T.S. Eliot once wondered: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" Eliot wrote these words before the internet, Twitter, and the explosion of digital knowledge. He was worried, rightly, about both the dissolving of knowledge into bits of information and about the vanishing of the wisdom of the ages that creates a synoptic vision of the place of humans in the universe.
It's a worry that comes to my mind as an educator and as someone who considers education a journey in seeking truth and in working toward understanding. The question now is whether universities can, or will, guide students in that search.
Eliot was himself something of a polymath, studying philosophy, theology and poetry as well as Sanskrit. This sort of breadth of learning is especially needed in times such as our own when information is everywhere but wisdom is eroded, where we are threatened by hyper-specialization and where we risk losing the synthesis of ideas that geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, the paradigmatic Renaissance man, offered us.
The common critique holds out the polymath as a dilettante whose knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep and whose broad interests reflect a mind too easily distracted.
But such figures remain important, not just because they counter specialization, but also because they testify to the possibility that the parts of what we know might at some level cohere, that truth does not contradict truth, and that inquiry can lead to a unified vision, or at least to glimpses of it.
The need for such glimpses is especially important for college students, who increasingly experience their education as a grab bag of disconnected courses. That observation is included within a new $7 million initiative from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Teagle Foundation, which seeks to "reinvigorate" humanities education for undergraduates.
The proposal, called Cornerstone: Learning for Living, combines "gateway" courses, which counter the centripetal forces in higher education through a common core of classes, with "cluster" courses that seek to bridge the divide between the humanities and more technical disciplines like business, health or engineering.
The latter proposal is significant. While integrated humanities curricula have enjoyed occasional revivals, the connections between the humanities and the sciences remain neglected. In fact, some of the most notable polymaths, particularly figures such as da Vinci and Galileo, have bridged that divide.
That many of the great scientific minds of the past were equally versed in the humanities, even in theology, should give universities pause. In the contemporary research university, STEM programs wax while the humanities wane.
The word the Cornerstone proposal uses, "Languishing," to describe the humanities is too mild. Humanities programs are, in many places, in full scale retreat. The decline is a result of the reduction of the value of education to its direct contribution to career advancement and to the politicization of humanities programs that has been ongoing for several decades.
In this way, higher education abdicates its role in forming citizens, exactly the role that the Humanities, well taught, are meant to play. This is something a STEM curriculum, for all its strengths, cannot accomplish alone. At a time when our public discourse is in a putrid state — with political candidates incapable of articulating even memorable soundbites — the arts of conversation, communication and vigorous, civil debate are essential to the revival of civic life.
Cornerstone is predicated on the supposition that such curricular innovations can help revitalize American life, both in terms of individual flourishing and civic life. Engaging in shared conversation with great texts both past and present enables students to "broaden their understanding of the world and themselves." It also strengthens basic skills: "to read closely, write clearly, speak with confidence."
Because they are labor intensive for both faculty and students, the skills of close reading and clear writing are among the hardest to teach and are increasingly neglected. But these are the skills that assist students in becoming reflective about their own lives. More importantly, they are the skills that enable them to think carefully and to respond eloquently to the opinions of others, however discordant those views may be with their own.