An article in The Atlantic Monthly this past spring brought the dispiriting but somehow unsurprising news that once you’ve done the nearly impossible thing of being admitted to Harvard as an undergraduate, it’s fairly easy if you’re a student in the humanities to drift through four years without working hard or learning much. The writer, Ross Douthat, a recent Harvard graduate on staff at The Atlantic, attributed this sorry situation in part to a humanities professoriat whose members have not only lost interest in preparing students destined for fields other than their own, but also have lost confidence in the ideal of a liberal education. Whether this is true I cannot say, but a couple of things about Douthat’s charge unsettle me. One is that it conveniently shifts responsibility away from any shiftlessness on the students’ part. The other is that although Douthat’s characterization satisfies the widely held notion of pampered, irresponsible professors, my own experience over the years as an editor working with college professors has rarely borne it out. And yet as a consumer of higher education—two of my sons have graduated from college, and yesterday we dropped our third son off to begin his university career—I’m more sympathetic to the second part of Douthat’s argument. He blames Harvard as an institution for its unwillingness both to define a liberal arts education and to make a serious attempt at requiring students to be broadly educated. At Harvard a student can fulfill core curriculum requirements with courses that are, in Douthat’s words, “maddeningly specific and often defiantly obscure.” For his first term at a university that is not Harvard, my youngest son, after meeting with a faculty adviser, has signed up for courses on jazz, film, astronomy (fulfilling his entire science requirement), composition, and philosophy. He’s thinking about dropping philosophy. Yes, he’s heard my arguments for taking philosophy now and film later, but I could use a little backup from the university on this one.

Whatever the deficiencies of my own education—I never studied jazz or film and yet have been drawn to each—I’ve been lucky to hold jobs allowing me to fill in a few of the blanks. Never luckier than in my present situation. The Autumn issue of the SCHOLAR bristles with new things to be learned and articles to demonstrate the importance of learning. Please read Adam Goodheart’s rich historical detective story, David Chanoff’s tale about the startling educational careers of a group of young boys brutally driven from their villages in the south of Sudan, Emily Bernard on teaching a course about the ugliest word in the English language, and Lawrence Powell on the equally ugly career of David Duke and the power of another strong word to defeat him. Read, too, the autumnal musings of two important American literary men, the poet Charles Wright and the writer James McConkey. Even if you didn’t go to Harvard, you might well find something here you really want to learn.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up