The New Criterion has posted the text of a remarkable address by retiring Yale classics professor Donald Kagan.
I have posted about Kagan before; see this post, which includes a link to his free online course on Ancient Greece.
In evaluating the performance of major American universities in meeting the various goals of liberal education sought over the centuries, I came to conclusions that surprise me. It seems to me that the education provided at a typical liberal arts college today comes closest to achieving the goals sought by English gentlemen in the eighteenth century. To be sure, success in that world did not require any particular set of studies or any specialization. If it had done so, I am sure the training then would have contained some equivalent of our modern departmental major. In most other respects, our curricula today—with their lack of any collection of works or even subjects studied in common, the absence of agreement on any particular method of training the mind, the lack of a culminating examination testing the acquisition of a fixed body of knowledge, the emphasis on well-roundedness (defined only as the opposite of narrowness and achieved by taking a few courses in some specified number of different fields)—fit the model nicely. If we examine the full reality rather than only the formal curriculum, the similarities seem even greater. I submit that in America today the most important social distinction, one almost as significant as the old one between gentle and simple, is whether or not one has a college education. Within the favored group, finer distinctions place a liberal education, as opposed to a vocational or merely professional one, at the top of the social pyramid. Graduates of the better liberal arts colleges are most likely to marry the most desired partners and hold the best positions and appointments in business, their professions, and government. That this is true and widely understood is shown by the fact that each year there are great numbers of applicants for every place in the freshman classes of such colleges at a cost of perhaps $60,000 each year, a phenomenon otherwise inexplicable. Apart from any pre-professional training they may obtain, successful applicants gain about the same advantages as those sought by young Englishmen from their somewhat less formal eighteenth-century education. They sharpen useful skills in writing and speaking, they pick up enough of subjects thought interesting in their circle and the style of discussing them to permit agreeable and acceptable conversation. They learn the style and manner, political opinions and prejudices to make them comfortable in a similarly educated society. They have excellent opportunities to make friends who may be advantageous to them in later life. This education, of course, is purely secular. There is, moreover, no attempt to shape good character, for the better universities lead the country in the direction of a kind of relativism, even nihilism. The message that seems to get through is: “Do your own thing, and demand that everyone else in the world behave according to the strictest possible moral code (as it is currently understood in the halls of the most favored colleges).” No doubt, the absence of religion and the failure to shape character would disappoint an eighteenth-century gentlemen, but in other respects I think he would not be dismayed by what is called a liberal education today.
It might be thought, at least, that those values produced by the study of the natural sciences, of research, and of scientific method flourish in today’s version of liberal education; I mean the rigorous training of the mind, the inculcation of a “truth-loving habit,” and the universal triumph of the scientific method. I am inclined to think otherwise. In liberal arts colleges today, the study of mathematics and the natural sciences is separated from other studies in important ways. The study of the hard sciences is committed to rigorous training of the mind in a single method, the scientific one. Teachers of science continue to believe in the cumulative and progressive character of knowledge and in the possibility of moving toward truth. Students who major in these subjects are likely to acquire the method and to share these beliefs. Though teachers and students are interested in the practical uses of science, I think many of them come to value learning and knowledge as good in themselves. But only a minority of students in liberal arts colleges major in mathematics or natural science. In some programs, students who do not major in these subjects are required to study neither; in others, there is a minimal requirement that rarely achieves the desired goals.
But hasn’t the scientific method made its way into other disciplines, and can’t its benefits be obtained through them? Where the attempt has been made most seriously, in the social sciences, it has been a failure. It is increasingly obvious that trying to deal with human beings, creatures of independent will and purpose, as if they were objects like atoms, molecules, cells, and tissues, produces unsatisfactory results. The social sciences, far from producing a progressive narrowing of differences and a growing agreement on a common body of knowledge and of principles capable of explanation and prediction, like the natural sciences, has seen each generation undermine the beliefs of its predecessors rather than building on and refining them. What we see is a war of methodologies within and between fields. In fact, the fundamental idea of the whole enterprise, the attempt to remove values from the consideration of human behavior and simply to apply the scientific method, now seems most implausible.
To me, however, the greatest shortcoming of most attempts at liberal education today, with their individualized, unfocused, and scattered curricula, is their failure to enhance the students’ understanding of their role as free citizens of a free society and the responsibilities it entails. Every successful civilization must possess a means for passing on its basic values to each generation. When it no longer does so, its days are numbered.In the first paragraph, that is a damning summation of what a student can expect to learn at the very best American colleges. With regard to the second paragraph, I am perhaps a bit less sanguine than he that STEM majors come to value learning for its own sake. The third paragraph absolutely nails the state of contemporary "psychological science." And of course, the fourth paragraph reflects one of the great benefits of studying history: acquiring the awareness that civilizations rise and fall, and that none have lasted forever.