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The Seven Deadly Sins of Higher Education

About 15 years ago I began writing extensively about the rising cost of higher education, even starting a research center (the Center for College Affordability and Productivity) focused on that topic. I am now convinced that rising costs are NOT the dominant problem facing our universities. There are at least seven deadly sins –not precisely the original Christian deadly sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth—but pretty close.

Let’s start with greed. The first deadly sin is that colleges are outrageously expensive. It takes a larger proportion of the income of the typical citizen of New Jersey to pay the listed tuition fee of Princeton University today than it did in 1840. Whereby the cost of virtually everything else has risen less than our incomes, thereby making them more affordable, college is the unique exception.

The federal government has contributed mightily to the problem: tuition growth has accelerated rapidly since the late 1970s –when federal student loan and grant programs were vastly expanded to the bulk of the college population. In 1987 Education Secretary Bill Bennett claimed federal aid programs enabled colleges to raise fees dramatically, and recent research at both the New York Federal Reserve and the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms it. Higher tuition fees have funded a vast unproductive university bureaucracy (the sin of gluttony) that detracts from teaching and research.

Related: How Students Intimidate Professors and Stymie Learning

Not only are costs rising, benefits are falling. The second deadly sin is that there is far too little “good” learning going on in America’s universities. By good learning, I mean learning that entails the transmission of the knowledge and wisdom of previous generations to the current one and enables us to add to this past cultural and intellectual capital. Today’s college students, typically spending less than 30 hours weekly for 32 weeks a year on academics, are remarkably ignorant about our own past, giving them the impression that they are the Superior Generation, possessing an extraordinary fount of knowledge and moral virtues.

Thus historical and wrathful ignoramuses at Yale insisted that John C. Calhoun’s name be taken off a college, despite the fact he served as Vice-President of the United States under two presidents, was in Congress (elected by the people or the state legislature) for over two decades, and held major cabinet appointments under two other presidents.  Like many others of his generation, he strongly defended slavery, becoming a strong believer of state rights. Times change, and the notion of today’s faux Superior Generation that “only our values are morally sound” denigrates those responsible for America’s exceptionalism.

This sin in not limited to historical illiteracy. For example, I suspect one-third of my students use the word “compliment” when they mean “complement.” A federal Adult Literacy Surveyed some years ago showed declining literacy among college students, an undoubtedly continuing trend. I doubt most college students could name one of John Milton’s works and are clueless on what Aristotle or Rousseau contributed to our culture. Contrary to the contemporary zeitgeist, an appreciation of the contributions of some “dead white men” strengthens the greatest civilization ever created.

There are not only sins of omission (failure to teach the Western canon) but also of commission –the third deadly sin is that political correctness has led to the suppression of many ideas and freedom of expression, robbing students of the vitality associated with questioning conventional wisdom. We increasingly preach ideology –universities often appear to be secular theocracies, with campus bullies – 21st-century Torquemadas–suppressing free expression.  Scientists, for example, are increasingly afraid to suggest that global warming is possibly not quite the threat the establishment believes –the Spanish Inquisition redux.

Why aren’t university presidents asserting their authority to put an end to this foolishness, especially the suppression of First Amendment rights and free expression? To be fair, some do, but far too many let the campus crazies intimidate them. The fourth deadly sin is one of feckless non-leadership –sloth if you will –that enables the barbarians to storm the gates and dramatically diminish the vitality and good coming from the campus experience.

Related: Crime but No Punishment at Middlebury?

Yet the presidents are not alone in consenting to the gradual deterioration of the campus learning environment. A fifth sin emanates from a faculty that too often fiddles with its often non-consequential research while letting Rome (or Berkeley, Missouri, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury or Yale) burn. After all, the faculty do the teaching and usually control the curriculum. It is the faculty that removed required courses in history, language and other foundational subjects while implementing all sorts of politically correct courses devoid of intellectual content to appease vocal minorities.

Also, the governing boards of universities are typically made up largely of excessively prideful folks who combine their lust for recognition with a slothful inattention to what really is happening on campus—a sixth sin, one of neglect. To be sure, the information they receive comes typically from the president, who often fails to inform trustees of wasteful spending and campus scandals.  When trustees occasionally try to fulfill their oversight role by seeking delicate information, they are sometimes ostracized and even sued —witness the sad spectacle of Wallace Hall, a regent at the University of Texas, a man who exposed an admissions scandal– and consequently faced impeachment and vindictive legal proceedings.

Or how about governance in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where Duke University trustees protected the university president as his administration savagely and unjustly punished the lacrosse team, or where North Carolina’s trustees were either sinfully unaware of a major athletic scandal or hid it from the public they allegedly served. Trustees, indeed,   too often serve as administration cheerleaders rather than overseers.

Related: Troubling News from North Carolina

That brings me to the seventh deadly sin: a lack of transparency, combined with obfuscation, and deception. Universities go to great lengths to hide important information about themselves –the amount students learn or earn (after college), salaries of key employees, or morally questionable activity (remember Jerry Sandusky?) They bury the bad news, exaggerate and promote the good news. They suppress competition and innovation through their accreditation agencies that they claim promote integrity and high quality. I would be very hesitant to buy a used car from a senior university official in today’s America.

To be fair, not all universities are highly sinful, and there are many good people in America’s colleges. But the seven deadly sins mentioned above are prevalent enough to erode public confidence in our universities (as recent New America polling confirms), ultimately leading to reduced support and declining enrollments.

The Age of Liberal Education Is Ending

America’s universities are collapsing into a miasma of postmodernism and multiculturalism. They have been approaching peak radicalization for several decades now, but in recent years the cultural left has pushed toward a complete takeover of our campuses. A hyper “political correctness”—with trigger warnings, safe spaces, micro-aggressions, censorship, and sometimes even physical violence—has enveloped our universities.

Leftist professors, administrators, and students have created a stifling, anti-intellectual monoculture, and they are now attempting to remove the last pillars of the traditional university: free thought and free speech. Once those are gone, America’s universities will have become little more than seminaries of intolerance and indoctrination.

Related: The Normalization of Bad Ideas

I came to intellectual maturity during the first wave of the academic culture wars of the 1980s. As a graduate student at Brown University, one of America’s most “politically correct” universities, I saw up close the hypocrisy, dishonesty, intimidation, and violence used by the campus left to impose its psychological and moral hegemony on students, faculty, and administrators.

In 1987, during my second year at Brown, a group of student radicals broke into one of the grand old buildings on campus and defaced ten historical portraits of distinguished Brown personages from centuries past. These “social justice warriors” spray-painted one large white letter onto each portrait, visually adding up to the words “ELITE? WHO US.” Pathetically, as is typically the case with leftist vandalism on campus, the Brown administration did nothing to identify, much less arrest, expel, or prosecute the criminals.

The leftist assault on higher education has become much worse over the past thirty-five years. Most universities today, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, are thoroughly politicized. Administrators and faculty have corrupted, gutted, and repackaged the idea of a liberal education to serve the ideological interests of the postmodernist and multiculturalist agendas.

To the extent that the history and culture of the West are still even subjects of serious study in today’s humanities departments, they are there only to be “deconstructed” and condemned. A helpful illustration of this situation can be seen in the field of literature. It is increasingly rare today for literature majors to graduate having read the great novelists, poets, and playwrights of Western literature, such as Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Hawthorne, Twain, Hugo, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Instead, they are now required to read third-rate literature published in the past twenty-five years that serves the race-class-gender-sexuality aspirations of their professors’ anti-West “oppression studies” agenda.

They are also required to take courses that explicitly push postmodernism and multiculturalism. To receive a bachelor’s degree in English literature from UCLA, for instance, students no longer are required to take a course in Shakespeare, but they are required to take three courses in gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, or postcolonial studies. At Yale, a group of students and faculty recently demanded that the English department “decolonize” the major by abolishing its required “Major English Poets”9 course (a course that covers Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot, et al.) and replace it with a course concerned with race, class, gender, and sexual identity. According to one Yale student, reading “canonical” dead white males marginalizes and oppresses “non-white, non-male, trans and queer people.”

Related: Times Says Conservatives Unwelcome in Academia

That view, it is worth noting, was not shared by the radical African American writer, W. E. B. Du Bois, who declared in his 1903 book “Souls of Black Folk” his affinity with the Eurocentric intellectual traditions of Western civilization, precisely so that he could temporarily escape the racism of postbellum America: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas…. I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” Today’s universities would be virtually unrecognizable to men such as Du Bois and those who guarded the ivory towers of academia for 2,500 years.

From Plato’s Academy in 4th-century BC Athens to the Ivy League in the first half of the 20th century, the core of Western learning was found in the humanities and liberal arts. Broadly speaking, the purpose of what we call a liberal education was to expose students to a select body of accumulated knowledge and wisdom about the world in which we live. It was a journey of discovery in pursuit of the truth about the human condition, and it was an education in what we might call high culture. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold’s famous definition, it was an immersion in the best that has been thought, said, and done in order to elevate our lives above the ordinary, the vulgar, and the savage.

Such an education would enrich the lives of young people as individuals while also preserving the achievements of the past and endowing to the future the wisdom of the past. Tragically, with the exception of a few Great Books colleges and the Lyceum Scholars Program at Clemson University, the vision of higher education that once sustained the West for centuries now seems all but dead. The old-fashioned idea that the central purpose of a university is to lead the search for truth and to preserve and perpetuate all that is great in our civilization is now openly attacked, mocked, or simply eliminated.

In recent years, Yale and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have turned down gifts of twenty- and ten-million dollars respectively to teach courses on Western civilization. At Stanford, students recently voted by a 6:1 margin to ban the teaching of Western civilization from the university curriculum. As one student put it, such a course means “upholding white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.”

Related:  How a Generation Lost Its Common Culture

Serious scholars—those who are the intellectual curators of Western civilization’s repositories of knowledge and high culture—are now marginalized on our campuses. The sad reality is that very few people left in American higher education have the interest and courage to defend and perpetuate the humanities. In fact, we are fast approaching a period in which people qualified to teach traditional humanities courses will be virtually extinct. The few who still take the life of the mind seriously and spend their days reading old books with young people and discussing with them the ideas that have shaped Western culture for millennia— they will be strangers in a strange land.

What we are witnessing today on our campuses is akin to the Afghani Taliban bombing out of existence two giant Buddhas carved into a cliff in the Bamiyan Valley nearly two thousand years ago—or ISIS fighters leveling Nimrud, a three thousand-year-old Assyrian city; and ransacking museums in Iraq and Syria, destroying their antiquities with sledgehammers. The efforts of leftist administrators, faculty, and students to remove Western civilization’s great works of literature and philosophy from curricula, to rename or tear down important historical buildings, to censor or ban certain ideas from college campuses, have the same effect.

The Essence and Foundation of Liberal Education

A proper liberal education involves essentially three things: first, a quest to understand important truths about nature, human nature, and the necessary conditions and means for people to live and flourish; second, substantial knowledge of great works of philosophy, religion, literature, history, science, and the arts produced through 2,500 years of Western civilization; and, third, substantial knowledge of great deeds and projects men and women have undertaken in order to expand the boundaries of human freedom and flourishing. This is the kind of education that the great universities of the West originally sought to provide, and it is summed up by the Harvard and Yale mottos, “Veritas” and “Lux et Veritas” respectively.

 

Higher learning was once just that: an ascent to truth, a quest for wisdom, an attempt to expand one’s knowledge of the past for the purpose of applying it in the present and shaping the future. A liberal education rests on the assumption that the human mind is capable of grasping reality; of understanding the world and man’s relationship to it; of distinguishing between true and false, good and bad, just and unjust, honorable and dishonorable, beautiful and ugly; and of discerning differences of degree where such differences exist. Such an education introduces students to the importance of such matters and inspires them to think in such terms as a matter of course in life.

Related: ‘Most People Are Horrified by What’s Going on in the Universities’

Of course, all such thinking and all such judgments presuppose knowledge of—or at least the pursuit of—objective standards of truth and goodness. This, too, has roots in the ideas and thinkers examined in a liberal education. Take the Roman philosopher Epictetus, who wrote the following in his Discourses: “The fact that someone holds this or that opinion will not suffice to make it true, any more than we are inclined to trust a person’s word in dealing with weights and measures.”

In either case, whether discussing people’s views about truth and value, or claims about weights and measures, Epictetus implores his students to search for and develop what he called an “objective standard,” an absolute, certain, and permanent standard of true and false, good and bad, right and wrong. Once “we’ve found it,” he continues, “let’s commit to never making a single move without reference to it.” When I read such passages with my students, they’re challenged to transcend the moral relativism dominant in today’s culture and to join Epictetus in what he called his “hunt” for objective truth.

In his essay on “The Shortness of Life,” the Roman philosopher Seneca suggests that one should become “intimate friends” with the “high-priests of good learning” (he names Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, Aristotle, and Theophrastus). Such friends, he notes, never disappoint; they’re never “too busy,” day or night, to talk about the most important questions; they never send you away “empty-handed.” Indeed, they bring nothing but “happiness” and “an attractive old age.” With friends such as these, you can “discuss matters great and small” and “hear the truth without insult and praise without flattery.” They provide models of goodness, excellence, and nobility worthy of emulation. On a personal level, the great books aspect of a liberal education is a journey both outward and inward. The outward journey enters a world created by the mind of another.

To read ancient philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, or to read modern playwrights or novelists such as Shakespeare, Austen, Hugo, and Dostoyevsky is to drop through a rabbit hole and to reemerge in a foreign place, an alternative universe that we visit for a short time but from which we gather knowledge for life. We confront Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, Hugo’s Jean Valjean, Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, and we judge their actions as good or bad, just or unjust, noble or ignoble.

Related: Diversity Anger at UCLA

The inward journey then follows a path to the interior of one’s soul. The purpose of this introspective journey is to ponder, evaluate, and avow or disavow the ideas discovered in the external journey. We think about what we can learn from these characters and how they can be models or anti-models for our lives. Such introspection expands the boundaries of our inner world. Thinkers for more than two millennia have understood the value of such journeys and conversations. With the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts during the Renaissance, modern thinkers began a sustained and sophisticated dialogue with ancient authors that became a defining feature of Western culture.

This was particularly true of the modern founders of the humanities, men such as the 14th-century Florentine poet Francesco Petrarch and the 16th-century Florentine historian and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. They taught that past civilizations, particularly the lost worlds of Athens and Rome, were exotic places to which one could travel, through books, for enlightenment, solace, friendship, pleasure, and improvement. At a distance of some fourteen hundred years, Petrarch wrote beautiful letters addressed to his old friends, Cicero and Livy. In 1345, Petrarch wrote to Cicero lamenting that his dear friend would “weep bitter tears” should he “learn of the fallen state of our country.” Five years later, he thanked Livy for having transported him back to a better time, where he could live and converse with the great heroes of the Roman republic. “It is with these men,” he confided, “that I live in such times and not with the thievish company of today among whom I was born under an evil star.”

Machiavelli’s well-known 1513 letter to Francesco Vittori is a beautifully evocative description of how one 16th-century Florentine escaped the burdens of daily life by retiring every night to converse with his old friends: When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently re-clothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them.

This great Renaissance tradition continued through the Enlightenment and beyond. Two hundred and fifty years after Machiavelli’s nightly visits with his Roman friends, a twenty-one-year-old John Adams used and applied Xenophon’s discussion of “The Choice of Hercules” from the Memorabilia (beautifully captured in Annibale Carracci’s 1596 painting and in Handel’s 1750 oratorio) to his own life. In order to bolster and inflame his flagging spirit after an extended period of lethargy and weakness, Adams sketched a fable of Hercules, adapting the story to his own situation. “The other night the choice of Hercules came into my mind,” Adams wrote in his diary, “and left impressions there which I hope will never be effaced, nor long unheeded.”

The young man then sat down and wrote himself an inspirational “fable on the same plan, but accommodated, by omitting some circumstances and inserting others, to my own case.” In all earnestness, he began, “Let Virtue address me:” Which, dear youth, will you prefer, a life of effeminacy, indolence and obscurity, or a life of industry, temperance and honor? Take my advice; rise and mount your horse by the morning’s dawn, and shake away, amidst the great and beautiful scenes of nature that appear at that time of the day, all the crudities that are left in your stomach, and all the obstructions that are left in your brains.

Then return to your studies, and bend your whole soul to the institutes of the law and the reports of cases that have been adjudged by the rules in the institutes; let no trifling diversion, or amusement, or company, decoy you from your book; that is, let no girl, no gun, no cards, no flutes, no violins, no dress, no tobacco, no laziness, decoy you from your books. But keep your law book or some point of law in your mind, at least, six hours in a day. Labor to get distinct ideas of law, right, wrong, justice, equity; search for them in your own mind, in Roman, Grecian, French, English treatises of natural, civil, common, statute law; aim at an exact knowledge of the nature, end, and means of government; compare the different forms of it with each other, and each of them with their effects on public and private happiness.

Related: How Diversity Came to Mean Downgrade the West

Study Seneca, Cicero, and all other good moral writers; study Montesquieu, Bolingbroke, Vinnius, &c., and all other good civil writers. Petrarch, Machiavelli, Adams, Du Bois, and many others were enticed by the philosophic and artistic genius of the great ancient (and modern) writers to enter lost worlds radically different from their own. There they found companionship in solitude; consolation in affliction; respite from the mediocrity, vulgarity, and discord of the world around them. They also found inspiration to achieve great tasks. In quiet repose with their books, they were able to see, ponder, and experience things to which they would otherwise never have had access. These great books dramatically expanded their inner lives and fueled their souls for endeavors in the outer world. The same can be true for students today. If given the chance, great books can expand the inner worlds and elevate the lives of 21st-century American teenagers.

Consider, for instance, Cicero’s discussion of Marcus Atilius Regulus in De Officiis [On Obligations], which I teach to freshmen every year. Regulus, Cicero tells us, was a Roman consul and general, captured by the Carthaginians in 255 BC during the First Punic War. Regulus’s captors released him back to Rome on the condition that he negotiate the release of Carthaginian prisoners. Should he succeed, Regulus would be free to stay in Rome. Should he fail, however, he pledged to his captors that he would return to Carthage. Upon his return home, Regulus went directly to the Senate, where he successfully argued against the release and return of the Carthaginians. And then, in the face of immense pressure from family and friends to break his oath and stay in Rome, Regulus voluntarily returned to Carthage, where he was imprisoned and tortured to death.

Cicero recounts Regulus’s story in order to have his readers consider the relationship between the honorable and the useful. Cicero recognizes that for most people the “useful” or self-interested course of action would have been for Regulus to renege on his oath and to live out his retirement peacefully with family and friends in Rome. Not so for Regulus— or Cicero. For Cicero’s great-souled man, there can be no dichotomy between the honorable and the useful, which means that Regulus’s decision to return to Carthage represents the embodiment of the useful. But how can this be so? It is counterintuitive to how most people think. For Cicero, the man of high moral character could not break an oath without damaging his honor. In returning to Carthage, Regulus was protecting the integrity and beauty of his most selfishly prized possession: his honor. According to Cicero, “If there is something repulsive about physical disfigurement, how monstrous must the deformity and foulness of a soul steeped in dishonor appear!”

Writing only two centuries later, Cicero says of Regulus that his actions are “remarkable,” even to the honor-obsessed people of Cicero’s time. But Cicero’s account of Regulus raises issues that transcend time and place. My students are utterly captivated by Cicero’s account of Regulus. Imagine how strange and shocking Regulus’s actions must seem to a generation of college students raised on safe spaces and trigger warnings. Such actions are incomprehensible to them; they’ve never heard or seen someone act on principle in the way that Regulus did.

A liberal education fosters what Alfred North Whitehead called “the habitual vision of greatness.” This vision originated with the ancient Greeks and Romans, was adopted in part by Christians, and was likewise embraced by Enlightenment thinkers. In Philippians 4:8, for instance, we are presented with a view of education that runs parallel to the Greco-Roman tradition: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Modern thinkers such as Montaigne, Bacon, Chesterfield, Pope, Hume, and Nietzsche held views of human greatness that are worth studying as well. As the 18th-century Scottish educator George Trumbull said of liberal education, it is concerned with everything that is “good or great in human life.” So it is. For millennia, there was never much doubt in the West about whether greatness existed. Men might have quibbled over which civilization or country was greater— ancient Greece or ancient Rome, England or France, America or Russia.

And they might have debated the relative greatness of Plato versus Aristotle, Michelangelo versus Da Vinci, Jefferson versus Adams, Dostoyevsky versus Tolstoy, Newton versus Einstein, or Carnegie versus Rockefeller. Only recently have Westerners doubted that greatness exists and that their lives are improved by studying the cultures and men who embody it. In this sense, the goal of a liberal education is to identify and inform the student of important ideas, people, cultures, creations, and events of the past that have advanced human life, and to inspire him to pursue his own view of greatness in life.

The goal is not to tell him what to think but to provide him with knowledge that enables him to think more deeply and clearly. A liberal education enables students to perceive the breadth and depth of human accomplishments and to aspire to a life beyond the banal and vulgar pathways that dominate contemporary life.

This essay from the Fall 2016 issue of The Objective Standard is published here in an abridged version with permission.

Hey, Stanford: ‘Western Civ Has Gotta Grow’

Back in 1987, in a paroxysm of self-contradiction, Jesse Jackson engaged in what would have gotten him tossed in the clink had he done anything comparable in Djakarta or Chungking.  He led a crowd of banner-waving students at Stanford, taking advantage of a western nation’s heritage of free assembly and free speech, even when the assembly is noisy and the speech is foolish.  They were complaining about the school’s modest requirement of two semesters in Western Civilization.  “Hey hey, ho ho,” cried out the poetical preacher, “Western Civ has got to go!”

And go it did, replaced by the usual college fare, which might range from a sensible course in history to politically motivated twaddle: “Dance in Prison” or “Food Speaks” or “Queer Theory in Comparative Literature.”  What did not replace it?  Shared courses in great works of art, literature, history, or philosophy, or an alternate course in the civilization of India or the civilization of China.

So now, a group of students at The Stanford Review has circulated a petition to reinstate that modest requirement, and a manifesto making the case for its necessity.  The authors of the manifesto cite Stanford Law professor Michael McConnell on the poor preparation of the students he teaches, who “have little or no familiarity with the political, intellectual and cultural history that shaped the American legal system.”  These students “have never heard of Hobbes and Locke, do not know the causes of the American Revolution, are unfamiliar with the Lincoln-Douglas debates…. don’t know what separates Protestants and Catholics,” and so forth.  McConnell concludes: “One thing a great university provides is education about what educated people should learn.”

That, right there, should point the petitioners towards the most powerful argument in favor of their proposal, one they could hardly emphasize too much.  It is that graduates of Stanford as the curriculum is now constituted will be – I am reaching for a technical term – ninnies.  The petitioners do note that Stanford engineers will be engaging in research that will change the face of the world, covering the land in robots like locusts and threatening the jobs of nearly half of all workers.

Imagine these inventors, ambitious and clever, but utterly incapable of thinking along with the great heritage of western philosophers and theologians, ignorant of history, and possessed of tastes determined by mass entertainment rather than by Rembrandt or Keats.  They are the technocrats of the future, morally anarchic, easily attracted by schemes that would subordinate all human activity to centralized direction – by people like themselves. Hence, there is an urgency about the manifesto; an urgency which I believe is entirely warranted.

The opponents of their proposal, if I may judge by comments upon it, and by twenty-five years of listening to the opponents of our own Western Civilization program at Providence College, are afflicted by delusions of adequacy. They are under the odd impression that they actually know things. They believe, for example, that twelve years of American schooling will actually have imparted considerable knowledge of English literature and of the European literature upon which it is founded.  They believe that college students already can say sensible things about Wordsworth, when most do not know who Wordsworth is, and those who do, cannot write grammatical prose. They think that they are ready to learn about “other cultures,” when they have no firm grasp of what it even means to have a culture, since they have precious little knowledge of their own.  These students are not the radicals here. They are altogether satisfied with their ignorance, even smug about it.  They are content with the nostrums of our time, peddled by mass politics and mass entertainment, which degraded phenomena are increasingly indistinguishable from one another.

The petitioners at Stanford are forthright in proposing that only one civilization, the Western, be studied, because the Western has, as a matter of brute fact, provided the terms of political, moral, and scientific thought for the whole world.  Their opponents will trot out the usual accusations of racism and bigotry.  But the petitioners understand that Western errors in philosophy are not going to be addressed by a slapdash course in Hinduism – the educational equivalent of a meal of tandoori chicken.  Kant’s errors must be addressed by Kant’s opponents; Pieper, Maritain, Pope John Paul II, Alasdair MacIntyre.

The political reason to study the West is not to promote our current predilections, but to understand what they are, where they came from, what they might have been had we taken other routes, and what they might yet become, for better or for worse.

But there are nearer and better reasons for the course. The great majority of students at Stanford speaks English as a first language, and will live in the United States. All of the rest speak English as a second language, and among them will be many who speak another European language. If they are ever going to fall in love with poetry or with our treasures of plays and novels, it will almost certainly be the English.  “Multiculturalists,” those who peddle the tandoori chicken rather than Sanskrit, are not going to replace close study of the Old Testament with close study of the Rig-Veda.  They replace it with nothing.  An English speaker who fails to learn English poetry is not going to learn poetry in Urdu.

The same goes for other areas of cultural achievement. If you cannot be bothered to learn who Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were, you are probably not going to try to figure out the precise differences between Buddha and Lao-Tzu. That is not to say anything about those men and their merits.  It is simply a fact.  Stanford is in California, not Thailand.

If you cannot be moved to curiosity by a hundred thousand works in your native tongue and in the languages that influenced it; if you turn your head away from the First Baptist Church on your own Main Street, and all the other churches and their schools, and from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew, then you are simply fooling yourself if you think you can be immersed in eastern civilizations without learning the original languages and living in India or China for thirty years and worshiping in their temples. Otherwise, you will not even rise to the level of the dilettante.

The irony is that only someone who actually has a culture is prepared to learn about another; as a master in the grammar of his native tongue is prepared to learn another.  But these days we prefer our education to be like our politics: superficial and silly.

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.

Emptying Content from College Courses

These comments were delivered at the 2015 Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Symposium on “The Future of Higher Education” June 3 in Washington D.C. The event was co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs. The full transcript of the symposium is here.

Some conservative critics say that the main problem in American higher education today is that tenured faculty don’t teach enough. It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be controlled by more accountable cost-cutting administrators.

Tenure from this view is a kind of union and faculty governance akin to collective bargaining. But the union-taming critics don’t understand that our administrators have already been achieving what the critics want. The truth is that the number of tenured and tenure-track faculties is rapidly diminishing as a percentage of our instructional work force. People with tenure and on tenure track now are still fairly unoppressed and, I admit, an often fairly clueless minority.

Buying Off Tenured Faculty

There are doubtless good reasons why in some places tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more. It would be better if more students had their personal touch. But given how cheap adjunct faculty are — they work for less than subsistence — it is a big mistake to believe that tenured faculty taking on an additional class or two would produce a significant savings.

It’s often even the case that our administrators would rather they not teach more. At some places, at least, the situation seems to be that administrators are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks. That incentivizes them to become compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty. It also helps them accept the emptying out of the content of general education, those courses required of all students.  Requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy are being replaced by those based on abstract and empty or content-free competencies such as critical thinking and effective communication.

Make Way for Competencies

Unfortunately, it is often not so hard to convince career specialists to surrender their concern for merely general education or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions be reconfigured in terms of competencies.

That way they are led to believe they will be able to hang on to their curricular turf. The study of history or philosophy or whatever can be justified after all as deploying the skills and competencies of critical thinking, effective communication or whatever.

One problem, though: the faculty members end up seeing or experiencing is that those skills or competencies can be acquired more easily other ways, ways that are aren’t saddled with all that irksome historical or philosophical content. And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.

So the biggest outrage in higher education right now is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about micro-aggressions or being insufficiently trigger-warned. Notre Dame might be about to surrender the requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students in favor of competency-based goals.  If you want to worry about an outrage, worry about that.

Keeping the Classy Brand

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand, they become identical in terms of their educational goals. Lists of competencies always seem to me kind of vague and random but somehow they turn out to be the same everywhere.

So what the idea of a competency denies is that the dignity of thinking and communication must have something to do with what is being thought and what is being communicated. The how of thinking about who or what a man or woman is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity. Communicating information is very different from winning friends and influencing people or persuasion or manipulation and is way, way different from communicating the truth through irony or humor or verse such as through the poetry or parables of Revelation or the dialogues of Plato.

Like Panera Bread or Amazon

So as the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky or unreliable or brilliant and standardized according to the quantitatively validated best practices. Courses can become more scripted and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the computer screen. So the intellectual labor of college administrators— the number of whom is bloated and the perks of whom are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs — is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy.

So what is going on in colleges and universities is not so different from what is going on at Panera Bread or the Amazon warehouse.

The Amenities Arms Race

As colleges become identical in their competency-based curricula, the question that continues to obsess a college president is how to make his or her institution distinctively attractive in the intensely competitive marketplace for the increasingly scarce resource of the student. So there is increased sensitivity to the student as consumer.

One result is the amenities arms race. Few institutions dare opt out. So there is a proliferation of hotel-style dorms, health club gyms, gourmet food in the cafeteria, more and more non-revenue generating Division III athletic teams and student affairs staff that function like concierges saving students from that dread disease of boredom.

It goes without saying faculty have nothing to do with these innovations at all. The excellent scholar Glenn Reynolds is so disgusted by such developments that his modest proposal is for campuses to be honest and market themselves as luxury cruises.

That means spend and spend more on amenities. And cut and cut more the cost of actual education by reducing the ranks of the career faculty and replacing them with various forms of online instruction and MOOC. No college or university is going quite that far but some are pretty far down the road. And even the small colleges that talk up the presence of real faculty because they can’t get rid of them have begun to describe them as agents and advocates for students. In a way, just another amenity offered to the discerning consumer.

And add to the amenities arms race all the increasingly intrusive and usually stupidly counterproductive compliance requirements of the federal government and accreditation agencies and all those administrative politically correct initiatives that have little to nothing to do with real education and it is easy to see where most of the so-called bubble in college cost is coming from.

It is not faculty compensation or the cost of instruction that is going up much more rapidly than the rate of inflation when my salary is not going up even at the rate of inflation; the cost of instruction is often going down and in ways that is making it worse. Now there are ways to cut the cost of instruction in higher education in general that would cause the quality actually to get better but that would require a renewed focus on the real point of higher education.

Institutionalizing PC

Well, you might say putting the focus on competencies at least has the advantage of banishing at least some politically correct blathering from the classroom. Exactly the opposite is true. It institutionalizes political correctness. Some competencies are always attitudinal about appreciation of diversity and all that so students learn that sensitivity is displayed not only by having correct opinions but having the right kind of enthusiasm, or as they say, “engagement” about them.

In the discipline of philosophy, the question of what justice is allows a genuine diversity of thoughtful and plausible answers. In the era of the competency, the question of justice has been answered and all that is left to do is to be engaged in the right way in promulgating the final solution. So the world of the competency mixes techno vocationalism with dogmatic social liberalism.

Don’t forget that political correctness has morphed from being a radical challenge by socialists as such to American capitalism promulgated by tenured radicals to a kind of cloying sensitivity to the consumer demand that every nook and cranny of a student’s life on campus in thought and deed be a safe and comfortable space. The effect, it often seems, is to make the campus a virtual reality above all, as some say. It is too much like the bubble. The virtual reality is that young people spend too much time losing themselves in in front of a screen.

A Noble Goal

So those conservative reformers who really mean it when they say that they want the classrooms of our career liberal arts professors to be filled with as many students as possible have a noble goal. I’ve explained why that goal doesn’t really have much to do with saving money necessarily. But if their reform intention is seriously personal, or as we say these days, “reform conservatism,” then they should oppose every effort of our administrators to displace respected professors with proletarianized adjuncts as well as to reduce as far as possible the place of the competency and the screen in figuring out what kind of general education, what kind of content-driven literacy is at the core of generally higher education.

Respected professors, it turns out, are a part of the indispensable content of higher education.  For now, we dissident professors are all about resisting standardization and surveillance of all kinds if it comes from the government. We resist it when it comes from the Obama administration and from the Republican Senate. And we, of course, resist all the intrusiveness and stupidity of accreditation associations. We want to protect the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American education.

The Accreditation Problem

One great thing about our country is that there are islands of liberal education, sometimes in unexpected places. Not only that, anyone in our country who wants a genuinely higher education can find one, and here is something we don’t emphasize at all, often at a surprisingly affordable price. So we dissident professors applaud those institutions aiming to wean themselves from government funding. And I hope that weaning is a prelude to dispensing with what is the worse and useless process of accreditation.

Because it is impossible to dispense with branding altogether in our world here is my idea. Let’s replace the idea with competency with the idea of literacy, and we want to do so with the real job market in mind. It turns out that the main complaint of employers today is not that college graduates lack this or that fairly minimalist techno competency that could after all be readily learned on the job. Their real complaint is that our students, our graduates don’t have the level of literacy, the good habits, the sense of personal responsibility and the fine manners that we used to count on most college graduates and, to tell the truth, most high-school graduates having.

The main problem with focusing on competency in higher education is that it allows our colleges and universities to be content with producing graduates who are functionally illiterate.

Sure, they can read for information and entertainment and they are quite adept at texting with their friends and playing games on screen. But their reading is too literal or non-ironic, and they can’t enjoy the way authors deploy words to play with ideas and take the light and the wonderfully imperfect and endlessly revealing ways words correspond to the way men and women really are. So our graduates can’t read attentively and they can’t think well as beings born to know, love, and die.

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

Wonder If There’s A Core Curriculum?

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has unveiled a new site, www.whatwilltheylearn.com, that provides a survey of core curriculum requirements at 100 American Universities. They evaluate the existence of requirements in 7 areas: Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Science. Suffice it to say that most colleges required don’t ask much of their students in any of these areas.
I took a look at a few colleges with core curricula of which I was aware. Columbia University, for one, included the notes that “No credit given for Mathematics because math courses are part of the Science course list but are not required” and that its “Core Curriculum offers students an integrated and rich curriculum.”
There’s a nicely detailed portrait also offered of the numerous schools (most on the list) that lack a core curriculum but do possess “distribution requirements” which range from the hopelessly vague to the fairly substantive. Here spring up numerous additional notes: at Johns Hopkins “No credit given for Composition because only writing-intensive topic courses in a range of disciplines are required” or at Harvard “No credit given for U.S. Government or History because the United States in the World requirement is made up of niche courses.”
The site’s certainly worth a look. Do wander over.

Is The Core Curriculum Really Coming Back?

The good news: A survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) announcing that “distribution requirements” in undergraduate education are out and “general education” is back.
Translated, that means—or ought to mean—that colleges are reinstating the idea of a core curriculum of essential courses, conveying essential knowledge, that every well-rounded college graduate ought to have under his or her belt. Core curricula, which typically required undergraduates to enroll in one- or two-year sequences of basic courses in history, literature, science, mathematics, foreign languages, and English composition, fell by the wayside during the 1970s and 1980s, on the theory that the traditional core courses were overly Western-centric (a survey course in Western civilization was usually at their heart), and that what students learned wasn’t so important as the methodology of the various disciplines involved. Why be forced to take a year-long history survey that covered Egyptian pyramids, classical Greece, and the rise of the modern nation-state when you could learn how historians think by choosing any two history courses from a smorgasbord of historical offerings that might include everything from meso-American civilization to women during World War II? Thus began the “cafeteria” approach to undergraduate requirements that has been the prevailing academic model for at least 30 years, in which students must obtain a specified number of credits in, say, the humanities, social sciences, and physical and biological sciences but are free to decide which individual courses in those fields are to their liking (or are easy or meet at convenient times).

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