What's happened to 'higher' education?
We've traded the foundations of elevated thought for the allure of scientific progress.
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A balance was sought and even found between the speculative and the practical, between lofty and sincerely held principles and the dangerous business of genuine self-governance. To speak of this influence is indirectly to speak of that culture of criticism and of piety that can be traced to Homer, to Plato and Aristotle, to the Stoics, to Cicero, and to so many others in the long list of those who do what is finally "the work of the world."Skip to next paragraph
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The century that supplied our contemporary world with the most compelling arguments for liberty, for self-government, for the authority of reason over that of mere tradition or even revelation; the century that hosted tumultuous revolutions under the banner of the Age of Reason, never lost sight of the classical past, and generally invoked its models to render its own conclusions and aspiration more credible. Alas, there is a lesson here. We do not reach the moon by way of Plato and Aristotle but, without them, we might not know what to do when we get there, or why we should even make the attempt.
Science and the humanities
Thanks to Sputnik, American colleges and universities came to host what now is called "big science," once the exclusive preserve of the largest corporations. After Sputnik, there was less room for and less patience with the mere dilettante. Vocation gave way to profession, and profession to career.
The ethos of the academic world, for so long collegial and perhaps even a bit unworldly, metamorphosed into something ever more focused, ever more entrepreneurial. America entered something called "the Space Race," thought at the time to be an event within that larger and macabre Olympiad known as the cold war. With all this going on, and in light of the great stakes, there could be little room for Latin or Greek.
But of course there is always something going on and, if only for this reason, it may be that there must always be room for a literature, a culture, a means of self-critical appraisal found in purer form within the classical context. If Sputnik awakened the complacent West in the middle of the 20th century, it was Darwin who did the same a century earlier.
By the time "On the Origin of Species" appeared, the divorce between science and the humanities was effectively complete, so much so that when the Birmingham Technical Institute, thanks to a large gift from Josiah Mason, emerged as Mason College, the very terms of the gift would include the stipulation that humanities not be taught.
The college's founder's day address, titled "Science and Culture," was given by Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as "Darwin's bulldog," he was one of the most acute intelligences of the Victorian era. Huxley tested his audience with a question: Suppose a youngster hoping to have some good effect on the world had to choose between two curriculums while at university? One, says Huxley, featuring a pair of dead languages, perhaps of use to some future reviewer of books, the other based on the laws and principles of science by which one can comprehend the operations of the natural world. Huxley took this to be an easy question. Is there any doubt, he asked, in anyone's mind, as to which of these should be chosen? He answered that the only ones who could doubt were those famous "Levites in charge of the ark of culture," notably Matthew Arnold.