By McNamara, Patrick H.
Commonweal , Vol. 122, No. 8
On my bookshelf sits a row of titles set apart. The books bombard the American university and take to task instructors like me. It's not that they are flat wrong. They simply miss a lot that goes right between professors and students today and unwittingly support those dismal "Generation X" stereotypes--bored, lost, disoriented, futureless, and so on. Our young women and men deserve better.
The first book I collected, Ernest Boyer's College: the Undergraduate Experience (I 987), struck a mild enough tone: too few faculty are sufficiently mindful of "an obligation to give students a sense of passage toward a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated life." Boyer, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, had taken time to talk with students who longed for "a more coherent view of knowledge and, in quiet moments, wondered aloud whether getting a job and getting ahead would be sufficiently fulfilling." Good stuff, I thought, but the most biting was yet to come. Why, asked Boyer, are "the most deeply felt issues, the most haunting questions, the most creative moments" often relegated to the margins of university life? When and where is time taken to explore life's "ambiguities" and "imponderables"? Are ethical and moral choices "thoughtfully examined and convictions formed"?
I was still pondering Boyer's words when Alan Bloom's hombshell, The Closing of the American Mind, appeared the same year. American college students existed "in a condition like that of the first men in the state of nature--spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone....preoccupied principally with themselves and with finding means to avoid permanent free fall." Specialists all, we professors pay most attention to students who major in our own fields. We have nothing to say to the undecided student, "an embarrassment to most universities," even though she "seems to be saying, `I am a whole human being. Help me to form myself in my wholeness and let me develop my real potential."' We shy away from these voices, lacking interest and energy; so do the institutions that employ us, unable or unwilling to reconstruct the concept of a liberally educated young man or woman. I thought about my own university's protracted struggle to fashion a core curriculum. The effort foundered when a very diverse faculty could not agree on what such an education ought to contain.
How do we get students to think for themselves, to ask their own questions and pursue the answers vigorously? The books kept coming. Historian Page Smith (Killing the Spirit, 1990) called the lecture method a sure way to stifle the inquiring mind, thwarting the teacher's tasks of winning "the student's confidence" and creating "an air of trust congenial to learning." The same year, philosopher Bruce Wilshire took the prize for dramatic pessimism with The Moral Collapse of the University. Among his powerful descriptors of today's college students: "numbness," "stasis," and "disconnectedness." Most, he thought, "did not believe that their work ... would help them know what was good for them to do and to be ... they had no confidence that truth about the human condition could be discovered. Either that or they felt no need to discover it." Wilshire assumes an existentialist mantle in urging instructors to "encourage self-reflection" so that students may "confront [their] own freedom and responsibility in the world."
Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education (1991) unleashed new jeremiads whose targets were "PC" and multiculturalism run amok. David Horowitz and Peter Collier even launched a monthly Journal, Heterodoxy, to document how leftist intolerance intimidates both students and professors in the classroom, forcing apologies where none are due. Afro-American, Native American, Latino, Asian-American insistence upon respect for their distinct cultural identities threatens American wholeness, provoking Arthur Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America (1992). …