Tag Archives: cultural literacy

How Student Protesters Cheat Themselves

One common complaint of protesting students is the old multiculturalist argument that the curriculum is too white and male and Western.  The petition filed by students at Seattle University is a case in point.

Once again, we have outlandish allegations of racism and harassment leveled against one of the most progressive enclaves on Planet Earth, the liberal arts campus.  The students term it “a longstanding history of oppression,” and their “concerns are urgent and necessitate an immediate response” (another feature of the protests is the note of desperate need on the students’ part).  How else to respond to “being ridiculed, traumatized, othered, tokenized, and pathologized”?

In this case, the curriculum bears a big part of the blame.  The humanities departments at Seattle don’t induct students into the civilization of Sophocles, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Rousseau, and Mozart, the petition says.  They don’t raise the humanitas of the students who pass through it.  No, the curriculum does the opposite.  It “ignores and erases the humanity of its students and of peoples around the globe.”

And so they demand a “non-Eurocentric interdisciplinary curriculum.”  This new formation will “decentralize Whiteness,” which means that John Milton will enjoy no more prestige than do contemporary African writers.  The old themes of faith, courage, mortality, and love will give way to “a critical focus on the evolution of systems of oppression such as racism, capitalism, colonialism, etc.”

In accord with the personnel side of campus identity politics, the students insist that these new courses be taught by “prepared staff from marginalized backgrounds, especially professors of color and queer professors.”  (The students don’t explain how queerness advances the non-Eurocentric focus.)  The instructors are to follow, too, a “decolonizing and anti-racist pedagogy.”

The puffery is absurd, of course, but there’s a pedagogical point to make as well.  Any administrator and professor who accede to these demands is guilty of academic fraud.  The reason goes back to E. D. Hirsch’s argument about cultural literacy made three decades ago.

When his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know appeared in 1987, it was interpreted as a conservative brief against multiculturalism. Critics said that it reinforced Eurocentric and patriarchal values at a time when minority and women’s voices were on the rise.  That’s because Hirsch and his colleagues had compiled a list of facts, names, dates, and other items of information that an American needed to know in order to participate fully in civic and professional life.

Yes, the list was heavy on European-derived materials, but this was only because the culture of American civic and professional life was the same way.  Indeed, one of Hirsch’s reasons for including an item in his list was that such things commonly found their way into op-eds in the New York Times.  Hirsch, himself a lifelong Democrat, reasoned that if disadvantaged students were to rise in American society, they had to know such things.  If they didn’t they wouldn’t do well on SAT and GRE exams, would struggle in college classes, and would feel out of place in professional settings.  Teaching cultural literacy, then, Eurocentric and traditional in content, was a solid progressive project.

Hirsch’s arguments remain firm.  American mass culture has grown more diverse in the last three decades, but the deep references found in civic life and professional spheres, not to mention on standardized tests, are still predominantly Eurocentric.  I just picked up the Times op-ed page, went six paragraphs into Charles Blow’s contribution (“Trump’s Chance to Reboot”) and found the words “narcissism” and “protean.”  Does anyone doubt that a little knowledge of Narcissus and Proteus enriches a reader’s understanding of the opinion?

In demanding a non-Eurocentric curriculum that highlights racism et al, students not only implant an adversarial mindset of resentment, one that despises the only society in which they will find success and happiness.  The students also deprive themselves of the background knowledge they will need as they strive to improve their lives.  They are setting themselves up for estrangement and insecurity.  And, sad to say, instead of realizing that the inferior education they have received is one reason for their future dissatisfaction, they will use the anti-Eurocentrism position as an explanation for it.

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.

E. D. Hirsch’s Vision of School

E. D. Hirsch, famed literary critic and educator, founder of Core Knowledge Foundation and author of Cultural Literacy, has a new book out. It’s called The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools , and the arguments there are worth repeating again and again.
While the preferred academic approach to American history and society is a jaded and skeptical one, Hirsch believes that the attitude is the outcome of an education system that has “lost its bearings.” It has forgotten, he argues, that the early leaders of our republic charged the schools with the preservation of American ideals. They felt constant anxiety over the survival of the American experiment, never taking for granted its resistance to demogoguery, factionalism, dictatorship, special and private interests, and general unscrupulousness. The surest thing to hold them at bay was the inculcation of civic virtue, that is, the concern for the general welfare, not only one’s personal well-being. And the best expressions of civic virtue were to be found in the Founding documents (Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, Federalist Papers, etc.).
Schools were supposed to teach them to students so that the rising generation might appreciate values and principles beyond power and private gain. Hirsch quotes a passage from Governor Silas Wright’s address to the New York legislature in 1845:

On the careful cultivation in our schools, of the minds of the young, the entire success or the absolute failure of the great experiment of self government is wholly dependent; and unless that cultivation is increased, and made more effective that it has yet been, the conviction is solemnly impressed by the signs of the times, that the American Union, now the asylum of the oppressed and ‘the home of the free,’ will ere long share the melancholy fate of every former attempt of self government. That Union is and must be sustained by the moral and intellectual powers of the community, and every other power is wholly ineffectual. Physical force may generate hatred, fear and repulsion; but can never produce Union. The only salvation for the republic is to be sought for in our schools.

Set that claim in light of the attitude toward U.S. history and society prevailing in academia, particularly education schools, and it looks lifeless. To speak this way is to sound mindlessly patriotic, jingoistic, in fact. It is to overlook the many victims and sufferers of the past, they say. It culpably ignores the fact that the Constitution allowed slavery . . .
The resentment behind those contentions helps explain why young Americans have so little knowledge about the past. If the past contains so many negatives, why remember it? If teachers can’t espouse anything heroic about it, what inspires kids to respect it? That’s the lesson they draw from teachers who harp on the dispiriting facts of the past (Jefferson owned slaves . . .) and ignore the enlivening facts (he wrote “all men are created equal”). What resentment-educators intend–that students have a full sense of the negative in history–doesn’t happen. They leave school with no sense of it at all.
For Hirsch, this means civic breakdown. It kills the values of citizenship–duty, loyalty, memory. He writes:

Our early thinkers about education thought the only way we could create such virtuous, civic-minded citizens was through common schooling. The school would be the institution that would transform future citizens into loyal Americans. It would teach common knowledge, virtues, ideals, language, and commitments.