Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture (Botstein)

The last time I read a profile in the New Yorker and was inspired to read a related book, it was David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest.* So when I read the intriguing and troubling profile of Bard College President Leon Botstein, I noted the name of (t)his book, but did not set out to find it. Nevertheless, it was there – poking out from the shelves of our local Half Price Books.

I am a fan of what I know of Bard College – its emphasis on a core curriculum, its proud independence (which also has a problematic side – see the word ‘troubling’ above), as well as its innovative programming (early college high schools, the prison program). And, I admit, Botstein and I both have the University of Chicago in common.

The book – more or less an extended lecture – is persuasive and, in my mind, forward thinking. Published in 1997, it anticipates and articulates much of what is up for discussion in education today, from misplaced nostalgia and the lack of hope to the identity and culture wars as well as the connection we make between our country’s education system and our country’s place in the world.

But the problem with the book is similar, according to my reading of the New Yorker profile, to the problem at Bard. Too much cult of personality. Botstein asks us to accept his arguments simply because they are his. Having relied so much on him for its growth, Bard is now starting to confront the prospect of life after Botstein (apparently an erratic fundraiser).

I hope that Bard finds a way to flourish after Botstein’s retirement. If they remember what got them where they are – so nicely laid out in this book and they raise some money – I think they will.

* I abandoned the novel after 235 pages when my dentist asked me what it was about and I had to admit that I didn’t know.

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