What Makes America Great? It’s not now, and never has been the schools.

I take this passage from the Introduction to a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, called The Heart of the Matter.
“At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion—we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be—our sense of what makes America great.

What does make America great? In an earlier Blog I said it was people like LeBron James and the United States Military, for the moment anyway both of them being huge success stories, both being admired throughout the world. And of course I might add to these two, scores if not hundreds of comparable stories of American successes.

Now in the Academy report the writers are implying that the schools are a major factor in whatever it is that makes our country great, and that at the present time our “greatness” is threatened because the schools are no longer doing their job, especially in regard to the now diminished place of the humanities, not only in the curriculum but in the interests and resulting career choices of major by undergraduate and graduate students.

Just today, VERLYN KLINKENBORG, confirming the findings of the Academy, in an op ed column in the Times, The Decline and Fall of the English Major, summed it up nicely by pointing out that, “in 1991, 165 s”tudents graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona [where Klinkenborg went to college] this year, they were economics and mathematics.”

Now the Members of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences are by and large school people, college presidents, professors and the like, journalists like David Brooks, and you’d expect them to assume that one of the very first places where we should look, when looking for that which makes America great, would be at the schools.

And in fact our schools, at least our universities, are recognized, no less than LeBron James and the U.S. military, as being truly exceptional. And perhaps even more so today when, I’ll grant the Academy, the place of the humanities in the schools has obviously been diminished from what it may have been, say 50 to 100 years ago.

Now as a matter of fact the excellence of our universities results much more from the very thing that the Academy is deploring, the place in the curriculum given to mathematics and the natural sciences, and the resulting brilliance and achievements of the latter. That’s probably what most brings the very best young people from other lands to our shores to study. So, instead of celebrating one more American success story, the fact that, of the very top universities in the world, some one half or more are American, the Academy is lamenting the loss of something that the entire world for the most part no longer even wants, a “rightful” if not dominant place for the humanities in higher ed.
A couple things left to say about all this. One, it’s never been clear that the survival, let alone the prosperity of the humanities and the liberal arts has ever depended primarily on the schools. Well, yes the place of the humanities in the curriculum does depend on the schools, but their place in the hearts and minds of the students, of our people, of any people, no.

The Academy in its deliberations is looking back on the past, on what it sees as the golden years of the humanities, but wasn’t it during those golden years, when there were hundreds, instead of tens as now, Yale undergraduates majoring in English, that world, as well as no less devastating, local wars were killing indiscriminately tens, hundreds of millions of people?

Where were the humanities majors during all those times? In other words the humanities while having a large place in the curriculum had little or no place in what was much more important, the lives of peoples and nations.

And the second thing we might say, if we were to answer the question, about what it is that makes America great, about what has made our country truly exceptional, for I believe it is exceptional, what might that be? Well, here’s what I would say, in the form of an HTML unordered list:

+ the great variety and richness of the land itself
+ the unending waves of immigrants including those who were here at the beginning and are only now being assimilated (and immigration is still seen as more likely to leave American workers better off)
+ the rule of law, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, all that sort of thing from our Founders, including the separation (still not well enough observed) of church and state
+ and no less important than all the rest the present role of government in protecting not only our individual freedoms but also in extending protection and help to those not able to make it on their own…

That’s a start. Nothing there about the humanities. Now if the Academy were to say that any one of these sources of the country’s greatness was being neglected, well then I’d be alarmed. But fewer English majors at Harvard (of which I was one myself) is of no more significance to the greatness, and the welfare of the land than fewer people wearing this or that set of clothes, or styling their hair in this or that manner.

OK, my last is an overstatement. But the country’s greatness has never had much to do with how many people are reading Shakespeare or Plato in the schools. Nor has their reading of Shakespeare or Plato in the schools had much to do with what they read, or don’t read later on in their lives, let alone with how they live their lives. For the schools are really not about learning, certainly not about the all important life long learning, rather they’re about learning to behave, and probably they’re not even the best way of doing that.

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