Just yesterday (I refer to the song by Charles Aznavour “Hier Encore”), over four decades ago when I wasn’t yet an adult, I used to take long walks with my grandfather through the streets of Paris. Three or four times during each walk, he would pause in front of a building and, with his walking stick, point. “On May the Third, 1645, the Duke of Such-and-Such jumped out the back window as the Marquis of So-and-So walked in the front door. The Duke broke his leg. That broken leg changed the course of French history…” It wasn’t always about lovers sneaking out the back window (although there seemed to be a lot of that throughout French history): it was about conspirators meeting in the coal cellar, or a writer battling depression looking out his window for something with which to cling to life. And when he told the story of the Battle Vienna as if he had been there, you could see the Ottoman troops fleeing old King Sobieski’s mad charge.
My grandfather was not a historian. He was a retired executive of a passenger and cargo shipping company. During World War I, he had been an intelligence analysis officer and a liaison between French and English-speaking field officers. During World War II, he was head of a Resistance cell in Normandy that helped downed English pilots and Jewish refugees get across the Channel to England; and, after he retired, he contributed articles to the multi-volume Encyclopédie Larousse–the French equivalent of Encyclopedia Britannica. He also wrote several books on political philosophy and social justice.
Try as I might, the above paragraph does not begin to describe “who” he was. He was many things to many people; but, for the young man that I was, he became the inspiration of what I would like to be. Not that I could ever hope to know as well, to understand as deeply, or to do as much as he had; but even as an adolescent I knew I would be content if I could claim that a little something of him survived in me. Special as he was to me, he was not so much the exception of his generation, but much closer to the norm. And so, today, I write this protest against specialization.
Bright as our students are, we do them a disservice by not expecting them to be encyclopedic, if not in the depth of their knowledge, at least in its scope. We no longer ask them to learn a language foreign-to-them (the language they grew up with does not count), nor do we require them to know something of Plato or the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Mahabharata, The Mogul Empire, The Origin of the Species…the list of what we do not require them to know is much longer than what we do ask. Instead, we mandate four semesters of intensive writing and hope we have helped them become educated future citizens of the world.
True, the college composition courses E110 and the various CW2 courses begin to take them in something of the right direction; and, if structured in the right way, the remaining two “W” classes could take them further down the roads towards broadened horizons. I suggest, however, that this happens in a haphazard way; the result of accident rather than design.
The specialization against which I protest is inherent to the structure of most modern universities: gone is the once-pervasive philosophy that knowledge can be its own intrinsic reward, that those impractical disciplines of Philosophy and Literature, History and Art, impractical as they are, are none the less essential to the achievement of a life well lived—a fully human life. Now, the conferral of a diploma is seen and marketed as a rite of passage on the way to jobs and a career.
Perhaps the structure we have at Queens College is as good as we are going to get, and perhaps I am foolish to think more could be done, more could be expected of our students. I am not certain; but I would be interested to hear from you my colleagues in all the different disciplines: could we compile a list of all the quanta of knowledge to which we would like our students exposed? What, in your estimation as an instructor in the discipline of X, is an essential subject or topic absent which a graduate of our institution would not be a well-educated Bachelor?
I cannot speak for my colleagues who also teach Composition and “W” classes; but, as for me, if you take the trouble to respond to my request, I promise you to learn as much about the subject as I can, and somehow incorporate in whatever way I can at least an introduction of it to my students.
By the way, of all the things my grandfather taught me, the one of which we were both proudest was that together we learned how to make our own bread.