Tag Archives: core studies

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.

Too Many Hollow Men on Campus

Commentators are mocking the antics of ersatz college students, calling them “snowflakes,” “crybullies,” and the “pink guard,” the latter indicating their intellectual and moral kinship to Mao’s red guard. But where does responsibility for all the silliness lie? With the administrators.

Consider the words of three university presidents, whose attitudes appear to be ubiquitous. In resigning his presidency, Timothy Wolfe, of the University of Missouri, said, “We need to use my resignation – please, please – use this resignation to heal, not to hate; and let’s move forward together for a brighter tomorrow.” Where leadership was required to make it perfectly clear that the university is not a habitat for melodramatic play-acting, Wolfe instead validates the actors by begging them not to hate and then leaves the scene.

Related: How PC Corrupted the Colleges President

Peter Salovey, of Yale University, stated, “I see the pain that certain kinds of costumes cause some students on our campus, and I think we want to create a campus environment where everyone feels welcomed and valued, and that kind of pain should be not a typical experience.” Pain engendered by a costume at Yale!

At Amherst College, President Biddy Martin stated, “I could not be sadder about the pain that many of our students are feeling or more determined to meet their demand for change.” Pain again – very touching!

Although disturbing, this behavior is not new. In Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom, while describing the campus madness of a half a century ago, wrote:

The professors, the repositories of our best traditions and highest intellectual aspirations, were fawning over what was nothing better than a rabble; publicly confessing their guilt and apologizing for not having understood the most important moral issues, the proper response to which they were learning from the mob; expressing their willingness to change the university’s goals and the content of what they taught.

Related: The Long Shadow of the Sixties

One could argue that the behavior of the pusillanimous university officials back in the 1960s was worse than that of their spineless brethren of today. Indeed, the administrative class of the 1960s began the destruction of the university as a place of serious learning.

A mere handful of years following appeasement of the mob, the universities had impoverished their course offerings with pabulum so that students would be amused instead of educated (science not escaping unscathed). Whereas the appeasers of the 1960s made a conscious decision to reject civilization, their betrayal has bequeathed us faculty and administrators who possess only marginal contact with civilization. They can fawn and crawl more easily because they know of nothing to defend.

Lest the defense of civilization seem a grandiose mission for education, hear Will Durant:

“Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization…its language and knowledge, its morals and manners, its technology and arts – must be handed down to the young, as the very instrument through which they are turned from animals into men.

The question for the leaders of our educational establishment is simple: Do you desire men or beasts? No doubt, they will run from the question and try to hide behind twaddle like diversity and inclusiveness. But in the enduring words of Joe Louis, “They can run but they can’t hide.” Just as Billy Conn lying flat in the ring validated Louis’ hypothesis, the mayhem on today’s campuses demonstrates the culpability of university leaders in the flattening of what was once higher education

Geniuses the Young Don’t Read

And what of the civilization that is being eradicated, the one that has given us Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Gauss, Michelangelo, Bach, Mozart, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, and Einstein? Any decent undergraduate education will at minimum, introduce the student to the work of all twenty. What kind of men would in deference to the demands of a mob, deprive the younger generation contact with the genius of mankind?

They are the kind Hannah Arendt chastised in “The Crisis in Education,” when she wrote, “In education this responsibility for the world takes the form of authority…. Authority has been discarded by the adults, and this can mean only one thing: that the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children.”

Although often lost in the din of narcissism and cowardice, there is still outstanding faculty on our campuses, even at Yale, home to historian Donald Kagan and political philosopher Steven Smith. One can view Kagan’s course, “Introduction to Ancient Greek History,” and Smith’s course, “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” on YouTube. Both courses exhibit what is best in the university. Kagan discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Athenian democracy, and how the loss of moral fiber, contributed to the Athenian defeat at Chaeronea – an invaluable lesson for potential future leaders.

Smith brilliantly weaves the story of political philosophy from ancient Greece to American democracy. What a repast: Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. At the conclusion, Smith addresses the situation today: “How can we begin a comprehensive reeducation of today’s political science? The only answer–and the best answer I can give you today–is simply to read old books. These are our best teachers in a world where real teachers are in short supply.”

If the Yale administration were truly concerned with the welfare of its students, a superb course of action would be to require them to read old books and take Smith’s course. No doubt, this is too much to ask from a university whose Liberal Arts Education webpage boasts, “There is no specific class you have to take at Yale…Yale is one of the only universities in the country that lets you try out your classes before you register. The first ten days of each semester are known as ‘Shopping Period.’” Should it be surprising that recent videos from Yale look more like shopping malls on Black Friday than an institution for the transmission of civilization?

In the end, we are left with a core question: Fundamentally, what kind of people are these who debase our universities and let civilization be trampled under the feet of the mob?  We turn to T. S. Eliot, who has written their song:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Simone Weil and the Condition of Schooling Today

simone_weil.jpg“We can only lean on what offers resistance.” So writes the historian Oswald Spengler in The Hour of Decision (1934). Seven years later, Simone Weil incorporated this principle in her declaration that the key to academic studies is an undivided focus on each particular subject at hand, with no concessions to the student’s aptitude or preferences.

Weil’s term for this effort of mind is attention, which she refers to no less than thirty-eight times in her brief but remarkable essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”  Comparable repetitions fill the pages of our education establishment, with the crucial difference that it traffics in catch-words that are deployed with all the insistence of a propaganda campaign, such as “self-esteem,” “progressive,” and “multicultural,” whereas “attention” speaks to the actual process of intellectual discipline and throughout Weil’s essay remains a real tool of perception.

No such grounding in the life of the mind is possible in what Heather Mac Donald calls academic “Theorese,” which serves to inhibit thought through a smokescreen of abstractions and stilted, sterile prose, behind which the big guns of “Theory” take aim at time-tested principles of knowledge and learning and seek to deconstruct, “problematize,” or otherwise subvert standard norms of thought and education. For three decades or more, the very concepts of objectivity, correctness, coherence, and logic have been the object of “radical critique,” particularly in the field of college composition, which has been targeted for special abuse, since it is the gateway to the entire curriculum, science included.

Continue reading Simone Weil and the Condition of Schooling Today

Why Don’t Progressives Support U.S. History for Freshmen?

Herb London and KC Johnson have already posted on the disappointing findings of the ACTA project What Will They Learn? But it is worth pondering some of the implications of the report.  One of the more striking of them is the “Slightly less than 20% [of colleges surveyed] require U.S. government or history.”  As KC noted, the bar for qualification was set pretty low, with ACTA reporting that it

gives schools credit for U.S. Government or History if they require a survey course in either U.S. government or history with enough chronological and topical breadth to expose students to the sweep of American history and institutions.  Narrow, niche courses do not count for the requirement, nor do courses that only focus on a limited chronological period or a specific state or region.

Note that breadth is the only requirement. If within that requirement a teacher emphasizes racial or gender issues, if he or she highlights the guilty record of politicians, business leaders, or religious organizations, or if he or she emphasizes any other theme with sufficient scope, then the course would count and the school would get credit.  But less than one in five schools qualified.

Continue reading Why Don’t Progressives Support U.S. History for Freshmen?

Charter Colleges: A Market-Based Solution

The cost of higher education in America spirals out of control. Tuition and fees have increased fourfold in real terms in the last two decades, far outstripping the rise in the cost of medical care. At the same time, the quality of instruction plummets, thanks to declining standards, grade inflation, and the hollowing out of the traditional curriculum through the over-specializing of the faculty and the privileging of  abstruse publication over skill in teaching. In a recent book (Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses), Arum and Roksa document the decline in student effort and results. At present, things look rosy, with the perceived benefits of a college degree still exceeding its perceived costs. The higher ed establishment encourages students to overestimate the value added by a college degree (the supposed $1 million earning premium, created by confusing correlation with causation), while students significantly underestimate the real costs of the crushing load of student debt they accumulate. In the long run, perceptions will catch up with reality, resulting in a precipitous drop in demand. All of this fully justifies talk of a “higher education bubble,” soon to burst with catastrophic results.

Those of us who care about higher education are looking for solutions that will dramatically lower costs to students and taxpayers, while improving the quality of instruction. Unfortunately, most proposals for reform take the form of top-down, bureaucratic measures, attempting to re-allocate resources from ‘research’ to ‘teaching’ (the basic thrust of Jeff Sandefer’s “Seven Breakthrough Solutions”). Although well intended, such proposals are doomed to fail. One cannot solve problems created by arteriosclerotic bureaucracy simply by adding more layers of bureaucracy. The only solution is to bring market-oriented solutions – competition and entrepreneurship– to bear. One vehicle for doing so is the counterpart of the very successful charter schools movement: the creation within state university campuses of charter colleges.

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‘Defend the Humanities’–A Dishonest Slogan

humanities.bmpCollege foreign language and literature programs have been in decline for some time, first shrinking, then being consolidated with other departments, and now in a growing number of cases actually closed down. But the recent decision to eliminate French, Italian, Russian and Classics at SUNY Albany appears to have struck a nerve, and caused an outcry: “Defend the Humanities!”
It’s a cry that has been heard many times in the past. As the segment of the university that has no direct link to a career-providing profession, the humanities have regularly been called upon to justify their usefulness, but the justification is easy to make, and it is an honorable one that instantly commands respect.
The case generally goes like this: exposure to the best of our civilization’s achievements and thought gives us the trained minds of broadly educated people. We learn about ourselves by studying our history, and understanding how it has shaped us and the institutions we live by. As European civilization developed it produced a range of extraordinary thinkers who grappled memorably with questions that will always be with us, leaving a rich and varied legacy of outstanding thought on philosophical, ethical, religious, social and political matters. Its creative writers left a record of inspired reflection on human life and its challenges. Studying the humanities make us better prepared for civic life and for living itself, and better citizens.

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This Is a Bold New Plan for Higher Ed?

Mark C. Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf) is neither as bold nor as innovative as he would like us to believe. What purports “to begin a national conversation about transforming our institutions of higher learning” merely continues the postmodern assault on higher learning that began in the 1960s and aims to dismantle, if not end, traditional liberal education as we know it.
Taylor’s thesis is basically this: higher education is failing because colleges and universities are too fragmented; professors contribute to the fragmentation because they care more about overly specialized research and protecting their interests than they do about teaching; in consequence, students are being neither educated nor prepared for the great world. “This endless fragmentation inhibits communication across departmental and disciplinary boundaries, the university dissolving into an assemblage of isolated silos. The curriculum lacks coherence, integration and overall purpose.”
Taylor’s solution: more interdisciplinary studies, more multicultural education in an age of “globalization,” more technology. As the world moves “toward greater interconnections and interdependence,” it is increasingly necessary “for people to learn more about other societies and cultures.” Higher education exists to “serve the greater social good,” but its more important goal is to produce “informed citizens who are aware of and open to different cultural perspectives and are willing to engage in reasonable debate about critical issues.” Therefore, “colleges and universities have an obligation to provide an education that will broaden students’ horizons, helping them to resist the temptation of oversimplification and bias and to sift through misinformation in a world that is ever more complex.” Summing up this point a little later in the book, Taylor writes: “An education that does not provide students with the knowledge, background and perspective to understand the practical impact of ideas and actions is woefully inadequate in the global society that is now emerging.”

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Why Remediation in College Doesn’t Work

In his recent speech at the University of Texas in Austin, President Obama expressed deep unhappiness that the United States is no longer the country with the highest percentage of college graduates in the 25 to 34 age bracket. By 2020 he wants us to regain the top position we enjoyed ten years ago before South Korea, Canada, and Russia forged ahead of us. According to the latest report of the College Board, the United States is now 12th among the 36 developed nations whose college graduation rates the Board tabulated. Should the President have been unhappy? Only if he believes that our lower rate of college graduation reflects a lower rate of genuine educational achievement. If President Obama simply wants bragging rights, the United States can become first very quickly. All that is needed is to reduce graduation requirements or to increase grading inflation in college courses. (Or to give a college degree to every baby born in the United States along with a birth certificate.) The issue is what students with a college degree should know, not whether they have a piece of paper in exchange for all the time and money spent on a campus. It is troubling that only 40 per cent of Americans 25 to 44 have college degrees. It is even more troubling that of the 70 per cent of our high school graduates who enroll in college, only 57 per cent graduate within six years. One rather remote possibility – given studies that show how little American college graduates know – is that American colleges are maintaining high standards and that these high standards necessarily produce higher dropout rates and lower rates of college completion than President Obama would like. Unfortunately high standards do not appear to be the explanation.
Here is how one reader of the Wall Street Journal reacted to an article reporting the President’s call for more American college graduates:

Continue reading Why Remediation in College Doesn’t Work

Message to Freshmen: Let’s Start with Kafka and Darwin

In the wake of the National Association of Scholars’ report on summer reading for college freshmen—the report found many of the assigned books trivial and politically one-sided—we asked Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, to explain his institution’s unusually rigorous approach to summer reading.

franz-kafka.jpgFor the past two years, Bard College has asked first-year students to read works by Kafka and Darwin over the summer. These texts then become subjects of analysis when the students arrive on campus in August for an intensive three-week program of reading and writing before the fall semester begins. Let me explain the thinking behind this approach.

The idea of assigning summer readings to students entering college has three justifications. First, since American high school students usually take more of a vacation from serious thinking and study during the summer months than is warranted, readings remind them that college promises to be demanding and difficult and that it would therefore behoove them to stay in some sort of intellectual shape. This exercise is especially welcome because once high school seniors learn what college they will attend, they often cease to study seriously so that the final months of high school are wasted.

Continue reading Message to Freshmen: Let’s Start with Kafka and Darwin

The Cave-Dwellers of Shimer

20071204_Shimer_color_trans_bckgrd.jpgOn 19 April, the board of trustees of Shimer College in Chicago, by an 18 to 16 vote, ousted Dr. Thomas Lindsay from the presidency after little more than a year of service. For sixty years, tiny Shimer (about ten faculty and 100 students) has touted itself as a Great Books college on the Robert Maynard Hutchins plan. Students converse about the content of texts with one another, guided by a professorial facilitator employing the Socratic method. The experience, it was believed, would “sustain a life-long passion for learning.” Accordingly, Shimer constructed and reconstructed its mission statement to reflect—and to extend— Hutchins’s ideals. Since 1996, the ambitious Shimer educational experience purported to prepare students for “active citizenship,” not just in the United States, but “in the world.” After four years of matriculation, Shimer’s graduates would learn to shun “passivity” for “responsible action” by moving “beyond either unquestioning acceptance of authority or its automatic mistrust.”
Dr. Lindsay came to Shimer from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) where he served as deputy director and oversaw We the People, a well-regarded program designed “to encourage and enhance the teaching, study, and understanding of American history, culture, and democratic principles.” There he attracted national attention with impressive publications and lectures on how to teach the principles of the founding to the American people. Inaugurated as Shimer’s thirteenth president In January 2009, he set to work trying to elevate an institution possessed of noble goals but gasping from slipping standards, radical egalitarian governance structures, a bare-cupboard endowment, and a long history of financial distress, including several bankruptcies. Re-accreditation itself was hanging in the balance. Dr. Lindsay expanded to thirty-four the number of sitting members on the board of trustees to include educators and philanthropists who could help Shimer out of its chronic fiscal woes. Raising money in good times requires persistence and long hours to persuade prospective donors. During a recession, the task can seem Sisyphean. Dr. Lindsay says he spent two out of every three days during his first year at Shimer on the road with tin cup in hand.
Many at Shimer made known their dislike of Dr. Lindsay from the outset. Despite his obvious relish for the Great Books, many saw him as an outsider with a suspicious agenda. They complained when they discerned that he might be moving to make the founding documents of the United States more central to a Shimer education. In The Federalist Papers, a work that Dr. Lindsay would have liked Shimer’s undergraduates to read cover to cover, Publius devotes the majority of the eighty-five essays to the republican character of the Constitution. Of the two species of popular government, republicanism had refining, insulating features that democracy did not. In fact, in The Federalist Papers, the word democracy appears less than a dozen times and when discussed in its pure form draws a pejorative contrast. In a society composed of a small number of persons, Publius warns, the “citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” and they “are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues” of others. One would be hard-pressed to find in the United States an institution of higher learning with a more radically egalitarian and democratic structure than Shimer’s. Three faculty members and two students sit as voting members on the board of trustees. Shimer’s representative assembly consists of all students, faculty, and staff, with one vote each. Dominated by activist students, the assembly has set itself up as the moral authority of the college, and members reference the Assembly’s majority votes as if they were exquisite expressions of Rousseau’s general will. When dissidents protested that Dr. Lindsay was not sufficiently steeped in Shimer’s traditions read that he refused to kow-tow to the majoritarian voice of the predominant element in Shimer’s Assembly.

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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.

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Yearning For Great Books

As the senior class of Yale College prepares for its final semester and reflects on the Bright College Years so swiftly gliding by, I have heard one phrase repeated with surprising frequency: “I wish I had done Directed Studies.” It’s a statement that doesn’t accord with the stereotype of Yale seniors as either careerists shaking hands toward Wall Street or activists uninterested in the intellectual foundations of their slogans.
Directed Studies is a full year, freshmen-only Great Books program. The very short, very intense introduction to the Western Canon consists of three courses per semester–one in Literature, Philosophy, and History & Political Thought each. All students together attend lectures by professors like Harold Bloom, Dave Kastan, Donald Kagan, Charles Hill, and others less famous but equally revered by their students. Afterward, students break out into smaller discussion seminars.
The program has a reputation for being demanding, and a quick look at the syllabus shows why. The spring semester in Literature alone includes Don Quijote, War and Peace, Swann in Love, Paradise Lost, Faust, and more. The fall semester in History and Political Thought covers Thucydides’ and Herodotus’ histories, The Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Livy, Tacitus and Augustine! And both are just one out of three for the semester.

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The University Of Chicago – What’s Been Lost

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The University of Chicago met widespread national opposition ten years ago after it instituted a new, less demanding core curriculum to make way for more electives. It was part of a plan to make the curriculum significantly less demanding (more “fun”) to attract more students and improve the school’s bottom line. Instead of 21 required courses (in the quarter system), there became 15: six in the sciences, three in the social sciences, and six divided among the humanities and civilization studies. The changes were bitterly opposed when they became public, but too late. Over the past ten years, the university’s curriculum has slouched farther toward mediocrity.

After 1999, a student could forgo the modern era in the humanities as well as one third of the education in a civilization that used to be required for a bachelor’s degree worthy of Chicago’s name. While students need not avoid such courses, they may, and many do. In the first year of the new curriculum, only about 20 percent of students chose not to complete the third quarter of their humanities sequences, and it was argued that most Chicago students could be trusted to take their education into their own hands. The situation today is not so rosy.

In 2007-2008, for instance, nearly 47 percent of students chose to abandon their humanities core sequence to study something else. Maybe they were leaving room for more electives or were making hard choices as they tried to fit the core into study abroad and early graduation. But the fact is that half of Chicago’s undergraduates now choose to forgo a year-long sequence, which at its best weaves multiple common themes through various changes across the centuries, in favor of a piecemeal education. Some of the humanities sequences have shrunk on the presumption that they can only maintain about 22 weeks’ worth of undergraduate attention. Why keep up an integrated three-quarter sequence if students treat the third quarter as an elective?

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Restoring A Core

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has released a trustee guide Restoring a Core as a follow-up to What Will They Learn, their recent survey of core curricula (more about that here) Take a look at the “How Will A Core Benefit My Institution” section beginning on page 4 for some interesting examples from SUNY and Booklyn College and the following pages for practical advice on how to encourage the adoption of a core.

The Texas Mugging Of Western Civ

Last November, Rob Koons, director of the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas, was abruptly fired from that position. In swift succession, the name of the program and its leadership was changed to conform more closely to the ideological tastes of the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts. It was reminiscent of the fiasco at Hamilton College, recounted by Roger Kimball here. The common elements are a tenured, leftist faculty who are ferocious in their pursuit of intellectual homogeneity and the blithe betrayal of donors, alumni, and students.
The College of Liberal Arts (CoLA) at the University of Texas has all of the problems that plague higher education in America, only more, bigger, and with a better football team. It forms its own self-contained and self-referential world of all varieties of leftist thought, with only the occasional intrusion of voices from the right side of the intellectual dial. It’s a place where it’s assumed that if you are a middle-aged woman, you voted for Hillary Clinton, and would be forgiven, because you were motivated by a sense of solidarity. It’s a place where a professor can say, in all seriousness that some of his best friends are liberals, but they are “politically unreliable” because they aren’t far enough left. And where Dana Cloud, associate professor of communications, can, without a hint of irony, assert on national radio that there are many conservatives at UT- just look in Aerospace Engineering!
Needless to say, this kind of intellectual conformity, enforced by political correctness isn’t good for education generally. It is buttressed by hyper-specialization, so that even at a university as big as UT, a top tier research institution, there are no survey courses in European history, to name but one gaping hole in the course offering. Likewise, the requirements for graduation from CoLA are a Luby’s buffet of choices, where your course in “India’s Non-Conformist Thinkers” counts toward your general culture requirement, but a survey course on the world’s major religions does not, because there is no such course.

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Fixing the Anything-Goes Philosophy at Brown

Brown University is famous for having the loosest graduation requirements in the Ivy League. In fact, there are almost no graduation requirements at all, for although Brown undergrads do have to major in something in order to qualify for a degree, they are free to design their own majors. As for anything else in the way of mandatory courses, forget it. Don’t like math and science? You’ll never be asked to take a single class in either at Brown. Find learning a foreign language too difficult? No worry—you’ll never have to utter a single word en francais or en espanol during your four years on the university’s historic campus in Providence, R.I.. You can even bid au revoir and hasta la vista to freshman English while you’re there, although you do have to demonstrate some level of competence in writing in order to don your cap and gown at the end of it all Grades? You can elect to take all of your courses pass/fail if you like. And if you do choose to have your professor give you a letter grade, the range consists of A, B, and C; F is not an option. Thus, there’s almost no such thing as an introductory survey course designed for non-majors at Brown, whether in biology or history or anthropology or economics. Why should there be? Students at Brown don’t have study anything outside their chosen (and often self-designed) fields.
Even given today’s rampant grade inflation, especially at the Ivies and other elite schools, and today’s lax definition of distribution requirements that allow students to select courses from a smorgasbord of offerings (a little Chinese history here, a little Caribbean poetry there) that usually ensures that they never learn the basics of any academic field outside their major, Brown’s requirement-free curriculum is a standout. If it sounds like something left over from the 1960s, well, it is. In 1969 Brown’s administrators jettisoned the university’s traditional core curriculum, including distribution requirements, survey courses and required sequences that obliged students to learn the basics of an academic field before going on to advanced-level work, in order to focus on an free-form educational philosophy whose goals were variously described as to “put students at the center of their education” and to “teach students how to think rather than just teaching facts.” One of the architects of Brown’s “New Curriculum,” as it is still known almost 40 years later, had been Ira Magaziner, now best remembered as the designer of President Bill Clinton’s failed national health plan but then a student activist and antiwar protest leader at Brown. And so, to this day, while Brown says it encourages its undergraduates to “experience scientific inquiry,” for example, there is no mandate that they actually do so.

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Preserving The Core At Georgia

There’s good news coming out of the state of Georgia’s public universities. The University System of Georgia, which sets standards for the state’s 35 public colleges, recently jettisoned its controversial top-down plan to replace its core-curriculum requirements for undergraduates with a vaguely defined interdisciplinary program that was supposedly aimed at training students to live in a globalized economy but, as the 400 Georgia faculty members who signed a petition protesting the changes pointed out, would have ensured that Georgia college students didn’t learn much, whether about the global economy or anything else..

In more good news, the University of Georgia, the state system’s flagship institution in Athens, is acting on its own to revamped its own core curriculum – called its “general education core” – to require more courses in the hard sciences, especially the physical sciences, and fewer in the social sciences. The latter, especially anthropology, have grown increasingly fuzzier and politicized over the years as they have become increasingly infused with postmodernist assumptions about the un-knowability of truth.

Georgia’s public universities, like most other colleges and universities in America these days, don’t really have anything that can be described as a core curriculum in the traditional sense: a series of lower-level courses that all undergraduates are required to take, involving their all reading the same books and thus establishing a community of shared knowledge and cultural references. In times past it was not unusual for colleges to require their freshmen and sophomores to take a year of history of Western civilization plus two years of hard sciences and a year of advanced-level math or foreign languages – plus a few introductory humanities courses that focused on the classics. That meant that nearly all college students got exposed to, say, Plato’s Republic and Sophocles’ Antigone. Nowadays, however, the phrase “core curriculum” at most universities, including those in the Georgia system, means a minimal set of “distribution” requirements, in which students can select, say, any two courses from a vast, nearly random array of science, language, and humanities offerings. As might be expected, students in Georgia and elsewhere tend to gravitate toward the “twofer” a single course that fulfils two distribution requirements, such as, for example, a semester of Chinese history, which would count as both a history course and a course in a non-Western culture (the latter is a popular distribution category on diversity-conscious campuses these days).

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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.

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Fishing For Purpose

When asked about the theme for December’s annual MLA convention- “The Humanities at Work in the World” – Yale comparative literature professor and MLA president Michael Holquist spoke of the need “to raise the consciousness of people outside the academy about the importance of the work that’s done inside the academy.” Acknowledging that the humanities do not enjoy wide public support, Holquist diagnoses the problem as a superficial one of public relations – if humanists simply advertise their worth more effectively, he suggests, the public will accept their self-assessment at face value.

But that’s a glib analysis of a problem that goes far beyond appearances. The real problem the academic humanities face is a loss of purpose, imagination, and professionalism. No amount of PR can conceal that or make it palatable to a skeptical public – and efforts to do so risk revealing exactly how intellectually hollow the humanities currently are.

A case in point: Stanley Fish’s recent attempt to use his New York Times blog to justify the humanities. A Milton specialist who has written numerous books on literary theory, Fish is a public intellectual who has long been at the forefront of the most influential movements in the humanities. That’s why the New York Times gave him his very own online forum, “Think Again.” It’s also why his posts there routinely draw hundreds of comments from academics and lay readers.

A skilled rhetorician, Fish is exceptionally able to walk finer intellectual lines than most. So it was instructive to see him take up the perennially vexed question of the humanities in two posts at “Think Again.”

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A Donkey At Berkeley

[a speech originally given at the University of Texas]

What is an appropriate curriculum for our students? What happened to the consensus on which the college curriculum once rested? Together these comprise two of the most urgent questions in contemporary American higher education. It seems to me that the criticisms of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind of a decade ago are symptomatic of the problems we are facing. High standards are described as elitism, a pejorative of scathing proportions. A call for the assertion of Western traditions is characterized as racist and anti-democratic. And Bloom’s critique of radical feminism as a virus let loose on the curriculum is greeted with cries of “phallocentrism.”

The college curriculum as the source of youthful enlightenment free of the impediments of bias and prejudice has unraveled. While Stanley Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, recently noted that “scholars are less politicized in the United States than in any country in the developed world,” he neglected to point out that a profound and revolutionary change has occurred on American campuses since the 1960’s, resulting in the institutionalization of a radical agenda.

For a generation students have been fed on the “studies” curriculum, whether it is women’s studies, gay studies, environmental studies, peace studies, Chicano studies that are designed to indoctrinate students about pathologies in contemporary American culture – specifically race, class, gender, and environmental oppression.

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The Unseriousness of Freshman Summer Reading

Many college freshmen face their first academic task before they even set foot in a classroom – the freshman summer reading project. Many colleges now select a single volume for all incoming freshmen to read, and construct discussion groups and attendant orientation activities around the book. Temple University’s explanation of its program is fairly representative: “the goals of the project are to provide a common intellectual experience for entering students” and to “bring students, faculty and members of the Temple community together for discussion and debate.” At a time when core programs and required courses grow increasingly infrequent, it is surprising to find such strong language about “common intellectual experience” from universities. This all sounds encouraging, right? Perhaps, until you find out what they’re reading.

An overwhelming favorite of these reading programs is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed – it’s a perennial from Baruch to Slippery Rock to UNC Chapel Hill. Nickel and Dimed appears a perfect class-conscious selection to expand students’ minds. Poverty is a running theme in recent years’ assignments, from Case Western Reserve’s The Working Poor: Invisible In America to One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All at Washington University to a variety of Kozol readings across the nation’s campuses. These assignments have not always been received happily – the 2003 Nickel and Dimed assignment at UNC Chapel Hill inspired a protest coalition, arguing that the book was an inappropriate assignment, as a radical and left-inclined critique of the American economy.

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