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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.