Phi Beta Cons

Thinking Critically About Content

Anne Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and I defended the traditional core curriculum at a recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Commenting on our respective approaches, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed pronounced it “clear that Neal may believe the adage about getting more flies with honey than vinegar, while DeRussy probably believes in calling an exterminator.”

Slash-and-burn rhetoric aside, I stand by the belief that radical reforms which to an extent bypass the current establishment (such as competitive, performance-based models for funding and delivering higher education) will be needed to induce excellence in teaching and research.
Fueling the mediocrity that abounds today is intellectual relativism, the prevailing egalitarian belief that all culture – ideas, texts, art, institutions, etc. – is equally good, interchangeable, and worthy of the same level of study.   
Comments at the AAC&U conference by Jeremy Bell, a philosophy professor and faculty leader at the College of San Mateo, illustrate this mindset. Bell, as Jaschik notes, expressed amazement “at [my and Neal’s] lack of familiarity of where higher education is.” With the internet and other sources, he said, students have “limitless access to content,” and it’s “archaic” to believe that the main point is what readings will be required of students. “We need to teach them the skills to evaluate, not go to a model of 40 years ago,” he added.
Lost in this pedagogy is the recognition that some content is in and of itself more significant or useful – superior – than other and that the unguided student will only by happenstance stumble upon it. As for Bell’s discrediting of the “model of 40 years ago” (and as noted by William Casement in The Great Canon Controversy),  the teaching of a classics-based core is part of our educational heritage dating back to 5th-century Greece. Ironically – in light of the simplistic and reductionist granting of primacy to “critical thinking” – readings from the great canon have traditionally been assigned precisely because, more than “lighter” works, they draw students into careful reading and rigorous analytical (authentic critical) thinking.
But especially stutifying is the professoriate’s incapacity or unwillingness to accept that the study of great books is vital because from them generations of students extract vital content. As Jacques Barzun wrote in Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, through such reading

We come face to face with the whole range of perception that mankind has attained and that is denied by our unavoidably artificial existence. Through this experience we escape from the prison cell…it is like gaining a second life. (p. 137)

Let the great escape advance. By honey or by vinegar.