OUR OPINION: Defining the core opens the future from the past

By NEMS Daily Journal

“We often hear lamentations about declining educational quality, but the focus is usually misplaced on SAT scores and graduation rates. Missing from the conversation is the quality of what’s being taught. Meanwhile, we are mistakenly wed to the notion that more people going to college means more people will find jobs.”
Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist

“So, we do not turn back but we forge ahead, encouraged by a generation of young people who as never before in modern times are prepared to lead in the search for noble purpose, the truly good life, if we are prepared to help them do so.”
Peter Gomes, ‘The Good Life’

Kathleen Parker, who is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is among the most provocatively unpredictable pundits of national stature, and she calmly punctures the windbags of left and right in American politics, but she is particularly irritating to her fellow conservatives.
Peter Gomes, who died earlier this year of complications after a stroke, established himself as a prince of the pulpit, preaching for more than 30 years at Harvard Memorial Church, a lofty and intellectually powerful dais in American Protestantism.
What Gomes and Parker wrote about college students sounds very different, but the underlying similarities are striking.
Their concerns rise from stressing what’s at the core of what students learn that is both practical and deepening.
Parker, in the Oct. 2 column about quality of university learning, also wrote, “Most universities don’t require the courses considered core educational subjects – math, science, foreign languages at the intermediate level, U.S government or history, composition, literature and economics. … The nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni has rated schools according to how may of the core subjects are required. A review of more than 1,000 colleges and universities found that 29 percent of schools require two or fewer subjects. Only 5 percent require economics. Less than 20 percent require U.S. government or history.”
Gomes, who dealt with Harvard students as a professor in the other part of his distinguished career, wrote, “As for those of us who teach and speak and where many listen, we have the task of reconnecting knowledge with wisdom, greatness with goodness, and service with scholarship; and we have to do it through the frail medium of our own humanity.”
Gomes notes in “The Good Life” that American higher education had its origins in Western Christian scholarship, even if those schools now are embarrassed by their religious cornerstones.
“A professor is meant to profess, that is, to not only the facts and the truths of a discipline, but as well the connection between what he does and why he does it.”
The passion that drew people to their callings must become “unleashed” again so that the young can see and understand in fulfilling work the perennial question, “What’s in it for me?”
The formulation for a good life, Gomes notes, in the Western tradition begins with the “four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.”
And in the equally profound tradition of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, “the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.”
Gomes notes, “In his sermon on Psalm 32, Augustine notes that all wish to be happy but none will be but those who wish to be good. This is how he put it: ‘You want to be better off: I know it. We all know it, we all want the same thing. Look for what is better than yourself, so that by that you may become better off than you are.’ ”
And the fullest Western Christian tradition should include Augustine’s source:
“Christ is the one who in this life gives us the virtues; and, in place of all the virtues necessary in this valley of tears, he will give us one virtue only, himself.” (from “Enerrationes,” in Psalm 83).