Who Killed the Liberal Arts?
And why we should care
SEP 17, 2012
"The University of Chicago had a reputation for great teachers, but I managed, somehow, to avoid them. I never sat in a class conducted by Leo Strauss, Joseph Schwab, Norman Maclean, David Greene, or Edward Shils. (Of course, great teachers, like great lovers, can sometimes be overrated. Later in life, I met a few men and women reputed to be great teachers and found them pompous and doltish, their minds spoiled by talking too long to children.) I attended a lecture by David Reisman, who was then Time magazine-cover famous, and was impressed by what then seemed to me his intellectual suavity. I sat in on a couple of classes taught by Richard Weaver, the author of Ideas Have Consequences, but left uninspired. I was most impressed by teachers from Mittel-Europa, Hitler’s gift to America, whose culture seemed thicker than that of the native-born teachers I encountered, and could not yet perceive the commonplace mind that sometimes lurked behind an English accent.
I took a course from Morton Dauwen Zabel, who was the friend of Harriet Monroe, Marianne Moore, and Edmund Wilson. Although not a great teacher, Zabel was an impressive presence who gave off whiffs of what the literary life in the great world was like. I took a summer course from the poet and critic Elder Olson, who kept what seemed a full-time precariously long ash on the end of his cigarette, and who, after reading from The Waste Land, ended by saying, “How beautiful this is. Too bad I can’t believe a word of it.”
The students at the University of Chicago were something else. In his book, Delbanco, defending the small classroom, refers to something he calls “lateral learning,” which refers to what a college student learns in class from his fellow students."