I do not like the word education—especially when it is not only confused with but mistaken for learning. Originally, education in English meant “bringing up.” That is not identical with schooling. A man or woman who “has been well brought up” (alas, an almost obsolete phrase nowadays) suggests something about good manners, mental or physical manners, and little or nothing about his or her academic education. Also, education may mean something that is definite or complete, whereas learning is both broader and less definite, at least faintly suggesting a process that might be still going on. We can recognize and speak about an “educational bureaucracy,” while a learning bureaucracy would make no sense at all. There were scholiasts centuries ago, and scholars even now, but educationists are only a relatively recent, and very American, phenomenon.
I cannot say much about education at present, for the main reason that I retired (more precisely: I was forced to retire) from college teaching now more than six years ago. But I have taught in American colleges (and here and there, also elsewhere) for exactly 50 years, half of a century. My memories may be like slices of Swiss cheese, but, apart from the holes, there may still be enough of them to construct a fondue, in a cook’s tour of retrospect.
Pliny the Younger wrote: “I love to renew a pleasure by relating it.” Sometimes (fortunately, not always) the same goes for displeasure. Unlike many refugees from Central Europe, I will not take pleasure (or, more exactly, display vanity) by asserting the superior nature of my schooling in Hungary. There, as almost everywhere in continental Europe, the remarkably high standards were those of the humanistic middle or high schools. I think that at least two Nobel Prize winners issued from my school. The marks, however, which that Gymnasium left on my mind are, at best, mixed, with the bad more numerous than the good. Yes, we had at least six years of rigorous and literary Latin; a few excellent teachers, especially in the humanities; high standards in letters and mathematics; a basic preparation for university studies. At the same time, the rigidity of the largely German-modeled academic discipline amounted to nothing—and I mean nothing—for the nurturing of character. Cheating was not only universal, it was a must. Our teachers were our enemies, though there were a few honorable exceptions. Others were actually contemptible. Except for enforced calisthenics, there were no athletic sports or facilities. The overwhelming, ubiquitous, enforced ideology was that of a nationalism that was rigid as well as shallow—a bad combination. The results speak for themselves. There was hardly any correlation between a student’s scholastic record and his character. Many of the best students turned out to be conformists or opportunists of the worst sort. Others did not. That, however, may not be a particularly Central European syndrome.
The universities were quite different. But the proper comparison, not only now but as late as half a century ago, was that between the European high or middle school and the American college, since the curriculum of the latter had at least a few similarities with the requirements of the junior and senior classes of the European middle schools. Because of many things, including the cafeteria curricula of American colleges, even this is no longer a basis for comparison.
I fled Hungary in 1946 because of its rapidly advancing communization; but I cannot imagine myself as a high-school or university teacher there, whether under communism or not. In the United States, I became a teacher, because here I wanted to be one. But before I write anything about my teaching experiences of half a century, I must briefly mention an Hungarian element in them: the popularity and the success of many European teachers in American colleges. (Whether this is still so, I cannot tell. It even included European refugees with questionable academic qualifications, with some touches of charlatanry here or there.) This was the result of a confluence from two sides. On one hand, there was the relative sophistication, the worldly knowledge (though not necessarily wisdom) of refugee professors, wider (though not necessarily more profound) than that of their American colleagues. On the other, there was the reciprocal appreciation of their personalities and of their mode of discourse by their American students.
Fifty years ago, most American students entering college knew how to read and write. I am not saying that they knew how to read and write well, only that they were equipped with the rudiments of reading and writing. (In a Catholic college, a student’s writing instantly showed whether he had come from a Catholic high school: If so, his cursive penmanship was handsome and perfectly legible.) Whatever students had read was painfully limited; but their imagination, feeble as it was, remained largely verbal, not yet overwhelmed by movies and television, though the presence and influence of the latter already existed. It was my custom to present lists of books to my students, at times requiring the reading of seven or eight books for a course each semester. (After about 1970, I felt compelled to reduce this requirement to four or five.) Those former students of mine who please (and surprise) me with their gratitude for my teaching just about always express their appreciation for what I had made them read. But this practice has now, by and large, disappeared. Students’ knowledge of movies and of television productions has become immensely wide; their acquaintance with books exists hardly at all.
Fifty years ago, most American students entering college were first-generation collegians, grateful for their new status—a leg up in an already increasingly classless American society. The minority of students from families where at least one parent had a college education are more difficult to generalize about: At least a portion of this group had some experience with intellectual people—a class that has, by now, just about disappeared. Intellectual, as a noun designating certain people, appeared in the United States some time before 1900; by the end of the 20th century, it no longer existed. Intellectual designated a class of opinions even more than a class of society or of education; also, until about the mid-1950’s, nearly all intellectuals were liberals. There was, and remains, much to be critical of them. (I bristled at being called An Intellectual; I kept saying that I was A Teacher and A Writer.) However—no matter how faintly—I regret their disappearance now, since we have reached a stage of devolution where there are just about no intellectuals who are not academics (and when there are many academics whose intellectual interests beyond their professional occupation is nonexistent).
What kind of knowledge did I bring from Hungary to America 56 years ago? Many valuable matters from that famous Gymnasium and from the university. None of that compares, however, with the mental (and aesthetic, and artistic, and moral) atmosphere of the home, of the family. This is not the place to list or even to sum up these advantages, including private tutors of languages and of music and, perhaps especially, my father’s impressive library. There were so many other, sometimes even ineffable, matters. The relationship between one’s home and his respect for learning existed in America as well, though evidently lessening during recent decades. Of course, there were many exceptions: students reacting against the non-intellectuality of their families—not always in salutary ways, but that is not the point. The point is not mere intellectuality. Last year, I read that, among 45 high-school students in a middle-class suburb in New Jersey, only three were having dinner more or less regularly with their parents, sitting at a table with them at night. That we have a juvenile “culture” (or worse, a juvenile civilization, where most pictorial and musical entertainment is produced for teenaged audiences, is both a cause and a result of such a deplorable condition.
The abdication of parents, the easy (and no matter how costly—but, of course, Americans are the least materialist people of the world) translation of their educational responsibilities to schools is not, however, a new story. American schools have been, for long, designed and expected to teach—more: to inculcate—manners and morals, civics and sports. This includes sexual manners and morals: To marry your high-school sweetheart was as American as apple pie a good three generations ago. I suspect that the rate of divorce among those immature high-school sweethearts may be even higher than among those Americans who married later, but that is not the point. The point is that, while 50 years ago high school and college, no matter how illusorily, were meant to furnish a preparation for a good life, what parents nowadays expect—and most of these parents are college graduates themselves—is that their offspring will get a degree of something that will instantly qualify them for a particular job.
A Communication Revolution? Yes and no; or rather, evidently no. I have now lived in the same place—state, county, township, road, school district—for 48 years. I have been a member of the township government for 33 of them. Few of my books are to be found in the local borough or county library, but that, again, is hardly relevant. More relevant is the fact that I have not yet met a single administrator or teacher from the area high school, which is less than one mile from my house. (I guess the fault is on both sides, theirs as well as mine. Never mind.) What I mind is the following experience: A few years ago, I volunteered to give a few talks about history or religion to the students in a local school, without compensation. I was told that I was both overqualified and not sufficiently well known.
Someone once said that a celebrity is someone who is famous for being well known. Ever since I read that quip, I have said that I want to be famous for not being well known. But that is a status I have yet to achieve; and, in any event, it has nothing to do with education, or schooling, or learning. It is all part and parcel of Communications. A friend of mine, a distinguished scholar of English and Irish literature, told me that, at the beginning of his teaching career, he was asked by the principal of a high school to help students perform a mock wedding. He was told, too, near the end of his long teaching career, that his department would no longer exist. Instead of a Department of English, there was to be one of Communications.