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February 29, 1988 - Image 30

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The Michigan Daily, 1988-02-29

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Testing other recipes for knowledge: The experiments continue
been added to the debate by Allan Bloom's best seller "The
Closing of the American Mind." Bloom, a University of Chicago
professor, hoped his book would convince selective institutions-
he shows no interest in other institutions-to adopt the "Great
Books" curriculum that he studied, and now teaches, at Chicago.
He laments the changes in attitudes and mores that have taken
place since he was young. Bloom, who as a Cornell professor was
mortified by the student rebellion of the '60s, blames educational
collapse on "cultural relativism"-essentially, an openness to
nontraditional and non-Western cultural values. In the subtitle
of his book, Bloom charges that higher education has "impover-
ished the souls of today's students." He argues that the only
solution to what he calls "culture despair" is a curriculum that
teaches the "generally recognized classic texts." Plato. Shake-
speare. Rousseau. Etc.
It's hard to say whether Bloom's constricted viewpoint will
make a significant difference in what colleges decide to do. But it's
very easy to track the vehemence with which academe has greeted
his opinions. The acting president of Wellesley, Dale Rogers Mar-
shall, attacks Bloom for his "Eurocentric, male-centered, antidem-
ocratic perspective." "It's reactionary in that it looks to the past
and not to the future," says Ohio State's Myles Brand. Bright
students, though, are at least paying respectful attention. At
Rhodes College in Memphis last fall, a group of students organized
on their own an informal weekly seminar to discuss the book
chapter by chapter; faculty were invited to participate if they
wanted. The participants generally agreed that Bloom had a
misguided opinion of today's students. "He exaggerates," says
Erica Yoder, a sophomore theater major. "If you didn't know any
college students, you would think none of us has a passion for
education."
Two other 1987 books have contributed to the debate-one
almost by accident. "Cultural Literacy," written by University of
Virginia professor E. D. Hirsch Jr., has been interpreted as an
attack on higher education. In fact, Hirsch seeks in his book to
improve reading literacy through better precollege instruction.

An appendix to Hirsch's book-nearly 5,000 bits of information-
has been widely misunderstood as a curriculum, when he says he
intended it as a rough guide to the amount of information needed
for literacy. Ernest Boyer's book "College," on the other hand, is a
realistic, comprehensive plan for revitalizing higher education.
Boyer calls for active learning, greater emphasis on teaching by
faculty and improved advising for students, among other things.
"College" seems too comprehensive at times, but it at least makes
clear that simplistic solutions aren't good enough.
So, why is all this happening now? The books and national
reports made reform newsworthy, but almost certainly the
initial urge came in the classroom, where faculty saw that
things weren't working. And, to a large extent, what wasn't
working was the open-ended nature of curriculum that start-
ed in the '60s, with widespread relaxation of restrictions, academic
and otherwise. "The pendulum has been swinging back," says
Richard Peck, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the
University of Alabama.
It's possible to view the'60s as a time when higher education tried
to make itself socially relevant. Programs in women's studies and
black studies were born. General education was made flexible
because, as Colorado philosophy professor John Carnes puts it,
"students were into 'doing their own thing'." Another view is that
some of the reforms were overdue and extremely valuable, but that
many faculties surrendered their authority to student protests.
Then, from the late'70s and well into the'80s, came a different kind
of student-induced frenzy-for vocational relevance. The rush to
implement "computer literacy" on campuses is an indication of
how willing colleges were to comply. Now, as the'80s dwindle away,
there's little indication that student influence is waning. What
David Riesman, emeritus professor of the social sciences at Har-
vard, calls "consumerism" still rules, but faculty are clearly at-
tempting to reassert their authority. Perhaps today's reform move-
ment should be termed a search for intellectual relevance.
There are serious risks for institutions that stress general educa-
tion too much at a time when the college-age population is
shrinking. Careerism still holds sway-and some of the increased
interest in the liberal arts can be interpreted as vocational, as
CEO's and career counselors proclaim that broadly educated
people are desirable. Certainly the downturns in oil, computers
and stocks have hammered home the need for flexibility in
career planning through the liberal arts. But all this could blow
away with the next economic wind of change.
o, will we ever get it right? Or will American higher educa-
tion always be the dog chasing its curricular tail? "What's
different now," says Education Secretary Bennett, "is that
people in the academy are conceding that something's
wrong." Granted, these concessions may be as much the
result of public pressure, engendered by ongoing public criticism,
as they are an honest realization that changes are desperately
needed. Still, today's widening awareness indicates good things for
the future of higher education. "Whether the reforms live or not,"
says Ernest Boyer, "depends on the faculty." If the changes do, in
some significant way, amount to an intellectual breakthrough,
perhaps they will endure. The life of the mind exists inside and
outside of time. Despite Allan Bloom's fondest wish, we cannot
stop time or freeze knowledge. Certainly, the past can speak to us.
But we must consider the present and the future. Will we ever get it
right? "It's never right for all time," says David Riesman. "Stu-
dents change, faculty change, times change." Will we ever get it
right? No, but we must try.
RON GIVENS with BRUCE MEYERSON in Brooklyn,
BRUCE EMOND inGrinnell, MICHAEL MEHLE inBoulder,
MICHAEL NEWMAN inPaloAlto, CHRIS ROBERTS n TusCaloosa,
JI O L I P H A N T in Columbus and bureau reports

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12 NEWSWEEKMON CAMPUS

MARCH 1988

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