Recently, there was a dustup at Reed College, my alma mater. Like elsewhere, the students are balking against the curriculum. In particular, they resent being dragged through the Humanities, a survey course on western culture that begins with ancient Greece. To focus on a bunch of white old men strikes these Reedies as racist and irrelevant. Yada, yada, yada.
My response to these 19 or 20-year-old students, who already know what’s good for them, is to spare their parents the cost of outrageous tuition, drop out of school and issue themselves diplomas from Young and Stupid University.
I won’t deny these young people have a small point. Today, I’m not certain who won the Peloponnesian War. I slept through most of Thucydides and, moving forward a few hundred years, I can’t remember a single salacious remark from Samuel Pepys Diary. Thankfully, I did remain at Reed long enough to learn that practicing thought is more important than remembering things.
Two recent studies made the same point. One began with the question, “What would you do with a pair of socks?” If your answer is, “Put them on my feet,” you’re noodle isn’t working hard enough. You need to think deeper than the obvious.
The other study was on the aging brain. It, too, warns against failing to think deeply. (Click) Conversations about books or movies should turn upon themes, values, plot structure. Not on how much we did or didn’t like them. The outcome of the Peloponnesian War may be irrelevant to the young scholars of Reed College. But examining the human condition through the ages, looking for patterns and their consequences, isn’t.
To be honest, I despair when people think learning’s benefits should be pragmatic and its goals immediately clear. Given that no one is clairvoyant, how can Reed’s young savants, barely acquainted with their culture, be certain of what they shall need in 10, 20, or 30 years? When I was a young woman, I studied Peter Weiss,’ The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton, a play where the insane take over the institution. In my youth, I thought the theatrical weird. At 81, its absurdities seem as template for the modern age, particularly when students imagine themselves wise enough to instruct their teachers.
No doubt Reed’s freshman class would embrace the tenets in Bryan Caplan’s new book, The Case Against Education. He says much being taught is irrelevant, and that “only 5% of Americans should go to a four-year college.” (“A Case Against Education, “by Peter Coy, Bloomberg Businessweek, January 22, 2018, pg. 13.) Of course, he isn’t thinking of education as a tool to defend against life’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He’s thinking about skills needed to get a job and make a buck. But, as one of Caplan’s reviewers points out, people who disparage a traditional education for the common man speak in code. What they mean is, “those people aren’t smart enough for college.” (Ibid pg. 14.) Such thinking is elitists, of course, and its effect is to widen the social and economic gaps in our society. Either the prescient youth of Reed College already know this and don’t care. Or they aren’t as smart as they think.