I graduated from university this past August, but I’m still uncertain what to make of the experience. As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I certainly did not receive an education, even if one limits my courses to my own major (Literature). Despite receiving a good grasp of English-language literature from about 1850 on, my school didn’t even offer many classes beyond that. No classes at all on Greek or Roman literature (in fact, there’s no classicist on the faculty), no classes on Medieval or Renaissance literature (except Dante and Shakespeare), and few on non-English language literature.
Fundamentally, I struggle to see any guiding philosophy behind the school I attended, and the same problem seems to extend to most American colleges. What is the university’s goal? What should its graduates look like? What are they expected to know by the time they graduate, and why? Though a core curriculum existed, the arrangement of courses seemed arbitrary, and despite attending a university that claimed to emphasise interdisciplinary studies, I saw no attempt to link one field with another.
Though American education suffers from many problems, I suspect that most schools could address them first by simply deciding on their first principles; essentially, deciding what a newly graduated student should look like. Should technical expertise take priority? Or should they favour a more traditional approach and emphasise a liberal education?
The latter may be impossible in the climate of most schools, with their emphasis on diversity. Though it should be obvious that DI-versity is opposite to UNI-versity, most schools I’ve looked at proudly advertise their diverse studentry and multicultural approach to education. Though non-western cultures certainly have much to teach, nonetheless the United States arose out of Western European culture, so an American university that claims to value a liberal education, which cultivates the student’s character by learning from what’s best from the past, must emphasise the West.
Most colleges, though, are essentially technical or vocational schools. Thus, fields that have little to no relation to cultural matters, like business, accounting, or engineering, receive just as much of the university’s attention as traditionally liberal subjects like philosophy or natural science. There’s nothing wrong with teaching these fields, of course, but they have no place in a university devoted to liberal education. Students studying, say, finance, feel that an arbitrary assortment of history or art courses have no bearing on their major. They’re right, of course, because to profit from the study of history or art requires some depth of study, not just a couple introductory-level courses, which on their own become little more than an exercise in futility.
So, where does that leave students? Those looking to learn technical skills do learn them, though I often hear that graduates learn much more from actual working experience. As for those, like me, who look for a liberal education, are left largely on our own. Again, my classes weren’t completely useless, but large gaps remain, and I think I’m beginning to understand what Ezra Pound meant when he referred to ‘young men threatened by university.’ The real draw for university, I think, is the presence of professors who can direct students to the best of Western civilisation, and the students must then take it on themselves to learn from that. So, I’ve started with Ezra Pound, recommended by one of my better professors, and working from his suggestions (mostly in his ABC of Reading). Beyond that, for now I’ll just have to stumble about the library, I suppose.