The Ecphorizer

Notes of a Magaziner VI
Paul W. Healy

Issue #18 (February 1983)

Examining the goals of a university education

"One million of the nation's college freshmen, about 40%, read and write so poorly they must take remedial classes, educators said Tuesday. The classes are costing millions of dollars - 32 million at the state-supported City University of New York alone.

...the most vital and important facts of life cannot be taught by academic training.

The situation is so serious educators at a Chicago conference Tuesday proposed testing every college applicant for grammar, reading, and writing."

-Carolyn Pesce in USA TODAY, 8 December 1982.

[quoteright]On the evening TV news one watches steelworkers, grocers, and garbage collectors marching along to accompany the head of a striking teachers' union to jail. A Washington, Pennsylvania judge had sentenced him there for failing to order his union members to return to work in accordance with their contracts. The group accompanying him would seen to be appropriate, since clearly neither the crowd nor the teachers themselves consider that they are professionals - and they consider their contracts as mere scraps of paper, with no binding force whatever.

Is there an answer for the seemingly crucial problems facing the American schools today? Consider an article, Modern Education written by Professor Harry Thurston Peck of Columbia University. Please read it first -- don't look ahead to see when it was written -- and see if you can place the time of writing within a decade.

"In these days the scientific educator in the primary schools draws spidery little diagrams, in which a crooked line goes wriggling up a sort of trellis; and this psychological horoscope, all carefully marked out in accordance with a set of definite rules, saves everyone a world of trouble in deciding on his methods. Education nowadays, in fact, is being dessicated and formulated and reduced to the compact and convenient form of a set of logarithmic tables.

"A natural corollary of such a state of doctrine is the popular assumption that anything whatever can be taught. Hence comes a proposition which is logically sound enough and theoretically unobjectionable: that in the rapidly expanding curricula of our colleges and universities those subjects of instruction should appear which bear directly on the personal welfare of the student in his future life, and that his moral and social, as well as his intellectual, needs should be provided for. If we teach him languages and literature and philosophy and history to make him an accomplished gentleman, and if we teach him chemistry and mechanical engineering to enable him to earn an income, why not also teach him those things which are vastly more important for his real happiness? Why should not the young and inexperienced undergraduate in the formative period of his early life learn from the lips of university instructors everything that makes for a rational, virtuous, and successful life - how to preserve his health, how to resist temptation, how to choose his profession, how to avoid mistakes in business, how to invest his money, how to select a wife, how to bring up children and how to grow old gracefully? These things are really most important - they are even vital; and why should not the universities make the teaching of them a matter of serious concern?

"The great defect in all this sort of argument takes no notice whatsoever of the facts of man's experience, and is based upon the fallacy that all possible subjects of teaching stand upon precisely the same basis. It does not carefully distinguish, as one is ultimately forced to do, between the facts of which a purely intellectual knowledge is sufficient to afford a reasonable grasp and those other facts to which this knowledge can of itself give no real practical importance. For instance, by drilling any man of average intelligence in the necessary rules and principles it is entirely possible to make of him a tolerable mathematician, because when once he knows those rules and principles he has done what is essential... But you cannot, on the other hand, by any possible amount of formal precept or instruction or exhortation imbue him with sobriety or continence or practical wisdom. And why? Simply because in all these things mere knowledge is not half enough.

"Does anyone suppose that what duty and affection and pity and hope and terror, backed up by strenuous eloquence and religious faith, have never yet accomplished, can be effected by the kindly talk of a sleek university professor in some intercalated college course?... And as to some of these proposed additions to the university curriculum, the humor of the proposition strikes one rather forcibly. When a young man is about to fall in love, can one imagine him referring gravely to his notebooks to see whether the conditions are exactly suitable, and whether the professorial formula applies?

"No; it is just as true today as it was five thousand years ago and as it will be true five thousand years from now, that the most vital and important facts of life cannot be taught by academic training, but must be learned by every human being for himself. It is a hard saying; but it expresses nothing but the fact of human limitation -- the limitation that serves as a limit beyond which mankind cannot go; for if the experience of the past could be accumulated, and if the youth of today could be at once equipped with all the garnered wisdom of his ancestors, and if every generation could add to this its own experience intact, the race of men would cease to be mere mortals, but would rise above the level of humanity and be as the immortal gods."

If Professor Peck believed this of the university when he wrote - have you guessed the date yet? - how much more would he decry the admissions policy of the modern university! He would say to them, "Take only those who can write a decent English sentence, strike a proper balance in their checkbooks each month, and make change properly." Trade schools and technical institutes are certainly needed in our society, but their courses should have no place in a university. Prof. Peck's article appeared in the July, 1897, issue of The Cosmopolitan

Magaziner Paul W. Healy digs down this month into his stupendous pile of 19th-centuriana for a few cautionary words on education.

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