Thursday, January 10, 2008

Po-Mo Curriculum at Harvard

~from First Things. Educating minds...
Apparently, the Harvard faculty is now ready for consensus. The recently published Final Report of the Task Force on General Education presents a strikingly cogent account for general education. The report encourages firmer, more substantive, more coherent expectations for the general education of undergraduates. As a result, we now have a useful, readable constitution for postmodern undergraduate education in America. The only problem is that it is a constitution for an intellectual and moral banana republic.

According to ancient usage, study is liberal because it is not servile. It is free to the extent that it serves no vocational or practical purpose. In our age, this basic sense is largely preserved. We send eighteen-year-olds off to college rather than to professional schools, and, for a large part of four years, students take classes in subjects with no obvious relevance to their future jobs. Thus, in the ancient sense, they are educated liberally.

The Harvard Final Report thoroughly endorses liberal education. The undergraduate years should not be thought of simple as a preliminary to professional training; instead, “it is preparation for life.” But what sort of preparation? The report reflects the dominant view of contemporary academia. Although there is a nod toward the objectivity of scientific knowledge, the emphasis falls on the therapy of critique. “The aim of a liberal education,” we read, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people.”

The same basic picture emerges as the report details the new set of required courses. In the main, the report asks for students to be exposed to the integrity of modern scientific inquiry. “General education courses in the Sciences of the Physical Universe,” we are informed, “teach central facts and concepts in the physical sciences and engineering.” The same holds for the life sciences. Yet the courses dealing with history, cultures, societies, and moral ideas have a quite different tone. Where Harvard students should be competent in science, they should be critical in culture.

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....

...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 ideal of a cultural manager sounds sensible in the face of our present clashes of civilizations and culture wars. It’s an angle the Final Report plays. But I wonder. Nearly two centuries ago, John Henry Newman saw that it was a conceit of the modern age that truth may be approached without homage. The mechanisms of critique destroy piety and in so doing diminish our capacity to love and obey truth once found.
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