Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

An Integrated Humanist

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

An Integrated Humanist

Article excerpt


November 2017

John Senior and the Restoration of Realism BY FRANCIS BETHEL, O.S.B. THOMAS MORE, 452 PAGES, $34.99

Higher education has survived the end of the American century, if just barely. American colleges and universities are like a naval mothball fleet that's still afloat but not seaworthy. Some schools are headed for deep maintenance; others will become scrap metals for the building of newfangled institutions. Only the indestructibly rich schools can sail for blue waters, and even they might not have a better clue where they are headed, except slightly up or down in the national rankings. The tableau of higher education must prove especially troubling to the forty-four million Americans holding student loan debts that are amortized unto perpetuity.

Suspicion that higher education has lost its purpose is long-standing-and it always turns out to be more justified than not. The anxiety was there at the beginning of the twentieth century. Provisioned with monies from the Gilded Age, the model of a German research university began to flourish on American soil. Opening their portals to middle-class students and soon after to the precocious children of immigrants, research universities sent forth their graduates to teach the gospel of specialized knowledge. In short time, however, it became evident that specialization beginning at freshman year was an inadequate way to form undergraduates. A century ago, Columbia University began a core curriculum for undergrads in response to the broad moral, social, and political debates that broke out with the First World War. Two decades later, during the Depression and the Second World War, the University of Chicago installed its common core curriculum, which, like that of its Columbia parent, was designed to expose undergraduates to big questions. Respected humanistic scholars-Karl Jaspers, Mark Van Doren, Jacques Maritain, Christopher Dawson, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Dorothy Sayers-insisted that democracy, if not Western civilization, depended on recovering the old arts or "ways" of learning, the so-called liberal arts.

The most important proponent of reform of undergraduate studies by way of the liberal arts was Mark Van Doren (1894-1972). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Van Doren is remembered chiefly as an inspired teacher at Columbia, whose students included Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Merton, John Berryman, Jack Kerouac, Lionel Trilling, and Whittaker Chambers. In the early 1940s he became known to a wider public through his book A Liberal Education (1943).

Van Doren's diagnosis of the problem of undergraduate education was elegantly simple. He believed that the intellectual oxygen of general education was being squeezed out by two institutional forces. Within the university, undergraduate learning had come under the sway of specialized, graduate research. In the broader culture, education was being reduced to a kind of vocational training. Millions of American youth, too, were being instructed in complacency by the routines of mobilization and military training, accompanied by mass propaganda. Van Doren's proposal that undergraduates study the great books across disciplines and do so under the guidance of a truly educated mentor was motivated by a civic humanism that aimed to reform not only college curricula, but individuals who need to be shaped for lifelong learning and responsible citizenship.

This was a bold diagnosis. But neither Van Doren nor the other proponents of humanistic reform, such as Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, grasped its implications. Great books programs and core curricula could not achieve their aims unless the university as a whole was reformed. This was not about to happen. In 1963 Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote The Uses of the University, an ambivalent book about the way it had become impossible to reform American higher education. …

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