Some years back, while laboring in the grim vineyards of police correspondence for a metropolitan daily, I appeared as a guest lecturer before a class of undergraduates in criminology at the University of Maryland. The idea of a major in criminology struck me as peculiar, but apparently there was one. I was to explain to the students the realities of police work.
The adventure was a revelation. The kids, a scruffy bunch dressed in student tatterdemalion, heavy on minorities, were as lacking in polish as in grammar. Their intelligence seemed low. They had strong, simple prejudices instead of ideas, and no inclination to examine them. The intellectual level was that of a rural high school. They appeared to be bored. They had no business in a university.
Why, I wondered, were we forcing these bedraggled beings to feign a scholarship which appealed to them not at all, which they at once endured and degraded — and that at great expense to the public? Why do we make this burdensome imposition on people who do not want schooling, do not need it, and do not understand what it is? It is wrongheaded.
I submit that it makes no sense to inflict on the unprepared and incapable a pretense of a university education for no other reason that to further a pretense of equality. What real purpose is served? And yet this forcing of the unneeded on the undesirous runs through all schooling in America.
It makes little more sense to require that the intelligent but uninterested study what they do not like — usually, the liberal arts. Doing so accomplishes nothing. An engineer forced to read Blake is merely an annoyed engineer. He will never touch a book of poetry in his academic afterlife. There is no reason why he should.
I think that we ought to abandon utterly any requirement that vocational students waste time on the liberal arts. Schools of engineering, criminology, and business management are just that, vocational schools, nothing more. They may be of a high order. Graduating in electrical engineering from a school of the first rank is not easy. Yet the document awarded is not a diploma but a trade-school certificate. So is a degree in chemistry or ophthalmology. All are evidence of training, not education. If a student of chemistry wants to study history, and many might, he should certainly be enabled to do so. But it should not be required.
Universities usually defend requirements in the liberal arts on many grounds in which few believe. I suggest that we cease to defend them at all. A liberal schooling should be a luxury, like a yacht, and should be regarded as such. The arts are not for many and should be forced on none. They require much and exact a price. Only the intelligent can profit by them, and of the intelligent, few want them. Why not make them voluntary?
I now hear of departments of English literature which award degrees to students who have never read Shakespeare or Chaucer. The students of course say that such authors are irrelevant. The literate respond with horror, leaping to such barricades as may be found in publications on coated paper.
But the students are right. Shakespeare is irrelevant. More accurately, Shakespeare is irrelevant to anyone who believes that he is irrelevant. You do not get a federal job by knowing Chaucer, or having heard of Chaucer. Those forced to study writers, or philosophy, or history they don’t want to study will gain nothing. Those who do want to study them lose much, because the courses will often be of sufficiently little rigor as not to oppress the bored.
Yet there are intelligent young of inquiring nature and breadth of mind to whom liberal studies appeal — students actually attracted to reading Aeschylus in the original, and Asian history and the Elder Edda, who want to study Fragonard and Watteau. Let them. By so doing they harm no one. Being turbulent adolescents under the influence of evil hormones, they will need direction. Nonetheless if a student chooses such schooling, knowing what he is choosing, it is his business.
It is not just in the universities that we force the young to study things that mean nothing to them and will have no influence on their lives. As soundings of the public monotonously reveal, a minority of the population is in possession of such arcane information as the century in which the Civil War occurred, or who fought in World War I, or where Italy might be found on a map. Things are yet worse: Far more people than we admit can barely read. Most who can, don’t. The United States is not the well-schooled nation that it seems to believe that it is.
The public schools, say some, have failed to such a degree as to make their continuance rationally unjustifiable. Yes, they fail, but why? To some extent it is because they are expected to do what cannot be done — to educate the uneducable. For reasons of dizzy idealism, we pretend that all students have the wit to learn. Thus we suffer high-sounding programs like No Child Left Behind. You cannot ensure that no child will be left behind. You can try to ensure that no child will get ahead. To this we incline.
As in the universities, the difficulty is that we refuse to separate the able from the rest, yet insist on attempting to teach to the uninterested things that they do not want to know. If this effort bore fruit, it might be justified: A disputable case can be made that the historically literate are better equipped to vote, etc. But it is easily demonstrated that the majority do not learn much. Why bother?
A wise course, and therefore one impossible of realization, might be to recognize that schooling is inherently hierarchical and not susceptible to populist leveling. A beginning would be to make all study voluntary beyond, say, the sixth or eighth grade. By then all would have learned to read who were ever going to learn. Below the university level, private schools unregulated by government are the only way to let people study the subjects they choose at the level of rigor that they want. Freedom from federal intrusion is crucial. Nothing else can prevent resentful minorities from imposing invertebrate standards on all.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.