Friday, June 13, 2003

Where Have You Gone, Robert Maynard Hutchins?

Since Robert Maynard Hutchins was president of the University of Chicago, no major American university, with the possible exception of Boston University under the rule of John Silber, has had a president who has had an inkling of what liberal education is all about. This is staggering to contemplate, but it is the awful truth.

Currently we have John Sexton at NYU seeking to amass more economic brainpower for his university than....the University of Chicago. But Sexton doesn't say much about liberal education, whereas nobody graduates from the University of Chicago without reading Adam Smith, not to mention the other titans of the philosophic tradition.

President Sexton gets favorable write-ups in places like the NYTimes Sunday Magazine for the splash he's making, for the maestro of "buzz" that he is, and for the money he's throwing around, trying to lure famous professors of economics to NYU. And while articles about him sometimes indicate that he has larger plans for the university to which his overhaul of the economics department is only a prelude, there is no indication that he knows how to provide a simple, liberal education to his undergraduates. Will these high-powered economists he's hiring go through Adam Smith in undergraduate courses? Probably not. Perhaps they should not be expected to, but somebody should. How much money would it take to devise a program that required every undergraduate to read Adam Smith, not to mention Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Freud? Probably not as much as Sexton is throwing at these professors. Yet neither NYU, nor any other top-twenty school (save Chicago and Columbia) have strict core curricula that require reading the great books.

Economics is a kind of partial discipline at best. It explains how markets function; but it doesn't explain why we should have a market or take into consideration the political decision to have a market. Economics is not as comprehensive or fundamental as political science, a social science with a philosophic basis and, for some, a somewhat embarrassing lineage that stretches back to Socrates. Interestingly, an economist, Lawrence Summers, is now president of Harvard and he has proposed that all undergraduates learn how to "interpret a great humanistic text." Hugh Hewitt in the Weekly Standard derives some confidence from this and especially the fact that Summers is seeking to reinstitute an art requirment at Harvard. Let's hope Hewitt is justified; for as Harvard goes, so goes American higher education.

It is probably too much to expect Summers to be the next Robert Maynard Hutchins; but if he can display and enforce some respect for the great books at Harvard, it will have been a major victory for liberal education in the United States. The ironic thing is that anyone who's even mildly talented at spying out the desires of young people knows that a decent great books program can really minister to their needs, can really appeal to what they're looking for even if they can't express it. For decades now, professors and administrators have been flattering the talented young with grade inflation but denying them what they really want, a once-in-a-lifetime intellectual experience, marked by an intense encounter with an old book or two, from the universities they are attending. For all the vapid talk about "values" and "diversity," without a curriculum built around the great books the university stands for nothing distinctive and has no purpose.


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