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CURRICULAR WAR HAS LONG HISTORY, SCHOLAR SAYS
STANFORD - There once was a golden age in higher education, with general agreement on what the college curriculum should offer and what texts and values students should absorb.
Not so, says Stanford English Professor Bliss Carnochan, in his book The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience (to be published in July by Stanford University Press).
The recent clashes over American higher education, between those who say that the traditional "great works" are being sacrificed to the new and trendy and those who say that the curriculum must be opened up to a variety of cultural viewpoints, are only the latest salvos in a long war, Carnochan said.
The contest has been going on for a long time, he said, whether one dates the outbreak from 1869, with the inauguration of Harvard president Charles Eliot, who believed in a "free elective" system rather than a prescribed curriculum, or from 1800, with clashes between Oxford scholars defending the classics and their opponents in Scotland arguing for a more modern curriculum.
Carnochan wrote the book in part, he said, in frustration at watching the same arguments recycled every five or 10 years by intellectuals and politicians who appeared ignorant of history.
Carnochan was on the sidelines, serving as director of the Stanford Humanities Center, during the university's much-publicized curricular debates in the late 1980s, which resulted in changing the required Western Culture course to Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV). The legislation creating the CIV program requires substantial attention to race, gender and class issues and the study of works from "at least one of the European cluster of cultures and from at least one of the non-European cultures that have become components in our diverse American society."
He was happy enough not be directly engaged in the debate, he said. He was not disappointed by the outcome, "but megawatts of energy were spent on issues that were never fully clarified," he said.
If his book could be summed up in a single sentence, Carnochan said, it is this: "Liberal education remains a belief system that survives not so much through institutional self-understanding as through continued acts of faith."
In other words, he said, "I don't think we know very well what we're doing."
In recent years, the curricular wars have seen the emergence of anthropology as a major player in the struggle for territory traditionally fought over by history and literature, Carnochan said.
Anthropology, which didn't become a formal academic discipline until the late 19th century, has been somewhat outside the curricular mainstream in the past for a variety of reasons, he said, but that is now changing.
"Anthropology's attention to cultural difference is now being directly represented in much of the curricular change that is taking place," Carnochan said. "And history and literature are both to some degree being 'anthropologized' as we pay more attention to the realities of cultural difference."
In his book's final chapter, titled "What to Do?" Carnochan suggests that colleges and universities might profitably pay more heed to their local differences.
The heterogeneity of American institutions of higher education, which include liberal arts colleges, research universities, state colleges and universities, community colleges, women's and sectarian colleges, should rule out any thought of a uniform curriculum, Carnochan said.
"The notion that everybody ought to know the same thing or, even if you think they ought to know some few of the same things, that the curriculum should be the same in every case seems to me completely crazy," he said.
Even the term "research universities" implies a homogeneity that does not really exist, he said.
In his book, he writes most about the two research universities with which he is most familiar - Harvard, where he received both his undergraduate and his graduate degrees, and Stanford, where he has been on the faculty since 1960.
At Harvard, "engineering is a minor presence; at Stanford, something like one-fifth of all undergraduates take a degree in engineering," he writes.
The importance of the School of Engineering, he continues "is a plain fact of Stanford's life, though one regarded by some on the humanities faculty as unfortunate - and as the occasion for melancholy zeal in spreading the liberal gospel. On the engineers' side, some grumbling accompanies any new requirements because their students' plates are already full to overflowing."
The needs of engineering students, Carnochan said, have not been adequately taken into account in Stanford's understanding of liberal education.
Stanford President Gerhard Casper recently announced that the university will conduct a formal, comprehensive, yearlong study of undergraduate education.
Carnochan said he hopes that the study will include consideration specifically of who Stanford students are, their interests and what they go on to do, "and how, here on the western edge of the continent, we differ from the Ivy League or from other research universities.
"To put it in it crudest form," he said, "we need to know who our customers are and who they want to be."
Paradoxically, he said, a university such as Stanford "can be a national model by attending more to local circumstances. It's pure megalomania, folly, to think our curriculum - anyone's curriculum - ought to generate exact imitations in some other place. I believe leadership would consist of demonstrating interesting ways to think about the problems. The model should be in the analysis, not in the curriculum that results."
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