“The Trivium” is not just a heavy metal group…


It’s commencement time.  You can tell from the tone of the op-ed pages.  Today’s New York Times featured two evergreen defenses of learning for the sake of learning, and extolled the value of a classical education that can’t be whored to the marketplace:

David Brooks’s “History for Dollars” topped the “most emailed” list of the New York Times, and opened with a lament:

When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.

So it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide. There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs are more glamorous than the libraries.

Not the liberal arts trivium

But allow me to pause for a moment and throw another sandbag on the levee of those trying to resist this tide. Let me stand up for the history, English and art classes, even in the face of today’s economic realities.

Stanley Fish’s eloquent defense, “A Classical Education: Back to the Future” — which is the third “most emailed” today — begins this way:

I wore my high school ring for more than 40 years. It became black and misshapen and I finally took it off. But now I have a new one, courtesy of the organizing committee of my 55th high school reunion, which I attended over the Memorial Day weekend.

I wore the ring (and will wear it again) because although I have degrees from two Ivy league schools and have taught at U.C. Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Duke, Classical High School (in Providence, RI) is the best and most demanding educational institution I have ever been associated with. The name tells the story.

Gioia (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Elitist?  Not so. He recalls a high school “student body made up of the children of immigrants or first generation Americans; many, like me, the first in their families to finish high school. Nearly a 100 percent college attendance rate. A yearbook that featured student translations from Virgil and original poems in Latin.”

Interestingly, Fish’s words today echo Dana Gioia’s, when he received the Laetare award last month at Notre Dame. As a Latino boy who would become the first in his family to go to university, he recalled receiving an “superb 12th century education, which wasn’t a bad way to prepare for the late twentieth century” before he “traded down for Stanford and Harvard.”  (Video clip is here; and the text is here.)

Fish’s words are welcome.   Over a year ago, Fish’s column “Think Again” aroused ire, defiance, and lots and lots of emails and letters.  I collected a few viewpoints from Stanford luminaries here.  I did not mean to hold up Fish as a dartboard, but guess what?

Congratulations, Class of 2010.  Including one particular graduate down at UC-Santa Cruz: my own daughter who is, in keeping with the spirit of this post, an art major with a Japanese minor.


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