Whither Hutchins?

Columbia man John Coumarianos raises questions about the state of liberal education in the U.S.

Since Robert Maynard Hutchins was president of the University of Chicago, no major American university, with the possible exception of Boston University under the rule of John Silber, has had a president who has had an inkling of what liberal education is all about. This is staggering to contemplate, but it is the awful truth.

Strong words. It’s been a [cough] while since my own experience at the U of C, so I don’t know how Chicago stacks up today. John’s thoughts are worth reading.

6 thoughts on “Whither Hutchins?”

  1. Jonathan, I dont want to alarm you, but I just left Brent books on Michigan Avenue, and I saw a gaggle of U of C profs buying “Living History”

  2. As a college student, an Arts and Science major in fact, I’ve had my fair share of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and Nietzsche. (In fact I could go the rest of my life not having to read another word or Aristotle and his influence on the Church…) In history we read Machiavelli’s opinions and view on artillery and fortifications. In high school we touched on Marx and Freud (I know teaching 17 year olds Freud can be dangerous). It’s not much, but it’s something.

    I understand the authors point and I agree with it in fact, but honestly most kids I know understand the names he listed, at least enough to grasp the concepts on each individuals ideas. Reading them is no longer required to graduate, but there are still tons of kids out there who are studying philosophy. If anyone or one group gets over looked in my experience it’s Sartre, Kirkegaard, and their existential friends.

    Of course, I think there are much bigger problems in universities across American. When you can go a whole year in American Lit and not read word of Algren, Wright, or anything after “Slaughterhouse Five” besides some August Wilson play… well then what’s the point?

  3. Now, this is refreshing, I have a comment to type to Bobby, and it’s NOT argumentative. Agree with you about what’s lacking in Lit., however, you attended a high school which is head and shoulders above the median level of American high schools. The foundation that was laid there did much to “get your mind right” as it were, for your studies in college. I too attended a private, parochial high school in Chicago, however if I had not pursued them on my own, I would never had read ANY Classics. Pretty pathetic.

  4. There are two related phenomina that say that liberal arts education in America is dying.

    First is the decline in male college enrollment. Small liberal arts universities are down to 30-35% male enrollment.

    Even in the large public universities and large private institutions you are seeing male enrollment tube.

    College and university level liberal arts are flat out failing the tuition market test.

    A friend of mine who is putting three kids through college speculates that two reasons are responsible.

    First, liberal arts departments are generally hostile to males in general and white males in particular. Male students don’ file suit against feminist professors. They simply vote with their feet and don’t attend classes those people run.

    Second, the market value of a liberal arts education has collapsed because most liberal arts colleges no longer teach the classics and the writing skill advantage once held by liberal arts majors no longer exists.

    At one time being an english major was a major advantage for the legal profession because clear and rapid written communications skills are at a premium. Now communications and journalism courses serve that purpose.

    My friend speculates that the academic loonie left’s allergy to anything reality based — and the classics are firmly ground in human nature and not theory — is responsible for this collapse.

  5. Personally I think the decline in liberal arts at the university level is directly related to the fact that there just isn’t enough money and jobs out there for liberal arts majors once they graduate. I’ve been told this since high school, and I think it’s for this reason alone, the lack and uncertainty in future wealth that keeps the kids away from English, history, theology, philosophy and turns them into economic, marketing, and business majors.

  6. I am grateful for the education that was drummed into my head in high school. My parents sent me to a large, fundy-Christian high school, mostly because I was a discipline case, and it was one of the top two college prep high schools in the region. In history / social studies, I had to read a smattering of the classics, some Locke and a little Burke, French enlightenment thinkers, some Bastiat and De Tocqueville. In English, one year was given over to classic English lit, one to world lit, one to modern (1800 – present) English lit, and one to American lit. I took three years of Spanish, and in the daily religion class — which was non-denominational, of the type you might have experienced years ago in a good British “public” school, the studies involved the Bible, Plato (big for protestant philosophers), St. Augustine, post-Reformation Prot thinkers (Calvin, Zwingli), and more modern thinkers, such as C.S. Lewis. Oddly enough, I also studied a lot of high quality “devotional” poetry as they classed it – Milton and Blake, for instance. This was a pretty good high school education, I think. I don’t believe any of my liberal friends would believe that a fundamentalist Christian school would come up with such a curriculum, but there you go… This is why I cringe whenever I hear people slamming christian conservatives as narrow minded, ignorant morons…

    I also have recent (95 – 97) experience as an undergrad. When I finished an 8 year stint in the Army, I returned to undergrad at one of the oft-abused State University of NY schools. It always struck me that my peers were wasting their opportunities there. The reading assignments, if you did them, were broad ranging. All my instructors were bright, full professors, mostly with Ivy or prestigious state university doctorates. Yeah, they were lefties, but only three or four classes really involved critical theory. As an English major, with a minor in medieval and renaissance studies, I read pretty much constantly for two and a half years. (I had picked up some college credits while in the military). I worked hard and tried to wring everything I could out of my history and lit classes, and it worked. I got high grades, felt fully occupied and believed I learned a lot when I finished up. Many of my classmates, however, did little and got by with low C averages. I don’t think they learned a damn thing. Over the course of my time there, I found that the instructors were thrilled to mentor me, and direct my research and reading interests. They really appreciated having engaged students, and they sort of doted on the dozen or so folks in my major and class year (out of maybe 150 of us) who really wanted to learn. We got a lot of guidance, and got pushed pretty hard. Not bad for a decent, but not great, state school. After that I went to a good law school, where I discovered that I really got a lot out of my high school and college education. A lot of my colleagues racked up some good grades, but didn’t seem to learn or internalize anything. (Which may be a good thing, if they went to a place like Oberlin…)

    I would submit to you that the way my parents raised me, and the way I was taught in high school, was far more important than the books that were drummed into me in college. I was (and still am) curious and thirsty to learn new things; I’m reading Russell Kirk right now and preparing to blog a chapter or two every week — in the hopes somebody will want to discuss. (Shameless, eh?)

    At college, there was this huge library full of books that I would often browse when I finished my class and research work, and had some free time. If I had an hour or two, I would read 50 or 100 pages from damn near any book I picked up, just to see what was going on… this had little to do with my college instructors or my curriculum.

    My point (at last!, right?) is that the books are there, liberal arts instructors are still willing to teach. The only difference is, excellence is something the student has to come prepared to strive for. It’s not expected or encouraged by the educational system, and it’s generally not socially acceptible to be seen “trying too hard” by one’s peers. I believe this comes partly from grade inflation, which is caused directly by the expectation that everybody in the whole country is capable college material, and deserving of a B.A. It also comes partly from the cultural rot in the universities… but then most professors are like most people, and not very interested in politics. They will teach ideological claptrap if that’s what the department head wants, and that’s what the students will suck up. A student with a more traditional inclination can still get a great education. (Though I’d avoid making political commentary, because the politically oriented wankers do seem to gravitate to gate-keeper positions on tenure committees, grad school admissions committees, and so forth).

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