Dr. Rosenbaum knew that it is in sentences like this, and not in the pages of Spengler, that one has brought home to one the twilight of the West. He gave a brotherly laugh and agreed: "Ja, dey haf de sense dey vere born vidt."
Go back about ten years more to Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America, which closes the chapter "Columbia College, Columbia University" as follows
The unrestricted right to shop among electives may look like unrestricted freedom, but it may actually be confining, as a student from the Middle West confessed when I asked what his preparation in history had been. "I was going to be a minister, so I took Pre-Theological Rural Sociology." Custom tailoring is excellent for the human form, but in collegiate teaching it can soon become  patchwork. Besides, its appearance of perfect adaptation is deceptive. There is no such thing as a separate sociology for rural ministers. The title betrays the touch of the salesman, doubtless well meant, but more congenial to the catalogue maker than the teacher.
Or back to the Harvard of President Eliot. John Jay Chapman says ("President Eliot", collected in Manners and Morals) that
Besides this matter he had his "Elective System," which I have never understood, but which seems to have been a corollary from the axiom "size first." It was imagined that a university must be a place where everything was taught, and that all sorts of departments ought to be opened at once. It was perfectly natural that America, looking at Germany, and bent upon swallowing the whole of learning at one gulp, should invent some sort of great fair, where the students were to come and take their fill, following their own election under some sort of supervision. The thing which nobody seems to have  thought of was the relation which any foreign University bears to the average literacy of the country it serves. Perhaps our pedagogues neglected this consideration with their eyes open. They conceived that a University need provide opportunities merely, and that the students would do the rest. Now in Germany, where every student is already a highly educated person, who knows what he wants and knows how to work, such a system is admirable. But in America, where the boys come up to college with broken sets of rudimentary reminiscence, and without knowing what they want or how to get it, the great need in any University is the need of good teaching.
Santayana, a couple of years younger than Chapman, begins with the architecture of Harvard Yard in discussing that period:
On the whole, it was the architecture of sturdy poverty, looking through thrift in the direction of wealth. It well matched the learning of early New England, traditionally staunch and narrow, yet also thrifty and tending to positivism, a learning destined as it widened to be undermined and to become, like the architecture, flimsy and rich. It had been founded on accurate Latin and a spellbound constant reading of the Bible; but in the Harvard of my day we had heard a little of everything, and nobody really knew his Latin or knew his Bible. You might say that the professor of Hebrew did know his Bible, and the professors of Latin their Latin. No doubt, in the sense that they could write technical articles on the little points of controversy at the moment among philologists; but neither Latin nor the Bible flowed through them and made their spiritual lives; they were not vehicles for anything great. They were grains in a quicksand, agents and patients in an anonymous moral migration that had not yet written its classics.
So what is one to do? I do not know. It seems to me that quite regularly the vivifying reform of year x becomes the stultifying, Procrustean system of year x + y. The schools that Peter Abelard enlivened gradually withered to be fair game for mockery by Erasmus and Rabelais. The curriculum that electrified the German Romantics struck Henry Adams, viewing it a couple of generations later, as utterly deadening. The educational reformer who can overcome this tendency will be long remembered.


  1. I don't know either but thank you for furthering the discussion.


  2. I bet you can find Plato complaining about how kids these days don't know nuthin'. Tradition yields to reform, which becomes tradition. Hasn't it always been like that? Perhaps what's new-ish, though, is that campus is mostly occupied by departments that neither worship tradition nor reject it, but somehow achieve consensus in keeping some parts of tradition faithfully while replacing others ruthlessly.

    The natural sciences do have common background knowledge. Everyone ends up being highly specialized, but in a pyramidal way, building up from a common base. Some of the science of three hundred years ago is now part of that common base; the rest of that old science is ignored, as having been simply wrong.

    So there exists at least one way to overcome the tendency for learning to shed its skin every few generations: learn objective facts and testable theories. Is there any other way besides this?

    I'm not sure there is. I'm not even sure there should be.

    1. You are correct in saying that the natural sciences don't have this problem, at least to the same extent as the humanities. Yet I don't think that the application of scientific methods to the humanities works well--one sees a lot of scientific jargon misapplied. And I don't think we can do without the humanities.