Until a few decades ago, it was generally agreed that the most important part of the legacy from one generation to another consisted in a kind of wisdom: In what does the good life consist? What is worthy of one’s commitment? What is more important than self-gratification? What is good or honorable or true?

The second part of that legacy consisted of knowledge and skill; teaching a younger generation how to make a living, how to master a profession, how to become a productive citizen. But through it all, education was seen as a moral endeavor, not because it sought to indoctrinate but because it was a sharing of things that people held to be important. Teachers had authority not only because they were experts in their disciplines, but because they had common commitments and took seriously the important questions and the responsibility of their answers before a younger generation.

The collegiate tradition in this country grew out of such an understanding of education. In the colleges that were founded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was an ethos, an atmosphere of expectation, embodied in ceremonies, traditions, and courses, in which all of these things were fused and passed on. Education was the institutionalization of what we as a people deemed to be important. And through that process, we sought to prepare oncoming generations for their role and responsibility in society.

The wisdom that underlay such preparation was a distillate of the Bible and of the classical tradition, and it included a strong dose of literature. Through those courses and subjects one encountered life vicariously. Reality was served up not in piecemeal fashion but in and through the larger conflicts and tensions, aspirations and ...

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