Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Core-less conservatives

Mark Oppenheimer must be praised for the following: He makes some of the typical, Allan Bloom-style complaints--colleges put too much of an emphasis on diversity and sports and not enough on the Classics--but has an argument I have not seen before, which is that students should have fewer pursuits but take the few they have more seriously. Part of the conservative critique of college, as I understood it, was that students today are free to focus exclusively on hip-hop or Native American basketry and are not forced to take a bit of Latin, a bit of calculus, and so on. Oppenheimer offers a conservative critique with a different goal, so for that I will forgive the fact that the essay would have been significantly improved without the following:

"Now, I have taught at Wesleyan University, Yale, and Stanford University; and I have taught some very brilliant students. In fact, they only seem to get brighter; I doubt very much whether I or many of my friends from the Yale class of 1996 would be admitted to Yale today."


"I wrote a great senior essay, exactly the kind that [author] Anthony Grafton praises. It was about the sermons of William Sloane Coffin Jr., the chaplain of Yale College from 1958 to 1975....I loved writing that paper. I worked on it sporadically for a whole year, probably five or ten hours a week. The final draft was thirty-five pages long. It won a commencement prize and probably got me into graduate school."


"...I was selected to be one of twelve students in the advanced nonfiction writing class taught by the novelist Robert Stone....That semester I was starring in a production of Hedda Gabler, teaching an English enrichment class to eight bright but poor New Haven middle school students, running intramural cross country, and dating a blue-eyed girl from Dallas. I didn’t do a very good job at any of those things. I was tired all the time. I had Robert Stone for a teacher, and I did lousy work. I blew it."

But, back to his intriguing argument: "As activities have multiplied, the curriculum has diversified, which is both a cause and an effect. Choosing from a menu of activities – academics, sports, student government, community service, etc. – students spend less time on academics, and what time they do spend is forcibly divided among various disciplines or 'distribution groups.'"

Aren't distribution requirements generally seen as a too-wimpy version of a core curriculum and as something that should be added to, not subtracted from? But it's interesting to see this view challenged. I went to UChicago thinking the Core would, in a non-gender-specific sense, make a man out of me, and have no doubt that two quarters of astrophysics build character. But would that time have been better spent with me thinking more about French literature and other subjects I was more interested in, not to mention successful at studying? I'm not so sure, and in any case I had time to do both. Not that I would have said so at the time.

What Oppenheimer wants students to engage in is "single-minded purposefulness... following a single interest until it is exhausted, and sacrificing other opportunities along the way." He writes, "Well-rounded and liberal is a perfectly nice way to be – I hope it describes me – but it connotes no particular meaning or calling or purpose. It’s a way to be, not a reason to be."

I still wonder why the typical student cannot have both. Whether great intellectual feats by undergrads are prevented by language requirements and rocks for jocks labs. I'm sure some students truly are overcommitted, but Oppenheimer does not show this to be the insurmountable problem he claims it is.

This, though, confuses me: "What I find missing, alas, is the four-year humanities version, the college that encourages a deep humanistic rigor, a bookworm’s version of MIT. The University of Chicago, Columbia University, and St. John’s College are the closest we have: they have taken certain stands, there are certain authors you must read in order to graduate. But courageous as those stands seemed during the curricular battles of the 1980s, they are yesterday’s victories. Which will be the college to ban e-mail? To eliminate athletic recruiting? To require that its students register to vote? Which college president will venture that denying an ethnic group its own dean, making the students responsible for planning their own activities, will help them become more resourceful, enterprising adults? What school will not only add majors – environmental studies, Asian-American studies, computer science – but have the temerity to cut them?"

Which school will ban email? Good grief, not any school I would ever attend. He actually believes UChicago should go the Luddite route? But what of my Core Humanities course, Philosophical Perspectives, or so many others where an integral part of the course was email responses to readings of difficult texts? And why cut majors? Why not, by Oppenheimer's own argument, the more majors the better, since that way each student can spend more time on his own pursuits and less doing work unrelated to his interests?

And finally: "This scene [of aescetic committment to a single purpose] could be at Princeton or Yale today, though more likely at Ohio State University or University of Southern California, where students are less aggressively over-committed and the odd intellectual might be holed up in his off-campus apartment just doing his thing. But at any American school, it would be fairly uncommon. Rather, the infatuation with Wodehouse would be slotted into one term, senior year. A professor would chaperone the infatuation."

This thing you're reading now, this blog, began while I was a student at the University of Chicago. I'd like to think I was as "agressively over-committed" as students at Princeton and Yale (no laundry list of my activities, but I kept busy, did my schoolwork, enjoyed doing it, even), and yet had time for a solitary, extensive intellectual (in the sense of brain-using, not in the sense of profound) pursuit. Of dubious quality, sure, but it's taken time and thought, and no professor told me to do it, nor was it my senior project. Professors have occasionally commented here, but, as should be obvious from the rambling and veering off onto subjects like Japanese hair-straightening, no professor is chaperoning. I am in no way unique here, and was, if anything, late on the bandwagon. Matthew Yglesias, Will Baude, and countless others have spent time at challenging colleges writing thoughtful blogs. The very existence of frequently-updated student blogs coming out of elite colleges ought, I think, to be of some comfort to Oppenheimer.

Via The American Scene.

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