THIRTY YEARS AGO: GEORGE F. WILL: “LEARNING FROM THE GIANTS”
“The sense that our nation represents a progressive rupture with the past breeds complacency about dispensing with the serious study of history, which sinks into a bog called ‘social studies.’” –George F. Will, “Learning from the Giants,” Newsweek (14 Sept. 1987).
George Frederick Will: Pulitzer Prize–winning conservative political commentator. In 1986, The Wall Street Journal called him “perhaps the most powerful journalist in America.” He studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford, (BA, MA), and received MA and PhD degrees in politics from Princeton University. He has taught at the James Madison College of Michigan State University, the University of Toronto, and at Harvard University (in 1995 and again in 1998). He has served as editor for National Review, has written for the Washington Post, and from 1976 until 2011 he became a contributing editor for Newsweek. (“Often combining factual reporting with conservative commentary, Will’s columns are known for their erudite vocabulary, allusions to political philosophers, and frequent references to baseball.”) [from Wikipedia]
In 1987, the best-seller list included E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Cultural Literacy (What Every American Needs to Know), “ a daunting assortment of information Hirsch says must be mastered before true literacy can be claimed” (says Will), and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, “an analysis of the damage done by higher education today.”
The chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (Lynne Cheney) argued then that “inadequate teaching of history in public schools is putting at risk our national character, dissolving the sense of nationhood that is our civic glue, and threatening to condemn our nation to perpetual infancy.”
[In 1987] 2/3rds of America’s 17-year-olds could not locate the Civil War in the correct half century… We can teach children how to think [and] “to learn things worth thinking about,” to teach them “how to understand their world [and] the events and ideas that brought it into being.”
“…the serious teaching of history and literature…the core of the liberal arts curriculum.”
“Liberal education” is “intensely useful,” but “a certain elevation above utilitarian concerns, [with] …glimpses of the good … [and] rich in examples of noble human types.”
“History [should be] properly taught, not as a smattering of dates but as a spectacle of human striving…”
“…education should be first and primarily the transmission of treasures [implying] that some things are clearly and permanently more precious than others. …there are discoverable and teachable standards.”
“The real hubris is in thinking we can dispense with the transmission of the achievements of the giants of other generations, on whose shoulders we stand.”
“History [should be] properly taught, not as a smattering of dates but as a spectacle of human striving…” Certainly so, that its learning helps us to grow away from the mistakes done.