I am at the moment working my way through the last half of Francis Parkman's famous series on France and England in North America in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, written over a long period during the 19th century. I was introduced to Parkman as a Harvard freshman, and I bought a complete set of this work--about ten volumes--as a grad student. The early volumes are rather slow, and I'm not sure I'll ever get through them, but I decided to read the last 7 (each volume is only about 350 moderately sized pages), which cover the period 1688-1770 or so, that is, the years in which the conflicts between the French and English were part of larger world wars, culminating in the Seven Years War. (The last two volumes are about the conspiracy of Pontiac, about which I know nothing at all.) Perhaps it was this that got me thinking about my undergraduate education--so different from what students receive now--and a light suddenly went on in my head.
The bulk of my undergraduate courses, including most (but not all) of the best ones, were lecture courses devoted to broad topics--large swathes of history, great authors, or branches of economics. (Because I did so well in Economics 1, I took much too much economics in subsequent years.) The quality of the lecturing varied widely. Some lecturers were organized and always did what they set out to do; others could not manage that feat. The average history or literature or government course, however, had an enormous amount of reading. Just to give you a couple of highlights, in my sophomore year I took a very popular course by a visiting professor from Chicago on Dostoevsky, Camus, and Faulkner. The list included three of the four major Dostoevsky novels; all Camus's major works; and three novels by Faulkner, plus some short stories. And. . .we read them. The next term, that spring, I took a course on international politics from 1919 to 1945 taught by Ernest May, who became my dissertation adviser, and Sam Williamson, who is still a good friend. It included entire, substantial books on Germany, Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Far East in that period, and a good deal more as well.
There were already complaints in those days that students were too cut off from senior faculty, but I see now that they were misplaced. Most of my classmates--though not all--had demonstrated substantial intellectual ability to get into Harvard in the first place. We were being treated, I now see, like adults. It was up to us to engage with the reading, whether we kept up steadily (as a few people did)_ or crammed in the three week reading periods in January and May (which I never failed to put to good use.) We had to be ready to discuss those works in a three-hour final. Young people can always rise to challenges, and we did. Meanwhile, we were learning the experience of deep immersion in a subject. This wasn't very hard for me. Books had always been my refuge and my most reliable friends. But it was also required of my classmates, as part of their ticket to wealth and power which their diploma would represent. That had been true for about a century then--but all that was about to change.
I did what I could to keep that tradition alive both at Harvard from 1976 to 1980, where I taught a lecture course myself. It had quite a lot of reading--although not as much as I did for May and Williamson--and because of the structure of the final exam, there was no way to avoid doing it. (I made sure students would become immersed by dividing most of the reading into about ten sections and requiring each student to do two of them, and write one-hour essays on the subject they covered on the final.) At Carnegie Mellon I developed a course called War and Revolution in the Twentieth Century, in which students read Pasternak, Malraux, Silone, Orwell, and Solzehnitsyn. I don't know if there's anyone reading these posts who took that course, but I know it has stayed with certain students for the whole of their lives. That was the point.
The trend for many years has been against large lecture courses and in favor of small group discussions. That, it seems to me, inevitably puts more of a premium on grasping the approach of the instructor, rather than making up one's own mind about a long, great book. Scholars in the humanities, moreover, have become increasingly narrow. And thus, it seems to me, today's elite students graduate with the ability to assimilate arguments quickly and regurgitate them, but without much experience in diving into large amounts of data and coming out with a conclusion themselves. That in turn makes them much more likely to accept the conventional wisdom of their profession in their careers. It also makes it less likely that they will spend much of their spare time reading long books later in life.
The world today is changing very rapidly, and we are having trouble coping with it, it seems to me, precisely because of a lack of long-term historical sense. As I mentioned last week, our foreign policy establishment is committed to a rather naive belief in the continuing, unstoppable spread of democracy. A few sanctions, it seems, will get any dissenters--like Vladimir Putin--back on the straight and narrow. But that is not so. The period of the Cold War was parallel to the long peace that followed the Napoleonic wars, roughly from 1815 until the mid-1860s. A series of wars in that decade created modern Italy and Germany, but, thanks largely to Bismarck's skillful diplomacy, things did not spin completely out of control until 1914. Bismarck may be Putin's model as well: he wanted to make Prussia supreme in most of Germany, just as Putin wants to restore some of Russia's position in the former Soviet Union, but even Bismarck did not want all German-speaking lands under his control. The Middle East, meanwhile, has essentially abandoned western tutelage. The future relationship of the West and the Far East is, I think, much more uncertain than many of us realize.
We need men and women at the head of our institutions who can think both historically and on behalf of our whole society. We do not seem to be producing very many of them any more.
I shall take a moment now to touch on another current controversy: Israel's insistence, as part of the peace negotiations involving the Palestinians, that the Palestinians and other Arab states accept Israel as a specifically Jewish state. This, to me, is a sad commentary on the decline of classic western political values. After the American and French Revolutions citizenship became increasingly divorced from religion and, in much of western Europe, from ethnicity as well. The Enlightenment called for equal political rights for all. The Balfour Declaration called for a "Jewish national home": in which Jews--and specifically the Jews of the Russian Empire, who enjoyed very few political rights--could enjoy those rights, although it also specifically promised to protect the rights of the Arab population. Israel has never been a completely Jewish state, and indeed, its Arab minority is increasing. No advanced nation has found a way to keep its birth rate high enough to do without immigration. Yet Israel wants to give special status to its majority of Jewish citizens--and to treat the Arab citizens similarly to the way Jews were treated in Europe in earlier ages. I do not think this was what the founders of Zionism had in mind, but they came from much earlier generations.