The Long Shadow of James B. Conant 6

The solution was a core curriculum, nonspecialized, in which classic texts of the Western tradition are read for what they have to say in themselves, rather than through some disciplinary matrix (as one would expect, for example, in an “Introduction to Literature” or an “Introduction to Political Science” course). These texts serve, in theory, as a vocabulary of ideas shared by all the members of an oth¬erwise diverse and mobile society: social tradition, which stratifies and divides, is replaced by intellectual tradition, which provides what the report refers to as a “binding experience.” The belief that free societies are in danger from an external political threat is obvi¬ously a great argument on behalf of such a program: people with no common set of beliefs are vulnerable to ideologues peddling, if nothing else, coherence. It is not hard to see that the system is ex¬traordinarily vulnerable on many points, and that it was probably fated, in certain respects, to become a victim of its own success. The greater the variety of people it accommodated, the greater the strain on the impersonal and abstract notions of “merit,” “objectiv¬ity,” and “greatness” which underwrite it. When nontraditional pop¬ulations (that is, women and nonwhite students) began integrating American universities in substantial numbers after 1970, the back¬lash against the color-, race-, and gender-blind ideals of meritocratic theory, and of the “great books” solution, began. So did the backlash against the imposition of scientific standards of objectivity on the softer disciplines—the turn from paradigms of “knowledge” to para¬digms of “interpretation.” It took academic humanities departments more than twenty years to sort out the consequences.
And there is, in the end, something culturally tone-deaf about the system—as there was about Conant himself, a man who could never understand what the study of art and literature was doing at a research university, who attempted while president of Harvard to close Harvard University Press and to cut loose the Divinity School, and who confessed that the whole subject of higher education for women made him uneasy. The scientistic standards he imposed on the selection of students and faculty at Harvard (and, through that example, on much of the rest of the country’s institutions of higher education) reflect a certain impercipience about the variety of forms that contributions to knowledge and to the cultural life can take. He largely drove imagination out of the university, and he helped to quantify talents—-such as “verbal aptitude”—which it is meaningless to assess in purely quantitative terms. You don’t have to be an enemy of logocentrism to have doubts about the system Conant helped to create. You only have to look around you at the peo¬ple who have “made it.”
The twelve authors of the Red Book were far more attuned to the holistic nature of intelligence and ability than the man who ap¬pointed them was. But a certain deafness persists. The report speaks continually of the “diversity” of the student population, but it never mentions differences of ethnic background, religious belief, or even gender. When the authors use the term, they mean only di¬versity of socioeconomic status; and the assumption that socioeco¬nomic status correlates with some rank order of abstract aptitudes is still central to the meritocratic system the report presupposes.
This complaint about the Harvard report’s definition of diversity is not anachronistic. The President’s Commission on Higher Edu¬cation for Democracy, headed by George Zook, whose report ap¬peared just two years after Harvard’s, in 1947, gives considerable attention to the inequalities in educational opportunities available to African-Americans. Yet the commission perceived the solution to the heterogeneity of the student population and the proliferation of specialized courses in the same terms the Harvard team did. “The failure to provide any core of unity in the essential diversity of higher education,” it concluded,
is a cause for grave concern. A society whose numbers lack a body of common experience and common knowledge is a society with¬out a fundamental culture; it tends to disintegrate into a mere ag¬gregation of individuals. Some community of values, ideas, and attitudes is essential as a cohesive force in this age of minute divi¬sion of labor and intense conflicts of special interests.. . . Colleges must find a right relationship between specialized training on the one hand, aiming at a thousand different careers, and the transmis¬sion of a common cultural heritage toward a common citizenship on the other. . . . This purpose calls for a unity in the program of studies that a uniform system of courses cannot supply.
As appealing as it understandably is to many people, the idea that a core curriculum of great books is the solution to the diversifi¬cation of ability and occupation among students and future citizens in a democracy is surely the weakest point in the general education program. For the “great books” don’t, taken together, express any¬thing like a coherent worldview. They don’t even express a set of co¬herent individual worldviews. Skepticism about such coherence is precisely one of the things in which, in many cases, their greatness consists. It is probably enlightening for students to encounter this kind of skepticism; but it is not (whatever the term is supposed to mean) “binding.” Still, the Harvard report’s sensitivity to socioeco¬nomic diversity (a subject rarely addressed in discussions of higher education today) is the frankest and the most admirable thing about it. It is the invocation of a homogenized conception of “culture” as the palliative to class difference, and the belief (elaborated on at length in the report) that educational institutions can replace the family, the church, and the community as the means of accultura¬tion, that seem misconceived.

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