The End of College as We Knew It

Brian Rosenberg, who just finished a long stretch as president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, observes:

“If one were to invent a crisis uniquely and diabolically designed to undermine the foundations of traditional colleges and universities, it might look very much like the current global pandemic.”

Frank Bruni quotes Rosenberg in his essay “The End of College as We Knew It?” A thoughtful lament on the decline of the humanities.

Rosenberg notes higher education was already on the defensive seeing that it is. . .

“maligned by conservative politicians for its supposed elitism and resented by students and their families for its hefty price tag.”

In my case, Bruni is preaching to the choir when making a case for the humanities. Despite agreeing wholeheartedly with him about the timeless importance of the humanities, his last argument seems specious.

He writes:

“We need doctors, all right, but not all doctors are the same, as Benito Cachinero-Sánchez, the vice chair of the Library of America’s board of directors, reminded me. If he were choosing between two physicians, he said, he would go with one who has read Chekhov, ‘because he’s a fuller human being and he’s going to treat me like a fuller human being.'”

Not everyone who reads classic literature becomes a fuller human being. It’s even more foolhardy to assume someone is going to behave markedly better as a result of having read Chekhov. The ink on the paper is not magic, more important are the institutions’ values and the overall ethos of the place where one engages with classic literature.

But let’s ask every medical student to read Chekhov just in case I’m wrong. Again.

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