Tag Archives: western civilization

When Students Kill Important College Courses

The Abolition of Man is the best refutation of moral relativism that has ever seen print (aside from the Bible, of course). In this short and cogent book, C.S. Lewis ponders what happens when human beings abrogate transcendent moral law and objective truth and begin to fashion their own guidelines for living. One argument that he refutes is that “Man” needs not to observe old, time-encrusted commandments handed down from the Year One, but can decide the course of his own future through reason and deliberation.

Lewis responds, simply, that “Man” will not make such decisions, but a certain number of men who have the power in any given generation will do so, depending on the technology available to them, and that these decisions will then bind the generations afterward. “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases,” Lewis explains, actually means “the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

Furthermore, Lewis argues, these powerful men will not necessarily act out of reason and deliberation, but, bypassing objective standards of truth, will be governed by their own “impulses.”

Lewis particularly faults the moral relativists for not considering, as physicists routinely must, the dimension of Time in their actions and calculations. Lewis is thinking in terms of generations. When we consider curricular changes propelled by students at a university, we are dealing with a much shorter timeline, four years really, the amount of time it takes most students to earn the degree–the ones who will earn the degree, that is, and not drop out altogether. So, at present, we are talking about changes demanded by, say, members of the Class of 2022, that will affect all future students in that particular college through the 2020s and into the 2030s and even the 2040s, some of them now obliviously playing video games, some toddling about their playgroups, some not yet even born.

This prospective scenario may be playing out now at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. As Peter Wood writes at Minding the Campus, “a slow-motion protest” is being mounted at Reed by the “Reedies Against Racism,” who are

waging war on the college’s core humanities course, Humanities 110, “Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean.” The students seem to have gained the upper hand in their attack on Reed’s only required freshman course. Classes have been canceled; a day-long boycott was launched; a Black Lives Matter group presented the president of the college with a list of demands, and President John Kroger capitulated to many of them.

As Wood explains, “The humanities course in question has been a cornerstone of a Reed education since 1943 and is the successor to a requirement that goes back to the college’s founding in 1908.”

While the outcome of the Reedies’ disruptive activism is not yet known, the whole protest seems to illuminate Lewis’s point. Some members of the present student body at Reed are seeking to overturn a required course that has instructed generations of students before them, and to eliminate it from the education of cohorts of students after them because these activists feel that studying Ancient Greece, foundational to Western civilization, is ipso facto “racist.”

Related: Our Colleges Are Getting Worse-3 Proposals to Help Save Them

I thought about this while at a New York Philharmonic concert featuring two works by Leonard Bernstein, inspired, respectively, by Plato’s Symposium and the Lamentations of Jeremiah. I saw a young couple there, perhaps in their early thirties, who would be about the right age to have graduated Stanford in, say, 2006, long after the “hey-hey-ho-ho-Western-Civ-has-got-to-go” movement removed any required courses there on Western culture, and sparked similar movements at other colleges. Obviously, this couple is interested in concert music, but they might have been surprised to find that a modern composer such as Bernstein, who also composed the popular musical West Side Story, drew inspiration from ancient texts.

I could imagine them wondering as they busied over the program prior to the entry of the conductor, “Who are Plato and Jeremiah and why would Bernstein find them inspirational?” Or perhaps, alternatively, “Too bad, but the courses in which these ancient figures were taught were no longer required at Stanford when we were there.”

Yes, those infinitely wise students of the Class of 2002, barely out of braces and acne ointments, had decided that my couple, Class of 2006, were not to be required to study these writers, supposedly tainted somehow by the purported racism of the West.

Thanks to the actions at Stanford, which started the whole anti-Western-courses crusade throughout American higher education, students are missing out on the likes of Plato and the prophets in favor of diversity writers such as bell hooks and Sandra Cisneros.

The Founding Fathers who fashioned our system of government set it down for generations to follow but they provided a mechanism of checks and balances and a procedure for amending the Constitution. Today’s student militants don’t think very far ahead.

Some students are daring to think differently, however.  In 2016, close to twenty years after the hey-hey-ho-ho-ing, the staff of the Stanford Review, the student newspaper founded in 1987 by Peter Thiel and Norman Book as a conservative/libertarian alternative, drew up a petition to the Faculty Senate to require a two-quarter freshmen course in Western civilization.

Related: Hey, Stanford: Western Civ Has Gotta Grow

It may be protested that a requirement should not be necessary, that students could individually and separately seek out courses in the great figures, assuming that these are somewhere still available, and in relatively unpoliticized form, somewhere in the university, but some students might actually like the guidance of a designed, thought-out curriculum. As the little girl in a free-form, progressive school asked her teacher, “Could we just for one day not do whatever we want?”

The petition garnered enough signatures for the request to be put to a school-wide student vote before it could get to the Faculty Senate. It was defeated, 342 in favor, and 1992 against. It is evidently too late to reverse the actions of previous generations of students. As Lewis says, some men and women get to decide what other men and women can have.

Photo: Painting of a scene from Plato’s Symposium (Anselm Feuerbach, 1873) at Google Cultural Institute

Liberal Talking Heads Turn Against the West

The liberal reaction to Donald Trump’s speech on Western civilization goes to show how much liberals played the fool way back in the 1980s. That’s when the debate over Western Civilization boiled over and traditionalists and multiculturalists vied for control of the humanities curriculum. Liberals didn’t fit easily in either camp. Most of them in the humanities taught a standard course in recognized figures, English from Beowulf to Joyce, art and architecture from the Acropolis to Pollock, U.S. history from the Pilgrims through the Sixties. But while their educational practices were conventional, they stood politically with the progressives and radicals. They had to come up with a compromise–and they did. Donald Trump’s speech proves beyond all doubt that, whether they realized it or not, it was a fake.

At that time, when William Bennett, Allan Bloom, E. D. Hirsch, and other advocates of traditional cultural literacy were filling the public sphere (though Hirsch was a firm political liberal), there were two versions of the “Eurocentrist” critique coming from the Left. First, hard identity politicians in humanities departments and “studies” programs cast Western civilization as a racist, sexist, imperialist enterprise. They retained the anti-Americanism of the anti-War movement of the previous decade and applied it to the college syllabus, treating a course packed with dead white male authors as just that: an ideological formation by race and sex. They didn’t see the legacy of Homer and Plato, Dante, and Shakespeare, Mozart and Manet as a positive lineage of genius. They only registered the exclusions: not enough women and persons of color.

But their presentation was so bitter and anti-intellectual that it didn’t impress many colleagues across the campus, not to mention observers in the public sphere. In fact, it alienated them. Harold Bloom termed these bilious progressives the School of Resentment, and in my view, the Nietzschean tag fit even though I hated Reagan and all the other Republicans as much as anybody. Liberals didn’t view the Western heritage that way, and it wasn’t how they talked about reform, either. The professors I had in the 1980s were solidly Democrat (that is, anti-Reagan) and fully in favor of affirmative action and abortion rights. They wanted to see Geraldine Ferraro Vice President and they acknowledged all the oppressions of the past, but they hadn’t learned to characterize their own teaching of Great Books as another one of them.

Yes, they agreed that Milton and Pope had their sexism and that pre-Civil Rights American writers didn’t recognize the equality of African Americans. But that didn’t make Western civilization something to withhold from historically-disadvantaged individuals. The liberal position was to allow everyone access to it, and that included appreciating the tools of justice that Western civilization provided such as natural and universal rights. If Western civilization bore elements of the bad -isms, the solution wasn’t to banish it or even to disparage it. We should revise it, instead, particularly where it had excluded other voices and other experiences.

And so, we got a positive version of reform, not “Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go!” but happy expressions of diversity, “opening up the canon,” “recovering lost voices,” preserving “herstory” as well as “history.” This was the liberal via media. It didn’t displace Western civilization — it enriched it. We didn’t need to denounce Jonathan Swift because of his misogyny. We could simply place contemporary women’s writings alongside his and produce a fuller, deeper, richer picture of the tradition.

That was the promise of liberalism in the humanities. When conservative critics would charge that Alice Walker is pushing Hemingway off the reading list, liberal professors quickly replied, “No, no, not at all. Hemingway is still there, but now we have broader representation of American literary history.” Who could argue with that?

Well, now we know. We believed that sober moderates would prevail over adversarial leftists, who would sputter out once the (in their eyes) repressive tolerance of liberalism would do its work. But it didn’t work out that way. The identity politicians suffered many public embarrassments because of their political correctness and speech codes and illiberal education and tenured radicalism, but that didn’t slow their advance one bit. On this issue of civilization, they have won off-campus liberals to their side. The enthusiastic or benign appreciation of Western civilization is now a sign of bad politics.

Peter Beinart handily explains what Western civilization now means: “In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means.” Beinart regards “the West” as “a racial and religious term.” The Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart, too, linked it to white nationalism, especially Trump’s sentence, “We write symphonies.” In response, Capehart wrote, “In that one line, taken in context with everything else Trump said, what I heard was the loudest of dog whistles. A familiar boast that swells the chests of white nationalists everywhere.”

Commentaries on these remarks have been profuse, but I haven’t seen anyone bring up this 30-year-old background. To recall it is to prove a remarkable and sad transformation in the status of Western civilization. To speak proudly of its achievements, to hail its art and music, to acknowledge its origin in Jerusalem and Athens and Rome was in the past a partial interpretation of human history and culture. Now, it’s racist and imperialist.

All the old liberal talk about diversity and recognition and recognizing the “other” is gone. The fierce multiculturalists of the 1980s are now the mainstream liberal talking heads of the 2010s. It is anti-intellectual and historically-inaccurate, but among the left, it has a bienpensant moral force.  One expects this in academic humanities departments, and now we can find it in the pages of distinguished liberal periodicals, too.

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.

Hey, Stanford: ‘Western Civ Has Gotta Grow’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mangling of American History

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The evolution of the historical profession in the United States in the last fifty years provides much reason for celebration.  It provides even more reason for unhappiness and dread.  Never before has the profession seemed so intellectually vibrant.  An unprecedented amount of scholarship and teaching is being devoted to regions outside of the traditional American concentration on itself and Europe. New subjects of enquiry — gender, race and ethnicity — have developed.  Never have historians been so influenced by the methodology and contributions of other disciplines, from anthropology to sociology.  

At the same time, never has the historical profession been so threatened.  Political correctness has both narrowed and distorted enquiry. Traditional fields demanding intellectual rigor, such as economic and intellectual history, are in decline.  Even worse, education about Western civilization and the Enlightenment, that font of American liberties, and the foundation of modern industrial, scientific and liberal world civilization, has come to be treated with increasing disdain at colleges and universities.  

Continue reading The Mangling of American History

Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

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“Full of years.” I
am not sure I know of anyone who better qualified for that Biblical epithet
than Jacques Barzun, who died last week at the magnificent age of 104.  Born in France in 1907, Barzun had been a
presence on the American intellectual and academic scene since the 1950s. From
his perch at Columbia University, where he collaborated with the critic Lionel
Trilling on a humanities course than deeply influenced a generation of
students, Barzun (like Trilling) was part of the intellectual conscience of his
age.  He was a public intellectual before
that role had been hollowed out by celebrity and the demotic faddishness of the
1960s. His scholarly work in subjects like French poetry consistently won plaudits.
Writing in 1991 about Barzun’s Essay on French Verse, the poet William Jay
Smith noted that  although “there have
been other treatises on French versification for the English reader,”  “none has been so thorough, so well reasoned,
so free of academic jargon, and so available as this one.”  “It is amazing,” Smith went on, “that
Professor Barzun, now in his eighties, should have produced so youthful and
vigorous a book, an objective study that is at the same time so personal a
document.” That sense of amazement regularly greeted Barzun’s work in the last
decades of his life.  He was the author
of more than 30 books, and his magnum opus, From
Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present
, wasn’t
published until 2000, when Barzun was 93.

Continue reading Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012

Capitalism and Western Civilization: Liberal Education

CapitalismEducation pic.jpgSpeaking of business and management majors, Douglas Campbell and James E. Fletcher argue
in A Better Way to Educate Professionals that their students “should have a strong base in the traditional liberal arts and the physical sciences….to effectively work with people to understand and solve problems as well as to accomplish individual, organizational, and social goals.”

The  management consultant Peter Drucker agrees, writing in The New Realities (1989):

Management… deals with action and application and its tests are
results. This makes it a technology. But management also deals with people, their values, their growth and development–and this makes it a humanity. So does its concern with, and impact on, social structure and the community. Indeed, as everyone has learned who, like this author, has been working with managers of all kinds of institutions for long years, management is deeply involved in spiritual concerns–the nature of man, good and evil.

Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art–“liberal” because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; “art” because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledges and insights of the humanities and the social sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.

For these reasons, management will increasingly be the discipline and the practice through which the “humanities” will again acquire recognition, impact, and respect. 

The Romans educated their governing elites in the artes liberales, the
“liberal arts.” To them, artesmeant skills and liberales referred
to a free man. Liberal arts were originally something like “skills of the
citizen elite” or “skills of the ruling class,” who were expected to debate and
decide on issues of public policy. The Renaissance deplored ignorance and
exalted the power of the educated mind. For its elite, it stressed education in
the skills and prudence necessary to be successful in a life of work and to be
a public-spirited citizen and member of the ruling class. The Renaissance
demonstrated the need for balance in the knowledge provided by science,
humanistic studies, and religion. In today’s sophisticated capitalist economy,
business or corporate executives and managers constitute an economic ruling
class that should be provided a similar education and capabilities.

But our universities have adopted an orthodoxy that dismisses a priori as
“white male ideology,” the very idea of an educated person, of a cultivated
human being provided with broad and humanistic knowledge of the kind esteemed in the Renaissance. The liberal arts have largely been eliminated from
education, replaced by the social sciences and postmodern multiculturalism,
with their animus against Western civilization and objective knowledge.
Postmodernism in the academy still vehemently denies the efficacy of science,
the value of reason and humanistic studies, and the need for religion and its
moral precepts, while fostering the unrealistic and immoderate illusions of our
academic and college-educated elites.

In Post-Capitalist Society (1993), Drucker discusses the clash between postmodern multiculturalism and the classical Western education in our colleges and universities. 

A motley crew of post-Marxists, radical feminists, and other “antis” argues that there can be no such thing as an educated person–the
position of those new nihilists, the “Deconstructionists in this group assert
that there can be only educated persons with each sex, each ethnic group, each race, each “minority” requiring its own separate culture and a separate–indeed an isolationist–educated person….These people are mainly concerned with the humanities….Their target is…the universalism that is at the very core of the concept of the educated person….

The opposing camp–we might call them the “Humanists”–also scorns
the present system.  But it does so because it fails to produce a
universally educated person. The Humanist critics demand a return to the
nineteenth century, to the “liberal arts,” the “classics.”…They are in a direct line of descent from the Hutchins-Adler “Return to Pre-Modernity.”
 

Both sides, alas, are wrong. The knowledge society must have
at its core the concept of the educated person. It will have to be a universal concept, precisely because the knowledge society is a society of knowledges and because it is global–in its money, its economics, its careers, its technology,its central issues, and above all, in its information. Post-capitalist society requires a unifying force. It requires a leadership group, which can focus local, particular, separate traditions onto a common and shared commitment to values, a common concept of excellence, and on mutual respect.
 

The…knowledge society…thus needs exactly the opposite of what
Deconstructionists, radical feminists, and anti-Westerners propose. It needs the very thing they totally reject: a universally educated person.
 

Drucker argues that the productive use of knowledge now determines the competitive position of countries as well as companies (see my earlier article Knowledge Workers). More than possessing a bridge to the classical past, the educated person also “needs to be able to bring his or her knowledge to bear on the present, not to mention molding the future.” He adds:

The Western tradition will, however, still have to be at the
core, if only to enable the educated person to come to grips with the present, let alone the future. The future…cannot be “non-Western.” Its material civilization and its knowledges all rest on Western foundations: Western science; tools and technology; production; economics; Western-style finance and banking. None of these can work unless grounded in an understanding and acceptance of Western ideals and the entire Western tradition.
 

This is the very point that Steve Balch emphasizes in Metamorphosis: 

What happened in, and through, the Western world during the last
three hundred years is unique in the history of civilization. Western
civilization is not just another civilization. It represents a metamorphosis in
humanity’s estate. The other civilizations of the world have been reborn in,
and through, that of the West

Tragically, the kind of liberal education that Drucker recommends and Campbell, Fletcher, and NAS seek for future managers is no longer available in today’s academy.Campbell and Fletcher note that the saturation of the liberal arts “with
Marxist doctrine is particularly confounding. Marxism, radical-collectivism and
hostility to free enterprise are the antithesis of the traditional liberal
arts’ search for truth, virtue, beauty and the meaning of human existence, and
its commitment to intellectual freedom and personal choice.”

Moreover, the NAS report The Vanishing West demonstrates that education in the Western foundations sought by Drucker is no longer provided at most colleges and universities. Peter Wood observes in Epic Battles: “The
report brims with the relevant details. But the basic picture is clear and
simple. American higher education has by and large taken itself out of the
business of teaching undergraduate students any kind of orderly overview of
Western civilization.”

Thus, academia fails to provide the kind of enlightenment that Drucker considers
essential for management and business professionals. Instead, as Jay Schalin
notes in The Reopening of the American Mind, they are smothered in a “postmodernist fog that clouds the mind and renders graduates unemployable for all but rudimentary functions.” Ironically, the nation’s economic competitiveness is the worse for lack of a proper liberal arts education at America’s colleges and universities.

The changes recommended by NAS to restore that education need urgently to be
implemented.

The Honorable William H.Young served as Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy from November 1989 to January 1993.. 

Why Study Western Civilization?

In predictable fashion, Inside Higher Ed has reported on “The Vanishing West,” the National Association of Scholars’ study on the virtual disappearance of Western Civ courses from our colleges, by quoting only critics.  But the criticisms are the same ones I’ve been hearing for the 20 years I’ve been in academia.

Princeton Professor and president of the American Historical Association Anthony Grafton gives the oft-repeated (including in student essays on the topic) reason that today we have a “radically different” student body that might not be “as interested in such courses.”  Of course, no one asks students if they are “interested” in the required math and science courses.

Grafton also says that the “increasing specialization among professors” means that they are not equipped to teach such courses and might not “enjoy” doing so.

The latter reason points to a serious institutional problem. 

Continue reading Why Study Western Civilization?

The Disappearance of Western Civ

If you happened to attend college back in the day, the term “Western Civilization” was common currency among most undergraduates: it was something you expected to wrestle with, usually during your freshman year.  In one way or another, “Western Civ.” covered the intellectual, cultural, artistic, religious and political heritage of European civilization, erected on the twin pillars of Greece and Rome.  The American Constitution, of course, was also a direct descendent of this tradition, as even a cursory reading of the Federalist Papers would confirm – you’d understand why the upper chamber in our national legislature was called the Senate, or that the original Republicans had nothing to do with a political party.  None of this necessarily excluded the study of other civilizations, needless to say.  But there was a settled consensus among America’s educators that all college graduates, irrespective of their major fields of study should know something about the events, personalities and institutions which were largely responsible for such modern hallmarks as liberal political institutions, scientific inquiry or market capitalism, which have shaped and dominated the contemporary world far beyond the confines of Europe and America.  One way or another, that’s certainly what most students did.

How times have changed, as we document in the new National Association of Scholars  report, The Vanishing West, 1964-2010, available here.  Between 1964 and the present, the study of Western Civilization has literally disappeared from most college curricula.  Not only is it not required, you’ve often got to search  pretty hard to find individual history courses that tangentially cover bits and pieces of the themes once commonly encountered by most undergraduates.  Often enough, you can now collect your very expensive college degree – believe it or not – without studying any history at all.  Or if you do take a history course, you’ll often find equal weight apportioned between one that examines US Foreign policy, 1900-1950 or another that analyzes the erotic secrets of antebellum plantation mistresses.  The only criterion in most cases seems to be student choice, whether it’s the fall of Rome or the rise of Elvis Presley – take your pick.   And whereas the study of history once focused on the game-breaking events, ideas or dominant actors that made a difference, the only thing that seems to matter nowadays is race, gender, class, ethnicity, or the equality of all cultures.  In a way it makes things such as Western Civilization a lot easier to understand: it can all be reduced to the “narratives of white men” (you wouldn’t believe how often I ran into that irksome categorization in the process of gathering our data).  Think of it: Julius Caesar, Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven or Groucho Marx all fit in nicely here.  If students learn anything at all about Western Civilization these days, it’s likely to be through the lens of oppression, racism, sexism and colonialism.  If only I were making this up.

None of this, of course, is to argue that the past was a Golden Age, or that we should now try to reinstate the standard Western Civilization survey as it typically was found in 1964.  That in itself runs contrary to the tradition of inquiry which has defined the Western tradition since Socrates.  But if you think that history education is a civic obligation, that there are seminal events, people and institutions that should be imparted to college graduates whatever else they do, then our survey confirms that American higher education in 1964 certainly made that effort, whatever its shortcomings.   It’s certainly not what your hefty tuition buys you these days, and we hope that our survey will give prospective students and their parents a sense of what they’re paying for.

U.S. History as Taught at Bowdoin (Ugh)

“There are any number of courses that deal with some group aspect of America, but virtually none that deals with America as a whole. For example, there is African-American history from 1619 to 1865 and from 1865 to the present, but there is no comparable sequence on America. Every course is social or cultural history that looks at the world through the prism of race, class, and gender. Even a course on the environment (offered in the history department) “examines the links between ecology and race, class, and gender.” 

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Reading Kant and Debating White Nationalists

cpac-2009.jpgThe many surveys backing up what those of us in the academy know only too well—that liberals vastly outnumber conservatives—are used to bolster the idealistic argument for “intellectual diversity.”
But a viewing of an incident at the recent CPAC conference and a video of a philosophy professor further confirmed my beliefs that it is not intellectual diversity that is needed as much as intellectual anything, and that that need is much more urgent than often recognized. The New Left began its onslaught on Western civilization through violent demands in the 1960s for the inherently anti-intellectual “studies” that replaced the traditional disciplines, like philosophy. The New Leftists and their intellectual descendents in the academy have just about succeeded in their mission of destroying the foundation of Western civilization: and that is reasoned inquiry. We see the outcome every day, in the nonsensical pontifications of tenured professors and inchoate expressions of our young people—even those involved in conservative politics.
Take for example an incident at CPAC with a group of young adults denouncing white nationalist Jamie Kelso captured on tape. They remind me so much of the college students I teach. Their reactions of disgust as Kelso’s aim becomes apparent indicate that their hearts are in the right place.

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Edmundson on Students and Derrida on Tradition

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has a penetrating, but saddening article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. It’s called “Narcissus Regards a Book”, and it laments a terrible outcome of the academic culture wars of the late-1980s and early-1990s. Edmunson recalls the infamous chant of students at Stanford—in his rendition, “Hey-ho, hey-ho, Western culture’s got to go”—but focuses not on the impudence of the marchers but on the response of the professors. The youthful ones and their grown-up supporters posed a serious question, Edmundson says. Why read Blake or study Picasso? Why not teach The Simpsons and Stephen King instead, especially as those are so much more relevant to the worlds of 1990s students?
Edmundson’s comment is worth repeating in full:

I’m not sure that teachers and scholars ever offered a good answer. The conservatives, protected by tenure, immersed in the minutiae of their fields, slammed the windows closed when the parade passed by. They went on with what they were doing. Those who concurred with the students bought mikes and drums and joined the march. They were much in demand in the news media—figures of great interest. The Washington Post was calling; the Times was on the other line. Was it true? Were the professors actually repudiating the works that they had purportedly been retained to preserve?
It was true—and there was more, the rebels yelled. They thought they would have the microphones in their hand all day and all of the night. They imagined that teaching Milton with an earring in one ear would never cease to fascinate the world.
But it did. The media—most inconstant of lovers—came and the media went, and the academy was left with its cultural authority in tatters. How could it be otherwise? The news outlets sell one thing above all else, and that is not so much the news as it is newness.

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A Brighter Horizon In Texas

The University of Texas at Austin has just approved the formation of a field of study for the recently-established Program In Western Civilization and American Institutions. This enables the center to begin offering great books-based classes on Greek and Roman Philosophy, literature, and the American founding, among other topics. It’s a broad step forward for tradition-minded centers, since Hamilton College’s unceremonious ejection of the Alexander Hamilton Center last year.

The Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas at Austin is the product of some four years- work by UT faculty members, which has yielded steady recent dividends, and a solid foundation in some 45 associated professors.

They’re not finished yet. Robert Koons, whose been spearheading the effort from the start, forecasts the offering of post-doctoral fellowships, intensive summer programs, study abroad in Rome, and a variety of other efforts. Do take a look for yourself.

The Manhattan Institute Center for the American University provided start-up support for the University of Texas center through its VERITAS fund. The fund has earmarked some $2.5 million dollars to support programs over the next several years at Boston College, Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Emory University, Georgetown University, New York University, the University of Colorado, and the University of Virginia, and of course, the University of Texas. You can find more about its activities here.