If experience were not enough, numerous governmental and private studies have made hackneyed the theme of declining educational standards. Professor Robert Grudin asks questions these studies have overlooked.
Three questions presently haunting and dividing educators are: (1) What good are the humanities to a student's "career"? (2) How can the humanities be made more attractive to students? and (3) Are the traditional models for research in the humanities still valid? Conscious that in so doing I am observing a traditional humanistic model, I will address these questions by reminding the reader of Homer's Odysseus.
Because he is a complex figure who must orchestrate his skills to meet complex challenges, Odysseus can be regarded as the earliest example of a characteristically Western man. Unlike the other Homeric heroes, who are seldom brilliant in more than one area (Achilles, for example, is superb in the field but admits to being fuzzy in council), Odysseus is miscellaneously outstanding: prudent leader, charming speaker, eminent counselor and strategist, feared disciplinarian, major warrior, champion wrestler, runner and hurler. He is a prince who knows the chivalry of court, the order of the town, and the regimen of the farm. The challenges of life not only demand these skills of him but require that he mingle and temper them. In his confrontation with Circe, he functions as warrior, orator, strategist and lover, but must repress the ethical impulse to return home and punish the suitors. When he reaches Scheria he displays athletic prowess but delays the disclosure of his princely identity. Arriving at last in Ithaca, he conceals most of his skills and virtues, suffering humiliation in order to test his people and surprise his enemies. By what art or skill does he make these choices? Significantly, in each case he receives instructions from the gods. But since here as elsewhere in Homer god-given virtue is viewed interchangeably with personal virtue, we may take the gods' assistance as a kind of higher wisdom, a skill-directing skill which, indefinable in itself, defines and validates all the others. Alone in this harmonic complexity, Odysseus is the unique and emphatic recipient of the adjective polylropos, "complicated," "of many turns."
The idea of a master skill, implicit in Homer, was codified by Plato. In the Apology, Socrates criticizes those specialists who, because they know one discipline, mistakenely claim to be wise about verything. In the Republic and the Symposium, Socrates argues that a comprehensive skill is not available to us until we have mastered several individual disciplines. The skill which transcends all others is called "dialectic" and "synoptic": dialectic, because it depends on universal principles of analysis; synoptic, because it perceives common principles and ends at work in all the disciplines studied. For Socrates, "the 'synoptic' person is a 'dialectic' person." Only such a person is capable of governing wisely. Only such a person can glimpse divine truth. The effective individual has to be a many-turned, a versatile individual, not only because the arts he masters are mutually necessary, but also because they reveal, as a kind of secret gift, that common denominator of truth and justice which is the exclusive possession of the philosophical mind.
Plato's description of the curriculum leading to dialectic and synopsis (Republic, VII) is the earliest surviving exposition of what we now call the liberal arts. Neither Plato nor Socrates invented this curriculum. Similar studies had been required by the Sophists. But while the Sophists considered the liberal curriculum to be useful solely for success in active life, Socrates and Plato credited it with profound philosophical significance. The Sophists disdained any form of learning which had no particular and practical value. The Socratics defended liberal disciplines as a means of transcending the particular and the practical. Only through such transcendence, they argued, could the particular and the practical be seen in their true light. The Socratic idea of the truly "practical" is founded securely on the philosophical quest.
The position of the humanities in modern Western culture dramatically underlines the distinction between the Sophistic and Socratic philosophies. The perspective of most educators and professionals is dominated by something very like the Sophistic model. Professional education is generally aimed toward effective practice in narrowly specialized areas. Advanced graduate work and research in the humanities are intensely specialized; in the humanities, as in the natural and social sciences, only specialized expertise will enable men and women to publish in most of the standard journals. The broader realm of the liberal arts is by no means despised, but rather is praised more or less as the Sophists praised it: we need to think analytically, to speak convincingly, to write cogently, to be well-informed, because these attributes enhance our professional careers. The Socratic model, far weaker in the modern mind, persists nebulously, in vague and eloquent statements, usually made by college presidents and specialists emeriti, that the liberal arts establish continuity with the past, civilize us, delight us, bring us together, make us human. These statements gladden hearts but seldom loosen purse strings. More importantly, they say nothing about the functioning of the human mind. Liberal education survives in most American colleges as a composition program and a set of generalized group requirements, without an effective structure or a clear rationale. The word "dialectic" has been commandeered by students of Hegel and Marx. The idea of synopsis is almost completely forgotten.
We might accept this state of affairs, albeit with some wistfulness, as being the way of the world. Ironically, however, the real world does not seem to be going this way at all. Major political and personal decisions remain as interdisciplinary for us as they were for Odysseus. Indeed the hyperspecialization of disciplines makes the necessity for interdisciplinary liaison and direction progressively more critical. No one exclusively trained in a single field can make intelligent judgments about issues as massively interdisciplinary as, for example, abortion, energy taxation and regulation, grain sales to the U.S.S.R., or the insanity defense. By what standard do we weigh the misery of inflation against the misery of unemployment? When we compare the merits and dangers of genetic engineering, of nuclear energy, where is our point of reference? How may we balance constitutional liberty with the safety of the commonwealth? It is at once galling and funny, to see how, in our specialized world, such decisions are normally made. Politicians assemble in committees and call in experts to testify. Business, labor, the military and social science contribute their insights. Natural scientists appear in force and variety: business scientists, military scientists, government scientists, and scientists from the academy. The specialists not only hold conflicting views but speak in different forms of jargon. The individual politician (if he has not prejudged the case on party lines) then must make a decision. He consults his staff. One staffer has been sifting the media for editorial consensus. Another has been lunching with lobbyists. A third has attached another staff of consultants to take a poll. A fourth phones in with a word from the constituency. In conference a position is hammered out. A fifth staffer writes an appropriate speech, and the interdisciplinary function of politics has been fulfilled again.
Devoid of precision or creativity but nonetheless armored against catastrophe, the commonwealth lumbers into the future. Catastrophes, however, do now and then occur, not because of a lack of assorted data but rather because of an executive inability to evaluate the data properly. Lyndon Johnson and his staff failed conspicuously to coordinate the humanitarian, diplomatic and strategic principles governing involvement in Vietnam. Richard Nixon and his staff could give neither a coherent rationale for Watergate nor, once most of them had repented, a credible explanation of why Watergate had been wrong, Jimmy Carter, after years in office, declared he was shocked to discover that the U.S.S.R. was not single-mindedly committed to the cause of peace. These administrations all had their staffers and consultants. What they lacked, however, was an "overview"-or more precisely, a sense of how various advocates and disciplines were related in a comprehensive and enduring human order.
Can we connect congressional fumbling and executive blunders with inadequate grounding in the liberal arts? Such an hypothesis might well provoke laughter, and I too would join in the hilarity if we see the liberal arts (1) with the Sophists as specific means to professional ends, or (2) with modern humanists as assorted links with the past which "enhance" and "civilize." Even if we accepted both of these models simultaneously, they would not supply an adequately dynamic correlation between liberal studies and active virtue. But the Platonic model, given the close attention it deserves, is in this regard neither weak nor laughable. Education in the Republic is eminently suited to active life, not only because it imparts specific skills but for far more compelling reasons: Education in the Republic is aimed at the basis, context and goal of action. It proposes epistemological universals-harmonics in the ways of knowing-which in turn form the foundation for interdisciplinary judgment. In consequence, Platonic education is addressed not only to continuity with the past but to an effective understanding of present and future. Indeed, we might argue, continuity with the past would be invalid if it were not seen in unison with coherence across the present. The only reason ideas endure through time is that they apply across humanity.
The curriculum in the Republic begins with arithmetic and proceeds through plane and solid geometry to astronomy (solids in motion). The next study, under the broad heading mousike (inadequately translated as music), includes harmonics, song, dance, and literature. Dialectic comes last, bringing with it synopsis, an overview of the principles which unite all the arts. I will not concern myself here with the details, for the detailed development of the educational programs in Books VI and VII, complex in themselves, are woven inextricably into the even more complex development of the dialog as a whole. What concerns me here is that element of the curriculum which may be transferable from the Republic into a modern theory of education: the use of interdisciplinary instruction to build a synoptic perspective. Given the principles of order and proportion which inhere in the subjects he proposes, and given a modern and nonutopian context for education, Plato might well today include physics, chemistry and biology in his catalog of liberal arts. Advanced dialectical study would require the mastery of foreign languages and include the social sciences and the history of ideas. Detailed versions of the curriculum might and indeed ought to vary; what is essential is the order and direction of the curriculum, which reflect the following priorities:
A Required Core of Arts and Sciences. The complexity and variety of civilized life, which have discouraged many modern educators from requiring core curricula, instead counsel us urgently that some common ground of discourse and inquiry be maintained. That such policy ensures basic skills and continuity with the past is true but obvious. What must be added is that renewal, inspiration, even revolution are impossible without a sense of enduring principle and historical context. We cannot continue to ask our leapers to push off from slush.
Progression from Simple to Complex. While the propensity to analyze may be inborn, the skills of analysis are not. Modern education in the humanities has been conspicuous in encouraging students to scale ladders of noble inquiry while simultaneously removing the bottom rungs. Such policies are not only ineffective but also damaging. The ascent to complexity brings danger as well as confusion. Students who are asked to consider madness with Dostoevsky, murder with Sartre or suicidal anguish with Sylvia Plath are ill-served if they have been offered no prior knowledge of the intellectual fabric from which such loose strings hang.
A View Toward Common Principles. Specialized courses should not be taught by "specialists" in the conventional sense but rather by instructors educated in principles which unite the disciplines. A professor of music history should be able to enlighten his students on the ties which unite music to physics (harmonics), literature (poetry), and the visual arts (symmetry). A professor of biology should give thought and time to the analogies which connect his subject with ethics and politics. In general, humanists should achieve a fuller appreciation of the principles of scientific inquiry; while scientists should elaborate not only the truth of their discoveries but the beauty of what is discovered.
Emphasis on the Quest for General Laws. All inquiry, whether scientific or humanistic, is based on the effort to resolve particular phenomena into general laws. One finds this human constant even in the most heterodox social science, the wildest modern art and literature. One of the major current issues in physics, that hardest of all sciences, is grand unification, the attempt to identify and connect the elemental forces of nature. In this project modern physicists are basically not different from Parmenides, and their hypotheses have a simplicity which would have delighted him. In fact such hypotheses, based on modern findings in astronomy, electromagnetism and nuclear physics, are stunning validations of Plato's theory that dialectic leads to synopsis. Students should be reminded again and again of this epistemological constant, especially since at present, with humanity facing monsters more terrible than any encountered by Odysseus, the quest for common principle and unifying goal must animate all the arts and sciences.
Education along synoptic lines would have, I believe, welcome effects on the nature of advanced research. The rigors and pleasures of instruction according to the synoptic model would encourage scholars to reconceive their own fields, looking beyond the limited prospects of ultra-specialized research and toward the elemental goals and necessities which unite inquiry of all kinds. This change in outlook would, it seems likely, grow more pronounced when the first generation of synoptically educated students reached professional rank. Scholarship might, at long last, renounce its exile from the main channels of human experience.
Our original questions, then, have twofold answers. Conceived in terms of the scholarly and pedagogical theories now in effect, the liberal arts are sharply limited in their usefulness and attractiveness to students. Recast, on the other hand, in terms of a synoptic educational theory, the liberal arts might be not only attractive but enthralling, not only useful but transfiguring. The implementation of such a theory would require a comprehensive reorganization of curricula, both on the undergraduate level and in the more advanced education of future professors. It would suggest, moreover, a radical reevaluation of the nature and purpose of academic research.