Learning instead of training


When an old friend asked, the other day, what I thought of the secretive and political change of regimes at UNC, my response, in comic-book language, was %#@^ -- in other words, negative.

But when all has been said (and said, and said) about the deposition of one university president and the appointment of a Bush protege in his place, we are no nearer consensus on issues at the heart of higher education.

What is education, anyway? My mentor, Phillips Russell of Chapel Hill, often reminded his students that the word derives from a Latin verb meaning, “draw out of.” It is a process of tapping the potential within; and its range and depth depend upon our capacity for mental and moral growth – or, in other words, one’s aptitude for achieving some grasp of the human condition.

Half a century ago, before its faculty guardians sold the pass and began wrecking the traditional curriculum, beginning students at Chapel Hill were required to study three hard sciences, two terms of Western history, English composition and English 21 (Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare), two units of a foreign language, advanced math (or Latin or Greek). These requisites did not include such courses as “sports science” or “gender studies.” No student could move on to a major in the College of Arts and Sciences without satisfying these preliminaries. If the sometimes bogus demands of “advanced placement” were available then, no one had heard of them.

In short, UNC, having flourished for a long time on classical ideas of higher education, did not gear its requirements to the mystique of the so-called “market”; nor had it sacrificed classic principles to voguish notions of social improvement or political reform. I was one of the lucky ones.

There was an ancient wisdom in these restraints, as old as the oldest western universities in Paris, Oxford and elsewhere. There was a traditional sense that the social and political (to say nothing of commercial) fashions of one age fade away in the next; and that youth of college age usually haven’t the slightest idea how they will be earning their bread 10 or 20 years later. Hence the pursuit of the “practical” and “relevant” of one era would doom their educations to irrelevance in the next.

I can offer a word of experience here. Some years ago, to eke out a rather pinched journalistic income, I taught a course in the Liberal Studies MA program at Georgetown. I called it “Narrators and their Narratives” and it included a variety of books: novels, poetry, epic, history, etc., usually favorites of mine. Many of the students who signed up were accomplished professionals who felt that their earlier schooling had been over-specialized and failed to satisfy the sense they felt in middle life that they had missed something of importance: something to do with the human condition. They were victims of the too common failure to distinguish between training and learning. Both are valuable in their place; they are not the same.

Shakespeare, as usual, defined the human condition memorably: “We are such stuff as dreams are made of/And our little life is rounded with a sleep.” One and all, my adult students were able and interesting people who had by then experienced the chanciness of life, its expected gains and losses. What, they wished to learn, had the choicest spirits said of life’s chanciness? That is what they were trying to catch up on.

I write this as a word of warning about the siren songs of the educational hour, whether commercial or geared to world-saving fancies. Mr. Russell’s idea is still pertinent: Education is evocation, not something imposed from outside.

“Elitist,” some will say. Yes, in the sense that diligence and self-discipline are threshold demands for any worthy educational enterprise. But those qualities are not so rare as is often alleged. As the poet Randall Jarrell used to say, “everyone is an intellectual about something.” Education in that sense is, in fact, the ultimate democracy.

Edwin M. Yoder of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.