2009 If I Ran the Zoo #5

Robert L. Jackson

Robert Jackson is associate professor of English and education at The King's College where he oversees a curricular concentration on the history and philosophy of education.            

            Surely Gerald McGrew had an easier time redesigning the zoo than those who intend to reform American higher education. If the usual exhibits didn’t tickle his fancy, McGrew simply conjured additional species into existence. 

Moreover, the academic zoo is already full of phantasmic creatures existing nowhere else. Some appear to have been captured near the Borderlands of Incredulity—e.g., Retail Floristry (Mississippi State), Golf and Turf Management (University of Minnesota), Bakery Science (Kansas State). Others were snagged from someplace still more remote: Social Justice Education (University of Massachusetts), Global Studies (UC Santa Barbara; University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of Pittsburgh), Queer Musicology (UCLA), and Cyberfeminism (Cornell). Surely such curricular offerings are the result of McGrew-like imaginings to transform higher education into either job training or activism. 

The proliferation of such academic creatures means that reinvigorating the liberal arts will involve much more than imagination. It will require an intellectual renaissance.

Renewal movements don’t just happen. They need creative, winsome leadership to persuade a generation that academic excellence is one of our culture’s highest goods. For today’s frenetic population, formatively shaped by streaming media, renewal leaders have to persuade an audience to care enough to “make a difference” by joining an intellectual conservation movement. We need leaders with the panache of Humphrey Bogart and the erudition of Jacques Barzun. 

The zoo needs courageous leaders (keepers?) who embody the style and savvy of higher learning at its best. Such orators would promote “Retro Studies,” or traditional disciplines repackaged for the self-selecting market of would-be movers and shakers—just as Mercedes or Lexus does with their cars. A Madison Avenue sales-pitch would promote the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses.”

As it turns out, it’s been done before.

Two decades before Seuss was musing over McGrew’s zoo, a style-and-savvy campaign effectively launched the University of Chicago’s core curriculum. With golden-boy good looks, President Robert Hutchins presented philosopher Mortimer Adler’s contention that a genuine education required participation in “the Great Conversation.” The philosopher-king duo of Hutchins and Adler made the Great Conversation (and its transcription in the Great Books) an attractive public proposal—while inadvertently prompting our modern-day skirmishes over the plausibility of a Western canon.

Hutchins and Adler made their mark, though they fell short of establishing the Great Conversation as the be-all of Chicago’s curriculum, and Chicago’s Hutchins-esque core has been diluted even further in the last decade. The ideal may not have been achieved any more than John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University was accomplished at Catholic University of Ireland in the 19th century. But, in both cases, the ideas provide evidence of the Ideal.

While a number of institutions like St. John’s College still attempt to teach from traditionally-recognized texts, most institutions of higher education have given up on prescribing a serious core curriculum—beyond the pick-and-choose general education requirements. Rather than wage departmental turf wars and counter faculty inertia, academic leaders concerned with the traditional liberal arts have developed honors programs. Many of those programs are located in religiously-affiliated institutions, where canonical works finds a more congenial home.

Perhaps the entropy of the modern university—with its twin emphases of academic specialization and state bureaucracy—should be recognized as a system that is typically closed to the more robust sources of intellectual vitality: the contemplation of beauty (as discovered in the aesthetics of a created order) and truth (the capital “T” kind, which acknowledges the essential metaphysical structure of the world).

But, if I ran the zoo, I’d disenfranchise the massive research university, with its multi-million dollar endowment-and-grant portfolio, and re-allocate the lion’s share to honors programs, limited-enrollment schools that emphasize core curricula, and Bread Loaf-like conferences that showcase the truly endangered species: the medieval precursors to the renaissance and scientific revolutions; the moral dimensions of economics (à la Adam Smith); and literature as a humanistic, life-giving art, not a critical discourse among pseudo-intellectuals. If I were in charge, higher education would operate according to the maxim “less is more”: less bureaucracy, less pre-professional sports, fewer majors, etc. Then colleges would provide what Robert Frost called “education by presence,” where the Great Conversation continues between flesh-and-blood individuals eagerly engaged in “the wild free ways of wit and art.”

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