Beyond the Politics: Making the Case for the Liberal Arts

Tom Wood

On October 5, CNN broadcast a program called Beyond the Politics, which was anchored by Bill Bennett. The guests were David Gelernter, Amy Holmes, Steve Waldman, and Alan Wolfe. The program was an inquiry into the health of American institutions and culture, particularly in the context of the current political election cycle. Not surprisingly, higher education and its health was one of the topics that got discussed. The program raised important questions about the liberal arts and its role in higher education and American culture.

David Gelernter, who was the first to broach the issue of higher education, is a professor of computer science at Yale and a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He writes frequently for publications like the City Journal, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary. Gelernter holds a B.A. and M.A. in classical Hebrew literature from Yale, and a PhD in computer science from SUNY Stony Brook. He has done important, fundamental work in parallel computation, though he is probably less well known for that than for his having been critically injured in 1993 by a mailbomb sent by the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. The NAS was recently contacted by Donald Lazere of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, with a request that it publicize an article Lazere had written ("David Gelernter's Facts and The Weekly Standard's Standards", History News Network, 9-15-08) criticizing an earlier article by Gelernter that had been published in the Weekly Standard ("A World Without Public Schools"). The NAS granted Lazere’s request, on the grounds that readers should have an opportunity to judge for themselves.

After Bennett had expressed the view that American cultural institutions are more vibrant than we might think, the following exchange occurred, prompted by some personal observations by Gelernter:

GELERNTER: ...I see that our teachers at the college level and at lower levels want to be friends with their students instead of teaching our students. I see schools in desperately mediocre shape, certainly all over the northeast and the college students that we see each year seem to be less capable in basic skills and...

WOLFE: Not Yale. Not at Yale.

GELERNTER: Especially at Yale.


BENNETT: OK, we got news. We got news.


GELERNTER: They're really smart, they're really smart, but they just don't know anything. And their teachers haven't taught them anything. And ultimately it's the fault of their parents. That's where the quality control check has to be and it's not coming through.

Later in the program, Alan Wolfe, who teaches political science at Boston College, found himself agreeing with Gelernter on this point, even though Gelernter is politically conservative and Wolfe is politically liberal:

WOLFE: My students don't know enough about history. They get centuries wrong, they get names wrong. They get just about everything wrong.

I hoped as I watched this program that the discussion would develop this theme, perhaps by invoking the work that E. D. Hirsch, Jr. began in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, it didn’t, but I was particularly intrigued to see a professor at Yale seeming to claim that the cultural illiteracy in the U.S. that Hirsch began studying in the 1980s has seeped upward, as it were, to reach Yale itself.

E. D. Hirsch began making a major contribution to the study of American education and American culture with the publication in 1987 of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. (Hirsch is now retired, after having been for many years a University Professor of Education and Humanities and Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Virginia, and from 1999 to 2006 a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.) Hirsch’s principal finding was that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge. This means that students must actually know something in order to have good reading comprehension. Hirsch’s principal theme was the importance of cultural literacy, the network of information that all readers must possess in order to read a newspaper or follow a news story on TV with an adequate level of comprehension. Most of the background information that is required to fully understand the meaning of a text is not given explicitly in the text, according to Hirsch’s findings. It has to come from the background information that the writer and reader bring to the task. Absent this network of information, critical skills or language skills will not be sufficient to enable the reader or hearer to comprehend what is being said.

Gelernter didn’t specify what exactly it was that Yale students should know that they don’t know, either when they arrive or when they graduate. Although he teaches computer science at Yale, it is unlikely that he was claiming that Yale students lack the mathematical or logical skills required to do well in computer science. It is more likely that Gelernter was saying that Yale students fail to have the background information that is required or provided by an education in the liberal arts. If so, he is saying, in effect, that even Yale gets failing marks for what remains the core of the University and all other top colleges in the U.S.

The opinions expressed by Wolfe and Gelernter in the program remained anecdotal, subjective impressions, but confirmation of their assessments can be found in a civic literacy exam that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute gave to thousands of students at 50 colleges and universities in the United States in 2006 and 2007-08. (The exam consists of sixty multiple-choice questions; take the test and get your own score here.) In 2007-08, Yale seniors averaged only 65.9% on this test.

Relative to other college seniors taking the test, the Yale average on the ISI exam was actually quite good. The overall average score for the 50 institutions was 54.2%, an “F.” According to ISI, there wasn’t a single college surveyed that could boast that its seniors scored, on average, even a “C” in American civic knowledge. Harvard seniors scored highest, but their overall average was only 69.6%, a “D+.” At 18 of the 50 colleges, the average senior scored less than 50%. ISI broke down the items into four knowledge areas: American history; American political thought; America and the world; and the market economy. The average college senior failed all four subjects, scoring less than 60% in each. High scoring schools, besides Harvard and Yale, included Wheaton (64.98); Brown (65.64); and the University of Virginia (65.28). Low scoring schools (randomly selected by ISI) included Oakwood College (AL) (34.69); St. John's University (NY) (39.82); and Eastern Connecticut State (40.99).

ISI summarized its findings as follows: “College seniors know astoundingly little about America’s history, political thought, market economy and international relations,” and they “lack the knowledge for informed engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.”

The ISI civic literacy test actually underestimates the extent of the failure of American society and its educational system in a number of important respects.

First of all, ISI’s was an exam in civic literacy, whereas Hirsch’s concept of cultural literacy is broader. Civic literacy is an important part of Hirsh’s cultural literacy, but it is only a part. Some idea of Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy and how it differs from ISI’s working concept of civic literacy can be gained by comparing the items in the ISI test with the back cover of Hirsch's 1987 book Cultural Literacy. There one is asked to put the following terms into context: absolute zero; Alamo; Billy the Kid; carpetbagger; El Greco; Faust (title); gamma rays; Homestead Act; Iago; Icarus; jazz; lame duck; manna from heaven; nom de plume; penis envy; rococo; sea legs; tabula rasa; Valhalla; Waterloo, Battle of; and Zeitgeist. It is easy to imagine a reader or student scoring reasonably well on the ISI exam, but doing poorly on the larger reading comprehension tasks that have been Hirsch’s concern. Getting students up to speed in civic literacy is a big job; getting them up to speed in cultural literacy, in Hirsch’s sense, is an even bigger one.

One of ISI’s recommendations was that colleges and universities should increase the number of required history, political science, and economics courses. Doing this is an important 

desideratum, but on Hirsch’s wider view, it is insufficient. Civics issues, as Hirsch sees it, are part of a wider cultural context, and can only make real sense in light of that wider context. The more dense and rich the background information, the clearer and more significant the meaning of a text will be to a reader. On Hirsch’s view, students need strengthened background knowledge in all the areas covered by the liberal arts in order to function well in a modern, technologically sophisticated society like the U.S. This kind of background information cannot be imparted by an education that is solely or even primarily professional or vocational in orientation, and teaching to the test is out of the question. The generalized background knowledge that Hirsch has insisted is necessary is a rich and dense thing that only develops slowly, like a coral reef. And citizens in modern societies need lots of it.

Second, ISI’s focus, unlike Hirsch’s, is inadequate because it is too narrowly concerned with American issues. These are, of course, important issues, but particularly since 9/11 and the rapid, accelerating expansion of the global economy and global finance since the 1980s, it is even clearer now than it was when Hirsch began his work that what every American must know is increasingly what every American must know about the entire planet. Clearly, cultural literacy now includes a very important global dimension. This makes the achievement of real cultural literacy an even more daunting task.

Hirsch’s work on cultural literacy began one day in 1978 when he was testing reading assignments at the local community college in Richmond, after he had already conducted similar research on reading comprehension and writing at the University of Virginia. Hirsch found that the community college students (many of them black) had language and reading skills that were comparable to their peers at the University of Virginia. He was therefore surprised to find that they were incapable of understanding a passage of historical writing dealing with Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Hirsch found that the community college students failed where the University of Virginia students succeeded because they did not have the necessary background information that the UVA students had about the Civil War. (UVA students did, however, encounter the same problem with reading comprehension when confronted with an essay by Hegel on philosophy, and for the same reason.)

Today, students need to be able to understand similar passages of historical writing and current events involving far-flung cultures around the globe. To take only one obvious instance, assessment of American policy in the Middle East, one of the central issues of our day, requires a lot of background information and relatively sophisticated knowledge about the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, particularly as it has played out in the Middle East. Understanding the continuing conflict and strife in Iraq in particular requires an understanding of long-standing religious conflicts between Sunnis and Shi’as in Islam, going back almost a millennium and a half to religious and tribal conflicts in the Arabian peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Americans should also know more than they do about the societies, cultures, and economies of India and China, two emerging economic superpowers, in order to make informed judgments about both foreign and domestic policy. And so on.

The comments by Wolfe and Gelernter in Bennett’s Beyond the Politics program were particularly striking because the program was aired the weekend after the Vice Presidential debate that was held on October 2 at Washington University in St. Louis. One can only wonder how well-positioned American college students, much less the average American citizen, were to understand the issues in that debate or any other debate on public issues. For that matter, I was not particularly impressed with the debate on the issues that took place on Bennett’sCNN program. Somehow, the five-way discussion didn’t really come together. But the point here is that in order to follow the discussion and to be in a position to judge its merits, whether about the general cultural issues that were covered or the more specific political issues about Palin, Biden, Obama, and McCain that came up during the program, one clearly needed the kind of background information constituting cultural literacy. Those who have this background information can only imagine what it would be like to try to follow a book or TV program on public affairs of any depth or sophistication without having it. It would be like listening to a conversation in a language that one only half understood, in which one knew, say, the meaning of only half the words. There could be no real mastery or understanding or comprehension, which is exactly Hirsch’s point.

Most Americans, of course, don’t even watch programs like Beyond the Politics. For the most part, they don’t watch news programs (apart from local news) or cultural programs at all. To appreciate how little the typical American is able to understand issues in such programs, one has to step outside the college and college-educated universe altogether. The students at Harvard, Yale, and the other elite universities that ISI so disdained are vast, inexhaustible repositories of human knowledge compared to the general American population. The percentage of Americans with degrees from elite institutions like Harvard or Yale is of course vanishingly small. The percentage of Americans with bachelors’ degrees from any institution is itself small—about 30% currently. The level of cultural literacy of the general population outside this 30 percent of the population must be even lower.

To stay attuned to the cultural illiteracy of the general population in the U.S., one probably needs to watch programs like Jaywalking on the Tonight show. Some of the horror stories about cultural illiteracy that Hirsch recounts in his 1987 book concern students in the L.A. Unified School District. Sometimes, when I watch Jaywalking episodes on the Tonight Show, I imagine some of the students that Hirsch describes wandering up to Hollywood Boulevard or Melrose Avenue to be interviewed by Leno, but of course they could be from almost anywhere in the U.S. Jaywalking, like everything else on the Tonight Show, is intended to be amusing, light entertainment, but I find it to be an episode on the show that is never amusing. Mostly it is depressing. Often it is horrifying.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this sad state of affairs. Hirsch in more recent works has been inclined to blame it on an educational philosophy he calls “Romanticism.” The most depressing thought of all, though, is that the biggest (not the only) culprits lie outside the educational establishment altogether—whether in K-12 or in higher education.

In Bennett’s Beyond the Politics program, Gelernter, a conservative, and Wolfe, a liberal, were both inclined to place the blame on the larger society. Gelernter blames parents. Wolfe blames the tendency of citizens and their leaders in democratic societies to take the easy way and not place serious demands on themselves or anyone else:

WOLFE: The word culture comes from the same word as cultivate. Cultivate a field. Culture is an effort. Culture requires that you really work on something.

It means when you take nature and transform it into something, through deliberate actions. It's hard work. And I agree completely with Senator Moynihan about the importance of culture.

I don't think we're working hard enough on our culture. You mentioned, Bill, that our politicians just give us what we want. Well, unfortunately, some of our religious leaders, big growth in religion is sort of offering people kind of easy salvation. So do too many of our educational leaders.

We have grade inflation, which (INAUDIBLE). This is a very serious issue. We have salvation inflation. We have grade inflation. Our culture is thinning out because no one's making demands. But it's not just government.

BENNETT: Education inflation, too.

WOLFE: All -- yes. Yes.

BENNETT: At the school level. Yes.

WOLFE: All our institutions. And it's kind of what democracy does. They want to respond to the popular world, but culture means resistance to what people might want at any given time. And it's hard to resist.

The job of creating informed, culturally literate citizens is the job of the liberal arts and those who work in it more than anyone else. Yet this sector of the university has long been under siege. For decades, liberal arts programs have been declining in favor of more vocationally and professionally oriented degree programs like business administration. For the most part, the blame for this cannot be placed on the colleges and universities themselves. It is not even clear that most of the blame can be placed on the students. Increasingly, according to many academics, students are feeling pressure from their parents to select programs or majors that are more narrowly professional or vocational. Even many public intellectuals and those who write on higher education have started to question the importance and relevance of the liberal arts—especially the humanities.

All this is demoralizing, and a matter of grave concern to the nation. Citizenship requires the critical skills and core knowledge that are the heart of a liberal education, however that education is obtained, either through formal education or not. Since no one has been able to suggest a way for millions of people to get this kind of education other than through the educational system we have, criticism of the liberal arts strikes me as a criticism, and even abandonment, of the ideals of learning and civilization itself. The most depressing thought of all, though, is that Gelernter and Wolfe are right, and that the country is getting the level of cultural illiteracy and lack of civilization that it probably deserves.

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