Published Humanitas, Volume VII, No. 1, 1994

In twenty years our universities have taken not a single important step in defining the tasks of higher education. We professors go through the motions of curricula that have yet to prove their value. The policy at Brown University, which I as a former faculty member know especially well, is typical of the country’s self-styled “elite universities.” Brown’s policy is simple: Do whatever you want. Take this or that or nothing very much. We require no courses but only a major. And, while extreme, the practices at Brown do signal the failure of purpose and the absence of goals that have characterized higher education since the advocates of the 1960s counterculture assumed dominance of the most prestigious American universities.

But, if a new elite is to emerge amid the ashes of the old, where is reform to start? Higher education finds its definition in the answers to three questions: (1) who teaches (2) what (3) to whom? During twenty years of dismantling the received programs and familiar purposes of colleges and universities, those who have been in charge have focused intently on questions one and three. They have had slight interest in question two: what is taught. That is their weak point: the countercultural professors know full well whom they want to teach and who is to do the teaching. They cannot explain what is to be taught and therefore cannot explain why it is to be taught. A pointless mélange of topics and purposeless information today stands behind the baccalaureate degree.

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