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Debating the ends of higher education

Peter Wicks | Sunday, March 21, 2004

A friend of mine called Ben, whom I have known since we were freshmen together at university, has for some time suffered from two persistent difficulties. The first is that for the duration of his undergraduate career, Ben’s life resembled nothing so much as a pornographic film from which all the sex had been removed, leaving only a succession of implausible plot contrivances.To give an example of what I’m talking about, Ben was once invited to give motorcycling lessons to a group of 18-year-old high school girls. That (I think we can all agree on this ) just isn’t the sort of thing that happens in real life, or even in reputable works of fiction. But it happened to Ben and, even more implausibly, he remained chaste throughout the process.The pathos of Ben’s situation was that he didn’t want to take advantage of any of the girls, but sometimes he wanted to want to take advantage of them. I know quite a few men like that, but none of the others had to endure anything like the succession of tantalizing situations that was Ben’s life. By our final year at Oxford I kept expecting a group of female aliens bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Brazilian beach volleyball team to land their flying saucer outside Ben’s dorm and refuse to leave until he agreed to help them repopulate their planet.But this was only one of the two sources of Ben’s frustration. The other was that he was a psychology student and no one except other psychology students seemed to have the slightest idea what that involved. When he told people what he studied they would almost invariably pause for a moment to consider this and then ask, “So, can you tell what I’m thinking?”As background, I should explain that in England there is no tradition of the liberal arts degree. Most people attend university for three years and study only one subject or occasionally two closely-related subjects.One consequence of this is that the vast majority of university-educated Englishmen end up basing their conception of psychology on the portrayal of criminal psychologists in Hollywood movies, which usually treat the subject with the same meticulous attention to detail that Hollywood has brought to the practices of computer hackers. In America, psychologists are often frustrated when they are confused with psychiatrists, just as astronomers are annoyed when they are confused with astrologers. In England, most psychologists are just happy to meet anyone who realizes they are not psychic.Ben got no pity from me regarding the situation with the high school girls and the bikes, but I sympathized with his other frustration because philosophy has a similar public relations problem. I know that a lot of my friends can’t help imagining that when I’m in my office I wear a toga and spend hours in silent contemplation, leaning forward with my chin resting on my fist, doing my best impression of a Rodin sculpture.I once met a woman who, when I told her that I was a philosophy student, asked me if we read Deepak Chopra. Chopra, I subsequently discovered, is the author of such seminal works as “Perfect Weight: The Complete Mind/Body Program for Achieving and Maintaining Your Ideal Weight” and the indispensable “Grow Younger, Live Longer: Ten Steps to Reverse Aging.” I’m not mocking the woman, who was clearly very intelligent, but there is something wrong with a college education that did not equip her to distinguish between Chopra’s new-age wellness garbage and Plato’s Republic.There used to be a substantial amount of books and ideas with which you could assume that every university-educated person was familiar. Classical literature occupied a central place and a large amount of history could be assumed.But while there is much to envy about the old curriculum, we should not mourn its loss. There was very little science, and some things had to go to make room for that. Psychology is now an important part of our quest to understand ourselves, and everyone should have at least a basic knowledge of its history and concepts. Similarly, most of what is written about the Human Genome Project is confused and misleading and everyone with a liberal education – not just biology majors – should know enough about genetics to recognize that. To give just one more example, everyone should be taught enough about statistics to realize how easy it is to lie with them.The old curriculum needed to change, but what did not need to be abandoned was the idea of a core curriculum, which is closely tied to the idea of a common culture (a culture which does not replace, but rather is shared between many subcultures). There are some things that every educated person should know, some books that every educated person should have read. One of the ends to which higher education should be directed is equipping us to take part in the endless debate about what they are. Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. His moods are so completely determined by the weather that he is beginning to suspect that he may be a plant. Peter can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily of The Observer.