The Greatness the Professors Denied

Ten years ago I proposed a Great Books course to my department. The chairman responded with an email noting that in marking certain books as “Great,” I was implying that books assigned in other courses were not great. The problem, in other words, wasn’t the course itself. It was what a course with a title like that would do to other courses in the program—and to the people teaching those other courses. It would put them down.

I laughed and shook my head when I read the email. It was an exquisite expression of ressentiment, the mediocre herd pulling down what is superior and fine and strong in the name of sensitivity, which Nietzsche diagnosed so well 130 years ago. We shall not single out what is great because that makes the middling feel bad. We shall not identify books as essential because that leaves so many others out in the cold. We must be inclusive!

I didn’t tell that story in my new book, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults, but I could have. The anti-greatness theme runs throughout as I chart the ways in which educators at Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, and elsewhere have robbed young Americans of an ennobling, enriching humanities education. Their elimination of a core of masterworks, master ideas, and momentous events springs from the same sentiment that my chairman expressed. Why this stuff and not that stuff? Who are we to say what everyone should read and study? Let’s give students more elective discretion, more choice in their own labor, and end the whole racket of ranking and hierarchy.

Hence the deterioration of general education requirements, which the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have demonstrated for years. We have gone from the historic model of prescribed courses in core subjects to a bunch of Chinese restaurant menus organized by “thinking skills” or some other abstractions (“quantitative,” “diversity,” etc.), with dozens of narrow, unrelated courses that fulfill each requirement. No more year of Western Civilization, no more English requirement with lots of classic literature, no more standard U.S. history survey courses that everyone must take.

Instead, we have a mishmash and a grab-bag of this and that, 40 courses under the “diversity” label, 50 freshman composition classes, none of them alike in content, and so forth. I describe this fragmentation in the new book in detail, including bogus justifications offered by professors as they set about “dismantling” core curricula.

I also describe something else, an important factor in the devolution, though it isn’t often discussed: How do undergraduates understand this development? What do they think when they scan freshman courses and review the requirements?

The professors pushing to kill the old curricula frequently made the standard multiculturalist points, casting Western Civilization as “Eurocentric” and “patriarchal.” With youths in mind, however, they made another argument, the anti-prescriptive one, which posits that youths don’t like to be told what to do. Give them “ownership” of their learning, it was said, treat them with trust and care, pull back on our authority, and they would respond, working harder than ever because they were personally motivated. In many instances, this student-centered romanticism was more persuasive than the multiculturalist mandate.

But here is what the youths really thought when they faced the new heterogeneity, 100 courses on 100 subjects ready for selection by the empowered freshman: nothing really matters. That was the conclusion. One topic is as good as any other. These contemporary movies in this course and those novels by Austen and Dickens in that course—what’s the difference? Both meet a requirement. The elective system flattened them to the same level. No historical epochs or masterpieces or ideas were held to be necessary for every undergraduate’s development. There is no canon of great writings to respect, no group of individuals such as the Founders or the French Revolutionaries to study, no national heritage to absorb. Those obligations were abandoned. Instead, our entering freshman saw general education as a haphazard, pick-and-choose enterprise.

Liberal educators opt to see this copious, diverse, de-centered curriculum as freedom and individuality in action, a sure benefit, an advance. However pleased students are at the prospect of choice, though, the missing canons and lack of prescription don’t satisfy them for very long. They want more out of life than what a loose, multifarious 21st-century general education provides. For, a curriculum without a core, with no claims to greatness, sends to youths a sorry message about the very world which the youths are preparing to enter: the past has no meaning, no eminence. The school doesn’t uphold a magnificent legacy, because there is no such legacy. People, events, and creations that have shaped the present don’t amount to a purposive, vital inheritance, not for these college students and not for anyone else, and that leaves a hole in their souls. Our liberal professors don’t wish to impose their materials on the students; that would subject them to a dreary cookie-cutter experience (so they assume). But the assumption is wrong. Most students find the idea of a required core of greatness flattering, not discouraging. It tells them that they deserve the very best that has been thought and said. It gives their individual lives more meaning. The past is not a random collection of interesting stuff. It is a consequential descent, a lineage, with design and causality and fullness.

To keep that grand background away from rising adults is a crime. The professors and administrators offer “diversity” in its place, as if that airy nothing could do what the Western Civ ideal did. But it doesn’t work. Diversity has no concrete, positive content. Nineteen-year-olds need more anchors than that. Diversity for what? Well, for diversity. Students know exactly how empty that aim is, even the activists among them. In 2016, for example, a “students of color” group at Stanford issued a call for more “studies” programs, for their own dormitories and centers, and for more teachers and advisors of color. In their letter, they added a preemptive statement: “Please do not respond to our demands by highlighting diversity and social-justice related measures the university has in place.” The letter amounted to a plea for more diversity hiring, yes, but for the purpose of facilitating more segregation. We should take that plea positively as the students’ natural desire for a culture and history of their own. They wanted depth, a unique heritage, not this shallow diversity that won’t let any identity emphasize its own legacy too much.

This is how the professors misconstrued the ordinary aspirations of adolescence. The kids wanted a meaningful, momentous world to await them, fashioned by geniuses, heroes, and villains, lovers and betrayers, battles and revolutions, Odysseus and the Karamazovs, the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights and the Sermon on the Mount. The professors gave them a superficial taste of scattered mediocrity. When we see bitter 30-year-old Millennials marching against this and that injustice, when Gen-Zers on Ivy league campuses protest who-knows-what, remember that at crucial stages of their lives their teachers denied them a vision of America, the world, and the universe, past and present, as coherent, meaningful, and opportune realities. America’s angry youth are acting out of deprivation, one all the more damaging because they are largely unconscious of what they didn’t receive, but need and deserve.


Image: Ed Robertson, Public Domain

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

7 thoughts on “The Greatness the Professors Denied

  1. My goodness. This author is a professor at Emory University? How on earth can he withstand the vitriol he is surely receiving there?

  2. When I see great literature coming out of sub-sahara Africa or a piano concerto composition from central America or a classic painting from the pacific island region let me know and I’ll look them up.

    1. One sees this comment often but it demonstrates ignorance. Here is one great writer from Nigeria – Wole Soyinka and a great poet from Senegal, Leopoldo Senghor. And these guys were writing years ago. The joke of course is that they write in the Western tradition and because they are serious writers they were likely educated in the great books. There are good young African writers today and the same holds for many of them too. Shows that the Western tradition can belong to anyone who wishes to adopt it.

      1. You name two individuals over say the past 2,000 years from sub-sahara Africa who are good writers. And who are these “good young African writers [of] today” you refer to and how many are there? It would help to have names so that people can judge for themselves how good they are.

        The fact is there aren’t many examples of great literature, music composition, or scientific discoveries coming out of sub-sahara Africa, central/south America or even Asia for that matter. Very little comes out of the middle east. When only one or two examples can be cited, it says they are the exception rather than a rule.

  3. A good way to test whether this makes sense in literature is to try the same in STEM.

    Who’s this guy Newton? Calculus is no better or worse than counting on one’s fingers. And then medicine: that white patriarch Pasteur can teach us no more about germ theory than a female indigenous tribal healer. Darwin? Just a dead white male to be forgotten, along with his insights.

    We expect our teachers to be discriminating about the subject matter, and hope their choices are good. It seems, at least in the humanities, that hope is misplaced.

    1. I’ve seen people claim with a straight face that the germ theory of disease is a Pasteur-perpetrated hoax. Once or twice I asked if Edward Jenner was in on it too (or maybe actually was a time-traveling Pasteur under an assumed identity). Haven’t got an answer yet.

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