Are you excited? Today we’re going to go into Part II of The Opening of the American Mind, called Learning and Legitimacy. Don’t worry! I’m not going to go crazy and write two-thousand words here. I do highly recommend this book though. It was fascinating and not at all a complicated read that I had to slog through. I loved every page!
“Throughout the colonial period, American colleges were characterized by a homogeneous model; they were, as one student of education has called them, “copies of copies”: the American rendition of the English adaptation of the Renaissance revision of the medieval curriculum.”
Sounds…enlightening, doesn’t it? The curriculum “consisted of Latin, Greek, sometime Hebrew, mathematics, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and logic.” That’s it. No other languages, including English.
Ugg…I’m having a terrible time with this. I think I need to go back and learn how to study better and write an essay. My sons would be so ashamed of this. I’ll just summarize in my own words.
University before the early 20th century was based on this “Classical Education” model. Study the ancients and you’ll get the basis that modern progress is based on. Why study that which came after? I’m talking Shakespeare here, you guys. French, German, Spanish…useless. And they all fought about how crazy it was that people were trying to change that all through the 1800’s, just like they fought about the adding common people’s voices all through the 1900’s, and now we’re doing it again.
The author summed it up best this way:
“The debate over the canon is now, and has always been, a debate over the culture and over the course that culture should take.
…this debate (is not) an aberrant product of a debased society; it is the current chapter of a much older and continuing discussion about values, meanings, perspectives, and ways of comprehending ourselves and those around us.”
Once again, I learn that the sky is not falling, we are not in the end times, and life is actually just continuing on as it always has. Only now we have the glorious ability to see and hear each other all over the world, instantly and constantly.
And then there is this:
“The debate over the nature of the curriculum and the canon was paralleled by a debate that raged throughout the whole of American history over the nature of America itself and of American identity.”
Who are we? What makes us a nation? What is university for? Why do we send our “kids” there? And why is so hotly debated? Those answers are discussed in the third and final part of this book, The Search for American Identity. We’ll talk about that tomorrow!
Have you ever finished reading a book and you’re lost in thought, so much so that you don’t know where to start talking about how it affected you or what it even said? That’s where I am right now with The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence W. Levine. There was so much that made sense, so much that I didn’t realize, that I’m sitting here staring at my notes thinking, “Now what?”
I typically don’t summarize a book at all, so why am I trying to do it with this one? Maybe because there was so much in it that I want other people to know, and I know no one else is going to read it. THAT’S what’s bothering me. I’m trying to get all the details about this book through to you, just in case my posts are all you ever read of it. That’s not going to work.
In hindsight, the moment I realized how much I was highlighting and making notes in this book, I should have slowed down and written something about each hour I had read, instead of powering through and scarfing it all up. Smaller bites mean better digestion, right? But I was in a mood to just read over the weekend though, so here we are.
Sigh…this is what happens when you love a book’s contents too much. We live and learn.
I’ll just go through the book, start throwing down some quotes, and see where we end up. Ok?
The first part of the book established his confusion about people’s feelings about changes in university curriculum.
Part I: A Historian in Wonderland – Through the Looking Glass
“Finding evidence of radicalism in the very title of books whose substance is not examined has become standard practice.”
This was true in 1996 when the book was written, and true now, maybe more so since the invention and proliferation of social media. Now we ban the content of books by our assumptions based on the title, and we condemn an idea based on the headline of an article or the party affiliation of the person who wrote it.
“Should their education include the lives and culture of everyday people? A traditional liberal arts education, Roger Kimball has asserted, ‘is unquestionably elitist in the sense that it focuses on the pinnacle of human cultural and intellectual achievement,’”
The next chapter goes into this more, but I had no idea that curriculum had changed that much over the last 100 years. The books and histories that we use in our education systems were all based on the winners of our society, the wealthy and powerful. Before the 60’s, we didn’t study anyone else. Why? This book will tell you.
“The current emphasis on social and cultural history which so troubles contemporary critics is no more permanent than were past emphases on political, intellectual, economic, or diplomatic history. Neither is it any more – or less – politically motivated. It reflects, as earlier historiographies have reflected, the questions, problems, issues that touch our time and help us make sense of the world. It also reflects the fact that history today is written, as it has always been written, by human beings who are part of their own societies and cultures.”
Until the early 20th century, a Bachelor of Science was not popular, looked down on, and not every school allowed it. Study new ideas and thought? Why? All those ideas were based on the ancient texts. Study those. And there were nasty terrible debates and arguments about that then.
Here’s an idea I thought was fascinating: history isn’t written by the people living at the time. When I write about what’s happening around me right now, I’m not writing history. I’m writing memoir. It’s one point of view. Someone in the future may read my memoir, among other documents, and put them all together from their point of view and that would be called a history. A hundred years later, someone else would read those documents and write another history from their vantage point. History changes.
“To understand where the university is we have to understand where it has been and how its present state was constructed. There is no quicker or easier way to proceed; to fathom today requires some awareness of yesterday. In the process we will learn not only about higher education, we will discover truths about our culture and, hopefully, about ourselves as well.”
I would like to create a billboard campaign with the words “to fathom today requires some awareness of yesterday” and place them along every freeway in the United States.
The next part goes into that history and I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.
Picking a new book this time was a chore, people. A real chore. I just sat there in front of my TBR shelf (it’s low to the ground) and stared. I pulled books off and put them on the floor, contenders. I took pictures and texted them to friends asking for advice. I reordered, restacked.
I’ve read several self-help books, a memoir, and some science and sci-fi this past month. I wasn’t sure where to go next. I picked up this one about higher education and thought, “Meh, I’m not real excited about it, but I like books about education and it looks interesting, so what the hell?!”
Correction! I thought of something and checked my old blog and found some of my comments there from November 2016. Back then, nearly six years ago, I questioned whether the book would depress or inspire me. My children were fifteen and sixteen years old and we were talking about college. I went to university but never graduated. My husband took a certificate course, but that’s all.
The way the news and people I know talk about higher education, I was wondering if it was worth it. The book didn’t help. It only confirmed many of my suspicions. In my opinion, if you want a liberal education, much can be had for free by joining groups and reading the books for yourself. Direction is missing, leadership from a professor, but you could find a mentor to help you through if you really wanted to.
I’m digressing, I’m sorry.
I picked up The Opening of the American Mind from a used book pile a few years ago because I thought it would be interesting to hear the counter argument to Bloom’s book. I read Bloom and agreed with much of what he said, but now I’m reading Levine and I’m floored. There’s so much I didn’t know.
I’ve already spent six hours in this book, and I’m nearly finished. There’s so much to think about, so many comments I want to make. I’m hoping to share a few highlights with you in the next few days. I thought this was going to be complicated and dry, but it’s a surprisingly great read.
The Opening of the American Mind was written in 1996, so nearly thirty years later I have questions. Have things gotten better or gone off the rails? We hear every day about college and university problems, that schools are pandering to kids, safe spaces, cancel culture, and all that jazz.
I’ve been one of those “a liberal education isn’t what you get there anymore” people. But now I’m not so sure. I’ll be finishing the book very soon. Like I said, I want to think about it more and put together complete thoughts, so it may take me a few days to get a post together.
“It is essential that we understand the current struggles in and around the university in their historical context because only then can we fathom their meaning; only then can we comprehend fully the reason for and the nature of the changes that have been taking place in American universities in the past several decades.”
What do you think? Did you go to university? For what and why? I went to the University of La Verne as a theater major, set design. Yes, I’m aware the school specializes in teachers and lawyers, but I was young and convinced by my high school counselor that it would be a great idea. There’s something to write another post about. Yikes.
Confession: Ever since high school I have been hoping that someone would tell me what to do next.
I was a good student in high school. I got decent grades in most classes. I kept on top of my work. For the most part, I did so by simply showing up and writing things down. It wasn’t that I was an exceptional scholar or was particularly interested in the subjects. I had simply discovered that if showed up every day, on time, wrote down when things were due, and made an attempt to finish the assignment, I passed my classes.
At one point in a history class, I realized that I didn’t have to read the whole chapter or really understand what was happening to pass the tests. I only had to have a general idea of the dates we were talking about and scan the chapter titles and headlines because that’s what would be on the test. As soon as the test was over, I forgot all about the material. Science was about the same.
English was the same class I’d been taking since the sixth grade. Once we learned to read, which I don’t remember, I feel like I always knew how to read, we just went over more and more grammar rules and sometimes read a book and did a book report. All through high school I waited for the change to literature and creative writing, but it never came. Well into my senior year, I was amazed that we were still talking about nouns, verbs, and paragraphs.
Spanish was rough. I was required to take two years of a foreign language to graduate, and Spanish seemed logical. Growing up in Southern California, most people speak some Spanish. I hear it all day, every day. You’d think it would have been easier for me to pick it up, but I never did. I understand some and have a few words and phrases, but never did well in the classes at all. Honestly, I think it was because serious study doesn’t come naturally to me. I never learned how because I rarely needed to.
All my “electives” were theater related and those were simple. Memorizing scripts and blocking, designing, and building sets, were fun for me and I spent all my waking hours in the theater until my senior year when I started working at Disneyland at night.
Four years of high schooled marched by. Every year I had limited choices as to what I could take and when. I had to be there five days a week and I had to take 6 classes a semester. Most of those were required classes, some were chosen electives. All of them were strictly guided and had little self-direction, critical thinking, or logic. I showed up. I turned in my assigned work. I did my time. And graduation loomed ahead. The final threshold into the “real world.”
The REAL world, people! From my work at the mall and then at Disneyland, being around college kids and working adults all through the summer before and during my senior year of high school, I was starting to get the feeling that the REAL world was nothing like my school world and that the skills I was using here were not going to translate out there.
I had no real urge to go to college but ended up enrolling anyway because everyone else was. School counselors didn’t give you any options other than which college to go to. The school I chose wasn’t a local community college, it was a private university in the next county, far enough away from home to have to find a place to live away from my parents. It never occurred to me, and no one in financial aid brought it up, how I was going to pay for my education or whether I should.
How did I find this school? My high school theater class took a tour there when the university had a theater competition for high school students. I entered a set design I had done and won first place. I had been acting in competitions like this for the last four years and had never gotten past the first round. This was the first time set design and playwriting were offered as divisions. Stage design and painting had been my real love of the theater the whole time but there were no strictly stagecraft classes. You had to take acting or general theater, which meant some acting, to be able to work on the lights, sound, and sets, so I did. I was ecstatic when I found out I could enter as a designer. And then I won! First place…of three entries, but still. I got a thousand dollar “scholarship” too if I went to that university.
I fell in love with that school the moment we drove up in the school bus. It looked like a small version of an ivy league type school right out of the movies to me. And it wasn’t that far from home. I was never a very adventurous kid. Even though I hadn’t really considered going to college before, the moment I saw it and then went around their tiny theater department, I started having visions of me attending and becoming a famous designer on Broadway. When I won the award, I was sure this was the path for me.
I spent the next few months catching up. It was already early spring and everyone else had been working on college prep since the tenth grade. I hadn’t even taken the SAT’s. I remember signing up and taking the test, doing ok, but I can’t remember what my scores were. I applied at the school and was accepted and sent to financial aid to work out the details. I had to have my mom apply for a parent loan, which I was sure she couldn’t afford. Then I applied for the student loan. That’s when I realized how much the school was going to cost me.
Seventeen thousand dollars. Per year. And I had been so excited to get that $1000 scholarship. Financial aid assured me there would be other grants and scholarships available. I only needed to apply and wait. Meanwhile, I signed up for the classes and got my student loan for the first year. The other grants and scholarships never came, and I was on the hook for that $17K when I graduated or quit school, which was what ended up happening a year and a half later.
Overloaded trying to work and go to university full time in two different counties, I looked at the costs of continuing and what I would get from it and decided it would be irresponsible to keep spending money on an education that wasn’t going to get me a better stagehand job than the one I already had. Besides, I wasn’t doing very well academically anyway. It turns out that university classes take a bit more thought and time than high school classes and I couldn’t keep up while working for my living and at the school’s theater. I dropped my remaining classes, got an apartment close to work, and hoped to start working fulltime. Six months later, I started paying on those student loans. I started adult life at 20 years old, $24K in debt with a part time job as a seasonal stagehand at an amusement park.
That’s the moment I stopped looking for someone to tell me what to do in life and started making my own choices based on my own needs and my own thinking. It was terrifying but liberating. At first, I felt like I was failing at life completely. I couldn’t hack university life, dropped out, and now here I was.
Looking back, it was the best decision I could have made. The work I wanted to do didn’t really require a degree. It required knowhow and contacts. I already had my foot in the door where I wanted to be, and I was gaining the knowhow every day I worked with new people that knew more than I did. It didn’t make any sense to keep racking up debt the way I was.
If I could change one thing about the end of high school, it would be to find someone that would actually help me make better decisions and plans for myself instead of steering me into what they believed was my best course of action. I needed more support getting to know myself and what I wanted from life those four years, not following someone else’s curriculum. I spent those years bored and waiting for life to begin and it really sucked.