The Merits of Old School
By Jessica Hooten, October 11, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?

The former president of Harvard Derek Bok entered the conversation over why American universities are not educating students as much as they should be. In his Our Underachieving Colleges (2006), he shares the concern of Allan Bloom (whose Closing of the American Mind precedes Bok's monograph) that American education fails to understand or achieve its purpose: to educate. Primarily, universities fail because they cannot define what it means to be educated.

Bok differentiates his books from those that have gone before by saying that his book gives directions, provides tools for doing, takes the conversation into action. He lists eight purposes for the university and organizes his chapters by those purposes: 1) learning to communicate, 2) learning to think, 3) building character, 4) preparation for citizenship, 5) living with diversity, 6) preparing for a global society, 7) acquiring broader interests, and 8) preparing for a career. I think most educators could agree with these purposes.

However, he dismisses two of the most advantageous methods of achieving these eight ends: classical education and Great Books programs. In his opening chapter, he offhandedly discredits classical education: “[A]nyone seeking a common purpose must go back to a time before the Civil War, when colleges united around a classical curriculum aimed at mental discipline and character building. No one today would be willing to return to that antebellum model of student recitations, ancient languages, and rigid disciplinary codes” (24).

I spent only two years in a Classical School in Fort Worth, the first year teaching fourth grade and the second teaching primarily high school students. Classical education attempts to revive the lost traditions of education which produced the great thinkers, writers, and artists of the last two millennia.  (For more information on these programs, read Dorothy Sayers’s essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Or, visit Wikipedia where the movement has merited the attention of that illustrious resource.) It is not an exaggeration to say that my fourth graders knew more about writing than my incoming freshman in college, and my high school students had greater insight into Milton’s Paradise Lost than the seniors in my British Literature survey. The classical curriculum should not be so quickly trivialized.

Moreover, one of Bok’s noteworthy tasks is to encourage universities to reintegrate character building into education. Why, then, expel a successful method for achieving the task? When teaching at the Classical School, I had the administration’s support to expect and inspire moral behavior from my students. Bok questions whether such expectations are beneficial at the university level: “Should moral development be merely an option for students who are interested…? Or should it be an integral part of undergraduate education for all students and a goal demanding attention, effort, and on occasion, even a bit of courage and sacrifice from every level of the college administration?”  (171). It appears Bok leans toward affirming the latter question, and I agree. I freely ask my students to apply our discussion to their own lives: if it is morally reprehensible for Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to deceive and manipulate her audience, what does this mean for your behavior?

I’ve raised this question in my British Literature survey course, which I teach with the Great Books method. Unfortunately I did not receive the standard English professor’s education: as an undergraduate, I attended four semesters of Great Books at Pepperdine University, I received my Masters from a Great Books college, and I taught in the Great Texts program at Baylor University. I’m biased towards Great Books programs. For me, that was where education took place. I thought all of college would be like those Great Books classes.

Bok understands the purpose of Great Books programs. He delivers a concise description of the experience: “Such an experience offers the education that enthusiasts consider best calculated to increase students’ self-knowledge, elevate their tastes, enhance their powers of reasoning, deepen their insight into recurring social issues and moral dilemmas, and build a continuing interest in many fields of human inquiry and experience” (263). After such a build up, the reader expects the author to write “Amen!” or “Sold!” (which I wrote in the margin). Instead, Bok discounts this approach for two reasons: not enough trained faculty to teach these courses, not enough students interested in taking them.

Both points seem rather weak in comparison with the advantages of the Great Books program. First, training faculty should be fairly unproblematic. After all, these faculty members have terminal degrees in their field; these should be our master learners. Second, since when does student interest determine core requirements? I had little interest in astronomy as a nineteen-year-old student, but I was required to take it. For the rest of the curriculum, Bok assumes that administrators and faculty members should make decisions for the good of the students. He trusts the decisions about education to educators. Yet, in debating the merits of Great Books programs, the lack of student interest is his major argument.

If we are to accomplish Bok’s suggested eight purposes of education, I think we cannot forego the merits of classical curriculum and the Great Books programs. In fact, I believe a return to these approaches will best realize those goals. Caroline Gordon once lamented that for the first time in history people had the audacity to call themselves educated without knowing Latin or Greek. While she sounds extreme to modern educators, she makes a valid point. Why have we 21stcentury Americans decided to throw out thousands of years of successful pedagogy? Perhaps, in preparing for our future, we should reexamine our past.

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Anonymous on Oct 11, 2010 at 8:24 am

Well said! Clearly Bok defeats his own purpose, and loses the robust "Amen." But you just earned it.

Alex on Mar 10, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Familiar with Charlotte Iserbyt? "The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America"?

about the author

Jessica Hooten
Jessica Hooten

I am an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. In 2009 I received my doctorate in Religion and Literature from Baylor University. My dissertation explored the theological connections between Dostoevsky and Flannery O'Connor and was directed by Ralph Wood. Currently, I'm researching Dostoevsky's connections to other Southern writers, including Walker Percy and Carson McCullers, to produce a book-length manuscript. I teach courses that support my research, including Southern literature, Totalitarinism and literature, and American literature survey courses.