: The Reconstruction of Liberal Education :

an excerpt by Daniel Bell


Nothing at all has remained theory, everything has become a story.”

—Gershom Scholem

 A story: “When the Baal Shem [The Master of the Name] had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done. When, a generation later, the “Maggid” of Meseritz was faced with the same task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say: “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers”—and what he wanted done became reality. Again, a generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform the task. And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient…. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task he sat down … and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story.

—Hassidic Tale, as retold by S.Y. Agnon


About thirty or so years ago, I wrote a book, The Reforming of General Education. In the older reckoning, as Comte put it, thirty years was the life span of a generation. Today, as historical time has collapsed into decades, “theoretical paradigms”—structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, and post-modernism—spin dizzily through the revolving doors of intellectual fashion, my book, I suspect, if someone stumbles across it in the stacks of a college library, would have an archaic echo and a musky smell. Or, in the high-tech mode, if the book is beamed up from a microdisk or CD-ROM, the language (but one would have to say, the discourse), with its emphasis on “conceptual inquiry,” or the “nature of explanation,” would surely seem to be dated, if not “irrelevant.”

And yet, apart from an author’s pride in the products of one’s youth, the book might have some standing in a contemporary discussion of the “crisis” of liberal education (crisis being the only invariant term perhaps in the history of discourse) as a benchmark from the past and as a starting point in the effort presented to offer a “reconstruction” of liberal learning.

My book was an effort to defend the value of liberal learning against the centrifugal spin of intellectual fragmentation, and the whirlpools of specialization, which were turning a college curriculum into a cafeteria for many and a training diet for a few. It was an effort to defend the existence of the college as a distinctive intellectual experience or grounding in the logic of inquiry, rather than as a “corridor” of remedial learning or as preparation for a career between the secondary school and the graduate or professional school.