Op-Ed: Learning equates to success

Even a few years ago, those who worked in higher education still posed a basic question: Were undergraduates engaged in “learning for its own sake,” or were they being groomed for roles in the American economy?

For a significant number of academicians, the debate had to do with personal status and curricular details. The noblest teachers had always seized the imaginations of their students and turned them into new kinds of people. Just learning how to earn a living was often regarded as a workshop task that could be taken care of through apprenticeship rather than formal classroom instruction.

American higher education has obviously experienced major changes since the closing years of the 20th Century. In a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly, David Brooks reported on his visit to Princeton University where the students struck him as a new “ruling class” in the making. They showed little sign of rebellion or resentment, saw their studies as an inevitable prelude to future careers and were deeply concerned with pleasing rather than alienating professors. Princeton has become a “prep school” for American capitalism. If that is the case, can any other college or university do otherwise?

For academic traditionalists wedded to humanistic ideals, the notion they serve the national economy causes discomfort. To leave a class full of students more appreciative of and comfortable with Shakespeare or Allen Ginsberg is their way of fulfilling a duty to the young. Meanwhile, parents paying tuition and living costs of those young people do so mainly so the latter can find well-remunerated careers.

Does this mean schools of higher education are in a state of tragic conflict? Or are they demonstrating a constellation of characteristics that we heirs of the Western tradition have encountered before?

I encourage those interested in these questions to reconsider the age of Socrates. The Socratic environment was one dominated by the rhetoricians of the Athenian marketplace, the “agora” that enabled Hellenic and Hellenistic Greeks to meet publicly to trade, converse or perhaps exercise in a nearby gymnasium. Some rhetoricians called themselves philosophers. Others contented themselves by letting it be known that their students were superbly prepared to play public roles in a society in which public speaking was also the main highway to power, wealth and complete respectability.

Modern people are sometimes mystified by this system. To understand it, we have to imagine a world in which the importance of the spoken word was intensified by the absence of mass communication. To speak to those who can hear you personally was a crucial act. At instantaneous speed, the arguments produced by the trained speaker had to demonstrate a calmness and mastery that might have struck an average listener as superhuman.

Is there any parallel between the agora training of ancient Athens and what our colleges and universities are doing today? There is, I believe, if we can learn to see the Athenian rhetoricians as the humanists of their time. Training students to argue meant those students would inevitably touch on the most sensitive political and philosophical subjects of their day. Even the most limited and merely practical of Athenian rhetoricians would find himself tending a bit toward Socrates.

Schools of higher education today often boast about the high quality of teachers in their classrooms. What they do not emphasize as much is how those teachers are internalized by their students as paradigms of calm, lucid and polite debate on sensitive matters. But when most Americans think about what a college education should accomplish, they think of a graduate capable of engaging in the high-stress debates of a modern company, government agency or academic institution while keeping his or her language civil and clear and being an obvious “person to respect.”

In the Athens of Socrates, a limited number of people lived in an information age. They were children whose parents could afford and were willing to pay the fees of the rhetoricians. Athenians of that kind were rarities. Most Athenians had to do hard physical work just to supply the needs of themselves and their families.

Since the history of American higher education has been dominated by a metaphor of broadening, we see today a system of “mass higher education” struggling to reach those who, in an earlier age, would have been condemned to lives of hard labor. Many of us still are not used to such a new idea. If education is “higher,” they feel, then it cannot possibly be “mass.”

In the world in which we live, gone forever is the elitist assumption that only those whose families pay big bucks can learn the language of an educated person before they graduate from high school. Our society’s new philosophy of education can be summed up with the statement that “it is never too early to begin.”

Today, every part of the college curriculum is seen as having a profound humanistic edge. If one teaches in a law school, the public issues embodied in the American Constitution soon narrow the gap between a typical class and the front page of today’s newspaper. In medicine, the challenges of delivery and the challenges of discovery leave few of our society’s nooks and crannies unexplored.

What our society has accomplished is to make most of us, instead of just a few of us, into public people. What our colleges and universities are actually doing, though, closely resembles the agora training with which Hellenic and Hellenistic Greeks were so familiar. Failure to present one’s arguments and oneself in a competent fashion translates more relentlessly than ever into life-failure, too.

-The writer is president and professor of public administration.

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