Finding our common thread

January 11, 1999|By B. Meredith Burke

HOW much commonality of knowledge does a society require? The end of last year saw three prominent news stories that confronted the reader with this question.

One described contemplated changes in the University of Chicago's undergraduate program. Another described a looming boom in niche programming for cable television. Yet a third showed that white and African-American television viewers increasingly occupy separate universes where non-sports programming is concerned.

Cutting the required core curriculum from one-half to a mere one-third of a student's load is University of Chicago president Hugo Sonnenschein's response to today's "commodification and marketing of higher education." He has also committed funds and staff for improved student and athletic facilities and career-placement services.

Campus life

Certainly to survive a university requires a supply of both students and funds. Chicago rightly needs to know if its small number of applicants and high out-transfer rate, compared with those of other top-rank schools, reflect its distinctive curriculum or the conditions of campus life and location.

But Chicago's required core course work has been rather minimal: two years of math and science, seven quarters of humanities and civilization, one year each of social sciences and foreign language.

The tension between two competing views of post-secondary schooling accompanied the post-World War II democratization of college attendance. Most returning G.I.'s sought preparation for civilian jobs in an era where a college education had become increasingly necessary.

Yet this end was not incompatible with a liberal education that acquainted the student with the foundations of the society's knowledge and developed critical thinking skills. In-class debates fostered a working consensus and respect for those of differing views.

Indeed, the obligation to participate in discussions within and outside the classroom with peers and (presumably) better-informed faculty is what sets our best colleges apart from the more mundane.

Does a technocrat society want or deserve, or can it afford more than a tiny number of citizens educated in that mold? As a demographer and public-policy commentator, I shudder at the forces at play in today's society.

Inculcating a common core culture does not mean drumming in a mindless "groupthink." It does mean guaranteeing that the actors in our communities will speak from some common knowledge of the history, documents and values that generated today's structures. It means a speaker can assume a listener will bring the intended associations to a name or an idea only sketchily referred to. It means that citizens will agree on the goals of public institutions sufficiently to support the same rather than competing ones.

Fourteen hundred cable channels threaten the minimal unity required of citizenry in an already-heterogeneous society. Extolling programming that segments audiences (including boys and girls) not just into different time slots but nonoverlapping channels is a new twist on "separate but equal."

University of Chicago's president is right to make his South Chicago campus attractive to students. In its setting, the campus has to assure students they need not look outside for a vibrant activities center and well-equipped athletic center (no matter what Robert Hutchins, a former University of Chicago president, thought about intercollegiate athletics, a sound mind in a sound body is scarcely an outmoded ideal). A college committed to a liberal education should be equally committed to assuming the task of pre-selling prospective employers on the value of a liberally trained mind.

Pols should speak up

But it is our politicians who should be acclaiming colleges like the University of Chicago. Our country has now endured a 30-year experiment in demographic fragmentation of a magnitude rarely if ever seen in peacetime societies.

At this time, learning to sustain a cohesive and functioning society is at least as valuable an educational goal as learning how to earn a living. The classic liberal arts curriculum demands that its students examine what constitutes the common good, debate how best to promote it and emerge committed to working toward a society that will hold together. Far from dismantling its core requirements, the University of Chicago ought to tout its striving for social commonality in an era in which the marketplace uses (or, better, misuses) sophisticated demographic techniques to exploit each scintilla of difference in an already-divided public.

B. Meredith Burke, a policy analyst, writes from Santa Barbara, Calif.

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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