Many years ago I asked Otto Neugebauer, a pioneering historian of mathematics and astronomy in the ancient world, about his education in pre–World War I Austria. Neugebauer was known both for his comprehensive histories and for his editions and interpretations of very difficult texts—mathematical and astronomical tables and horoscopes, preserved on cuneiform tablets, in Greek papyri and Latin manuscripts, and in many other sources and traditions. (Late in life, Neugebauer mastered Ethiopic and wrote penetrating work on Ethiopian astronomy and calendrics.)
I expected him to say something warm about his teachers at gymnasium, along the lines of the memoir in which another great émigré scholar, Erwin Panofsky, described the “lovable pedant” who taught him Greek in Berlin (this gentleman reproached himself in class for failing to notice a misplaced comma in a Greek text, since he himself had written an article on that very comma long before). Instead, Neugebauer told me that he had hated his secondary school. He received his diploma, he explained, only because he volunteered for the army, which led to several years of service in the artillery on the Italian front. And he did not begin to work at a high level until he went to university after the war.
It was surprising enough to learn that Neugebauer, whose brilliant, demanding lectures on ancient science had impressed even Richard Feynman, no admirer of the humanities, had ever been a less than brilliant student. But I was even more shocked when he went on to explain that he thought his experience typical of the only general principle about education that he had been able to distill from his career of many decades in German and American universities. I asked him to reveal it. He smiled and said: “No system of education known to man is capable of ruining everyone.”
In recent years, I have often found myself thinking back to that conversation. For if the nature of education and the uses of four years of college could stir passions thirty years ago, when Neugebauer told me his story, they are now the objects of a debate, extensive and often intemperate, that rages in magazines, on the blogosphere, and in the political institutions that control public colleges and universities. Americans assert and challenge the value of both with a passion that shows how important they consider the subject and a lack of precise information that shows how little is actually known about it. Sometimes they make me nostalgic for Neugebauer’s secure understanding that the effects of education are always mysterious.
The belief that college matters deeply is both implicit and ubiquitous. It dominates upper-middle-class and upper-class family strategies, it wins buyers for magazines that offer pointless and inaccurate university ratings, it generates income for college counselors, and…
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