On pages 296-297 of Six Crises, Richard Nixon discusses the importance of a liberal arts education in college, and how that prepared him for public life:
“The small Quaker college I attended—-Whittier…did not offer a course in political science in the years I spent there. But looking back, I think the limited quantity of courses offered was offset by the high quality of the group of dedicated teachers unto whom it was my privilege to study. History, literature, philosophy, and the classics—-taught by inspirational men—-is the best foundation for a career in politics. There will be plenty of time later to learn firsthand the intricacies of political strategy and tactics by working in the precincts. There will be little time later for gaining indispensable knowledge in depth about the nature of man and the institutions he has created…I hasten to add that this is not a case against courses in political science…I can only express my opinion that if a choice has to be made, the college years—-when the mind is quicker, more receptive, and more retentive than it will ever be again—-can best be used to develop the whole man rather than the specialist…It is not that people do not ‘grow’ after they finish their formal education and enter public life. But the capacity to grow will be determined by the breadth and depth of the intellectual base which is acquired during the college years. If a man comes out of college with only the narrow and thin background of the highly trained political specialist, he may win elections—-but he will serve neither his country nor himself as well as he should.”
I minored in political science as an undergraduate, but I did not learn much (if anything) in my courses about political strategy. Rather, I read political classics, such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and others. I also studied the governments of foreign countries. And I took a class in which we discussed articles that we read about current events. I think that Nixon would probably approve of my college’s political science program (though some of its professors most likely didn’t approve of Nixon!).
I’ve often wondered how practical my education has been in terms of giving me skills for the “real world”. Perhaps I should have audited more courses on business! But I don’t regret reading the works of those who have been classified as great thinkers. When I was in college, a friend of mine was debating someone in the college newspaper about whether learning can take place without reading great thinkers. Someone wrote an article lamenting that a number of students he knew did not do the readings for their classes, but preferred instead to party. My friend responded that who qualifies as a great thinker is rather subjective, that learning can take place through discussion with other people without consideration of the thoughts of the “great thinkers”, and that socializing itself prepares students for the real world. I can see merit in both sides. I think that people miss out when they do not read the writings of great thinkers, for a number of these writings can feed the soul, and familiarity with them also enables people to understand the world around them a lot better. But, in my opinion, it’s also important to learn social skills.
What should the canon be, however? I see merit in the writings of dead white males (and females). But I’m also all for people reading the writings of minorities. I am hesitant to say that, say, rap music should replace T.S. Elliott in school curricula. But reading Frederick Douglas or Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or W.E.B. Du Bois, or others, can be quite profitable. This can familiarize students with the world around them, and it can also give them background for wrestling with the big issues—-what are human beings like? What should a political system be like, and why?