Thursday, August 25, 2011

A bit of a Rant

I have read many articles in the past few years bemoaning the loss of standards in higher education, and, in particular, the loss of a common cultural set of references. I think the source of much of the complaint is really a reaction to a loss of privilege and the decline of the "educated" class.

A university education used to belong to only a few: those that had the money and those who demonstrated the intellectual abilities to get money in the form of scholarships. The educated few shared a common experience and a shared vocabulary. They read the same "classics", got the same basic science and math, the same basic economics. Out of this group came all the lawyers, bankers and politicians, the men who made the laws, enforced them and controlled the money. Life was good for the educated class of mostly white men.

All this was lost because of the democratization of education. The first serious blow came at the end of World War II with the enactment of the GI bill. Suddenly tens of thousands of men who would not naturally have been able to attend a university were able to. Worse, they believed their children should have the right to attend too, and ideally, all children should have the right to attend the university of their choice.

The universities became crowded with those who were "different, " who did not fit into the culture of the educated class. They were dissatisfied with the classical curriculum and wanted "relevant" education, focused on current issues and employment.

The final blow to the educated elite came with the explosion of the Internet and the democratization of knowledge itself. Now anyone could access the classics (previously available only in expensive university press editions). But more, they could access literature, philosophy, history and political thought from a myriad of cultures. The net effect was to diffuse the set of common cultural references so dear to the educated class. No longer could you count on someone catching a reference to Thucydides or the Book of Job.

To "cultural conservatives this is a defaming of all that is holy, a cultural disgrace, a loss of core values. But what they are really upset about, though they will not admit this even to themselves, is a loss of privilege and power, the loss of a world where they knew all the cues and their position was secure.

Personally, I see the diversification of culture as an increase in richness. The more cultures, the more languages, the more literatures, the better. I love ancient Greek and Latin literature and now, thanks to efforts like Tuft's Perseus Project, I have access to most of it for free. In addition I can access Arabic, Chinese, and African literature. The loss of a set of common references is small compared to the enormous richness of new reference and new vistas. The belief that somehow one culture's literature and languages are somehow superior to other culture's literature and languages is just another form of racism. Democracy in politics and in culture is messy and can be frightening, but is worth the journey.

1 comment:

  1. The thing about preserving common cultural references is that it helps keep scholars with sharp brains but limited imaginations well-contained and comfortable inside their relatively small world views. Can't think of another function it serves.

    Lord, what would they say
    Did their Catullus walk their way?