New book by Kenan Senior Fellow explores history, philosophy of U.S. education

In 2011, Geoffrey Harpham presented at Washington University in St. Louis about the history of humanities in America and was approached afterward by a man who wanted to share his life story.

What followed was a tale rooted in the American Dream: in the early 1960s, the man said he fled Cuba and arrived on the shores of Florida with no money, no family and no knowledge of English. He was eventually able earn a GED, enrolled in community college and found himself in a literature course studying Shakespeare.

“He had no understanding of Shakespeare at all. He sat at the back of the room and tried to stay out of trouble,” Harpham recalls the man telling him. “One day, the teacher came over, pointed at him, and said, ‘Mr. Ramirez, what do you think?’”

The man in question – “Mr. Ramirez” – told Harpham he never forgot that moment because as he paused to consider the weight of discussing Shakespeare in his second language, it struck him that this was the first time anyone had asked him such a question. The man handed Harpham his business card, labeled “emeritus professor of comparative literature.”

Harpham lost the card, but never forgot the story.

“The more I thought about it, every part of his story reflected a distinctive feature of the American educational system,” Harpham said. “I began to wonder how, when, and why we created a system that made such miracles possible.”

In his next book, “What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? The American Revolution in Education,” Harpham, Visiting Scholar and Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, uses the interaction with “Mr. Ramirez” as a jumping off point to explore the history and philosophy of U.S. education, its founding principles, and how those themes may be changing today.

What are the key principles of our educational system?

The system that was created after World War II had three principles. It was, first, universal in that everybody had to go to high school and everyone could have access to a post-secondary education. Second, it was liberal in that students would study a range of subjects for their own sakes, not for job preparation or professional training. And third, it was “general,” in that it was oriented toward the production of citizens who could run their own affairs, make informed decisions about public affairs, and lead rich and fulfilling lives. All this sounds commonplace to us, but it was remarkably progressive, even radical, at the time. Even today, no other nation has been able to replicate it.

Why is this process of education important from a civic perspective?

The American system was quite deliberately created as a kind of compact between the nation and its citizens. It is intended to create a society of people who can function in a democracy. The founders of the country fully understood that democracy ran a great risk through uninformed gusts of popular opinion leading to tyranny of the majority, and that the country could only succeed by waging what Thomas Jefferson called a “crusade against ignorance.” The post-war system was an attempt to translate that crusade into a national policy.

What are the ethical challenges that face the system today?

Every part of Mr. Ramirez’ story is now under stress. The entire concept of public education is being questioned by many, including our new Secretary of Education. Many community colleges have become job training centers while their academic programs have atrophied. The cost of higher education is restricting access to many, and burdening many others with debt. And the value of liberal education is constantly challenged–this is especially true of the humanities, of course. The challenge is to maintain the commitment to universal, liberal, and general education in a changing world. Those commitments grew out of a national self-understanding, and if we abandon them, we will have a different kind of country.  The irony is that so many other countries in Europe and Asia–countries we are competing with–regard the American system as the model for their own reforms.

As an English teacher, I am especially impressed by the empowering effect of the act of literary interpretation on undergraduates. Interpretation has fallen out of favor as a professional practice, but at the undergraduate level, it can be exciting and productive.

Learn more about how social and cultural knowledge has impacted the American educational system in “What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? The American Revolution in Education.” The book is set for release this fall.