Higher ed's missing connections

Monday Book Reviews

December 14, 1992|By Doug Cumming


BY THE hundreds of thousands throughout the land, college freshmen are sitting through introductory courses in English lit, American history, psychology or one of the hard sciences and getting out of them nothing deeper than a grade.

The material is rich as loam, and the students at the peak of their mental fertility. Yet some vital connection is missing. Except in a few oddball cases and at small liberal arts colleges, there's no impact, nothing from this billion-dollar industry of higher education that gives shape to the outlook or future of the typical undergraduate.

In "Education Without Impact: How Our Universities Fail the Young," George H. Douglas, who has written social histories of ++ trains and slick magazines, describes this mass anorexia from the perspective of an English professor at a public megaversity (the University of Illinois), viewing the problem with a broken heart and clear eyes.

Take his example of an introductory economics course. Hoards of college students have taken such a course, yet they are among the millions of Americans who lack even a rudimentary sense of economic principles or terms. It is not that the economics professor has nothing to say about the rudiments of his field.

"It is just that when students come to college, professors attempt to draw them into the heart of the technical field of economics forgetting that the youthful listeners are still mainly undeveloped human beings, imperfectly educated, forgetting, too, that someday they will have to be adults and citizens of the republic. The students are looking for their bearings, to be given a map of the territory . . . They want to find out how their studies relate to things they already know. But the economists, who already have their bearings, want to get each student as quickly as possible up to their level."

What is needed, Mr. Douglas argues, is a special kind of transaction between professorial wisdom and sophomoric impatience. The youthful impatience should fire up the old, settled wisdom; the professorial wisdom, like smoke hung around an Oxford don, should bestow a lifelong blessing on the youthful impatience.

The model here, of course, is that of traditional liberal arts education. Mr. Douglas richly rescues the model from our rather thin concept of liberal arts as simply a well-rounded, nonprofessional curriculum. Tracing the intellectual history from its English sources through such advocates as Cardinal Newman, Alfred North Whitehead and William James, Mr. Douglas presents liberal arts not as a curriculum, but a cast of mind.

Refreshingly, Mr. Douglas rises above questions of whether students should be reading Homer or Alice Walker, or whether too many professors lean too far to the political left or right. What does the canon matter, or the politics of the faculty, if our universities have built such a wall between the realms of research and the frat-party world of student life that the faculty isn't getting through to most students?

Mr. Douglas bemoans grade inflation and other panderings to students since the 1960s, but he doesn't blame radicalism. The fault, he believes, lies with academia's expedient retreat from being in loco parentis -- tending to the hearts, minds and morals of students -- in favor of being powerful engines of research in narrow specialties.

Readers may suspect a certain sentimental romance to Mr. Douglas' lament. Of course, it would be nice to have universities look more like Oxford, with smaller "houses" as at Harvard, and more professors who acted like Alistair Cooke.

But it's just not realistic, say those who run today's giant, mostly public, research universities. The practical argument these days, laid out by President Charles Knapp in his recent annual report on the University of Georgia, for example, is that cutting-edge research at graduate schools enlivens teaching in the undergraduate classroom.

This is the trickle-down theory of specialized research. Mr. Douglas calls it useless posturing. Not more classroom teaching, but real involvement in the personal lives of the students is the only way to restore a community of learning, he insists.

Universities are doing many things well these days, but one of them isn't giving the young an education, as Mr. Douglas defines it -- the point of which is "to fire up the imagination of the individual and provide him with a culture of his own."

Doug Cumming is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's assistant metro editor for education.

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