Education of the heart

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UNTIL a few decades ago, it was generally agreed that the most important part of the legacy from one generation to another consisted in a kind of wisdom: In what does the good life consist? What is worthy of one's commitment? What is more important than self-gratification? What is good or honorable or true? The second part of that legacy consisted of knowledge and skill: teaching a younger generation how to make a living, how to master a profession, how to become a productive citizen. But through it all, e ducation was seen as a moral endeavor, not because it sought to indoctrinate but because it was a sharing of things that people held to be important. All of us are aware that the collegiate tradition in this country grew out of such an understanding of education. In the colleges that were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was an ethos, an atmosphere of expectation, embodied in ceremonies and traditions as well as in courses, in which all of these things were fused together and passed on. Education was the institutionalization of what we as a people deemed important.

The wisdom that underlay such preparation, as we all know, was a distillate of the Bible and of the classical tradition, and it included a strong dose of literature. Through those courses and subjects one encountered life vicariously. Reality was served up not in piecemeal fashion but in and through the larger conflicts and tensions, aspirations and dichotomies, hypocrisies and hopes of the people portrayed in that literature. Virtue had a role -- not in a preening self-regarding sense but as the embodiment of certain qualities of life and of their importance for the body politic, qualities such as fidelity, good will, patience, discipline, restraint, promise-keeping. This was a legacy that took precedence over self.

There are some thoughtful testimonies in our own time to the power of that kind of education. Many of us were products of it. Theodore White has written movingly in his ``In Search of History'' of his first encounter, as a young Harvard student out of a Boston ghetto, with John K. Fairbank. He tells how this gangling North Dakotan -- who taught Chinese, of all unlikely subjects -- drew him to himself and taught him how to live in the mannered atmosphere of Cambridge. But beyond that, White says that he remembers Fairbank for having sculpted a rough stone into something that was worthwhile.

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But times have changed. For at least three decades that received wisdom has been under attack. That wisdom has been under attack because, for one thing, its focus was too exclusive, too parochial. It was too WASPish. It contributed to a disenfranchisement of too many in a full life. And its conventional morality too easily accommodated injustice and hypocrisy. That wisdom has also wilted under the harsh analysis of Marx and Freud, which sees goodness as a cover for imperialism or a mask for self-aggrand izement, placing all virtue and wisdom under suspicion.

The result is that authority has retreated to that which is more certain, known and demonstrable. A more comprehensive and holistic view of life has given way to specialization. The shared outlook which that wisdom represented has fragmented. In many of our faculties across the country there has been such a focus upon research and teaching that the interaction with students has become limited to the classroom. Today few colleges have shared public events beyond commencement. I'm not talking just a bout chapel, but about any kind of assembly where the community gathers.

Obviously in all of this something is missing. Surely we can recall that the events at Berkeley in the '60s not only introduced us to the notion of free speech, but also taught us that students feel deprived when teachers only teach or, even more tellingly, only do research. The brightest of students want to learn why their professors think the way they do and how they have arrived at their conclusions. If this seems strange, look at what law students and medical students and other professio nal students remember most vividly from their education: their clerkships with judges and the moments over coffee, or the grand rounds when the doctor begins to tell anecdotes that reveal something of his or her humanity. It is precisely in those moments that values and wisdom are shared.

James T. Laney is president of Emory University, Atlanta. From an address to the directors of the Harvard Alumni Association, copyright Harvard Magazine.

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