The Academy, No More

by Peter Blair | 11/6/08 3:48am

There was a good deal of talk during the now-decided presidential contest about education, with the candidates often sparring over the best way to improve this country's education system. It is in the nature of political campaigns, however, that they never touch on the really important questions. The truly important question facing students and teachers today isn't whether more money should be put into public schools or into school-choice programs, though that does deserve consideration. Instead, the truly important question is what, fundamentally, is the goal and purpose of education? What is its end?

I don't intend to talk here about vocational and professional schools. They have a clear, uncontested and valuable end -- namely to train people in practical skills and prepare them to enter the workforce. As Dartmouth is a liberal arts school, however, the relevant issue for Dartmouth is the proper goal of this specific kind of education, which has to be sharply distinguished from the kind offered by specialized, career-focused institutions. The very reason why some schools are considered liberal arts schools and some are not is because liberal arts schools have a distinct mission.

What, then, is that mission? C.S. Lewis points out in his book "The Abolition of Man" (1943) that the goal of the Academy was, for a long time, a forgone conclusion. Since Aristotle, Lewis writes, education has been seen as the effort to "make the pupil like and dislike what he ought." Once uncontroversial, this statement offends modern ears. First, it presupposes that there are things that everyone ought to like and other things that everyone ought to dislike. Second, it does so because most colleges and universities today have become deeply career-focused. It is seen as hopelessly antiquated today to think one goes to college to contemplate the true, the beautiful, the right, the noble and the just. One goes for the internship and the degree; truth is cast aside.

Relativistic and career-obsessed education is a modern experiment, and we have yet to fully see its results. Already, however, many leaders in higher education are noting its corrosive effects. Anthony T. Kronman, a law professor at Yale University, has written a book called "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life"(2007). The title neatly sums up the problem. Institutions of higher education no longer push their students to ask the big questions, to search for the meaning of life, to understand human nature and to engage with our rich intellectual heritage, and this has led to the end of any meaningful education.

I think Kronman's indictment of America's colleges and universities is generally accurate. I have talked to several people in my time at Dartmouth who don't seem to see college as a place to look at the big questions, or to be shaped and formed by exposure to the beautiful and the true. Additionally, Dartmouth's curriculum -- even with its distributive requirements --- seems at times hopelessly specialized. Dartmouth, like virtually all colleges today, does not aim to teach its students to like and dislike what they ought.

Since this season is one of hope, however, I should note that there is hope for a valuable education at Dartmouth. There are several good classes one can take that force students to interact with the intellectual giants that came before them and thus lead students to think about those things that are permanent and eternal. I'm taking two such classes this term, and I have found that the students in them are generally pretty willing to grapple with important questions concerning man and God.

Recent years have also seen efforts to establish the Daniel Webster Program at Dartmouth. This program, led by government professor James Murphy, seeks to "enhance the liberal arts experience at Dartmouth College by bringing ancient and modern perspectives to bear on issues of permanent moral and political importance," according to the program's web site. It will accomplish this goal by sponsoring lectures, conferences, symposia and seminars, and making curricular suggestions to the College. The ideas behind The Daniel Webster Program could help students extract deeper meaning from their Dartmouth education.

I am not saying that everyone should abandon all concern for his future career. We all need careers, and it is good to use our four years to prepare for them. Dartmouth, however, can and should be much more than a factory that spits out a new set of workers every year. It should be a place where we all come to ask and try to answer the important questions, where we meditate on things of highest worth and value and, hopefully, a place that changes us over four years.