The sociological thesis that education is “for society” is acceptable today because in this statement, “society” is a sufficiently vague term to prescribe fewer and fewer binding guidelines as we ascend from lower to higher education. The thesis becomes unacceptable when an ideological restriction is added: The school must be a small replica of society. Formulated as policy, the statement comes to then mean, particularly in a mobile society like ours, that education may never approach ultimate questions but must pursue immediate and practical ends: It becomes, then, a string of haphazard ad-hoc responses to real and concocted “social problems.” This is illustrated by the scrapbook method of learning, the picking up of patchy, superficial bits of information from usually unreliable sources. It is further encouraged by television programming where the patchy approach reaches its apotheosis. The overall result is a ravaging of the intellect and sensibility, a submission to the pedestrian. The real objective of education is lost from sight.
What do I mean by “real objective”? The question must not be answered in our pluralistic society which—a historic first—prides itself on its agnostic inability to offer valid responses except on the level of a temporary “consensus.” In such a perspective, realities, values, and judgments are less important than the preservation of plurality itself, an attitude which may lead to a modicum of social peace on the forum but to indifference and disaffection in the realm of truth and its exploration. The fact is, all previous societies, while harmonizing education and community objectives on the child’s level, set aims much higher for later education than the utilitarian and the pragmatic, the so-called socially useful. Indeed, in mankind’s pre- American millennia, the goal of a higher education (by other names designated, of course) was the probing of existence and the mysteries of transcendence.
The Greek paideia was based on the reading of Homer, but it set more elevated objectives in the philosophical schools of which Plato’s academy and Aristotle’s lyceum were only samples and which taught disciplines from grammar to science. The combined trivium and quadrivium of the Middle Ages led to philosophy, law, theology, medicine, and science. Then, until recently, grade and high school, while providing lateral outlets toward many kinds of occupations and functions (engineering, trade, business, etc.), were primarily regarded as places for a strong “core curriculum” leading to intellectual pursuits at universities.
Thus education has always been ordered as a hierarchy of subjects—a pedagogical/academic application of the hierarchy principle without which no society and no institution could function: government, law courts, art and music conservatories, business enterprises, workshops, scientific laboratories. In spite of the coming mass-education, in my university years in Europe first-year students were taught in large lecture halls, and the classroom became smaller as students cleared the strict selective process to the fourth year. A higher education not aiming at the formation of an elite is either an ideological indoctrination or a hardly veiled commercial enterprise.
Education that used to be ordered from the top down has now been reordered from the bottom up. The university has had to adjust to the grade and high school, the professor to the psychopedagogue, the curriculum which searched existence and transcendence to social studies and how-to sessions. The ideology of the lower grades which culminates in Dewey’s formula—”The school must turn into a sociological workshop”—has imposed its world view and methods on the university.
In a democracy as total as ours, this is a natural and irresistible process, and it would be unjust to attribute the pressure from below to the “revolutionary” trends of the 70’s. When I first came into contact with American education, in the very early 50’s, I was struck by the myriad demands addressed to schools and colleges by pressure groups like businesses, banks, civic clubs, and advertisers, demands that servile school boards immediately translated as “courses” in the curriculum. Thus I was not at all surprised when, 20 years later, the pressure started coming from rebels with or without a cause, then from minorities, feminists, gays, and other radicals. Schools which had yielded to the local supermarket (they called it “consumer education”) or to car dealers and police (they called it “driver’s education”), easily took the leftward turn, adjusting their curriculum to new commands issued by Black Panthers or pedophiles. “Higher” education (by now in quotes) automatically followed the trend. It even provided the “leadership” (quotes again). I remember a panel discussion in the 60’s, where a high-school principal boasted of “120 courses” offered at his school. I equally remember the chairman of the philosophy department at a northwestern university who proudly announced that his courses cover the latest in the field.
Today, as a report in the Wall Street Journal has it, universities congratulate themselves on the popularity of courses on the Vietnam War, drawing “capacity crowds.” As yesterday’s youth begin to vote, it is explained by several happy deans, “they want to know whether current foreign policy is a viable one.” Other groups also congratulate themselves because now the textbook industry too gets in high gear (the WS] explains); the market opens to just about anything on Vietnam; and everybody, including President Reagan and the veterans, is satisfied. (Let me remark that where education is taken seriously, 50 years must pass before history may focus on past events. Otherwise, courses can only consist of half-baked information and the confrontation of passions.)
The whole process has nothing to do with education, higher or otherwise. The slogan has turned into reality: Give them what they want to hear, or rather, to buy. But Vietnam on the academic agenda is not a fortuitous item. Compare it with what high schools offer, taken from another report: courses on alcohol and drug abuse, abortion, suicide, nuclear war, homosexuality and rape, pre- and extra-marital sex, witchcraft, illegal behavior, contraception, communism. This is worse than brainwashing: It is the systematic dismantling of mental and moral faculties. Yet, by no means is it a deviation from the earlier, but still ongoing, policy of teaching students how to open a bank account and how to behave on a date. The overall guideline for schools, colleges, and universities is to deal with social problems as they arise, following the sacralized principle that only the instantly experienced phenomenon has value, and even that on the most vulgar plane of responses to stimuli.
We recognize here not so much the effect of television but the fact that television too is a product of the public obsession with the frivolous, the “what works,” the immediately sensational and salable. Public hypocrisy insists that television is guilty of programming violence and of gluing children to the screen for an average of 40 hours a week. The Athenians too sat through half-a-day in the theater, and not all plays were written by Sophocles. (Of course, this was only once or twice a year!) Nor is violence on TV per se to be condemned, since it merely caters to a puritanical society which, too timid and soul-denying to display genuine emotions, plunges in blood as a substitute. Television is a product of society exactly the same way the school is: a scrapbook for a disjointed culture.
The consequences for students are devastating. In my own observation, confirmed by all those I know and who are willing to speak frankly in private (let’s not close our eyes to intimidation in our free society), they are uninterested, listless, and uncurious—not only about ancient and faraway things, but about current affairs and issues also, since their originally receptive minds have been thwarted, fooled, underfed. The tiny handful that has resisted countereducation feels isolated, marginalized, locked up in a psychiatric clinic for nonconforming to the average, the mediocre, the clichemonger. Hence, their knowledge too is sporadic, unsystematized by a general grasp which could only come from a well-ordered curriculum leading them through elementary, secondary, and university education. The content of their knowledge, acquired after Herculean travails, resembles the nucleus of a cult, without communication with adherents of other cults. This near-absence of links with other fields of knowledge and their adepts reduces the striving of the better-endowed student to intellectual loneliness and makes him deficient in articulation: There is around him no educated milieu where ideas could be probed, exchanged, tested, challenged. For a member of this clandestine minority to excel, the cost may be inner exile or moral collapse.
Without hesitation, I call this state of affairs and the fate reserved to its victims an immense disaster, an intellectual holocaust. The conspiracy against a real education may count on the participation of powerful vested interests: popular magazines and television, the culturally pretentious press, the textbook, the audio-visual and the electronic industries, the bureaucracies and the politicians, the government branches and the university officials—none of which would know how to prepare, and what to do with, an educated man. This is why all of them praise such lowest common denominators as television programs which are ideologically safe and through which the collective Big Brother can watch himself in action. Thus everything converges to produce the average man, our society’s ideal, with the correct doses of work-and-leisure, mixed according to the mediocrity-formula. Once again, this is achieved not with strong-arm methods but by not discriminating between one course and another on a hierarchically ordered tablet, by catering to every whim, by persuading the studentcustomer that a mechanical existence is better than an examined life.
I needed this mini-essay to reach the topic I had been asked to write about: What should a university teach? I very much wonder if the question has a meaning in our present situation. We no longer have universities, places having faith in a higher Being to whom links—through contemplation, creation, and knowledge—are sought by the teaching and learning participants. We have only, whether state-owned or private, monstrous production lines which aim, underneath the Tartuffian discourse, at the quickest method for the graduating student to make money: in law, business, or some governmental bureaucracy. The courses are shaped so as to satisfy job requirements—or the professor’s fancy-flights into some Utopia. The electives (themselves an anti-intellectual invention) allow for the picking up of a few luxury items, just adequate to drop an unexpected statement at cocktail hour but not to sustain a genuine interest.
Facing the production-line approach, this academic cash-and-carry, there are the Great Books courses, another way of fooling the customer. I know, I taught in such curricula for the chosen few. What happens is that the unprepared, backgroundless high-school graduate meets the pipe-chewing, tweedy professor who plunges him in texts, the way the mystagogue or the shaman confronts the candidate to initiation. The latter is made at least to pass the threshold; the student remains bewildered.
I feel increasingly inclined to subscribe to the statement of a stranger (it turned out he was a college professor) whom I once met at an airport and engaged in conversation. Why should American students, belonging to a new world and flexing new muscles, he asked, remain tied to curricula born from alien realities and formulating alien questions? What can Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Giordano Bruno, Pascal, say to him? Indeed, I have often found a measure of disbelief on my students’ politely listening faces when matters came up to which their experience and inner life provided no echo whatever. Conditioned to react to novelty, they might produce a flicker of interest in existentialism or Marxism, the names of Kafka or Brecht. Yet, not as a movement of ideas or as a writer with roots in the past, in vital controversies with long-dead opponents, in concepts that never die. Even my students at Yale, bright and undereducated, with here and there sudden islands of luminous interest, were hard put to grasp as tangible the time elapsed between Plato and Plotinus: What does influence mean if it must cross six centuries? Or at Princeton’s Divinity School, where I found that students preparing for the ministry had no idea that French and German bishops might entertain, and collectively proclaim, views on nuclear war different from those of the American hierarchy.
With courses geared to “education for life,” the American student is sentenced to live in a time-and-space vacuum; neither the past nor the distance is communicated to him as real coordinates of existence. The parts of the curriculum which try to do so remain faceless and voiceless, abstract entities to be piled up like old textbooks on dusty shelves. Native children in French colonial territories were made to recite, like French children in France, “Our ancestors, the Gauls . . . ” I have the uncomfortable impression when teaching American students that “our civilization began in Athens and Rome . . . “—that they are as incredulous as the pupils in French Africa. Not long ago, one of my students, a young woman, forgot an earlier reference to Herder and said: “You know, that German guy!?” I felt like answering: I know, my dear; you don’t have to. . . .