Saturday, July 31, 2010

Kim's "Habits of the Mind"

President Kim really gets it.

From my remote location in Washington, I had the chance to see Kim's Thursday lecture via streaming video, the second in his presidential lecture series. Our friend Joe Asch over at Dartblog contends that Kim's speech was only so much rehashed material -- the standard stump speech. That may be so. In the event, it's a damn good stump speech, and one which probably can't be repeated enough. Kim's unique ability to articulately outline the utility of the liberal education, of what education can and should be, is reason enough to applaud, even if the routine sometimes seems like it's getting old. Undoubtedly, Dickey's repetition of his signature line about making the world's troubles our own troubles occasioned grumbling in some quarters. But that repetition has made it a foundational feature of the Dartmouth identity.
I was particularly struck by this portion of the talk, which addressed the value of the humanities from a scientific perspective:


His background in medicine and his scientific approach is what makes Kim a particularly notable and effective champion for the humanities. It's very predictable for an English or History professor to stand up for his discipline's inherent value. It carries some added oomph when it comes from the other side of the aisle. Moreover, it is an important part of the progression toward a reconciliation of science and the humanities, and a mutual understanding of the necessity of each. If more talks on this theme can help contribute to the unity of the disciplines, then Kim's efforts really are worth something in an academy that is characterized by disciplinary fragmentation.

Now, the notion that a humane education would lead to creative thinking and enhanced capacities for empathy is common sense. But it's common sense that needs to be said again and again. And, frankly, Kim (and more largely, Dartmouth) is fighting a very lonely battle for the liberal arts in the United States and throughout the world. At the end of the clip above, Kim talks about the almost strictly vocational nature of Korean education, even at elite levels. The same could be said about much of the United States, where the most popular undergraduate major nationwide is business administration. It would be a difficult task indeed to measure the empathy-generating effects of coursework on the foundations of marketing.

Of course Dartmouth, happily, is one of the proud few who abstain from dealing in such training at the undergraduate level. But that merely points to what an elite phenomenon the purely liberal arts education still is -- which is truly a shame. The liberal arts belong to all, and would be the rightful focus of all undergraduate college education outside of the natural sciences.

I just returned from a week-long Intercollegiate Studies Institute conference in Annapolis precisely on this topic, and it is remarkable how many of the themes that I heard coming from conservative intellectuals at that conference are echoed in Jim Kim's remarks. Notwithstanding items like the very misguided shut-down of Connecticut River swimming, et cetera, Kim's seemingly deep-felt conviction and thoughtful commentary on the liberal arts should give conservatives a few reasons to cheer.

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