THIS IS A SCHOOL
Presidential Scholars Address, April 12, 1991
Imagine your favorite space traveler, Dr. Who, Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk (I know I'm dating myself). Suppose he's just been beamed down into your living room, and you're sitting around sipping coffee or cranberry juice and suddenly, for no apparent reason, he asks you what a university is. Easy. It's a kind of school.
But if you were a faculty member in a university you might find yourself stumbling over your words. An American university is a very peculiar thing. Think for a minute. It's a place where the football and basketball coaches make hundreds of thousands of dollars. A place where "scholarship" students go flying off to a post-season basketball tournament that lasts for weeks--no classes, no books, no exams all that time, while some teacher back in a classroom tries to decide how to grade them for their "work." It's a place where large academic support staffs have to labor one-on-one with students who've already spent twelve years in school and still can't handle the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic. And there are even stranger things. For instance, the students are angry and demand a large public meeting with the administration; they get their wish, and they spend the whole meeting complaining about restrictions on drinking. That's what they're angry about. This is a school? Drinking is what they have to complain about? And of course, when the basketball team wins, enrollments go up; when it loses, they drop off. If three faculty members were to win Nobel prizes in the same year, I wonder if enrollment would go up? If four students were to get Rhodes scholarships, would enrolment go up? Do students even know what a Rhodes scholarship is?
It all gives a teacher pause. It makes me feel like putting on a sandwich board and walking up and down in front of the entrance out there when students start to arrive. The message on the board:
|THIS IS A SCHOOL|
|You are entering a school!|
|What we're here for is teaching and learning!|
My message to you tonight is very simple. I want to assure you that this is a school. The faculty is completely dedicated to making it one. This is a place run by people who have their PhDs precisely to teach in a school! Some of us may be interested in the school's athletic program, but many of us pay no attention at all to athletics. Some of us may be concerned with how you enjoy yourselves, your music, your parties, but many of us don't think about your life outside school very much at all. But all of us are concerned that you learn.
Fairleigh Dickinson has, as you must already know, a very large number of academic programs, in business, engineering, liberal arts and sciences. We have excellent computer facilities. Most of all we have a faculty with excellent credentials, degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, NYU, Columbia, and many others, as those of you know who have checked us out in our catalogue. Besides that, many of us bring important experiences from the business and professional world.
But these are general things you'd expect of most any university. We have also done something quite specific to us, to Fairleigh Dickinson, something that has begun to gain us national recognition from such organizations as the Association of American Colleges and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We have waded into the controversies over general education, or cultural literacy, or whatever you have learned to call it, and we, as a faculty, have put at the heart of our educational enterprise an interdisciplinary core curriculum: four courses required of all our students, business students, engineering students, arts students, and science students. We have required this set of core courses because learning, as we understand it, is not just deciding on a field and burying yourself in it. The core is that part of the apple that contains the seeds. That's what we put into the core curriculum, the seeds of broad learning, the basic stuff to open students' eyes to the context, the larger dimensions, the whole human meaning of whatever field they decide to go into.
Last year, the National Endowment for the Humanities published a booklet on education called The Tyrannical Machine. The book is, among other things, a how-to book for parents and students choosing a college. The advice they give is to look at college catalogues with some questions in mind. Here are some of the questions, along with our answers:
First question: Are there requirements at the school you're considering? Do they reflect the institution's having grappled with the question of what its graduates should know? Is it possible to earn a bachelor's degree without having explored major areas of knowledge? Our answer: We obviously have set the university core requirements, and they reflect the hard and careful planning of a large body of the faculty, supported, incidentally, by five years of grants from the New Jersey Department of Higher Education. We asked the basic question: what do we want our students to know? How can we make sure they have had a look at the major areas of human knowledge? And we answered it with our Core Curriculum.
The next question: Do the requirements of the school direct students to broad-based courses--Western Civilization, for example, or Masterpieces of World Literature--rather than to courses on brief periods and narrow themes? Our answer: Our students encounter plenty of masterpieces as they proceed through our Core Curriculum. As for breadth, the names of the courses indicate that: "Perspectives on the Individual," a course which reflects on the gradual development, in the west, of a commitment to the individual, a commitment we take for granted now, but still need to understand better. The second course, "The American Experience," hardly needs to be explained: but there are things about America we need to explain to ourselves, problems, like the contrast between opportunity and oppression which runs like a thread all through our history. "Cross-cultural Perspectives" is the third course where students read texts from such diverse cultures as Nigeria, India, China, and Mexico. The last course, "Global Issues," introduces our students to those contemporary problems which we can't solve as different peoples, but only as a single human family. Those are broad-based courses.
A third question: Who teaches introductory courses? What is the likelihood that a student will find tenured faculty in Principles of Economics, General Biology, or History of the United States? Our answer: FDU has always been preeminent in putting undergraduate students next to our most experienced faculty right from the beginning. Our core courses in particular are planned, revised, and taught mostly by senior, tenured faculty
A final question, which is really two: What size are introductory courses? It is almost universally agreed that teaching should engage students, should draw them into a subject and encourage them to explore and ask questions. Our answer: The Core courses are limited to twenty-five students: no lecture classes of 300 or 400 students. Moreover, the teaching in these courses centers on student activity. They emphasize extensive reading, lots of writing, in and outside of classes, and group-learning within the classroom. Students divide into small groups to discuss and formulate positions. They debate their conclusions with the whole class. Students write their responses to ideas while responses to ideas while they are still in the classroom; they don't wait until they are in their dormitories alone. We mean our students to be able to speak intelligently to one another in small groups, to the whole class, to professors. We hope all of our students will be able to say, as one of them said to me after a core course, "You know, adults listen to me now." We mean them to be able to write informatively, helpfully, clearly, even imaginatively. And we mean them to have read what we consider central texts of the Western and non-Western tradition: Plato, Freud, The Bhaghavad Gita, Confucius--and not only to have read them, but to have acquired a habit of reading that won't stop when they sell the textbooks back to the bookstore.
One of America's recent literary figures, Loren Eiseley, gives me the image I want to conclude with. Eiseley was a twentieth-century anthropologist who wrote splendid essays about being a scientist. In one of the essays in his book, The Immense Journey, he describes the end of a hard summer day of digging bones. He strips and stretches out in the warm shallow waters of the Platte River as it flows down from the Rockies into the Missouri. And then he has almost a mystical experience. He feels himself stretching beyond the limits of his body. His fingers seem to reach back and touch the cold mountain streams of the Rockies. At the same time he feels the warm waters of the gulf flowing around his toes. He feels himself a part of the continent, connected to the whole of North America.
That's my metaphor for the purpose of education. The human story stretches thousands of years back in time, far beyond written history into the darkness of the caves where people painted horses and bison by firelight. It has moved on through thousands of years, through many cultures, the culture of the Fertile Crescent, Asian culture, Western culture. It is all our story. We are a part of it all. And we need it all, we need to know as much of it as we can. We need to touch all of it, to feel ourselves a part of it.
Eiseley calls humans "the dream animal." He is not being merely poetic. When we evolved the huge brain that characterizes us, bodily adaptations slowed down. They slowed down because, unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, humans are able not only to adapt by seeing, learning, knowing, but by passing on the contents of that massive brain of theirs to the young. Learning and passing on knowledge is a much more efficient form of adaptation than animal adaptation, which takes thousands of years and which requires the deaths of many individuals in order for a few to survive. Human adaptation is the product of an ability to make a picture of the world, to see patterns in it and to understand those patterns. And we are able to carry on long-term projects because we can mentally place ourselves in a story, see where it began and where we want it to end. And human understanding, flexible and adaptive, able to see and think through new situations, not only can but must be passed on to the young.
That's what we do. It is called tradition, not a popular word in America. It never has been. Americans have always preferred the illusion that we don't need that past, that we can start all over again with a clean slate. And yet we cannot do without what we have learned in the past. We get our deepest sense of values from the stories we tell about ourselves. The story of the Exodus, for instance, the passage of the Jews out of slavery, through the desert, into the promised land, has inspired human beings for three thousand years. It inspired the yearning for freedom in African-American slaves, and it inspires us today as we keep breaking through to new frontiers. We understand ourselves best by seeing what we have been and dreaming of what we might become.
The role of schools is to do the work of tradition, to supplement the work of parents, to pass on what we have learned, and to pass on the skill that makes it easy to learn more. When students graduate they should feel something like what Eiseley felt drifting in the warm current of the Platte river. They should feel that they have stretched all the way back to the sources of human culture and their feet should itch with the desire to stretch human possibilities out into the future. I hope we will be able to help you to that kind of experience at our school. We are, I promise you, first of all and above all, a school.