All posts by Patrick Deneen

Patrick Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame.

How a Generation Lost Its Common Culture

By Patrick Deneen

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them:  they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

Related: The Chaos of College Curricula

But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?

Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural?  What are the Federalist Papers?

Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not their “fault” for pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present.

Related: Courses without Content

Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.

During my lifetime, lamentation over student ignorance has been sounded by the likes of E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Mark Bauerlein and Jay Leno, among many others. But these lamentations have been leavened with the hope that appeal to our and their better angels might reverse the trend (that’s an allusion to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, by the way). E.D. Hirsch even worked up a self-help curriculum, a do-it yourself guide on how to become culturally literate, imbued with the can-do American spirit that cultural defenestration could be reversed by a good reading list in the appendix. Broadly missing is sufficient appreciation that this ignorance is the intended consequence of our educational system, a sign of its robust health and success.

Books for Book-o-Phobes

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words like “critical thinking,” “diversity,” “ways of knowing,” “social justice,” and “cultural competence.”

Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).

In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice”), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps.

Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments. Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.

We Must Know…What?

Above all, the one overarching lesson that students receive is the true end of education: the only essential knowledge is that know ourselves to be radically autonomous selves within a comprehensive global system with a common commitment to mutual indifference. Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people. Any remnant of a common culture would interfere with this prime directive:  a common culture would imply that we share something thicker, an inheritance that we did not create, and a set of commitments that imply limits and particular devotions.

Ancient philosophy and practice praised as an excellent form of government a res publica – a devotion to public things, things we share together. We have instead created the world’s first Res Idiotica – from the Greek word idiotes, meaning “private individual.” Our education system produces solipsistic, self-contained selves whose only public commitment is an absence of commitment to a public, a common culture, a shared history. They are perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions.

They won’t fight against anyone, because that’s not seemly, but they won’t fight for anyone or anything either. They are living in a perpetual Truman Show, a world constructed yesterday that is nothing more than a set for their solipsism, without any history or trajectory.

I love my students – like any human being, each has enormous potential and great gifts to bestow upon the world. But I weep for them, for what is rightfully theirs but hasn’t been given. On our best days, I discern their longing and anguish and I know that their innate human desire to know who they are, where they have come from, where they ought to go, and how they ought to live will always reassert itself. But even on those better days, I can’t help but hold the hopeful thought that the world they have inherited – a world without inheritance, without past, future, or deepest cares – is about to come tumbling down, and that this collapse would be the true beginning of a real education.

Patrick Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame.

Putting Culture in the Counterculture


Leon Wieseltier has offered a welcome and inspiring set of reflections for the graduating class of Brandeis University and for many beyond that campus.  In a time when nearly every campus is experiencing a collapse in confidence in the role of the humanities, and a corresponding rush to justify education purely in terms of narrowly-conceived utilitarian ends, his address rightly has garnered attention and praise from those who hold that the humanities remain the best path to affording a truly liberal education fit for responsible citizens and the flourishing of human beings.

His moving words in defense of the “counterculture” of the humanities, set against the increasingly dominant place of instrumental “scientism” in today’s world, perhaps carry distinctive force inasmuch as they come from a self-identified liberal. For many decades, liberals have been deeply critical of the culture-bearing role of the humanities, fearing in such a tradition-based understanding of the humanities the presence of recidivist views about race, gender, colonialism, sexual orientation, and a host of other “conservative” positions. Suddenly a growing number of liberal voices have awoken, as if in suspended animation for thirty years, to discover that the humanities have been all but routed in the name of efficiency, utility and practicality. 

Continue reading Putting Culture in the Counterculture

Campus Libertarianism up, Civic Commitment Down

One of the most mentioned findings in the annual UCLA survey of college freshmen is a decided trend toward more “liberal” political attitudes. The survey shows increased support for same-sex marriage (supported by 71.3% of students, representing a 6.4% increase since 2009); for a pro-choice position on abortion; for the legalization of marijuana; and a corresponding decrease in opposition to provision of public services to undocumented immigrants. One finding that seems at odds with the overall trend is support for national health care, which dropped nearly a point since 2010, and fourteen points since 2007.

As Mark Bauerlein rightly pointed out, the trends point not in a “liberal” direction, but rather one that is “libertarian,” with a strong stress upon being “individualists.” If there is one overwhelming conclusion that one can draw from this survey, today’s students are individualistic. As an article about the survey expressed, their dominant perspective is to “Live and Let Live (and Study).”

The study is striking for what it does not ask: while it asks about hot-button social issues ranging from same-sex marriage to abortion, it does not ask students very much about their views on the economy–something one would think in our current climate would be interesting to know (the survey claims that its findings should inform how issues should be framed in the upcoming Presidential election. If that is the case, why the avoidance of economic questions?).

My own more modest campus “survey” suggests that students are trending libertarian (what many would call “conservative”) in the economic sphere as well. In one class I teach at Georgetown, I assign students a short paper asking them to provide a “political autobiography.” I have been struck over the past several years at the increasing number of students who self-describe as “socially liberal and economically conservative.” Their political lexicon is fairly impoverished (doubtless with thanks to our political media), but what they in fact disclose is a growing embrace of a consistent ethic of libertarianism. If we take their fading support of national health care as a proxy for their view about government interference in the economy, then we can indeed conclude that today’s students demonstrate an overall disposition toward “live and let live,” in both the social and economic realms.

Toleration, Diversity and Me

This conclusion, I would submit, ought to be a source of deep concern for those who care about the future of the American polity.

The overarching emphasis in the highest echelons of society–among our “elites,” and especially those working at our public schools and universities, as well as in the media–has been upon the need for “toleration” and “diversity.” The underlying belief informing this widespread view is that a high level of toleration toward others will result in a decrease in social conflict, the cessation of the mistreatment of minorities and outsiders, and a more peaceful and hence prosperous society. This message has clearly been internalized by today’s students: among the worst possible sins one can commit is to be a “Hater”–or, in their parlance, to “H8.” To render judgments or critical views toward lifestyle decisions is to engage in an unacceptable form of prejudice; people should be allowed to behave in whatever way they wish, so long as no one is physically harmed (though, it should be noted, self-destructive behaviors such as smoking are now severely frowned upon–only 2% of the surveyed population today acknowledges being a smoker). In what possible way could one be disquieted by this seemingly praiseworthy disposition of toleration and acceptance of diversity?

What the data also demonstrates is a keen and intense emphasis on the self. Today’s students simultaneously urge toleration toward others, but also expect to be left alone. Their overarching emphasis upon individual achievement–particularly in the area of career advancement–suggests that the message of “toleration” and “diversity” seamlessly co-exists with a self-centered focus on material success and personal lifestyle autonomy. At risk is a cultivated belief in civic membership, a sense of shared fate and even forms of self-sacrifice.

One telling aspect of the survey has, to my knowledge, received no attention: while 72.3% state that the “chief benefit of college is to increase one’s earning power,” only 2% of current college graduates are enrolled in an ROTC or other military program. While likely career choices are fragmented among many possible choices (with the largest numbers of responses clustering around the choices of engineer, physician and business, together totaling 28%), only 1.5% responded that they foresaw a military career; 0.9% intended to enter government or public policy; and .1% stated an intention to become a member of the clergy. As many respondents indicated a likely future of unemployment (1.5%) as those willing to serve in the military!

Increasing Earning Power

Contemporary liberals who significantly shape the views of today’s young (especially through the media – 50% of respondents indicated watching television more than 3 hours a day) believe that they are ushering in a future of toleration and “laissez-faire.” However, this attitude in fact buttresses the other overwhelming finding of the survey: that students today are “in it” for themselves. Their view of college is already determined before they enroll: the purpose of college is to increase their earning power. They are not in college to be liberally educated or to understand the “meaning of life.” They are not there to prepare for a life of responsible citizenship, parenthood and neighborliness. They are “capitalist tools,” people whose lives are dominated by professional ambition and bottom-line accounting.

Several disquieting questions should come to mind: what kinds of citizens will these people grow up to be? What kinds of parents and what kinds of neighbors? They will likely be willing to leave other people alone–but will they care about others? Will they love? Will they serve? Will they sacrifice? According Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart, it is the upper classes (which will be composed of the students in this survey) that have largely abandoned any idea of trusteeship and moral and civic responsibility toward those who have not won the meritocratic sweepstakes. The survey suggests that this divide will only deepen in coming years.

I fear that we are not ushering in a utopia of toleration and sensitivity, but one of indifference and self-absorption. Today’s young people have deeply absorbed the lessons that have been taught them by their elders. Do we truly think a civilization can persist when it teaches its young that the most important thing in life is indifference toward others and that the means to happiness is earning the most money?

Let’s Not Conflate Education and Job Preparation

Richard Vedder’s basic argument is sound: universities have become too expensive and too mediocre and too often the default for young people who might do well to pursue appropriate schooling through the secondary level. And as he writes, with too many seeking to preserve a bloated system, a reckoning is at hand.
But in the writings of Vedder, Charles Murray and a host of other conservatives, there is a strong equation of education and job preparation, and with the presumption that unless one is equipped with the native intelligence or disposable wealth and leisure to pursue a university education, then one’s education should consist dominantly if not exclusively of acquiring useful skills that can be employed in relatively menial labors.
We mustn’t draw a nearly exclusive connection between education and its economic benefits. It’s the very emphasis on careerism that is leading some ( from conservatives like Charles Murray to liberals like President Obama) to seek the near-elimination of the liberal arts from a central place in the curriculum. It is worth recalling that universal education was an American ideal born during the colonial period for reasons having nothing to do with job preparation. The first real move toward universal education was a 1647 law passed by the General Court of Massachusetts, requiring any town with a hundred or more families to establish a grammar school where typically emphasis was placed upon the learning of Latin and Greek.
If one looks at the entrance requirements for a typical New England college during the colonial period, one is stunned by the incredible learning expected of grammar school graduates, typically about 13 years old. Young people in most cases are capable of profound learning – if the goal sought is sufficiently demanding and integrated early enough into one’s schooling. One need only read the letters of ordinary citizens during this period (or look at the letters written by ordinary soldiers during the Civil War).
The problem, then, lies not in the ideal of universality of education, but the widespread transformation of the end that education serves. The goal of education toward fostering moral and virtuous members of their communities has been completely displaced by narrow utilitarian ends among students and moral relativism among the teachers.
A society driven by private ambitions of materialistic gain can expect education to become diluted by a utilitarian ethic. The tool will conform to its end, and so education becomes defined by the ethic of the short-cut. Rampant cheating and academic dishonesty are now campus (and societal) norms (students learn ethics from widespread practices in sports and business, not from Aristotle and the Bible), and the professoriate in turn emphasizes that all norms and codes are simply expressions of arbitrary power that limit what should be our thoroughgoing autonomy. As David Brooks has noted, there is an absolute consistency between the moral relativism of postmodern academia and the careerism in the student body.
I agree that colleges bear much of the blame for their current crisis (indeed, that they bear considerable responsibility for educating the class that precipitated the financial crisis that now ironically threatens their existence), and I hope and expect that they will have to change their current practices, including a serious effort to reduce tuition costs.
What disturbs me about arguments such as those found in the Vedder report is the implication that education should be fitted to the narrow vocational needs of airline attendants and cashiers, that an appropriate education will prepare them as efficiently as possible for a life of menial labor. I lament that a major thrust is afoot to dismantle whatever remnant of our older liberal arts tradition persists and to replace it with measurable forms of study that produce narrowly-trained careerists. We need virtuous cashiers and moral airline attendants as much as we need virtuous politicians and moral philosophers. Assuming that a major reassessment of the role of education is in the offing, then it is not the ideal of universal education that should be the whipping-boy, but the belief that a society can flourish without a moral core at the heart of its educational mission.

Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer

For several decades, conservative critics of higher education have argued against trends toward the elimination of “core” curricula and with equal ferocity against their replacement by “distribution requirements” or even open curricula. They have, in particular, defended a curriculum in “Great Books,” those widely-recognized texts in the Western tradition authored by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Mill, and Nietzsche, among others. This curriculum – preserved still in some of the nation’s leading universities such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University – as well as at the heart of the longstanding Great Books approach of St. John’s College – is seen as a bulwark against contemporary tendencies toward relativism, post-modernism, and political correctness.
More recently, even some faculty who would eschew the “conservative” label have sought to restore sustained study of the Great Books to some place of pride in the curriculum. Some twenty years after the height of the “culture wars” over the Western canon – during which the phrase “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go” was chanted on the Stanford campus – there seems to be a growing sense among some moderate faculty that the curriculum has become too fragmented, and that something valuable was lost in the politically-motivated elimination of a common core. Notably, at Harvard an ad hoc effort by some faculty to establish a Great Books track in the “Gen Ed” requirement was advanced before crashing on the shoals of Harvard’s new fiscal reality (as well as the opposition of some faculty).
This reassessment has been most articulately argued by Anthony Kronman – a moderate liberal – in his recent book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman, a professor and former Dean at the Yale Law School, laments the abandonment of a serious engagement with the Great Books. Their neglect has led to the decline of an examination of “the meaning of life,” an activity that he argues should be at the heart of the university experience. He praises a period in the history of American universities which was dominated by what he calls a worldview of “secular humanism.” This period of “secular humanism” followed the widespread disaffiliation of traditionally religious institutions and preceded the rise of the modern research university and the concomitant rise of political correctness in the humanities. He urges modern institutions of higher education to adopt something like the Yale program in “Directed Studies” – in which he teaches – which requires students to engage in a concentrated study of the Great books ranging from Homer to Luther, from Machiavelli to Kant, from Plato to Nietzsche – over a two year span.

Continue reading Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer

When Campuses Became Dysfunctional

In recent years the stakes for entrance to the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities have risen to absurd heights, with students (or, their families) not only now paying significant sums for private school tuitions (or the entry cost into good school districts, namely expensive housing), SAT training, and coaching for application writing, but increasingly specialized services such as student “branding” – in which students (or, their families) hire “branding” professionals to develop a marketing strategy for “selling” a student to the top universities – and even such morally damnable practices as anonymously informing schools about the reprehensible qualities of competitors who apply to the same university. Clearly things have gotten out of control, but there are very few people – whether inside or outside the university system – who are willing or even desire to rock the boat by pointing out the absurdity of the current state of affairs.
The reason for this conspiracy of silence is that the current system benefits those who are best positioned to take advantage of the root causes for these absurdities: namely, families with the background, wherewithal and education to know how to “game” the system, and the elite colleges and universities whose denizens benefit in all sorts of financial and professional ways from their placement at these exceedingly small number of desirable schools. A confluence of interest bonds these financial and cultural elites in their ambition to maintain the current arrangement, namely a desperation on the parts of the families to put their children in a position to succeed, and the desperation on the parts of these elite institutions to be the exclusive grantors of the imprimatur for such success. In our profoundly competitive world order, in which increasingly few people can hope to emerge as the “winners” in a system that ruthlessly winnows out those who will not join the small club of the international elite – financial, political and cultural – all stops must be removed, all measures pursued, all efforts expended.
In compensation for their success, students are privileged to join an elite group of similarly-situated peers who harbor the same ambitions of worldly success and achievement. They are simultaneously thrown together as colleagues and competitors, a condition that will continue to define their relationships throughout their college years and beyond. The elite institutions are populated by star professors and a steady stream of noteworthy dignitaries, intellectuals, artists, public intellectuals, and so on: exposure to this class – as well as to the future incarnation of these winners in the form of their classmates – constitutes a considerable share of the education that takes place on today’s campuses, namely a socialization in success, the learned capacity to emulate their predecessors who have successfully navigated the shoals of hyper-competitive globalization and emerged as its leaders and beneficiaries.

Continue reading When Campuses Became Dysfunctional

Academic Gibberish And The Hermeneutics Of Mistrust

Overwhelming evidence attests to the liberal tilt on our college campuses. Studies show that the faculty at most mainstream institutions are overwhelmingly registered with the Democratic party and give a disproportionate share of their political donations to left-leaning candidates. A recent study of donations by faculty at Princeton University during the current Presidential election season shows that every faculty donation went to a Democratic candidate. Were such unanimity to manifest itself for conservative candidates at an academic institution, one can be certain that our leading academics would decry the lack of diversity.

Anecdotal evidence everywhere further attests not only to the liberalism of most “mainstream” faculty, but the disproportionate share of radical professors in our humanities and social sciences. Innumerable stories have been circulated of aggressive efforts to “destabilize” gender, to question “normativity,” to challenge backward institutions such as marriage and family, to encourage students to break out of pre-conceived social notions they may have inherited from parents and community. A recent article in my campus’s newspaper, The Hoya, reflects this sort of radicalism. In the column, philosophy professor Mark Lance introduces himself thusly:

I’m an anarchist, a rationalist, a feminist, a man, a pragmatist, an evangelical agnostic, a friend, a philosopher, a parent, a teacher, a committed partner of one other person and a nonviolent revolutionary. These labels are all, to different degrees, important to me; they define my sense of self. You could call them my identities, but all are “works in progress,” which is to say that the label stays roughly the same, but my sense of what it means changes and grows. (For example, I still have no idea what I mean by identifying as a man, though over the years I’ve figured out many things I don’t mean. Some days, I wish that one would drop off the list.)

Aside from its unbearable self-indulgence, it’s a predictable indication that Lance would seek to reject the one form of his “identity” that is actually given by nature. This is the one unbearable aspect of identity, because it is not chosen or willed.

Conservatives are often satisfied to register their righteous anger and indignation at this state of affairs, and have tactically adopted the language of victimhood and demands for diversity as a way of combating this left-wing hegemony. This may be politically effective and may in fact help raise awareness of the current campus culture to potential supporters outside the academy. However, these arguments are only tactical at best, and fundamentally obscure deeper investigation into why this state of affairs has come to pass and what would be required to begin a more fundamental reform of higher education.

Continue reading Academic Gibberish And The Hermeneutics Of Mistrust