Knowing What We Need to Know

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Lynne V. Cheney
Title: “Knowing What We Need To Know”
VTR: 11/4/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I admit to enormous puzzlement and distress that we Americans have somehow come to politicize not just the process, but also the content of higher education. As a Columbia college graduate, my own biases are strong in this regard, to be sure. For my teachers there were such extraordinary persons: Charles Frankel, Ernest Nagel, Lionel Trilling, and so many other giants in intellect and intention. Their tradition was so clear and so strong…while across the street, it was Barnard’s Virginia Gildersleeve who also warned her young ladies to have an open mind, but not so open that their brains fell out.

My academic leaning, therefore, is clearly that of the humanities, not of the practicum alone. I admit my preference. I must. It’s quite so obvious.

But what is not so obvious – not to me at least – and what I want to discuss with my guest today..is how this has all become so much a political intrigue and opposition, and why there rages now on our campuses and off such an intensely partisan, political debate over what young men and women seeking a higher education should study…indeed should read. Yesterday, after all, we all seem to have known.

Now Lynne Cheney is Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has her doctorate in English literature; has taught; has written fiction as well as fact, much of it related in one way or another to her husband, who serves also as our nation’s Secretary of Defense.

In the Washington Post a couple of years ago, Mrs. Cheney wrote feelingly about the important of making a decision as to what is to be taught. Let me read from this:

“First of all, it demonstrates that some things are more important than others. The world is not a relativistic stew where everything is of equal importance. Learning to sort out the more valuable from the less, the significant from the trivial, the enduring from the ephemeral is difficult – but it is also one of the highest purposes of education. When such choices are not made, colleges and universities – and the schools that look to them for leadership – fall too easily into the notion that their purpose is simply to teach students how to think, a crucial skill, but one unlikely to be developed when there is no decision as to what students should think about.

A Gresham’s Law takes over, with the easy and entertaining driving out the hard and challenging. Teachers teach popular novels and slasher films instead of Charlotte Bronte and Shakespeare.

Even more important are the social consequences of universities’ failing to come to grips with the matter of what students should know. Our society, like all society, depends for its cohesiveness on common knowledge – a ‘symbolic code’. Alfred North Whitehead called it. While that knowledge must reflect the experience of each new generation, it must also be linked to the tradition that has formed the society, a tradition that in the case of the United States is decidedly Western. Without this link to the past, we are unmoored, lacking the awareness of where we are and who we are, which is essential to determining intelligently what we, as an American community, shall be.” As my guest wrote, “As Whitehead put it, ‘Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay’.”

And so I turn to you, Mrs. Cheney, and ask, why what is so obvious what you have written, so true, has become of such national debate in our time?

Cheney: One way to look at it is to turn back to the 1960s and to look at the kind of thinking that was important then. A kind of approach to education developed that said students should be in charge of what they learned, that students would learn best if they studied what interested them, and at many colleges and universities one result of this was to do away with requirements, or to water them down so much that they no longer had real force, or, or meaning. That’s one strand of thought that we can take up to account for the fact that there isn’t, on many college campuses today, in place a plan of education that says what is important to know.

Heffner: But we seem to have moved from that interesting dichotomization to almost making it a political judgment. It’s no longer just an academic affair.

Cheney: Well, you know, this comes from the 1960s too, I think. The idea that somehow the schools ought not just to reflect society, but they ought also to be actively involved in changing society. In the humanities this has resulted in an approach to literature, an approach to history, to philosophy even, that suggest there is nothing important that we would call “truth”, that there are only power relationships, and that we should look to Charlotte Bronte or Shakespeare as an example of how some groups have used words to, to tyrannize and to oppress others.

Heffner: Do you have any sympathy at all with that point of view? Not in its extreme, but to the degree that it says, “Yes, a certain tradition, a tradition of exclusivity has dominated even those books that you would now say are so important for contemporary students to have dealt with?”.

Cheney: I do think that looking at literature in terms of power relationships can be revealing, if it’s not carried too far. Shakespeare’s Tempest, for example…can be very interestingly read in terms of colonialism. Caliban can be seen as the oppressed third world figure, and it’s interesting to read the play that way, and to wonder what the play might have meant to a British audience looking at it and thinking of Britain’s growing dominion. On the other hand, the Tempest is also about truths that endure, it’s about things that are not temporal, things that are enduring. When you think of that wonderful passage in which Prospero talks about the world is a dream, the world is something that passes for us all and is full of beauty and joy while it’s here, but a thing that passes. That’s part of the human condition. This is not a political statement, this is a statement about the human spirit and the situation in which we all find ourselves.

Heffner: The notion that if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem certainly permeates this debate. If you’re not moving into, in terms of your school assignments, into Third World configurations, then you are a part of the problem that has ruled out the Third World. That does seem to be the legitimating notion of the people who are demanding that we…and they demand so much that we abandon, the traditional curriculum, I wonder what you think is going to be the upshot of all this? What’s happening now with the conflict between the school that Allan Bloom represents, the conflict between that point of view and the others who are…continue to insist that the old reading lists must be done away with. Where are we heading?

Cheney: Sometimes you really do see a dichotomy. I think at Stanford the debate became entirely polarized. It was a question of whether we shall teach Western civilization or whether we shall teach a kind of amalgamation of all civilizations and give the Third World its due. And Sanford opted along that second course, putting on the reading list where there used to be figures like Dante and Homer, putting on the reading list Frantz Fanon, an Algerian psychoanalyst who advocates violent Third World revolution. Putting on the reading list where Locke and Hobbes used to be Rigoberta Menchu, a leftist, feminist, Guatemalan revolutionary. That is, indeed a dichotomous situation. What seems to me true, and almost unassailably true, is that you don’t need to view it as an either/or situation, you don’t need to choose between extremes…that it’s quite possible for students to study, in rigorous and substantive and coherent way the long and glorious tradition – and flawed tradition of Western civilization – and also to find time in the curriculum to become acquainted with other cultures. Not just Third World cultures, but cultures that have a long history and are currently thriving, the cultures of China, cultures of Japan…the culture of Japan would be a better example. Not just non-Western cultures, but the culture of Latin America, which certainly has a strong base in the West, as well as in Native American cultures. So there’s time for all of this.

Heffner: And yet I’m surprised somewhat to hear you say “there’s time for all of this.” I would like to think that, but have also commented on the degree to which our former liberal arts curricula have become lessons in how to make a living immediately when one leaves the campus. If we are so much involved in the practical, how are we going to have room, not only for what we used to have in terms of liberal arts, but have room to broaden the curriculum as you are suggesting?

Cheney: Well, to look at the schools first of all, there is in place an example – California’s developed a new curriculum for the study of history and the social sciences that, in fact, does do what I’m talking about. It not only studies the history of the united states, which is crucial…all of us need to know the story of this country in which we live, it not only does that, students study the history of Western civilization and they also study the history of cultures that we’re less likely to be familiar with. But in order to do that, California has put history back into the schools almost every year. In most states that is not the situation. If we hold California up as the model, I think we can see that it is possible there. It’s also possible at the college level. Most colleges and universities have 50, 52 hours devoted to general education…those hours in which you’re supposed to read broadly and study over a general range of subjects. There is time in that 50 hours if the curriculum is devised in an orderly fashion, to study the West and to study other cultures as well.

Heffner: Your title Fifty Hours is a wonderful one. It perhaps should be A Hundred and Fifty Hours, but is, is it meaningful in terms of what most students are doing these days, or rather what most institutions are demanding of their students?

Cheney: I would say that the models we cited in Fifty Hours …we tried to hold up places like your alma mater, Columbia…

Heffner: For good reason.

Cheney: Exactly. While there are models like this to hold up, where liberal education is still valued, where general education is used wisely to expose students to the major areas of human inquiry, while there are those models to hold up, they are the exception right now. It is possible to graduate from almost 40% of our colleges and universities without ever taking any kind of history course at all. This is not a problem hat just exists in the humanities. You can graduate from more than 30% without ever taking a course in science. Now this is really amazing, and if you’re talking about Western civilization, you can graduate from almost 80% without taking a course in the history of Western civilization.

Heffner: That leads one, doesn’t it, to question Western civilization. If we cannot defend our own tradition, if we cannot pass it on, maybe what we are dealing with is the end of that civilization.

Cheney: Well, I would take a more optimistic approach to…to this problem.

Heffner: Why?

Cheney: And say, this is a situation that demands fixing, it’s a situation that we ought to talk about, it’s a situation that we ought to make parents and students who are selecting a college or university aware of. I think that most people select a university with no idea of the curriculum. They look for, you know, vague notions of prestige, they look at what’s close, what’s traditional in the family, perhaps. When people start looking at the curriculum, when they start asking guidance counselors, when they start asking admissions officers, “What does this college or university think an educated person should know?”, then we’ll see some structured re-ordering of the college plan of study.

Heffner: It’s so interesting to me that you say that because you seem to be working on the assumption that the students are getting what they really want, when I thought the critique was that the institutions are giving them what they want, and what they want and what they are given doesn’t match up to your own standards.

Cheney: Well, you’re making a good point. Today’s students are very vocationally oriented. Today’s students are interested in that job, and that’s partly because of the high cost of higher education. When it costs $60,000 to $80,000 to earn a Bachelor’s degree it makes some sense that students are going to be vocationally oriented. I’m not arguing that people need to look for a school where you can only major in the humanities. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with majoring in accounting or computer science or math or whatever. I’m only arguing for that general education part of the curriculum for that fifty hours that exists at most colleges and universities now, but that is not very well used.

Heffner: Where is it going to come from? Seriously. You have noted in your reports…of the Endowment’s reports, that there has been a leveling off of the decline in the studies of the humanities of the liberal arts.

Cheney: Well, it got so bad that it had to level off. I mean we were practically at the bottom of the barrel. But, yes…I’m talking about majors when I cite those figures.

Heffner: Yes.

Cheney: Twenty years ago one out of every six people majored in the humanities. Now that figure is one out of sixteen. It’s been an amazing fall-off, but it’s also been true of math…you know, the hard sciences as well…not of engineering, but there’s been a similar decline there.

Heffner: Now…

Cheney: One out of four majors in business, which is…

Heffner: I…I

Cheney: …a stunning figure I think.

Heffner: …gave a Commencement address a few years ago at a very distinguished institution, and at the end of it, as the students came up to get their degrees, the Dean said, “History…” and two or three came up, and “Political Science…” and one or two, and “Philosophy…”, I think one…and “Business…” a couple of hundred students came up. Which leads me to ask you, seriously and sincerely…

Cheney: Yes.

Heffner: …forgetting that part of your task is to encourage people to move on, not to look backwards, what do you really think is going to happen to us as a nation in terms of our educational input?

Cheney: Well, that’s an enormous question that thousands of people are wrestling with. I…I’m just not comfortable in the business of making predictions. I’m the kind of person that says, “We have an enormous problem here, let’s see how we can fix it and move ahead from there.”

Heffner: But suppose, your, your own estimate as to what is most likely to happen were a rather grim one…wouldn’t you…

Cheney: Well, how could it be grim. I mean…

Heffner: You mean grimmer?

Cheney: Americans have faced problems throughout the history of this country and we’ve overcome some remarkable obstacles, I can’t imagine that we’re going to allow ourselves to be defeated by this one, threatening though it is. It is an enormous threat to the…to the stability of this country to have a populace that is ill-educated.

Heffner: Well, you’re…you have that wonderful positive attitude that comes from the West. You come from a people who have conquered great odds, as this nation has, of course. But I’ve been concerned over the years with the level of unreality. If we know what we are facing…

Cheney: Oh…

Heffner: …maybe we’re going to have to…

Cheney: …now…you make a really good point. There was a test done not long ago of 13 year olds across the nation. International comparison…they were put up against youngsters from other countries in mathematics, and, of course, the kids in the US….we’re used to hearing this by now…did worse than youngsters in any other country. The kids from Korea did best. There was a question asked with this examination, the students were asked, “How good are you at math?”, and the kids from the United States said, “We’re terrific.” More than in any other country, they thought they were good at math. The Korean kids were about half-way down the scale. There is a very real sense in which we can’t let optimism about our ability to solve problems lead us to deny that the problem exists.

Heffner: I, I’m so glad you brought that up because I think that that’s so enormously important to us. For instance, if we were thinking about this nation’s future, and if we understand that our movement is in a certain direction, away from grappling with the harder subjects, don’t we have to think in terms of a different kind of approach to the nature of our society, the structure of our government, perhaps. If Jeffersonian trust and faith in the ability of and the fact of every man’s command over the things that he needed to have command of to survive and be a good citizen, if that proves unwarranted, don’t we have to then start thinking about different political formulations?

Cheney: Oh, absolutely not. We see people in countries across the globe trying to move themselves into a situation where they are self-governing. The situation in which we are so enormously lucky to find ourselves. The point that you make though is one the Founders made again and again, that you cannot have a self-governing people without having a well-educated people. Madison talked about liberty and learning, each leaning on each other for their mutual sustenance. Isn’t that nice…liberty and learning. But, but that’s something that should inspire us to fix this problem, not something that should inspire us…

Heffner: Yes, but…

Cheney: …to move backward.

Heffner: …but there is…I’m not suggesting that we move backward, I’m suggesting that perhaps we need to be enormously realistic. There was a wonderful piece that you wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “A Long Celebration To Do Right By The Constitution”, January, 1987, and you spoke…you wrote about Madison, and you wrote, “Those who know his career call Madison the father of the Constitution, by 1991, when the Bicentennial Celebration closes, a nation that owes him much should be more aware of its debt.” Now, how much more “aware of this debt” to his thinking and to the kinds of thinking that we identify with the Founders, how much more aware are we? And how much…

Cheney: Today, than we were in 1987?

Heffner: Yes, yes.

Cheney: Well, insofar as the people who have been arguing for a curriculum that is more history based to go into the schools, insofar as they have had a real triumph in California, insofar as people are continuing the battle to get textbooks in which you’ll learn what a fascinating person James Madison was, insofar as that fight is continuing we are making progress. Now one of the reasons people don’t know about Madison is because they only know that phrase “Father of the Constitution”, and that sounds sort of dull and boring. I think we will have won a great victory the day you can pick up a textbook and you’ll find out what sort of person he was, you know he was, he was shy, he was withdrawn, he thought he had epilepsy…some scholars say he was a hypochondriac, but managed to bring himself out of himself by becoming involved in, first of all, the cause of religious freedom and then in the cause of a self-governing people. This man that thought he was sick, of course, lived to a ripe old age, serving in an enormous number of capacities. We find out these things about a person when those facts, that story, appears in textbooks, then we’ll have made important progress toward bringing Madison and his kind of thinking home to the next generation.

Heffner: Has the Endowment helped us make that kind of progress?

Cheney: We have sponsored an enormous number of projects that help teachers know more about their subject. You know I sometimes think that all these problems in education…terrible textbooks, the curriculum is a mess, kids are dropping out of school, drugs, teenage pregnancy…of all these problems, where do you start? I sometimes think if you focus on teachers that that’s perhaps the most important thing that can be done. Teachers will ignore bad textbooks, they’ll make do with bad curriculum, and make it better. Good teachers will inspire kids to understand cause and consequence and to move away from damaging kinds of behavior. What we at the Endowment do is focus on teachers, whenever we can, give them opportunities to do what good teachers want to do, and that’s study their subjects. I don’t know if you’ve paid attention to the way we treat our teachers lately, but we don’t’ treat them as though they are intellectually respectable human beings. We put them in classes and talk to them about abstract pedagogical intellectually demeaning methods of education. What we at the Endowment do is give them a chance to read books, sit with scholars, discuss Shakespeare, discuss Madison, discuss the Constitutional Convention, the French Revolution, and we think by doing that we are, we are helping.

Heffner: I’m sure that you are helping. I’m certain that you’re helping. I guess the question that I have in mind is that as you look to the future, as we look to the future as a nation, do we see a nation that has become more and more…that will become even more and more polarized between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and I don’t mean…

Cheney: Well, we can’t let that happen. We simply cannot let that happen.

Heffner: Are we letting it happen?

Cheney: I think that the concern that we see today about our inner city schools, the concern that we see on the part of politicians across the spectrum, the President has been very active in this, but so have Democrats like Governor Perpich in Minnesota, giving poor people a chance to choose schools for their children, for example. Giving them what middle class people have because they can move if the school they they’re near isn’t a good one. Giving that to poor people, working in other ways to bring those inner city kids into a system where they value learning, that concern is a very real one, and it tells me that we’re not about to let ourselves become a nation that’s “haves” and have-nots.”

Heffner: But…ah, well, no buts about it, you’re too positive a person for me to get into the “but” realm further. Still, Madison and his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention were thinking of a certain kind of society, a certain kind of good society and I guess what I’ve asked you is whether you’re bet, not your enthusiasm…

Cheney: Yes.

Heffner: …not your positive character, but your intellectual bet is that we’re moving further in the direction that they foresaw.

Cheney: Oh, well, I mean how could you think otherwise?

Heffner: By looking about me.

Cheney: Well, but, but think of the…think of the historical progress. Great and admirable as the Founders were, they were all White, propertied males. When the Founders thought of a self-governing people, they thought of a self-governing people of White, propertied males. We have progressed enormously from there. I vote. Black people…minority…ethnic minorities of every kind have made enormous progress in becoming part of the self-governing polity.

Heffner: Lynne Cheney…

Cheney: This tale is a positive tale.

Heffner: There’s no question about that. But I think of Henry Adams education in which he wrote about Darwinian concepts of evolution from lower to higher and looked about him in Washington…

Cheney: You know, I…

Heffner: …with Ulysses S. Grant in the White House, and said, “From Washington…George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant, progress?”.

Cheney: I think that maybe the black curtains the black tablecloth are darkening your mood. To quote Henry Adams is to quote one of the most pessimistic observers, ever, of our national life.

Heffner: But it isn’t really a question of whether he was one of the most pessimistic, but whether he was one of the most accurate. Isn’t…would you grant that?

Cheney: But pessimism certainly puts a cast on one’s predictions.

Heffner: And optimism does it from the, from the other end of the spectrum.

Cheney: But I’m not sure…I’m not sure that it does…it’s even worth thinking about being a pessimist. What good does it do? When you get up in the morning, what, what good can you do if you’re a pessimist?

Heffner: Maybe it makes you transvalue values, maybe it makes you more realistic, but it’s not for me to argue that point with you, but rather to thank you so much for joining me today and to congratulate the Endowment under your leadership for doing such splendid work. I just hope that your enthusiasm is matched by our success as a nation. Thank you again.

Cheney: I hope so too. Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of Omaha.

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