ON MARCH 15, A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale, testified eloquently before the Senate subcommittee on Education, Arts and the Humanities about the value of the study of language-English and others-and about the centrality of language study to a formal liberal arts education. It is unlikely that 10 years ago a Senate subcommittee would have been eager to hear such talk; and it is even less likely that a majority of educators would have received favorably the idea that a formal liberal arts education, what Harvard calls its new "core corriculum," was the best education an undergraduate could get. Yet Mr. Giamatti's remarks have been well-received. Ten years ago was the time of free-wheeling programs and "independent study." Students earned credit for a B.A. by taking up self-inquiry, or by majoring in kindness and the blue horizon. No more. The advertising of "Back to Basics" has been translated within universities as a required dose of history, of English, of science.
This return to a "core" has naturally and reasonably been greeted with a whoopee by those faculty members who, during the 1960s, held their ground while their colleagues lost their heads. But it would be a mistake to read the current return to center as a vindication of the straight-and-narrow. In part it was the distraction of the "real world" in the 1960s-Vietnam and various community causes-that blew the curriculum open. Yet, in at least equal part, it was also a deep and justifiable dissatisfaction with the straight-and-narrow itself that not only encouraged the worst teachers toward their nutty pursuits, but also drove some of the best teachers away from the university in disgust. What may have occured, in other words, is that an educational revolution was riding alongside, and was thus obscured by, the political. And now, what appears to be a political decision (or victory) in a return to the core, is in fact a necessary educational move.
For the universities that have proudly hailed their return to basics have not done so in terms of getting back to exactly where they were when the lights went out. Rather they have spoken, as Mr. Giamatti spoke, of a renewed understanding of what a solid liberal arts education was supposed to be doing in the first place. At its best and most serious, a core curriculum is not set up to offer what Oscar Levant would have called a smattering of ignorance. It is meant to abstract-from English, history, science-the very core of learning, the core of culture itself. What does it mean to gathter information? To analyze and interpret? How do you form an opinion?
These are the questions of which an imaginative basic education is made. And these were the same questions that were either lost or set aside, both in the blue-horizon courses, and also in those courses that, while perfectly respectable in the sense of being harmless, had reduced the art of learning to lists and dust. To reinvigorate those courses will be a service to faculty as well as to students, as it should force them to reconsider their sujbects with some passion, and to regard their careers with pride.
In short, what universities are seeking to return to is what they too rarely had.