The kids! The boys! They’re all donkeys! – Jiminy Cricket
Beloit College recently released its annual “Mindset List,” the findings of a yearly survey which attempts to take stock of the cultural touchstones that each generation of college freshman is, or is not, familiar with. Most of the observations are benign: “They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it,” for instance. But, predictably, at least one of the observations on the list is distressing to those of us carrying the fire of the Western intellectual tradition. The List claims that “The Biblical sources of terms such as “forbidden fruit,” ”the writing on the wall,” ”good Samaritan,” and “the promised land” are unknown to most of them.”
Why does it matter if the Class of 2016 is ignorant of the source of these references? Educationally, such unfamiliarity is symptomatic of higher education’s drift, nay, dog-paddle, away from tradition of the Great Books, the time-honored mechanisms for defining and explaining Western thought and virtue, what the 19th century poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” In earlier times, we might have taken hope in the university’s liberal arts tradition to remedy this sort of deficit. Currently, however, there is little hope that the American post-secondary system is doing much to stem the tide of ignorance.
Note how several respected universities are fulfilling their role as guardians of the ancient torch of knowledge. Often, in lieu of engagement with the classics, the academy is content to draw students into the Lotus-land of novelty academia. Since 2007, at least four colleges – University of Virginia, the University of South Carolina, Wake Forest University, and Arizona State University – have offered a course on the bizarrely behaved pop star Lady Gaga. Yet none of these schools made a course in U.S. history mandatory for graduation. UCLA has offered a course in “Queer Musicology,” which will teach the student how “sexual difference and complex gender identities in music and among musicians have incited productive consternation.” For the privilege of taking “Queer Musicology,” California residents living on campus pay nearly $32,000 per year ($54,000 per year if they come from out of state).
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) surveyed 100 colleges of varying characteristics in 2009. ACTA found that “nearly half” did not require a college level math course, 90% do not require students to take a survey course in American history or government, and only two required a basic course in economics. A different study by the National Association of Scholars found that only 1 in 75 schools required a course in Western Civilization, compared to nearly half in 1964. In a dismal summary of its findings, ACTA wrote that that “The general education requirement has become virtually anything goes.” When scholars are loathe to teach the basic body of knowledge that has historically constituted a general education, students take courses laden with – to put it bluntly – nonsense. ACTA found that at one college, students were allowed to satisfy a literature requirement with a course in “Bob Dylan.” At another, “Floral Art” took care of natural sciences.
In the rush to embrace faddish academic disciplines, material fundamental to Western thought and experiences is discarded. In 2012, Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution noted that political science majors at Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Berkeley could receive their B.A. without any study of the Federalist papers, the essential commentary on the American Constitution written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Jon Jay in the 1780s. You wouldn’t expect chemistry students to be unfamiliar with the Periodic Table. Why should students of government be unfamiliar with one of the most foundational texts of the American republic? The reason the Federalist is neglected, says Berkowitz, is that “the progressive ideology that dominates our universities teaches that the Federalist, like all books written the day before yesterday, is antiquated and irrelevant.” Additionally, he claims, “in the misguided quest to mold political science to the shape of the natural sciences, many scholars disdainfully dismiss the Federalist – indeed, all works of ideas – as mere journalism or literary studies, which, lacking scientific rigor, can’t yield genuine knowledge.” Consequently, a modern English department, for instance, might assign Japanese comic books the same artistic significance as Hamlet.
In his Republic, Plato tells us that every regime needs an element of the citizenry “having the same conception of its constitution that you the lawgiver had in framing its laws.” In other words, every state needs defenders of its founding principles in every generation. This is also true of the intellectual tradition of the West. As a young graduate student in the Greek and Roman classics, I find myself too often wondering who of my generation will be left to stand with me. In the 19th century, Macaulay celebrated in his “Lays Of Ancient Rome” Horatius, a Roman soldier of legend who defended the city against Etruscan assault. Macaulay famously memorialized his stoicism
Then out spake brave Horatius,
the Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.
Where is Horatius today? Some hope can lately be found in the writings of at least one fellow-traveler. Yale’s David Gelernter has always been one of the most lucid expositors of the post-60s stupification of America and the need to rediscover real learning. He has continued his mission in his new book America Lite. Gelernter acidly describes the rise and triumph of “Imperial Academia” and its attendant “adversary culture” – contrarian posturing that prizes political correctness, moral relativism, and aimless theorizing, leaving reason and an understanding of human nature as casualties. According to the gatekeepers of the cultural left, claims Gelernter, “Learning history, literature, and religion complicates the simple pieties of the cultural revolution.” The product of all this is a citizenry unequipped to understand itself or where it has come from. Gelernter quotes King Lear to prove his point:
Doth any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his motion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied – Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so!
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
On a whim, I recently re-watched Disney’s excellent Pinocchio (1940). It was hard not to see it as an allegory for the fruits of post-secondary curricula. In one scene, our facile protagonist is hoodwinked by con artists into abandoning school for the promise of Pleasure Island: “Where every day is a holiday / And kids have nothing to do but play.” After a bout of puerile indulgences devoid of consequence – smashing windows, smoking cigars, gorging on ice cream – the huckster’s ruse unfolds. Pleasure Island causes boys to turn into donkeys, who are then sold into slavery, destined to bleat their lives away in the salt mines. The cruel master of the operation even provides an axiom: “Give a bad boy enough rope and he’ll soon make a jackass of himself.” The appellation “bad” doesn’t uniformly apply to college students, but they have certainly been given enough rope to become, well, jackasses. As in Pleasure Island, doe-eyed students are given tremendous latitude to partake of unprecedented frivolity in their academic careers, to the neglect of the Greats and themselves. When will universities play Jiminy Cricket?
David Wilezol is a graduate student in Latin and a producer for Morning In America, a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. Follow him on Twitter: @davidwilezol.