NOT long ago at St. John's College in Maryland - a school devoted solely to the study of the Great Books and great ideas - a senior was giving his opinion of the authors being read on campus that quarter, one of whom was Abraham Lincoln. ``Lincoln's not that important, overall,'' he said. ``I can't get into him; he's a little simple. I don't know why we read him. Now Hegel! Hegel's way beyond Lincoln....''
Some months later, Lincoln's name came up again. This time a black woman, a senior political science major and student leader at the University of California, Berkeley, was talking about civil rights. Lincoln, she said, with pitying politeness, was a racist.
``I'm not going to thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing the slaves,'' she went on. ``For one thing, he didn't really have that much to do with it. And he's a white male - he doesn't speak to me.''
The scholars I tell these episodes to shrug helplessly.
They acknowledge the irony of the young man's viewpoint. Although he's getting exactly the kind of philosophical education Allan Bloom prescribes in his controversial best seller ``The Closing of the American Mind,'' this student's fascination with abstract theory seems to have blinded him to the significance of actual democratic-historical experience, which defines Lincoln's peculiarly ``American'' character.
They see the young woman as a victim of ideology posing as scholarship.
Beyond that, they regard the misreading of a figure like Lincoln - who was able to both keep the union together and issue the Emancipation Proclamation - as evidence of a deeper misreading of what one scholar terms ``the meaning of America.''
Debate on origins of US culture
The much-publicized debate at Stanford University this winter over the ``canon'' of Western ideas and books underscores the problem. No agreement was reached there on a definition of the most significant origins and influences of American culture, despite a compromise on the required reading list (see The Christian Science Monitor, April 8, Page 19).
This problem has been developing for some time, educators say, for reasons that are by now familiar: two decades of social upheaval, and uncertainty and suspicion over American use of power. A breakup of the post-World War II American dream, with its links to corporate success ethics, monochromatic suburbs, and an unquestioning heroic view of the past. After the Vietnam war, many saw America as no longer virtuous, no longer exceptional. Blacks and women demanded, through struggles often punctuated by violent confrontations, that the United States live up to its professed ideals.
Schools and colleges, reflecting trends in the larger culture, became specialized, secular, and neutral. New studies of race, class, gender - and revisionist and social history - brought many untold stories to the surface. But a larger story that was both coherent and realistic was put aside. There were no longer any common truths. Everything was subjective. Hence, America meant - ``whatever.''
``In many cultures, if you ask about the meaning of something, they tell you with a story,'' says Page Smith, who last year finished the eighth and final volume of his ``People's History'' of the US (see excerpt, Page B10). ``But ask an academic today about the meaning of America and they look at you in horror. `That's not my field,' they'll say - `I do Civil War reconstruction.' Or - `Here, go read this bibliography.'''
It's into the resulting vacuum of meaning that best sellers like ``Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know,'' by E.D. Hirsch, and Dr. Bloom's ``Closing of the American Mind'' have gone. Bloom has been attacked furiously. Yet scholars from left and right say the problem is not simply the grousings of a Bloom, or of Education Secretary William J. Bennett.
``The students manage to know so little today,'' says Robert Bellah, a sociologist. ``They don't know about Western ideas, and it's becoming artificial to say they resort to ethnic traditions. Japanese students, whites - they don't identify with Confucianism, or Plato. Most of it comes from TV.''
Intellectual historian Christopher Lasch says there's ``always been disagreement about what America means. Is it opportunity - get rich quick? Or something religious? What bothers me is that kids aren't learning the terms of this basic debate, don't know there is a debate - let alone some larger meaning.''
It's not ignorance about the dates of World War I, how a bill passes Congress, or where Arizona is on a map that concerns such scholars. It's a loss of a deeper resonance with the idea of America; it's particular values rooted both in the Reformation, with its spirit of individual conscience, and in the science and logic of the Enlightenment; it's the country's often tragic, but more often heroic, story, and its meanings, which range from the complexities of the Constitution to the profoundly simple sentiments of a Lincoln, who called America the world's ``last, best hope,'' entrusted to ``this almost-chosen people.''
Shared memory is key
Thinkers like Dr. Bellah say the issue can't be grasped by the scholastic mind alone. Theologian Helmut Richard Niebuhr, in a now almost forgotten 1941 book entitled ``The Meaning of Revelation,'' opened up a dimension usually ignored in academia today. ``Immigrants do not become true members of the American community until they have learned to call the Pilgrims and the men of 1776 their fathers and to regard the torment of the Civil War as somehow their own. Where common memory is lacking, where men do not share in the same past, there can be no real community,'' he wrote.
``I think the gap continues to widen between the intellectual elite and the regular folks,'' says Jean Elshtain, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, who warns against the technical, management approach that now characterizes American politics.
Columnist Max Lerner, whose Olympic ``America as a Civilization'' has been reissued after 30 years, says that when writing the book in the 1950s, he felt the most important issue in America was access and racial equality. Today, ``with the unraveling of cohesion that came with the cross-purposes of interest groups'' in the past decades, the most important need is for ``nexus'' - a deeper understanding of the ideals and purposes that bind Americans.
The anxious attention being paid to Paul Kennedy's ``The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,'' on the classic problems of maintaining empire, also raises the question of America's meaning: Is the US just another world superpower, devoid of sustaining values, destined to rise and fall?
Some neoconservative economists say that in relation to other countries, the US is still unique and thriving. But the issue is not how the nation is doing in relation to others, one scholar commented, but how it is doing in relation to itself.
``We must begin with our ideas, our principles,'' says Dr. Smith. ``Our ideas have always had enormous power in the world. Maybe we need to worry less about being a third-rate military power, and re-ask how to be a first-rate moral power.''
This includes, Smith says, not just constitutional liberties and freedoms, but the rich ethos of the Old and New Testaments, with their emphasis on redemption, transformation, and caring.
Clear thinking in the future about race, the role of women in society, science and technology, the specter of a growing underclass, even economic productivity - may depend on a reawakening to such basic ideas, said many contacted.
Yet between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, as T.S. Eliot put it. Schools - at all levels - aren't ready to provide such education, though critiques are getting sharper.
Take, for example, ``expanding environments,'' the social studies course given to most K-3 public schoolchildren (called ``tot sociology'' by Diane Ravitch of Teachers College, Columbia University). Children learn such facts as the division of labor in families, and how city transportation works. But missing is the imaginative world of folk tales, myths, ancient cultures, Eskimos, dinosaurs, or the heroes and villains of American history
In junior high and high school, history has been swallowed by social studies that lack coherence and a sense of story. A lot depends on the teacher. In February, California adopted a tightly knit ``framework'' for teaching history, geography, and civics throughout all 12 years of public schools.
And then there's college.
Many colleges make it easy for students to bypass Western culture - in favor of vocational courses. Required courses are often considered ``mick'' (Mickey Mouse) by students.
``It's not like state legislators care about raising consciousness, or if students understand American civilization,'' a department chairman says. ``What they want to know is - `What's your placement rate? How many got jobs?'''
Even at schools that do require a Western culture course, there is a sense of unease about how and what it should be.
The much-publicized debate at Stanford this year - over a required course in Western civilization that minorities criticized for being biased and ``male, Eurocentric'' - offers an insight.
Stanford reaches compromise
Stanford faculty reached a compromise this month (teach fewer classics, more works by minorities). But many professors were concerned that it left open a key issue: where America comes from, and what its particular ideas and values are - if any.
``That's the debate,'' says English professor George Dekker, ``being aboveboard about where this society got most of its cultural and social institutions.''
Stanford protesters said America is multicultural. ``The West as we know it is not European but international in its origin and tradition,'' said William King, president of the Black Student Union in a speech to the faculty.
Responding, Carl Degler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford historian, denied this: ``It is easy to identify the European analogues to American institutions: our educational system, our economy, our political practices, our religions, our science, our social values.
``It's more difficult, to say the least, to name the important institutions and values in modern American culture that can be shown to have been derived from Africa, China, Japan....''
Students say that to study mainly white males is biased. Yet ``we don't ignore the theories of gravitation because Newton happened to be a white male,'' one professor said.
Some humanities professors say the debate is really the attempt of the social sciences to gain academic turf. They say the social sciences change or obscure the meaning of the great books - by focusing more on the external, social conditions of a Faulkner novel, say, than with the internal issues the author was grappling with. (Thus, supporting private interpretations - Marxist, feminist, etc., that leave students helpless to refute.)
As for the need to understand other cultures during the dawn of a 21st-century global village, critics say: fine, but to know other cultures, we first have to know ourselves.
Students living off TV and the culture of McDonald's haven't always heard there's such a self to know. The task, professors say, is to show them that America represented a whole new set of possibilities for men and women.
``What then is the American, this new man?'' asked French settler Hector de Cr`evecoeur in 1782, trying to contrast the Old and New World consciousness.
``Tocqueville was right about us,'' says Dr. Elshtain. ``He said, `Yes, the family here is different. It doesn't reflect a patriarchal monarchy. The mother here has more authority.'''
Economist Victor Fuchs says Western culture courses should ask four questions: What does it mean to be human? Western? American? Modern?
Few educators think things will ``be OK'' if schools just teach more Western civilization. In fact, too much veneration of ancestors and traditions can be inhibiting, they say. Part of the idea of America was freedom from tradition, from the dead hand of the past. The country was born in revolt and change - and forward vision. The energy of American art often expresses ``the now,'' ``the new.''
``The radicals of the '30s, '40s, and '50s had no respect for book learning,'' says Seymour Martin Lipset of the Hoover Institution. ``We knew the books, yes. But our education was debate, discussion.''
Besides, the academic industry today is not set up to ask larger questions. The guiding assumption, says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation, is that if you put together a lot of little pieces of knowledge, maybe someday it will add up to something. Meanwhile, students are starving for meaning.
Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb tells of a young scholar doing primary source research on a colonial New England town - studying the lives of the people by examining parish registers, legal records, tax rolls. She asked him what the townspeople felt about the founding of America taking place all around them. The scholar didn't know, he hadn't been able to ``get to'' it.
Research is often unreadable; the paper flow incredible. There are 142 journals of sociology alone.
Dr. Boyer says ``the editor of every journal should make it a condition of publication to show how the article relates to the larger picture; put it in context. It's become standard to end your research by saying, `Of course, more research is needed.' That may be so, but what does it mean so far?''
Linguistics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive psychology are hot areas in major university humanities departments. The disciplines are in a muddle, says Prof. Anthony Grafton of Princeton. ``It's very difficult to figure out who anybody is, what field they are located in.''
To escape fragmentation and intellectual dilettantism, students might consider small colleges, which sociologist David Riesman calls ``the seedcorn of American intellectual life.'' Such schools often have more of a missionary sense about education, more humility, and place a premium on teaching.
To counter the trend of specialization, some colleges are offering broad ``summing up'' courses for juniors and seniors. Freshmen can't comprehend Nietzsche, Marx, Emerson, scholars say, and often forget them two weeks later. But after four years in school, they need a way to ``put things together.''
History 199 - ``The Origins of Modern Society'' - was started at Stanford last year for just this reason. It's an interdisciplinary seminar, with 20 scholars discussing the major themes of the West - the invention of politics in Greece, ``the medieval rebirth,'' music as a mirror of society in the 1800s, economics as history, the European view of America. Religious foundations
Finally, religion. Page Smith writes that students ``cannot understand'' America without recognizing the ``Protestant passion for redemption'' found in the abolition and civil rights movements.
Harry Stout at Yale has documented the central importance of colonial ministers in bringing about the American Revolution. They saw America in terms of its ``spiritual destiny,'' he says. Professor Stout uses the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen to relate this to students. Springsteen is ``disillusioned because he can't find the promised land in America's streets of fire.'' Stout asks: Where did Springsteen get his idea there is a promised land?
Sin, grace, redemption, creation, evil, love, are not concepts one finds in many courses on public policy. But as Robert Goeser of the Pacific School of Religion points out, they have been at the heart of the value system of the West.
``The individual struggle for truth and self-knowledge characterizes us. You find it in Luther's great insight that evil is to be found in humans precisely at the place of the highest goodness - that it's the best in us that becomes vulnerable to corruption. Students tell me they can see this in politics, religion, institutions.''
Dr. Goeser adds, ``Religious questions are not just peripheral. They say to us as Americans - `Where are we going? And why?'''