Article

Alan Jacobs


"The Centrifugal Experience of Knowledge"

Education as "character-forming."

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In 19th-century Germany, university students were rare birds, and drawn largely from the higher strata of society—yet even so every reformer, from Schelling to Nietzsche, lamented the absence of true intellectual and moral seriousness. In America today we have committed ourselves to providing a university education for an unprecedentedly high percentage of our young people. Among such a vast crowd, it's inevitable that there will be a great variety of purposes, interests, and goals. It is simply not possible in such circumstances to think of Bildung as a central component of university education. That would require not only a coherent but also a widely agreed upon set of moral norms, but this the contemporary multiversity necessarily disavows: A single set of moral norms is incompatible with the desire to offer all things to all people.

With the identity of the university so completely in flux, it seems manifestly in need of some new reformers—but who might be the Schellings and Humboldts of our time and place? I think they will be people who are content to work at the margins: either in unpromoted, uncelebrated corners of that vast and ever-ramifying creature that is the research university now, or in smaller institutions: liberal arts colleges, seminaries, perhaps even in community colleges. Here the unique diversity of the American higher educational system—or, blessedly, non-system—comes to our aid. People who work in very different types of institutions can speak to one another, exchange ideas, try out in one community of learning models and methods that have been developed for another. Students can learn not only from their own teachers but from people who teach elsewhere, by reading their books or listening to them speak or by writing them letters. Perhaps a love of learning awakened, even if only accidentally, in one institution can be fulfilled in another.

And it may not be the worst thing in the world that Bildung has never truly had a formal institutional home. It is, after all, in the very nature of Bildung that it cannot simply be taught, like the periodic table or the number of lines in a sonnet. Only by a kind of divine accident may those who need it recognize, through a glass darkly, what they lack. They do so typically while pursing certain practices and disciplines for reasons wholly extrinsic to personal excellence: they work for a good grade, in hopes of a good job, to please their parents, and in the midst of their drudgery something larger and better begins to break through. The teacher cannot plan this, or force it to happen; but she can be attentive to the signs of its emergence and ready always to fan the faintest embers into a lively flame, even when there is no explicit professional advantage for her in doing so. The willingness to ignore professional advantage is what she and her student, when they're at their best, have in common.

Education in this rich and deep sense cannot be mandated, cannot go into a bullet-pointed plan; it can only be hoped for. ("Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?") And however confused the university currently is, it still offers rich opportunities for those hopeful enough to discern and seize them. Enough of the lamentations. In times far darker than these, W. H. Auden wrote words that we who care about the true and deep education of young people can make our own:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University.

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