Decline and Fall?

‘Oh, I shouldn’t try to teach them anything, not just yet, anyway. Just keep them quiet.’

So says one of Evelyn Waugh’s characters in his hysterical novel Decline and Fall.

That was 86 years ago. Today, the line wouldn’t elicit even a giggle, of course, so far have our conceptions of education declined. Education, as we see it now, isn’t something someone does but is something done to one.

Reading John K. Wilson’s post on this blog yesterday, I was again struck by the colossal ignorance so many prominent Americans display when it comes to education. Wilson was writing in response to a column by Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard, “Buys and Sells: If Colleges Were Stocks,” an idiotic column, as Wilson points out, from the get-go. The very title is inane: Colleges are not stocks, nor are they corporations. When they become so, they are no longer colleges. At least, they are not the colleges designed to produce citizens and leaders, as American colleges were.

Karlgaard has no comprehension of the role of students, the necessary role of students in their own education. He writes:

Student hissy fits at Brandeis, Haverford, Rutgers and Smith caused either an invitation for an honorary-degree candidate to be withdrawn or the invited commencement speaker at those schools to bow out.

The students should just be quiet, he implies, and do what their betters tell them–and listen to them.

That they are not, that a new generation of student activism is in the process of being born–one that may reverse the decline and fall of the past thirty years–gives me hope for the future. For reasons opposite to Karlgaard’s, I see what those students have done not as signs of the decadence of education but of its resurgence. So, though for very different reasons, and from a very different conception of the fools, I agree with his conclusion:

Don’t despair for American higher education: The fools will perish, and the golden age will burn brighter.

Exactly. Though I think Karlgaard may be in for a surprise.

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