NOW COMES the year of the colleges. Last year you saw a succession of substantial studies of the American high schools, all concluding that performance generally fails to meet either students' requirements or the country's. Now attention is shifting upward four years to the colleges, and the first of several studies of college teaching has now appeared. William J. Bennett, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has published a short, sharp denunciation of the present neglected state of the humanities on most campuses, and an exhortation to the professors to pull up their socks.
The essay will have a certain modest political interest, since Mr. Bennett is a candidate to be secretary of education. But it will be more notable as the marker of another stage in building back the structure of intellectual values that was severely damaged in the upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s -- a time of "collective loss of nerve and faith on the part of both faculty and academic administrators," as Mr. Bennett puts it.
Since 1970, he observes, the number of undergraduates majoring in English has dropped by 40 percent, in history by 62 percent, and in modern languages by half. You can argue that the number of majors is secondary; the point that concerns Mr. Bennett more is that regardless of their majors, college students are able to graduate "lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge about the history, literature, art and philosophical foundations of their nation and their civilization."
He raises no issues that are not already extremely familiar in any faculty club. There is a case for foreign language requirements -- but not if it merely means memorizing enough irregular verbs to get through the required exam. How about a history requirement? Not if the course is going to be taught by bored and harassed graduate students as the first step in the process of producing future graduate students. Before the humanities are studied better in this country, Mr. Bennett suggests, they are going to have to be taught a great deal better.
He is defending the position that some books are much more worth reading than others, some questions are much more worth asking than others, and the colleges have a moral responsibility to show students what it means to be educated. All that goes without saying, you think? If you think that, Mr. Bennet would reply, you haven't spent much time on the typical American campus lately. Declarations such as this one don't introduce new ideas. But they serve usefully to arm and encourage those teachers who are already working to re-establish the humanities among their colleges' central purposes.