07/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Education in Chicago: Wringing The Passion Out Of Higher Learning

Two weeks ago, in the June 2 issue of the Chicago Tribune, Barbara Brotman had some excellent things to say about parental gratitude towards superior teachers of their children. In her essay, Brotman told us that this is the time of year to thank your child's teacher, formally, in a letter.

Brotman re-states many neglected truths. One is that an extraordinary teacher is just that: rare, very likely un-appreciated, and, I would add, certainly overworked and underpaid. The second truth: The born teacher can change the lives of some students. Third truth: the great teacher is a performance artist, an astute psychologist and, yes, a disciplinarian who expects and gets the best from all her pupils.

As good as her essay is, she goes astray occasionally. She writes, "When it comes to relationships with teachers, it [elementary, middle, and high school] is a time like no other. Your children will have teachers in college. But at that point, students' minds are more formed and the interactions less intense."

Brotman could hardly be more mistaken. The force, the intensity of a sudden and unexpected intellectual passion in college must be experienced to be believed. It overwhelms like a natural catastrophe.

I went through this ordeal, and I can tell you that the callow hypocrite and brown-noser I played to perfection through high school would have been incapable of feeling anything remotely like the emotions that possessed me when my intellectual hero at the University of Oregon departed for his native Ireland at the end of my junior year.

A true intellectual passion for a subject, or an intense feeling of love, admiration and reverence for the teacher of it, is as rare as passion-love between two people. Perhaps rarer.

And Brotman is also wildly wrong that intellectual passions are more common in elementary, middle school and high school than in college. In fact, she's got it backwards.

In the lower schools, to stimulate a real intellectual fever-fit, you need the very thing you don't have, namely, a lengthy preliminary intellectual training and some adult experience of life.

The only thing that will produce intellectual passion in high school is a long, intense schooling in a true intellectual discipline. But this is the very thing that American high schools lack. We pick and shop among Great Books. In high school, we "redact," we excerpt, we read academic essays or "studies" about the classic work, we read two or three of Shakespeare's thirty-odd plays, one or two of Emerson's essays, half a dozen of Emily Dickinson's short poems. It's shopping lite, in a stultifying confusion of "curricula."

Yes, Brotman has discovered the fact that college no longer provokes these mysterious awakenings of mind and spirit. But her idea that such epiphanies belong to childhood or adolescence rather than first maturity is simply nonsense.

I grant Brotman that the anticipation and drama of going away to college has disappeared. When I went to the University of Oregon in the fall of l962, I was excited, agitated, apprehensive. I was going into the great world for the first time. I was going to be addressed by refined, mysterious, magisterial, demanding adult minds as "Mr. Sweetland"! Could this actually be happening?

Nowadays the blase 18-year-old matriculant is already conferring with an advisor about his or her study-abroad year in Istanbul by the end of fall quarter in the freshman year. We resort to these pathetic stop-gaps to keep up a simulacrum of interest in the whole tedious processing and churning out of undergraduates.

Here is the unacknowledged truth of undergraduate life in 2009: Everyone, students included, feels alienated and bored by what we have made our universities.

College no longer supplies the Great Intellectual Adventure. Sixty years of half-hearted, reluctant teaching carried out as an onerous duty by research-besotted specialist professors have killed the very idea of the college. We no longer go away to college to be shocked and swept off our feet, in Daniel Boorstin's superb phrase, "by wonders undreamt of."