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Jewish World Review March 20, 2000/ 13 Adar II, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus -- THERE'S A QUIET and under-reported war raging in American universities. There's no shooting, no air strikes and no naval bombarding. But perhaps not since 19th century England have science and technology on the one hand and liberal arts on the other been so ferociously at each other's throats.

Though the scientists probably wouldn't, you could call it a battle for the soul of education. It pits the interests of corporate money, the need for tangible results in scientific research and training for jobs in high-tech industries, against the study of what Matthew Arnold described as the best that is known and thought in the world.

Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn offer several examples in dispatches from the front, filed in the Atlantic Monthly:

  • George Mason University (GMU) in suburban Virginia got a mandate from the governor to serve the region's high tech businesses better, with the promise of as much as $25 million a year in additional state money. The campus in Prince William County added degree courses in information technology and computer science. Nothing wrong with that -- except that to do it GMU eliminated degree programs in the classics, German, Russian and other subjects in the humanities. Students and professors protested, worrying out loud how effective the science courses could be if the students in them couldn't think and write critically.

  • At the Claremont colleges in Southern California, a cluster of small schools including much-respected Pomona College, a new graduate institute features "a curriculum focused on the needs of the industrial sector.''

  • In a two-year national study of the humanities, James Engell, a professor from Harvard who chaired steering committees in literature and history, and Anthony Dangerfield, a former professor of English at Dartmouth, found that bachelor's degrees in English, foreign languages, philosophy and religion had sharply declined. They found a five- to ten-fold increase in trade-school courses such as computer and information sciences. Doctoral programs in literature at the elite universities have 29 fewer students per program than 25 years ago.

The professors argue that these changes have created "Market-Model Universities,'' which put an emphasis on subjects designed to make money, study money and attract money. This has not developed in a vacuum. Many students and tenured professors have trivialized higher education by reducing the Western studies curriculum to such feel-good scams as "multicultural studies,'' and the status of the humanities inevitably declines.
When African American studies get an imprimatur that once belonged to the classics, when "gender studies'' transform "seminars'' into "ovulars,'' and when the films of Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese are offered at Yale as a method of studying "race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality'' in American urban life, you could conclude that academics ain't what they used to be.

We shouldn't underestimate the importance of learning the language of computers and understanding the significant changes taking place in the biosciences. But to give short shrift to the humanities is to diminish our ability to understand man's creative achievements (and failures) in the philosophical and aesthetic content of the culture.

You don't have to be a romantic to acknowledge that scientific knowledge is narrow, incomplete and often misleading in the study of man. A fascinating debate between Thomas Huxley, the leading proponent of Darwin, and his friend Matthew Arnold in the 19th century, illuminates just this point.

Huxley was asked to give the inaugural address on "Science and Culture'' at England's Science College of Birmingham, whose founder had made one stipulation: "The classics may not be taught.'' Huxley, a brilliant debater, made the strong case for the Darwinian outlook and the exclusive study of science in education, downgrading and dismissing the classics as dusty tomes written in dead languages for a few old professors who live to write reviews of other people's books.

Arnold responded with great humility. He would never exclude science from his university, and the scientists could debate at length Darwin's claim that early man was a hairy quadruped with pointy ears and a tail, swinging through the trees. Nevertheless, he said wryly, if Darwin was right, there was something in that pointy-eared quadruped that ultimately moved him forward to write "The Iliad,'' to build the Acropolis, to dramatize "Oedipus Rex.''

"Matthew Arnold knew we didn't get there on the wings of science,'' says Daniel Robinson, a professor of philosophy and psychology who teaches the great ideas at Georgetown University. "We were driven to perfect ourselves in works of art and in the words of Aeschylus and Sophocles.''

Science, for all that it teaches, has a limited focus, and lacks the free play of the imagination that drives man to achieve a different kind of excellence. Kevin Avruch, who teaches anthropology at George Mason, signed the petition arguing that students must be educated beyond a technological proficiency.

His protest, he says, has united professors, both liberal and conservative: "We share a 19th century view that our job is to educate well-rounded citizens.'' Even if -- or especially when -- they have pointy ears.


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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate