Until a few decades ago it was generally agreed that the most important part of the legacy from one generation to another consisted in a kind of wisdom: In what does the good life consist? What is worthy of one’s commitment? What is more important than self-gratification? What is good or honorable or true? The second part consisted of knowledge and skill: teaching a younger generation how to make a living, how to master a profession, how to become a productive citizen. But through it all, education was seen as a moral endeavour not because it sought to indoctrinate, but because it was a sharing of things that people held to be important. Faculty members had authority not only because they were experts in their disciplines, but because they had common commitments and took seriously the important questions and the responsibility of their answer before a younger generation.
The collegiate tradition in the United State grew out of such an understanding of education. In the colleges that were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries there was an ethos, an atmosphere of expection, embodied in ceremonies and traditions as well as in courses, in which all of these things were fused together and passed on. Education was the institutionalization of what we as a people deemed to be important, and through that process we sought to prepare oncoming generations for their role and responsibility in society.
The wisdom that underlay such preparation, as we all know, was a distillate of the Bible and of the classical tradition, and it included a strong dose of literature. Through those courses and subjects one encountered life vicariously. Reality was served up not in piecemeal fashion, but in and through the larger conflicts and tensions, aspirations and dichotomies, hypocrisies and hopes of the people portrayed in that literature. Virtue had a role- not in a preening self-regarding sense, but as the embodiment of certain qualities of life and of their importance for the body politic, qualities such as fidelity, goodwill, patience, discipline, promise-keeping, restraint. This was a legacy that took precedence over self.
There are some thoughtful testimonies in our own time to the power of that kind of education. Many of us were products of it. Theodore White has written movingly in his book”In search of History” of his first encounter, as a young Harvard student out of a Boston Ghetto, with John K. Fairbank. He tells how this eminent schoolar drew him to himself and taught him how to live in the mannered atmosphere of Harvard University.But beyond that, White says that he remembers fairbank for having sculpted and polished a rough stone into something that was worthwhile and he was talking about himself. We’ve all known the impact of that kind of teaching. One doesn’t need to be sentimental to acknowledge the role of that wisdom and of that kind of teaching and of that ki9nd of education.
But times have changed. For at least three decades that received wisdom has been under attack. We have lost the confidence to share those dimensions of life, to express those opinions, to give vent to our deepest longings on behalf of others as our own mentors once did.