Way back in high school, my wife studied Latin. So did hundreds of thousands--even millions--of others. In the high school I attended, Latin had already left the building. I studied German ("studied" broadly understood).
German was the language of science. What's more, we'd just defeated the Reich. German was a world language, still is, and vastly more useful than Latin, emphasis on "useful."
Today, our grandkids, if they study any language, study Spanish so they can talk to their neighbors. Follow the trajectory of that series of lingual transitions and you'll understand basic changes in education: educators are trying to be, at every level, more practical. A friend of mine, a life-long, middle school math teacher, told me not long ago that teaching today is completely different than it was when he started. Everything needs to be experiential: 2 + 2 = 4 isn't quite enough. What's more efficient is my two donuts plus your two long johns means together we have got some good eating. Wait a minute, let's count calories.
Fifty years ago no one studied Latin to talk to real live human beings because no live human spoke Latin. My wife studied Latin because it was required, but it was required because educators believed somehow that studying Latin helped us understand.
Now you might think I didn't end that sentence, but I did. What I left off was a direct object--as in "understand what?" Back then, some educators would have said, studying Latin helps us understand our language, not just "the English language" but also what and how that language communicates, even about us. But what they meant was less specific, really--teaching Latin helps us understand.
Now all that glitters is not gold and there ain't no Golden Age. But we've become vastly more practical in education in my lifetime, and while that turn has its strengths, it's also left some things in the rear view mirror--and not just Latin.
Higher education has changed too and changed similarly. Years ago, there was immense faculty opposition to the President's purposeful mission change when he decided--I'm sure there was a committee backing him up--that Dordt College needed to teach agriculture. Great moaning and gnashing of teeth. Seriously? (Pull up your nose when you read this, please.) "What were we going to be?--a trade school?"
Today at Dordt College, in part because of the tremendous price tag of higher education, the four most popular majors are professional/vocational: education, ag, engineering, and nursing--all majors once called pre-professional.
Don't get me wrong. This Ph.D. in English is not saying that the academy is now run by Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. But the humanities and the liberal arts have suffered immensely, become, for the most part, also-rans or "requirements," areas of study no one would sit through if they weren't forced to belly up to the white board. An old friend of mine, teaching at another traditional liberal arts college, says he's just waiting for the ax to fall because he's teaching sociology, not social work. Sociology helps us understand; social work is a real job.
I taught the major we still call "English" at the right time. That time is gone, and pardon me, please, if I reach for the Kleenex.
David Brooks is always worth reading, but in Monday's NY Times he makes a claim that thrilled my soul--to wit, that big universities are trying to determine how best to carry out their original mission of teaching, well, understanding. "For the past many decades colleges narrowed down to focus on professional academic disciplines," Brooks says, "but now there are a series of forces leading them to widen out so that they leave a mark on the full human being."
I don't know whether you or I can really believe him, but it's made my week to think that maybe--just maybe--the pendulum is swinging. Brooks is not talking about small Christian colleges, but for the most part those institutions, like the one I worked at, are, have been, and will be forever affected educationally by what's happening around them.
Brooks is generous with his advice, laying out a four-step plan to help major universities rethink their mission to teach students to understand. First, he says, "reveal moral options," by which he means introduce students to major world religions as a means of helping them see systems of thought and behavior and belief that have shaped humankind.
Second, "foster transcendent experience," so that students come to see that while tools are wonderful blessings, human beings don't do all that well in a tool box. What he means is to make students feel something bigger than themselves. Some of the finest moments in my teaching career happened when I'd take students out west of town to look at the broad Great Plains landscape we live on, something, oddly enough, they rarely see.
Third, "teach new things to love." Remember the Dead Poets Society?--literally speaking, take it to heart.
Fourth--and this is directed primarily toward lit profs and historians of all stripes--get with the program. No one can sidestep the vast changes that long ago dropped Cicero to read Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus, who just this hour won the Nobel Prize for Literature, ancient classics for new work. "Instead of organizing classes around academic concepts — 19th-century French literature — more could be organized around the concrete challenges students will face in the first decade after graduation," he says.
That makes English Departments into Service Departments, but most anyone teaching literature and writing today knows that's been happening for decades already. Get with the program, Brooks says, but never forget that "great works of art and literature have a lot to say on how to tackle the concrete challenges of living."
I'm encouraged. No one's about to return to the good old days, but something of what made them good is maybe being rekindled. Education at all levels should always be a practice done to understand.