Dec 31 2008

The demise of the university

Category: education,higher education,societyharmonicminer @ 10:43 am

Victor Davis Hanson

Until recently, classical education served as the foundation of the wider liberal arts curriculum, which in turn defined the mission of the traditional university. Classical learning dedicated itself to turning out literate citizens who could read and write well, express themselves, and make sense of the confusion of the present by drawing on the wisdom of the past. Students grounded in the classics appreciated the history of their civilization and understood the rights and responsibilities of their unique citizenship. Universities, then, acted as cultural custodians, helping students understand our present values in the context of a 2,500-year tradition that began with the ancient Greeks.

But in recent decades, classical and traditional liberal arts education has begun to erode, and a variety of unexpected consequences have followed. The academic battle has now gone beyond the in-house “culture wars” of the 1980s. Though the argument over politically correct curricula, controversial faculty appointments, and the traditional mission of the university is ongoing, the university now finds itself being bypassed technologically, conceptually, and culturally, in ways both welcome and disturbing.

At its most basic, the classical education that used to underpin the university often meant some acquaintance with Greek and Latin, which offered students three rich dividends. First, classical-language instruction meant acquiring generic methods of inquiry. Knowledge was no longer hazy and amorphous, but categorized and finite. Classical languages, like their Western successors, were learned through the systematic study of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Such philological study then widened to reading poetry, philosophy, history, and oratory. Again, the student learned that there was a blueprint—a structure—to approaching education. Nothing could ever be truly new in itself but was instead a new wrinkle on the age-old face of wisdom. Novel theories of education and entirely new disciplines of learning—to the extent that they were legitimate disciplines—could take their place within existing classical divisions of finite learning, such as philosophy, political science, or literature.

More than just an educational buzzword, then, “interdisciplinary” represented a real unity among fields as diverse as numismatics, epigraphy, architecture, archaeology, philology, art, and literature. Reading Homer or Virgil evoked history, culture, geography, style, language, and philosophy. Poetry was not just the modern habit of breaking up prose into bits and pieces but a discipline of poetic language, meter, and subject matter. Oratory was not just speaking publicly but the art of metaphor, allusion, exaggeration, invective, and hyperbole. The formation of university departments, the concept of a core general-education curriculum, and the expectation that graduates would leave the university with certain skills and shared wisdom were all outgrowths of the study of classics and evolved over two millennia. Classics was not some esoteric discipline but a holistic way of thinking about the world that elevated reason over cant, fad, and superstition.

Second, classical education—reading Homer, Sophocles, and Aristotle, or studying the Delphic Charioteer and red-figure vase painting—conveyed an older, tragic view of man’s physical and mental limitations at odds with the modern notion of life without limits. Love, war, government, and religion involved choices not between utopian perfection and terrible misery but between bad and worse alternatives, or somewhat good and somewhat better options—given the limitations of human nature and the precarious, brief span of human life. Humility permeated traditional liberal arts education: the acceptance that we know very little; that as frail human beings, we live in an unforgiving natural world; and that culture can and should improve on nature without destroying it.

In this regard, the university living experience—on-campus residence, close association with professors at dinners, and attendance at university lectures—helped reinforce the abstract lessons of the classroom and promote a certain civic behavior. Students had a precious four years in such a landscape to prepare their intellectual and moral skills for a grueling life ahead. The university was a unique place; it thrived because liberal arts in the holistic sense simply could not be emulated by, or outsourced to, private enterprise or ad hoc self-improvement training.

Third, classical education was a window on the West. Study of Athenian democracy, Homeric epic, or Roman basilicas framed all exploration of subsequent eras, from the Middle Ages to modernity. An Aquinas, Dante, Michelangelo, or Montesquieu could be seen as reaffirming, adopting, modifying, or rejecting something that the Greeks or Romans had done first. One could no more build a liberal education without some grounding in the classics than one could construct a multistory house without a foundation.

Over the last four decades, various philosophical and ideological strands united to contribute to the decline of classical education. A creeping vocationalism, for one, displaced much of the liberal arts curriculum in the crowded credit-hours of indebted students. Forfeiting classical learning in order to teach undergraduates a narrow skill (what the Greeks called a technê) was predicated on the shaky notion that undergraduate instruction in business or law would produce superior CEOs or lawyers—and would more successfully inculcate the arts of logic, reasoning, fact-based knowledge, and communication so necessary for professional success.

A therapeutic curriculum, which promised that counseling and proper social attitudes could mitigate such eternal obstacles to human happiness as racism, sexism, war, and poverty, likewise displaced more difficult classes in literature, language, philosophy, and political science. The therapeutic sensibility burdened the university with the task of ensuring that students felt adjusted and happy. And upon graduation, those students began to expect an equality of result rather than of opportunity from their society. Gone from university life was the larger tragic sense. Few students learned (or were reminded) that we come into this world with limitations that we must endure with dignity and courage rather than deal with easily through greater sensitivity, more laws, better technology, and sufficient capital.

Political correctness, meanwhile, turned upside-down the old standard of inductive reasoning, the linchpin of the liberal arts. Students now were to accept preordained general principles—such as the pernicious legacy of European colonialism and imperialism and the pathologies of capitalism, homophobia, and sexism—and then deductively to demonstrate how such crimes manifested themselves in history, literature, and science. The university viewed itself as nearly alone in its responsibility for formulating progressive remedies for society’s ills. Society at large, government, the family, and religion were hopelessly reactionary.

As classical education declined and new approaches arose to replace it, the university core curriculum turned into a restaurant menu that gave 18-year-olds dozens of classes to choose from, the easiest and most therapeutic usually garnering the heaviest attendance. The result, as many critics have noted, is that most of today’s students have no shared notion of education, whether fact-based, requisite knowledge or universal theoretical methodologies. They either do not know what the Parthenon is or, if they do, they do not understand how its role as the democratic civic treasury of the Athenians was any different from—much less any “better” than—what went on atop the monumental Great Temple of Tenochtitlán. Most likewise could not distinguish Corinthian from Doric columns on their venerable campuses, or a frieze from a pediment on their administration buildings. For a brief four-year period, students inherit a now-foreign vocabulary of archaic terms, such as “provost,” “summa cum laude,” and “honorarium,” which they employ but usually do not understand. While the public may not fully appreciate the role that classical education once played, it nonetheless understands that university graduates know ever less, even as the cost of their education rises ever more. Any common, shared notion of what it means to be either a Westerner or an American is increasingly rare.

VDH is one of my favorite guys on the academic pundit front.

I would point out, however, that enormous numbers of people were educated exactly as he wishes students still were. They populated the French, German, British and American governments, civil services, judiciaries, media and academia during the very period when nearly all the pernicious changes in those institutions occurred, call it 1880 or so on to the present, changes VDH would decry. They produced moral equivocators, appeasers, socialist utopians, closet communists, “living” constitutionalists, and a thousand other beasts of the ideological forest whose extinction he would celebrate, but who now largely control the universities and media, and would love to control even more of government than they do (which is too much now, in my opinion…). My point: it isn’t just the last four decades, it’s the last century and a little more, that saw the erosion in classical values.

I am not convinced that classical values are sufficient to protect classical values. The facts militate against believing so, at any rate, as is demonstrated by the proliferation of “non-dead-white-male” orientations in academia. Clearly, classical values in education did not equip their defenders with the tools to resist the Left any more than they equipped them to resist totalitarianism in all its forms.

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