Politics & Policy

How to Get a College Education

It can be done, even in the Ivy League, if you keep your eye on the goal of education.

It was in the fall term of 1988 that the truth burst in upon me like something had gone terribly wrong in higher education. It was like the anecdote in Auden where the guest at a garden party, sensing something amiss, suddenly realizes that there is a corpse on the tennis court.

As a professor at Dartmouth, my hours had been taken up with my own writing, and with teaching a variety of courses — a yearly seminar, a yearly freshman composition course (which — some good news — all senior professors in the Dartmouth English Department are required to teach), and courses in my eighteenth-century specialty. Oh, I knew that the larger curriculum lacked shape and purpose, that something was amiss; but I deferred thinking about it.

Yet there does come that moment.

It came for me in the freshman composition course. The students were required to write essays based upon assigned reading — in this case, some Frost poems, Hemingway’s In Our Time, Hamlet . Then, almost on a whim, I assigned the first half of Allan Bloom’s new surprise best-seller The Closing of the American Mind. When the time came to discuss the Bloom book, I asked them what they thought of it.

They hated it.

Oh, yes, they understood perfectly well what Bloom was saying: that they were ignorant, that they believed in cliches, that their education so far had been dangerous piffle and that what they were about to receive was not likely to be any better.

No wonder they hated it. After all, they were the best and the brightest., Ivy Leaguers with stratospheric SAT scores, the Masters of the Universe. Who is Bloom? What is the University of Chicago, anyway?

So I launched into an impromptu oral quiz.

Could anyone (in that class of 25 students) say anything about the Mayflower Compact?

Complete silence.

John Locke?


James Madison?


Magna Carta? The Spanish Armada? The Battle of Yorktown? The Bull Moose party? Don Giovanni ? William James? The Tenth Amendment?

Zero. Zilch. Forget it.

The embarrassment was acute, but some good came of it. The better students, ashamed that their first 12 years of schooling had mostly been wasted (even if they had gone to Choate or Exeter), asked me to recommend some books. I offered such solid things as Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the United States , Max Farrand’s The Framing of the Constitution , Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy . Several students asked for an informal discussion group, and so we started reading a couple of Dante’s Cantos per week, Dante being an especially useful author because he casts his net so widely — the ancient world, the (his) modern world, theology, history, ethics.

I quickly became aware of the utter bewilderment of entering freshmen. They emerge from the near-nullity of K-12 and stroll into the chaos of the Dartmouth curriculum, which is embodied in a course catalogue about as large as a telephone directory.

Sir, what courses should I take?

A college like Dartmouth — or Harvard, Princeton, etc. — has requirements so broadly defined that almost anything goes for degree credit. Of course, freshmen are assigned faculty “advisors,” but most of them would rather return to the library or the Bunsen burner.

Thus it developed that I began giving an annual lecture to incoming freshmen on the subject, “What Is a College Education? And How to Get One, Even at Dartmouth.”

One long-term reason why the undergraduate curriculum at Dartmouth and all comparable institutions is in chaos is specialization. Since World War II, success as a professor has depended increasingly on specialized publication. The ambitious and talented professor is not eager to give introductory or genera! courses. Indeed, his work has little or nothing to do with undergraduate teaching. Neither Socrates nor Jesus, who published nothing, could possibly receive tenure at a first-line university’ today.

But in addition to specialization, recent intellectual fads have done extraordinary damage, viz.:

– So-called Post-Modernist thought (“deconstruction,” etc.) asserts that one “text” is as much worth analyzing as any other, whether it be a movie, a comic book, or Homer. The lack of a “canon” of important works leads to course offerings in, literally, anything.

– “Affirmative Action” is not just a matter of skewed admissions and hiring, but also a mentality or ethos. That is, if diversity is more important than quality in admissions and hiring, why should it not be so in the curriculum? Hence the courses in things like Nicaraguan Lesbian Poetry.

– Concomitantly, ideology has been imposed on the curriculum to a startling degree. In part this represents a sentimental attempt to resuscitate Marxism, with assorted Victim Groups standing in for the old Proletariat; in part it is a new Identity Politics in which being Black, Lesbian, Latino, Homosexual, Radical Feminist, and so forth takes precedence over any scholarly pursuit. These Victimologies are usually presented as “Studies” programs outside the regular departments, so as to avoid the usual academic standards. Yet their course offerings carry degree credit.

On an optimistic note, I think that most or all of Post-Modernism, the Affirmative Action/Multicultural ethos, and the Victimologies will soon pass from the scene. The great institutions have a certain sense of self-preservation. Harvard almost lost its Law School to a Marxist faculty faction, but then cleaned house. Tenure will keep the dead men walking for another twenty years or so, but then we will have done with them.

But for the time being, what these fads have done to the liberal-arts and social-sciences curriculum since around 1968 is to clutter it with all sorts of nonsense, nescience, and distraction. The entering student needs to be wary lest he waste his time and his parents’ money and come to consider all higher education an outrageous fraud. The good news is that the wise student can still get a college education today, even at Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Of course the central question is one of telos . or goal. What is the liberal-arts education supposed to produce? Once you have the answer to this question, course selection becomes easy.

I mean to answer that question here. But first, I find that undergraduates and their third-mortgaged parents appreciate some practical tips, such as:

Select the “ordinary” courses. I use ordinary here in a paradoxical and challenging way. An ordinary course is one that has always been taken and obviously should be taken — even if the student is not yet equipped with a sophisticated rationale for so doing. The student should be discouraged from putting his money on the cutting edge of interdisciplinary cross-textuality.

Thus, do take American and European history, an introduction to philosophy, American and European literature, the Old and New Testaments, and at least one modern language. It would be absurd not to take a course in Shakespeare, the best poet in our language. There is art and music history. The list can be expanded, but these areas ever)’ educated person should have a decent knowledge of — with specialization coming later on.

I hasten to add that I applaud the student who devotes his life to the history of China or Islam, but that too should come later. America is part of the narrative of European history.

If the student should seek out those “ordinary” courses., then it follows that he should avoid the flashy come-ons. Avoid things like Nicaraguan Lesbian Poets. Yes, and anything listed under “Studies,” any course whose description uses the words “interdisciplinary,” “hegemonic,” “phallocratic,” or “empowerment,” anything that mentions “keeping a diary,” any course with a title like “Adventures in Film.”

Also, any male professor who comes to class without a jacket and tie should be regarded with extreme prejudice unless he has won a Nobel Prize.

All these arc useful rules of thumb. A theoretical rationale for a liberal-arts education, however, derives from that telos mentioned above. What is such an education supposed to produce?

A philosophy professor I studied with as an undergraduate had two phrases he repeated so often that they stay in the mind, a technique made famous by Matthew Arnold.

He would say, “ History must be told .”

History, he explained, is to a civilization what memory is to an individual, an irreducible part of identity.

He also said, “ The goal of education is to produce the citizen .” He defined the citizen as the person who, if need he, could re-create his civilization.

Now, it is said that Goethe was the last man who knew all the aspects of his civilization (I doubt that he did), but that after him things became too complicated. My professor had something different in mind. He meant that the citizen should know the great themes of his civilization, its important areas of thought, its philosophical and religious controversies, the outline of its history and its major works. The citizen need not know quantum physics, but he should know that it is there and what it means. Once the citizen knows the shape, the narrative, of his civilization, he is able to locate new things — and other civilizations — in relation to it.

The narrative of Western civilization can be told in different ways, but a useful paradigm has often been called “Athens and Jerusalem.” Broadly construed, “Athens” means a philosophical and scientific view of actuality and “Jerusalem” a spiritual and scriptural one. The working out of Western civilization represents an interaction — tension, fusion, conflict — between the two.

Both Athens and Jerusalem have a heroic, or epic, phase. For Athens, the Homeric poems are a kind of scripture, the subject of prolonged ethical meditation. In time the old heroic ideals are internalized as heroic philosophy in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

For Jerusalem, the heroic phase consists of the Hebrew narratives. Here again, a process of internalization occurs, Jesus internalizing the Mosaic Law. Socrates is the heroic philosopher, Jesus the ideal of heroic holiness, both new ideals in their striking intensity.

During the first century of the Christian Era, Athens and Jerusalem converge under the auspices of Hellenistic thought, most notably in Paul and in John, whose gospel defined Jesus by using the Greek term for order, Logos .

Athens and Jerusalem were able to converge, despite great differences, because in some ways they overlap. The ultimate terms of Socrates and Plato, for example, cannot be entirely derived from reason. The god of Plato and Aristotle is monotheistic, though still the god of the philosophers. Yet Socrates considers that his rational universe dictates personal immortality.

In the Hebrew epic, there are hints of a law prior to the Law of revelation and derived from reason. Thus, when Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham appeals to a known principle of justice which God also assumes.

Thus Athens is not pure reason and Jerusalem not pure revelation. Both address the perennial question of why there is something rather than nothing.

From the prehistoric figures in Homer and in Genesis — Achilles, Abraham — the great conversation commences. Thucydides and Virgil seek order in history. St. Augustine tries to synthesize Paul and Platonism. Montaigne’s skepticism would never have been articulated without a prior assertion of cosmic order. Erasmus believed Christianity would prevail if only it could be put in the purest Latin. Shakespeare made a world, and transcended Lear’s storm with that final calmed and sacramental Tempest. Rousseau would not have proclaimed the goodness of man if Calvin had not said the opposite. Dante held all the contradictions together in a total structure — for a glorious moment. Katlca could not see beyond the edges of his nightmare, but Dostoyevsky found love just beyond the lowest point of sin. The eighteenth-century men of reason knew the worst, and settled for the luminous stability of a bourgeois republic.

By any intelligible standard the other great civilization was China, yet it lacked the Athens-Jerusalem tension and dynamism. Much more static, its symbols were the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, not Odysseus/Columbus, Chartres, the Empire State Building, the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

When undergraduates encounter the material of our civilization — that is, the liberal arts — then they know that they are going somewhere. They are becoming citizens.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece by Jeffrey Hart appeared in the September 30, 1996, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).


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