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AT ONE TIME the purpose of a university education was to give future leaders an opportunity — before they shouldered the dull burdens of civic responsibility — to explore the purpose and value of life. By instilling a strong sense of history, of reason, of logic, of the best of what has been thought and said, a background in the Humanities would prepare a young scholar for whatever may lie ahead.
This, at least, had been the belief going back to Plato’s Republic.
Like Nock, Bloom believed the university should provide the student with four years of freedom, “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” More important, the college years were “civilization’s only chance to get to him.” (Somehow I doubt Tom Wolfe would agree.)
The Humanities also served a primary existential purpose, which was to counterbalance “the defects of a democratic order” (Bloom’s phrase), and to fill “a void by pointing to the human ends which the ideals of liberty and equal rights are unable to prescribe,” adds James Pierson in the New Criterion.
The Sixties Generation broke with this four-thousand-year tradition. If the bugbears of early 20th Century radicals were the consumer-driven economy and the thoughtless pursuit of material comfort, then the Baby Boomers’ bete noire was Western Civilization and all it entailed.
From then on, social change, rather than concerns about work and consumption, would be paramount on college campuses. Such change would not come from the government or the people, but from the university, since the university was uniquely situated to tackle moral issues. After all where else could one find so many smart, morally superior persons? First, however, the university, and its Humanities departments (the propagandizer of the elitist, racist, sexist, imperial tradition of Western culture) must change and adapt.
In the subsequent 40 years the radicals and their political agenda have triumphed unopposed on the college campus, so much so that today’s student is compelled to conform to an intolerant progressive doctrine if he hopes to receive his sheepskin. Students are now told that there is a single right answer and, like the Sphinx, only he, the professor, possesses it.
Inevitably this atmosphere of conformity and groupthink results in a sterile learning environment, where dialogue and debate are limited for fear of uttering the wrong sentiment and facing disciplinary action.
A RADICAL FREE MARKETER might say that the Humanities deserve their fate since they proved unable to compete in both the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas. However it wasn’t the marketplace that killed the Humanities, says Kronman. Rather, it was the one-two punch of political correctness and research specialization.
Of these, political correctness and its offspring diversity, multiculturalism and constructivism (which gave us such wonders as “rainforest math” and “African math”) have done the most damage. With more women than men on college campuses, and near majorities of foreign students, to say nothing of the distinctive viewpoints, experiences and traditions they bring, political correctness is seen as an “instrument of corrective justice” — payback for the sins of all of the Dead White Males that created the racist, patriarchic and imperial West.
Not only are the ideas and institutions of the West and the works that embody them no more valuable than those of other non-Western civilizations, but professors find it difficult to teach Western Civilization courses when they loathe its chief representatives. Lost in this political quagmire is the question of how we can hope to understand or appreciate or compare and contrast ourselves to other cultures if we are wholly ignorant of our own?
The final blow to the Humanities has come in the form of the modern research ideal, an idea that honors and rewards original scholarship, specialization, and incremental thinking, and whereby academics “choose an inch or two of the garden to cultivate,” and which the Greeks and the renaissance scholars knew was the antithesis of true learning.
Kronman reminds us that specialization is anathema to the broad study of the “great conversation” that has been going on throughout the history of Western Civilization. When he focuses on original discoveries, Kronman argues, “a scholar does not aim to stand where his ancestors did. His goal is not to join but supersede them and his success is measured not by the proximity of his thoughts to theirs, but by the distance between them — by how far he has progressed beyond his ancestors’ inferior state of knowledge,” all of which leads him to pretentious philosophical departures like deconstruction, where one misses the big picture by focusing on the minutiae. As Pauline Kael’s reminded, “Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole.”
Despite the obvious doom and gloom Kronman sees reason for optimism. Political correctness has had a 40-year run and at long last seems to be on the wane. A few universities are even dusting off their Great Books courses.
And then there is obstinate human nature. The instinct to find an ultimate meaning remains as powerful as ever, it has just been directed away from its proper home in the universities toward fundamentalist religion, New Age spiritualism, and Barack Obama’s campaign.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?