Nobody can teach you nothing. You got to learn for yourself – Willie Mays

Gregory A Petsko, the Gyula and Katica Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry and chair of biochemistry at Brandeis University, has written an open, angry, and hostile letter to George M. Philip, the president of the State University of New York at Albany prompted by the proposed elimination there of French, Italian, Russian and classics. Professor Petsko makes the strongest possible argument in favor of retaining the departments due for elimination. He also argues convincingly for the value of a liberal education. I find myself in complete agreement with everything he says. Yet after reading his apologia I think he has missed the real point of his argument.

Students, indeed anyone, don’t learn about literature, music, art, history, etc (other than to pass a test) because they’re required by a curriculum to take courses in languages and the arts. They learn these subjects, if they do learn them, because they are interested in them. Forced exposure to Dante or Tolstoy might stimulate an occasional student to really study these great writers, but almost all will drift through their literature course untouched by the experience. Nothing can stop you from learning that which interests you and nothing will make you learn that in which you have no interest.  What Professor Petsko has resisted concluding is that almost all college students are not in need of a university education. A trade school is all they require.

Let me start with medical education. I’ve been teaching medical students for about 40 years. I’ve taught them at every level from first year medical students to 7th year postgraduate students. Almost none of them knew little more than the typical high school graduate about great literature, music, history, art…fill in the list. This hasn’t stopped the superior intellects among them from becoming first rate physicians and scientists. If you had to choose a doctor who knew medicine or literature, if he couldn’t know both, your choice is obvious.

Not only do the students of medicine know little about the liberal arts, the great professors of medicine are equally uneducated in these disciplines. I have known many of the leaders of American medicine over the last half century, no more than 10 were really well educated outside of medical science and only two knew the liberal arts at a level close to that they reached in medicine. This did not stop them from great achievement. I see no reason why a medical student needs a university degree. In most of the rest of the world students enter medical school directly from high school.

If a medical student does not need or gets very little from a university education why does a lawyer, dentist, architect, engineer or businessman need one? The only cost that has risen as steeply as medical costs is that of higher education. There are several reasons for this, but prime among them is that we have made a baccalaureate a qualification for entry into all professions and many trades and businesses. The study of Russian literature as gratifying as it may be to a small minority of students is not necessary at any meaningful level for someone interested in accounting.

What Professor Petsko can’t bring himself to conclude is that almost all of America’s universities should be closed or converted to trade schools. In truth they already are very expensive trade schools. So who should study classics? Who should get a liberal education? Anybody who really wants one, but it will have to be its own reward. All arguments for a liberal education based on utility fail.

A good place to start closing universities would be the State University of New York the Albany campus of which incurred Professor Petsko’s wrath. It has 64 campuses; not one of its undergraduate campuses has achieved anything beyond the mediocre. It is the largest comprehensive system of universities, colleges, and community colleges in the world with a total enrollment of 465,000 students. Most state universities are filled with students who are there for football and a few years of fun before going into gainful employment. They are not interested in Dante and they never will be. They will not miss the elimination of the classics department as horrifying as that seems to me and to Professor Petsko.

In the 19th century some wag said Germany has one university, England two, France four, and Ohio 114. Things have gotten much more out hand since then. All of Professor Petsko’s points are right, but he’ll still lose the debate.