Thinking Outside the Boxes

And the people in the houses

All went to the university

Where they were put in boxes

And they came out all the same . . .

In “Little Boxes” Malvina Reynolds was protesting against the conformity of the 1950’s, when core requirements and a limited number of majors still ensured some measure of common culture among college graduates, but the sarcasm cuts even deeper today when students are free to major in systems analysis or marketing or film studies, and, when they seek refreshment from their mental labors, they can select from hundreds of cable channels and thousands of websites.

In all these little boxes of the mind, the poor kids are immunized against nonconformity and carefully shielded from all those dangerous thoughts of Aristotle and Shakespeare and Vergil that might lead them to question the assumptions with which the regime has made itself impregnable.  Are all human creatures really equal, that is the same—male, female, and other; Romans and Carthaginians; Greeks and barbarians?  Is this material life with its grimy pleasures really “all there is”?  Were there really people who once valued chastity, courage, and “moderation in all things”?  I can almost hear a student, exposed to the...

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