Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Harvard's New Curriculum Standards

The finest educational institution in the land has finally released its Final Report of the Task Force on General Education, purported to be a clear statement about what the faculty at Harvard thinks students ought to learn, and how.

R.R. Reno of First Things has a review of it. If you know anything at all about which trough non-science academics have been feeding from for the past few generations, you'll not expect anything new. It isn't easy to come up with new standards when you haven't been taught any yourself. Or to put it more fairly perhaps: When one's academic life is centered around the negation rather than the appreciation of time-tested values, it is asking a lot to be expected to come up with time-tested standards of education. If what one has been taught hasn't worked, alas!--one must reinvent the wheel. Or, perhaps invent new language to describe the same old paradigms.

A few choice quotes from Reno's report:
“The aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people.”*
I can buy into academics disorienting young people up to a point. But shouldn't you be starting to try to actually orient them by, say, the second semester of the first year? Indeed, don't young people already come in disoriented, naturally? I thought that was what high school was for.

SS Reno:
"Let’s take a look at the core category that might involve the study of literature: “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding.” One might think that a class on Shakespeare, for example, would have as its goal an encounter with the content of his plays. But it appears not to be so. “Students,” we learn, “should know how to ‘read’ cultural and aesthetic expressions.” The scare quotes are telling. A Harvard student will not so much be taught to read Shakespeare as learn how to “read” him, which means understanding the “dynamics of culture” encoded into his poetry and plays. This should not surprise. The goal is “to help students understand themselves and others as products of and participants in traditions of culture and belief,” so that they can “understand how meanings are produced and received.” Cultural studies, in other words, supplants the humanities. It’s not what Shakespeare says that matters; it’s his role as factory that produces meaning."

And finally this:
"Why has the study of culture shifted so dramatically? Here the report provides a valuable clarity. It gives us an important insight into Harvard’s ideal of the well-educated world leader. “Familiarity with the dynamics of culture,” we are told, “is essential to the students’ successful navigation of today’s world.” Nicely put. The basic existential thrust of postmodern cultural study is to relax the power of any particular culture over the minds of students. The goal is obvious. A Harvard man or woman is not to be a member of a culture. He or she navigates cultures. With a critical grasp of the factory of meaning, he or she sets about to oversee production."
The goal of education is to discourage membership in a culture. Is that right? Reno quotes John Henry Newman (Remember this is a Catholic periodical.) to the effect that the conceit of moderns is to approach truth without homage. That is a great thought, and alas, is so totally absurd in the context of modern higher education. To invoke truth at all, and to then suggest that Truth ought to be something we honor, seek, even worship!--stops all conversation in the ivied halls. This is something with which academia appears no longer equipped to tangle. Read Reno's article for the whole spiel.

*In reading through the actual Harvard document, I found that the full quote reads at the end: " disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves." Strike one against Mr. Reno. His point stands, as "re-orient" could be considered code language for treating with deep suspicion and even hostility the prevailing culture.


scott said...

I chewed on this one a while before deciding that my old friend post-modernism wasn't the enemy here. It was the attempt to teach students, at the first, what has always been the end result of a university education. A PhD will come away knowing the scientific method (or rather, 'a method'), but it will be achieved by using that method for a number of years. Likewise, an art historian will come away with a breadth of knowledge of art such that he can see into a painting which culture produced it, as well as time period, even apart from the works author. All this education and knowledge of a single subject matter inevitably results in a mature understanding of both that subject matter as well as certain other characteristics which the self-perpetuating brainiacs at Harvard think they've managed to isolate. The classically well educated all appreciate other cultures, have elbow patches on their suit jackets, and are generally competent from an academic standpoint. Not to mention they seem to be immune to the quaint notion of truth that the sophmoric academic is all excited about these days in the guise of postmodernism. Despite the fact that the vast majority of faculty manage to look and act exactly like your typical humanoid truth dweller, despite a few varied idiosyncrisies.

Thus the Harvard academicians think they can skim off that end experience of a complete education and teach even their lowly undergraduates this "experience". The notion is a charming one, that we can teach that end product without actually going through all the hard work it took to get there. It's hard to condemn the effort, because there is the appealing intellectual quality to the well educated. We see it in our best Pastors, the very well read, but really in any deeply thoughtful person.

But I really doubt, though, that it is possible to actually teach that intellectual maturity without the mastry of some particular subject matter. The fact is, regardless of how a student is to "properly read" shakespeare, the student will be reading Shakespeare, and after enough reading, the students will eventually gain some mastry. As we all hope the ELCA's sneak into heaven because they did hear the Gospel in church, it will be in spite of, not because of, thier corrupted leaders.

Bruce Gee said...

Interesting comments, Scott. Couple of my own:

While it is true that students will tend to get what they get out of their studies--including a perspective on the culture out of which research or art is produced, it is another thing entirely to make the critique of cultures the guiding principle in the study of all disciplines. This seems to be the trend.

I remember a conversation I had some years ago with a very bright young high school student in one of Madison's more progressive schools (I.e, prep school). She complained that in every class the discussion of the material always boiled down to either sexism or racism. I don't have to point out how superficial an education that is going to be.

Your last few paragraphs translated: in classical terms, we speak of the Trivium of learning in any subject: first a grammar stage, then a logic stage, and finally a rhetoric stage. Learn the ABC's; learn how they all work together; learn how to use and express them. What high schools and colleges (and grade schools!) have been tending toward for a few decades at least is neglecting the grammar stages (at least from a mastery standpoint, and this is really widespread), and conflating the logic and rhetoric stages. What students are asked to do is express what they think about a subject from the get-go. "How does this make you feel?" is the implied question. Well, I oversimplify, but not by much.
On the graduate level it is much more sophisticated, but that level too is shot through, it appears, with deconstructionist thinking, implied or expressed.

As Mr. Reno said to me in an email discussion we are having, the subject is much more complex than a single essay can address.