Before putting forward the next installment I want to (1) thank the erudite and intelligent commenters. Wow. And (2) offer a quick and ironic aside in the form of a couple of quotations that show that any dichotomy, even my favorites, can be off kilter.
I mean, what can we do with Robert Hutchins, the central figure of the University of Chicago, that weirdly American institution of higher learning where Enrico Fermi started the atomic age and Leo Strauss infected a generatiuon of neocons with Platonic madness? Where F.A. Hayek pierced to the heart of how both economies and freedom work, but we also saw emerge some of the silliest cult pseudoscience ever written? And Allan Bloom, that quintessential elitist grouch and snob. What a place.
Hutchins and his pal Mortimer Adler led the work in organizing, publishing and promoting the GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD. I have a set and it's marvelous. Two shelves ranging from Aristotle (and yes, Plato) to Einstein, which carry much of the heat and light of western civilization. The project is rather nostalgist in one way. Its core assumption looks back toward received wisdom... received from giants of the past.
Superficially nostalgist-romantic, right? Well, always be willing to see twists and exceptions to your own Neat Idea. see the following two quotations. One of them sounds positively fizzy with modernism... in 1943, when it seemed about to destroy (or save) the world. The other sounds like some grouch of 2005 were saying it. And it should make you smile over the notion of America's "failed" education system.
"When we remember that only a little more than 1500 years ago the ancestors of most of us, many of them painted blue, were roaming the trackless forests of Caledonia, Britain, Germany, and transalpine Gaul, despised by the civilized citizens of Rome and Antioch, interested, in the intervals of rapine, only in deep drinking and high gaming; savage, barbarous, cruel, and illiterate, we may reflect with awe and expectation on the potentialities of our race. When we remember, too, that it is only a little more than fifty years ago that the "average man" began to have the chance to get an education, we must recognize that it is too early to despair of him." - Robert M. Hutchins, Pres. University of Chicago
["Education For Freedom" (1943)]
"Ask any foreign scholar you meet what he thinks about American students. He will tell you that they are eager and able to learn, that they will respond to the best that is offered them, but that they are miserably trained and dreadfully unenlightened. If you put these two statements together you can come to only one conclusion, and that is that it is not the inadequacy of the students but the inadequacy of the environment and the irresolution of teachers that is responsible for the shortcomings of American education." Robert Hutchins again... in 1943.
I mean, dang.
Watch out for dichotomies.
Even really, really good ones like mine!