In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.Having the information at hand is useful. Knowing what to do with it, even more.
[T]here is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality." You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.Mr Wieseltier appears to be making a case to Brandeis's liberal arts graduates. What he's really doing is making the case for the higher learning providing all students with some basis for understanding why what they're doing is valuable, rather than simply picking up the tricks to be valuable.
In his valedictory address, Yale's Donald Kagan reminds his audience that, historically conceived, the liberal arts are vocational.
It was once common to think of the medieval university as very different, as a place that focused on learning for its own sake. But the medieval universities, whatever their commitment to learning for its own sake, were institutions that trained their students for professional careers. Graduates in the liberal arts were awarded a certificate that was a license to teach others what they had learned and to make a living that way. For some, the study of liberal arts was preliminary to professional study in medicine, theology, or law and was part of the road to important positions in church and state.Many things have changed, over the years. I suggest you read the full speech, in order better to grasp how Professor Kagan comes up with a conclusion that might startle the current generation of Yalies.
I submit that in America today the most important social distinction, one almost as significant as the old one between gentle and simple, is whether or not one has a college education. Within the favored group, finer distinctions place a liberal education, as opposed to a vocational or merely professional one, at the top of the social pyramid. Graduates of the better liberal arts colleges are most likely to marry the most desired partners and hold the best positions and appointments in business, their professions, and government. That this is true and widely understood is shown by the fact that each year there are great numbers of applicants for every place in the freshman classes of such colleges at a cost of perhaps $60,000 each year, a phenomenon otherwise inexplicable. Apart from any pre-professional training they may obtain, successful applicants gain about the same advantages as those sought by young Englishmen from their somewhat less formal eighteenth-century education. They sharpen useful skills in writing and speaking, they pick up enough of subjects thought interesting in their circle and the style of discussing them to permit agreeable and acceptable conversation. They learn the style and manner, political opinions and prejudices to make them comfortable in a similarly educated society. They have excellent opportunities to make friends who may be advantageous to them in later life. This education, of course, is purely secular. There is, moreover, no attempt to shape good character, for the better universities lead the country in the direction of a kind of relativism, even nihilism.That might not be bad for the Yalies, who have their social circles and their family connections to fall back on. In less favored precincts, however, what remains of the liberal arts is neither liberal nor artistic.
To me, however, the greatest shortcoming of most attempts at liberal education today, with their individualized, unfocused, and scattered curricula, is their failure to enhance the students’ understanding of their role as free citizens of a free society and the responsibilities it entails. Every successful civilization must possess a means for passing on its basic values to each generation. When it no longer does so, its days are numbered. The danger is particularly great in a society such as our own, the freest the world has known, whose special character is to encourage doubt and questioning even of its own values and assumptions. Such questioning has always been and still remains a distinctive, admirable, and salutary part of our education and way of life. So long as there was a shared belief in the personal and social morality taught by the Judeo-Christian tradition and so long as there was a belief in the excellence of the tradition and institutions of Western Civilization and of this nation, so long as these values were communicated in the schools, such questioning was also safe. Our tradition of free critical inquiry counteracted the tendency for received moral and civic teachings from becoming ethnocentric complacency and intolerance and prevented a proper patriotism from degenerating into arrogant chauvinism. When students came to college they found their values and prejudices challenged by the books they read, by their fellow-students from other places and backgrounds, and by their teachers.No more, though.
Earlier generations who came to college with traditional beliefs rooted in the past had them challenged by hard questioning and the requirement to consider alternatives and were thereby unnerved, and thereby liberated, by the need to make reasoned choices. The students of today and tomorrow deserve the same opportunity. They, too, must be freed from the tyranny that comes from the accident of being born at a particular time in a particular place, but that liberation can only come from a return to the belief that we may have something to learn from the past. The challenge to the relativism, nihilism, and privatism of the present can best be presented by a careful and respectful examination of earlier ideas, ideas that have not been rejected by the current generation but are simply unknown to them. When they have been allowed to consider the alternatives, they, too, can enjoy the freedom of making an informed and reasoned choice.In the previous excerpt, note that Professor Kagan refers to "other places and backgrounds, and by their teachers." That, too, is no longer the case. Homogeneous high achievers, never mind their ethnicity or country of origin, encounter homogeneous professors.
The liberal education needed for the students of today and tomorrow, I suggest, should include a common core of studies for all its students. That would have many advantages, for it would create an intellectual communion among students and teachers that does not now exist and would encourage the idea that learning and knowledge are good things in themselves. It would also affirm that some questions are of fundamental importance to everyone, regardless of his origins and personal plans, that we must all think about our values, responsibilities, and our relationships with one another and with the society in which we live.
Ever less can students benefit from different opinions and approaches offered by their teachers, for faculty members with atypical views grow ever rarer on the campus. For some years now I have been asking students to name professors who seem not to share the views common among the faculty. There are some seven hundred members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but the largest number ever named in these inquiries was ten to fifteen. This year the highest number I heard came to three. This has no small significance for the chance at a liberal education, for the opportunity not only to put uncomfortable questions to the teacher, but also to challenge him on the authority of one of his peers is vital to that end. That is how things were early in my career. In the critical fields of history and government there were a few teachers who did not conform to the standard opinions, but they had a great effect, for the students regarded them so well as teachers that they filled their classes in great numbers and challenged other teachers with their ideas.The extent to which such opportunities for students has been diminished, at Yale and its ilk by the tenure mill, elsewhere by downsizing and adjunctification, is left to the reader as an exercise. My focus today is on the value of core studies and the good of the intellect.
Not surprisingly, the statements from the aging lions have provoked some commentary motivated by the Culture Wars. Notre Dame's Patrick Deneen has one such observation, at Minding the Campus. His summation: "Those places are today controlled by those who did the dismantling, and who now raise their eyes to discover that they have no roof to protect them from the deluge."
Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution provides additional political commentary for Real Clear Politics. Do with that what you will. Consider, carefully, though, the final sentence.
A properly liberal education, one devoted to preparing citizens for the responsibilities of freedom, would work against these tendencies. It would fortify students for public service by promoting respect for facts, evidence, and argument; teaching them there are at least two sides to the great moral and political issues of the day, thereby expanding students’ imaginations and fostering appreciation of opposing points of view and of those who hold them; and instilling respect for liberty of thought and discussion by organizing campus life in accordance with its imperatives.Indeed. The line I use with students is "If we can't play around with ideas that might be crazy in college, when can we play with them?"
Until liberal education in America is reformed, however, abuses of power of the sort we have witnessed by administration officials can be expected because such conduct faithfully expresses the most pervasive and basic lessons our universities teach future public servants.