“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” wrote Browning. Even leaving aside the rhetorical question, I have often thought this a puzzling aphorism. What’s reach? What’s grasp? What does “exceed” mean, and what does it matter?
The aphorism came to mind recently as I listened to Ken Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University, talk about a set of courses at another university. We were talking liberal education, and specifically, about the point of it ─ the “what for?” of it. He said he’d been inquiring about some new general education courses for first-year students, courses specifically designed to acquaint the general student with scientific thought. It seemed that the other institution was posing a test question regarding each such proposed course. The question: How will this course improve the student’s understanding of science, when he or she has been elected to Congress?
Surely, in percentage terms or absolute numbers, those who will be eventually elected to Congress will be a tiny segment of any institution’s graduating class. But most graduates, we hope, will vote in those elections. And we’d hope they’d care whether the people for whom they will vote understand science, and we’d hope they’d be able to tell. So the relevance is broader than might first appear.
Though it’s not as broad as another question I heard about recently. This one came from an acquaintance in a South Atlantic state who’d been given a curriculum development job. His institution had only two-year degrees. His job was to design the first four-year program. And the criterion for each proposed course in the two added years was this: State the way in which taking this course will give the student a specific, determinate skill immediately applicable to the first job after graduation.
There’s relevance for you. The skill had to be immediately applicable, at the point of graduation. It had to be specific, and determinate. The course had to teach it. Well, there goes British Novel. There goes any hope that, when in our lives we need resources to help us think about the ways in which people displace moral responsibility away from themselves, we just might have at our disposal an acquaintance with old Mr. Smallweed in Bleak House, who blames the rapacity of his money lending practices on his avaricious “friend in the City.” There goes any hope that college might have helped us form good opinions about political candidates twenty years hence, or helped us to become better candidates ourselves, or members of Congress, come to that.
How did American higher education, or so much of it, come to be in the grip of such a small, cramped, viciously short-sighted conception of its purposes? How did people come to accept, as if it were normal, the idea that training people for low-end jobs many of which will not exist in ten years was a good thing, indeed, The Good Thing? Isn’t it ironic that this strategy is very likely to effect a perpetuation of the economic stratification that higher education long promised to ameliorate?
Ironies abound. By trying to make sure that people can grasp what is supposedly within their reach, we will make sure that their reach is not extended past what they can now plausibly grasp. Now what was it Browning said?