G-d and Man and Sex on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part III

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Michelle Togut

Michelle Togut resides in North Carolina with her husband and pets. She has worked as an adjunct professor of history, contributor and writer, and small-firm attorney, among other things. These days, she's trying to sell real estate. For fun, she reads political blogs of all persuasions, practices yoga, drinks wine, hikes, reads, and volunteers for a local animal rescue.

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86 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Michelle, this series is just excellent. Kudos.Report

  2. Avatar Murali says:

    The sheer explosion of knowledge is precisely the issue. The other problem is that the liberal arts or a general education was designed for gentlemen of leisure. i.e. Airstocratic or landed borgeouise men who would never have to do any work and could dilletante-like pursue whatever fancied their minds. The influx of people who will need to earn their living once they leave university dilutes the importance of a general education which is less suited than specialised courses.

    With the explosion of knowledge, selecting what goes into the canon is much harder. In a globalised university, the canon does not and cannot exist. Why? Because it is just too time consuming to read all of them. Specialists have brought the state of knowledge in that field so far ahead of where any Canon used to be that getting educated to the point in which one can understand the latest conversations in a field leaves one with no curriculum time to touch base with the “canon”. But more importantly, knowledge has progressed so far beyond the “canon” that the canon is dated.Report

    • I’m not one for putting the Western cannon in stone, to be revered for all time as the conservatives propose. But I do object to the “dated” criticism. Can Sophocles be dated? Can Shakespeare be dated? There are some touchstones that refer to some pretty core questions about the human condition that I’d want university-goers to have some facility with. Though I do take your point about the sheer explosion of knowledge and there not being enough time to cover everything, that fact does not mean that we’re unable to select some particularly important things.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Can Sophocles be dated? Can Shakespeare be dated?

        They can be irrelevant in the way a lot of literature is pragmatically irrelevant. Outside of literature, the obsession with specifc texts just doesn’t make sense. Everything else is problem centered. Sociology? Economics? Psychology? History? Geography? Even Philosophy is problem centered. Philosophers may concern themselves with what particular philosophers thought but there is nothing canonical about those texts. Those texts are just separate problems to be tackled.

        Call it professional jealousy but poets are not philosophers. They do not provide arguments. The basis for thinking that they have anything useful to add seems somewhat slim.Report

        • I suppose the issue turns on one’s philosophy of education. A pragmatic education could conceivable strike poetry, literature, and music altogether. That’d be a seriously impoverished world in my view.

          Call it professional jealousy but poets are not philosophers. They do not provide arguments. The basis for thinking that they have anything useful to add seems somewhat slim.

          This leads me to wonder what on earth you’ve been reading. They do not provide arguments in the same form as philosophers to be sure, but they certainly provide arguments. It isn’t at all clear to me that arguments must take the particular form that philosophy tends towards in order to add something useful. Is Antigone without arguments on conscience, on deference to the state, on the relationship between the individual and the community?Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            I have to admit that I haven’t read Antigone.Report

            • Avatar Morat20 says:

              I read it in High School. A lot of “Western Canon” gets covered in High School these days.

              Even here in benighted Texas. Admittedly, I was in the AP classes — but we covered a large number of Shakespeare’s works, classic Greek plays, pretty much every movement of Western poetry (My wife just did John Donne and metaphysical poetry in her classroom a few weeks ago. I’ve always been a fan). of course, it’s not just Western works — they generally bring in European writers and Russian writers as well.

              Admittedly, the literature is a little wider — there are a number of mandatory works, but by high school they branch out and often let students choose several works a year — and give reports on them. (Which not only builds a few useful skills — like analyzing a work and conveying information and critical points, but also exposes students to works they didn’t have time to read).

              College does a lot of classics too — English Lit and English Comp are required classes for any degree, and while a semester isn’t terribly long to cover Western literature — it’s about all non-liberal arts students are willing to tolerate. (And even then, it’s often pretty much the same stuff you read in High School).Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            Let me put it another way. Literature engages my willing suspension of disbelief in a way that disengages the critical stance we ought to take with respect to arguments. This seems insidious: trying to get me to endorse an ideal when my guard is down.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              I feel like I’m reading the Phaedrus.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                OK, this was an obviously poor attempt at a joke (Murali talking about not reading the canon while using reasoning found way back at the beginning of the canon). Anyway, I won’t get into issues of whether reason, and reasons, exhaust the entirety of our experience, but I will note that any education that doesn’t help us to enjoy life, and undoubtedly art is a big part of enjoying life, is a wasted one.Report

              • Avatar dhex says:

                i laughed at your poor joke, if that’s any consolation.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            Let me further add something. Suppose a book contains an argument. Suppose even that the argument is a good argument. Why do we have to read that particular book? Can’t we just distill that argument?

            To say that there is a Canon is to say that there is some Texts which all Should read. Why should we read those particular texts? This is the hard question.

            If we are specialising in a particular field, we would say that we should continue to read old texts because the interpretive work is not complete. But even then, that would only be the case if that text is absolutely essential to anyone who works in the field. Sometimes fields just grow so large that nothing we cannot keep track of everything. People have to subspecialise further.

            Even literature does not require some core text. The primary pedagoical goal of literature is not to get people acquainted with a set of texts, but to get them competent in a set of analytical and hermeneutic skills. All that is required of the text is that it be sufficiently complex that intersting hermeneutics may be performed on it.Report

            • Perhaps we’re using the word argument across purposes. I’d contend there’s more to an argument than “the house is resolved for or against the motion, my premises are this, my supporting evidence is that”. As I wrote below, what things like love, compassion, beauty, etc., mean and why are all central issues that need probing. That process is part of education. Probing with philosophy and the social sciences are necessary but insufficient in my view. Literature and poetry offer another valuable means by which to examine these values. (Literature and poetry “for the sound-sex of it” too, safe for work.)

              I’m unconvinced that you can probe with Cliffs Notes and distillations for the same reasons historians want you to engage with primary sources even if they’re not educating you to be a professional historian one day. So yes, facility with tools of interpretation are goals, developing analytical and hermeneutic skills as you observe. So too is the passing on of several thousand years of human experience and values by directly engaging with the texts.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                So too is the passing on of several thousand years of human experience and values by directly engaging with the texts.

                Let me put it this way. I’ve taken only one history course after secondary 2 (that is 8th grade) and I was eminently glad never to have to take another history course again. I’m not saying that there aren’t reasons to directly engage with the text. But we only have those reasons if we care about those texts as our problem. That is of itself not a reason to create a canon that applies to all university students. If you say it is a canon that applies to all midieval literature students, I will be inclined to agree with you. If you say that there is a canon that applies to all political philosophy students, I will agree with you. But I doubt that there is a canon that applies to all students. Let me put it this way. University students are adults. They should have the ability to create search for their own coherent thread that joins all their courses together. From personal experience, what may seem haphazard to someone else can be connected via some important element that others overlook.Report

              • I had a pretty prescriptive university education as US universities go that had some classes across the college and some distribution requirements on the one hand, as well as electives and student chosen majors on the other. I think that’s a pretty fair balance of allowing for selection while also putting some important classes at the core of the education. The requirements didn’t preclude or stifle the possibilities for self-directed learning. And with all due respect to students, I think it is fair that people with some expertise in the matter highlight some of the important texts for their consideration. How would one know a fifth century BCE playwright had some pretty important things to say about the individual and the community without some guidance in getting there?

                Part of the argument I’m making is context dependent and part isn’t. So English being the dominant language in the US means that Shakespeare is likely to figure more prominently than Goethe, Cervantes, or Baudelaire. But I’d say it was advisable to have distribution requirements that go beyond the particular geography or language wherever the university is. And I would say that’s advisable for all university students.Report

        • Avatar Michelle says:

          They can be irrelevant in the way a lot of literature is pragmatically irrelevant. Outside of literature, the obsession with specifc texts just doesn’t make sense. Everything else is problem centered. Sociology? Economics? Psychology? History? Geography?

          Reducing education to what is currently relevant I impoverishes it. Obviously, some subjects better lend themselves to the reading of canonical texts than others. Part of the critique of higher education that I didn’t really cover was the critique of early specialization, the narrowing down of learning to specific fields. How do we balance the desire for students to build up some kind of shared body of knowledge with the need for specialized professional training?

          Some general education could be done in high school. Or, as Hutchins suggested, the last couple of years of high school could be combined with the first two years of college. If you think part of the goal of education is to produce well-rounded individuals with knowledge of the culture in which they live, then it seems you need to chose some canonical texts. Granted, it’s also important to teach analytical and hermeneutical skills, but that’s not the whole of education.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Does a Japanese university have a requirement to teach Shakespeare or Sophocles over the Japanese equivalent of Shakespeare or Sophocles?

        I love Shakespeare and Sophocles and agree that they refer to what you call “pretty core questions about the human condition”. However so do many writers from non-Western countries/cultures. It seems rather arrogant for American colleges and universities to think that the Western Canon holds the monopoly on “core questions of the human condition.” Comp Lit would be better here to compare and contrast the themes of Shakespeare and Sophocles with their contemporaries from other parts of the world. It is that universalism which will provide answers to the human condition.Report

        • Avatar Michelle says:

          Do you think that most American colleges these days really hold that the Western canon holds a monopoly on questions of the human condition. It seems obvious that it doesn’t. I’m not even sure most defenders of the Western canon would agree with that point. But, given that the U.S. is part of the Western world, and that the foundations of our culture and government are Western, doesn’t it make sense to give students some grasp of the culture of which they’re a part?

          It would also seem that students who have an understanding of their own cultural heritage would be better able to compare it to others to see both similarities and differences.Report

          • Avatar NewDealer says:

            No, I don’t think American colleges these days hold that the Western canon holds a monopoly on questions of the human condition except for some far right ones like Liberty and Patrick Henry. There is also St. John’s College of Maryland but they are a special case.

            Though some colleges and universities still require a great books course to serious controversy. These courses tend to be the Western Canon. David Denby wrote a book about revisiting the Columbia Freshman course in the early 1990s and various campus controversies about studying “Dead, White European Males” Denby’s book is interestingly called “Great Books”. He includes the reading list from when he was a freshman in the early 1960s and from the early 1990s. The list from the 1990s included some women like Jane Austen, Mary Woolstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf but was basically still Western in orientation.

            I don’t object to universities requiring a course like this but it should also require courses in non-Western culture.

            Whether America is part of the West or not is a very interesting question. It can even be part of a broader question of whether it makes sense to think of the world in terms of West, East, African, Latin American, etc anymore. America is a very heterogeneous nation. I remember once hearing that 50 percent of all public school children in San Francisco are Asian born or Asian-American. I think they should study Shakespeare and Sophocles but I think their parents would also be right to demand that the school’s teach literature and poetry from their native lands as well.Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              Not even the guys who founded St. John’s curricula thought Western Canon was the be all and end all. Buchanan would be quite disappointed if it hasn’t changed some since he left. He viewed it as a decent starting point.Report

            • I don’t object to universities requiring a course like this but it should also require courses in non-Western culture

              Columbia’s core curriculum does precisely that and I think that’s the right decision. I agree with you points about universality and Comp Lit being an avenue for getting at such ideas. I did not mean to suggest Sophocles and Shakespeare for everyone, everywhere, globally in equal measure. And I didn’t mean to suggest that “the Western canon holds a monopoly on questions of the human condition” at all. But if you’re going to have sustained interaction with the West, with English, then it is probably a good idea to have encountered some key texts.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Shakespeare is essential, if nothing else, for exemplifying comic relief. I don’t think everything else generalizes quite so well. Maybe catharsis. But everyone does catharsis.

                I agree that some amount of majesty and appreciation of language comes from reading great works ina language you know well.Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        There are some touchstones that refer to some pretty core questions about the human condition that I’d want university-goers to have some facility with.

        But why pursue them through literature? The problem with fiction is that it is uncoupled from reality, it doesn’t show you as things are, but as the author sees them, who may have no idea what they are talking about. Generalising from fictional evidence is dangerous, because what makes for the best story, might not be the same as what is most likely to happen.Report

        • There’re some serious epistemological debates wrapped up in there, starting at least with who exactly is showing “as things are”? Show me love as it is? Or greed, or envy, or kindness, or compassion, or beauty… as it is. I certainly wouldn’t denigrate the contributions of philosophy to exploring these questions. I do recoil at the idea that literature and poetry aren’t also engaged in making valuable arguments about what these things, and many more, mean and why. And to be clear, not in an effort to replace or displace philosophy or the social sciences. I don’t even know how literature and poetry would go about doing such a thing if they tried.Report

          • Avatar James K says:

            I do recoil at the idea that literature and poetry aren’t also engaged in making valuable arguments about what these things, and many more, mean and why.

            But how could they possibly do so? For an argument to have merit it has to have evidence, otherwise its just words. And fiction isn’t even as good as anecdote as far as evidence goes, because fiction is anecdotes that didn’t even happen.

            Literature can be entertaining, and uplifting, it can generate all manner of positive feelings, and those matter. But it can’t let you figure out the real world because it is disconnected from the real world.Report

            • Avatar Kolohe says:

              Uncle Tom’s Cabin was fictional, was it not?Report

            • Let’s set Antigone aside and take even more direct examples. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est and Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden. You don’t see arguments being made about the world? Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred, any arguments there? The Romantic poets, no arguments? Ozymandias, just words?

              Portia, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d…” not making an argument? Cordelia, Lear, a passel of Shakespeare’s fools, just words?

              Just because the form does not match Theory of Justice or Wealth of Nations does not mean arguments that merit engaging are not being made.Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              So too is Economics and Computer Science (at least once you get out of the realm of bare-bones logistics). We humans love our games. The real world rarely cooperates, take it from a physics major.Report

            • Avatar James Vonder Haar says:

              The phrase”non-overlapping magesteria” comes to mindReport

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              Such dreary views of literature and especially poetry ignore the fundamental aspects of truth itself.

              For any argument to have merit, we must first find merit itself desirable. An argument is not an equation. An argument is an appeal, an attempt to convince. Just words, heh. Words last longer than their authors. Words last only as long as mankind believes them — and once believed, they live on forever. Humankind does not change very much. The heart loves what is true.

              David Hume, famous utilitarian, once said “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” Fiction is more than truth. Fiction gives life to truth for myth is the armour truth must wear to survive the centuries. Don Quixote and Frodo Baggins and the Sandman live on in the hearts of millions of people, a realer place than you might suppose. They have given hope when facts never did. Truth is more than facts: fiction and poetry are more than airy trifles and the prattle of children. They are the stuff of life and they will live on when today’s facts will be seen as curious and contemptible anachronisms.

              Fiction and poetry point to deeper truths than you seem able to contemplate. Without them, a human being is disconnected from the world.Report

    • Avatar Fnord says:

      I’m not sure that it’s impossible for a global canon to exist, even if one does not exist now. It would, of course, be different from the Western canon. Whether it ever will exist or would have value is a different question, given the other points you bring up.

      But the idea of a global canon might help focus some of these arguments. In a hypothetical new universal canon, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has (at least) as much of a place as The Illiad, if the goal truly is to instill a common cultural heritage, rather than perpetuating the existing canon specifically.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      These are both really good points.

      I am a huge proponent of education for the sake of education and well-rounded “liberal arts” education. I don’t mean liberal arts in the narrow sense that Lasch or people like Kimball do. I think the liberal arts include subjects like African Studies, Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, and many more. My definition of liberal arts is a broad set of subjects that causes the student to understand the vastness of the human experience, philosophy, culture, art, science, and to develop a deep love for humanity and the world.

      This is hard to do when many people attend college because they know it is necessary for any chance at a middle-class life.

      The second concept of a canon is also spot on especially in heterogeneous countries.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 says:

        Obviously, we can and should have a liberal arts tradition that focuses on the canon and also incorporates feminism, post modernism, etc. Do more of one, but also do the other a bit, too.

        Another problem solved by Shazbot.Report

        • Avatar Murali says:

          We should have as much variety of subjects and courses as feasible and desired. The question is whether liberal arts is something everyone should go through or should universities only have some modest cross-faculty requirements?Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Gentlemen of leisure were only part of it. A classical education was also deemed proper for men who would enter the professions (i.e. become doctors and attorneys), politics, or the military. Kipling’s Stalky & Company, being partly autobiographical, is set at Sandhurst, a prep school whose purpose was to produce future officers for the Empire, and the students there are learning Greek and Latin.

      To me, the notion that the purpose of education is to machine a student into the properly shaped cog is abhorrent.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Until the late 19th and early 20th century, you needed to know the Classics and Greek and Latin if you wanted to be considered educated in the Western context. The United States was probably the first Western country to severe the Classics from education.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Then why is there so much liberal angst over religious and/or homeschooling?Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          The universe is somewhat older than 6,000 years, of that we are reasonably sure. If we Liberals think the teaching of such ideas are bad for business, therein lies the source of our angst. We Liberals know what the word Theory means if Conservatives do not: evolution is no longer a controversial subject.

          The larger question is this: does it matter if children’s heads are filled with bad science?Report

        • Avatar Michelle says:

          Then why is there so much liberal angst over religious and/or homeschooling?

          Is there? I have a couple sets of pretty liberal friends who are homeschooling their kids because they think the current educational system is too oriented toward tests and neglects classical learning.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            As I’ve seen it, homeschooling cuts across ideological lines but usually manifests itself with very different motivations.

            You have religious folks who want a very particluar strand of religious instruction.
            You have fearful folks who think homeschooling will protect their kids from the moral decay of society.
            You have social isolationists who want to keep everything in the family.
            You have know-it-alls who think they can do better than any of the schools available to them.

            I don’t know how many people fall into each category, but I’d say the first three skew conservative and the last one skews liberal. I think it is easy for liberals to kvetch because conservatives who do it often have a motivation more easily attributed to or aligned with a political ideology: it is easier to point out that first group as religous fndamentalists than it is to point out the last group as ivory tower elites. So while the numbers might skew one way or the other, we are dealing much more with a perceptual issue.Report

            • Avatar Murali says:

              My cousin is homeschooled because she has lots of allergies and has difficulty interacting socially at her age group.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Thank you for sharing that, Murali. My list was by no means exhaustive… Just the most common explanations I see given.

                And if I may, further socially isolating your cousin via homeschooling will not aid her in this area. This is my biggest criticism of the approach: the lack of real and meaningful social experiences and learning.Report

          • Avatar NewDealer says:

            I think liberal divisions on how to educate their children are somehow more interesting than conservative divisions.

            It largely comes down to whether you are pro-government left or anti-government left in many ways. Also whether you have the courage of your convictions.

            My mom was a public school teacher and administrator. We were also basically the kind of family that believed liberalism is about public goods. Universal healthcare, the safety net, roads, parks, and good public schools. My mom thinks private education before university is an unnecessary extravagance.

            If I have kids, I would like to send them to public school because I see it as an essential and important role of government and I would be hypocritical liberal.

            Then I know people who are further to the left and a bit more utopian-anarchist-hippie. They believe in Waldorph and/or Radical Unschooling and all sorts of stuff that I consider pedagogically unsound. Or they homeschool for the reasons you mention.

            As far as I can tell these thoughts have existed forever. I was reading Ms. Bridge by Evan Connell. The novel largely takes place in the 1930s. One minor character was a leftist academic type who made the same comments about “public school=thought control” that you see today among homeschoolers.Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              public school, to a large degree, is thought control. That doesn’t make it unvaluable.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq says:

                I think it depends on the public school district. My public high school didn’t really attempt to control the thoughts of its students because it went agaisnt the academic culture of the school. In really large public school districts, thought control is impossible on practical grounds. Its in the smaller but less academic public school districts that you get thought control.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Not at all true. You’ll see normalization like “don’t cut in line”… “pick boy girl boy girl in gym class”… “dont’ cheat, don’t plagiarize”. Basic inculcation of societally shared ethics.

                I’m not getting into half the extelligence we teach — “how to do research” is a good one there.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq says:

                This is true of all education including home-schooling. Every type of schooling teaches a particular type of socialization. The British public schools like Eton taught their norms like the stiff upper lip. Finishing schols designed to turn out proper ladies have their norms that they impart on students. So do Evangelical home-schools or Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas. If your defining this as thought control than all education that involves one person teaching another is thought control.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                LOL. you seen japanese schools? they let the kids teach each other a lot of norms….

                But my point is that we choose societally acceptable norms to teach in schools.

                Homeschooling is a recipe for allowing parents to teach whatever norms they please (good or bad).Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          The suspicion that the intent is to narrow rather than broaden the curriculum, particularly when the path is homeschooling to Liberty University to a law degree at Patrick Henry.

          http://www.thebestschools.org/blog/2012/06/24/25-colleges-homeschool-graduates/

          No school on this list is more intentionally geared towards homeschool students than Patrick Henry College.
          […]
          Patrick Henry’s resputation may derive from the litany of notables among its 25-member faculty, including John Warwick Montgomery, Gene Edward Veith, and David Aikman. The school has strong ties to the former G.W. Bush administration, and so is unmistakably conservative.
          […]
          PHC is not a “science” school, and its departments and faculty bear this out. However, PHC strongly supports Christian integration within the sciences. Creationism, in particular, is encouraged, as witnessed by the “Origins: 2012? conference to be held there this July.
          Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          What, I’m supposed to be angsty about both the kids and their parents not having proper sex ed??
          No, I am merely amused.Report

      • Avatar Lyle says:

        If you go back to 1900 I suspect that most of the physicans and lawyers did not have a bachelors degree, in the medical case it was the 1910-1920 period that brought that into the medical profession in the US, and in addition in Europe it is a 6 year secondary to medical degree program, no bachelors degree. In europe for lawyers in addition a law degree is not necessarily a post graduate degree. One of the questions being asked here and in other places, is for the more technical areas, (perhaps except the clergy) why the training is post graduate?Report

    • Avatar Barry says:

      “The other problem is that the liberal arts or a general education was designed for gentlemen of leisure. i.e. Airstocratic or landed borgeouise men who would never have to do any work and could dilletante-like pursue whatever fancied their minds. The influx of people who will need to earn their living once they leave university dilutes the importance of a general education which is less suited than specialised courses.”

      Or for a world where only a few percent of the (male) population had college degrees, and therefore most of them were highly employable, no matter what their degree was in. They’d have the opportunity to learn what the specifics about their jobs and careers on the job.Report

  3. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Excellent essay, Michelle.

    I have never read Lasch but he sounds like a bit of a Tolkienesque conservative and that his ideal community would be a combination of Oxford and The Shire. But it is always hard to tell with the true original like Lasch.

    Based on the summary of your complaints, my guess is that these are perpetual struggles and the more things change, the more they stay the same.Report

  4. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Dilettantisme F le W!

    (Also, +1.)Report

  5. Avatar Shazbot5 says:

    Michelle,

    Great post.

    I wonder what you thought about eh D’Souza book more generally. I get that you seem to agree with his belief that a liberal education, properly conceived, is good and necessary for a free society.

    But what did you think of the quality of his arguments and analysis for that conclusion?Report

    • Avatar Michelle says:

      Thanks, Shazbot5.

      As for D’Souza, when thinking about him I have to separate the current moronic Obama-obsessed right-wing ideologue from the guy who first wrote Illiberal Education, some 20 years ago. That guy seemed to have a lot more sympathy for minorities and the complex ways in which they might integrate into the larger society than the current version.

      I first read the book around the time it came out and only reread certain parts of it this go round. While I think he exaggerates the extent to which college campuses are rife with radicalism, the extremes to which he points can’t be denied. And I’m largely in agreement with his assessment of post-structuralism, deconstruction, and a number of academic trends, which, while somewhat valuable as analytical tools, have veered off into uber-specialized fields, complete with their own jargon incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been trained to translate it into actual language.

      I also think D’Souza is on to something when he talks about the double-bind programs like affirmative action place minorities in. On the one hand, affirmative action or something like it was probably necessary to open up colleges and professionals both to qualified minorities and to white women (who’ve probably been it’s biggest beneficiaries). On the other hand, it’s likely played its course and it does leave its beneficiaries open to the charge that, save for affirmative action, they’d never be in the position they are in (implying that they aren’t qualified to be there). D’Souza suggests reforming affirmative action to preference the socio-economically disadvantaged provided they meet certain criteria.

      Finally, I think D’Souza has a point that programs such as Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, and the like do tend to ghettoize certain subject matter, meaning that it can be left out of more traditional departments. Again, historically, these departments were probably necessary to protect and nurture fledgling areas of study. The rise of social history in the 1960s led historians to look at voices that had long been neglected and brought new vitality into the discipline. Likewise, the study of works written by women and minorities expanded the literary canon. But these viewpoints need to be integrated into the study of history, literature, and politics.

      As for D’Souza’s conclusion, I think it’s too utopian. There’s a kind of sterility to a lot of the criticisms of higher education that assume education can somehow transmit culture. While it can provide students with a set of common allusions, culture runs far deeper and is nowhere near as monolithic as to be easily transmitted by reading a certain canon of works. Culture and tradition have to be lived in all their richness and complexity to be meaningful; it’s wishful thinking to believe they can be transmitted from the top down.Report

      • Avatar Barry says:

        Right-wingers were saying that about affirmative action since it was started – what they say isn’t really evidence (and, of course, they didn’t have a problem with ‘affirmative action’ for white males of the right religion/ethnicity, and still don’t).

        As for what he said about Women’s Studies, go to the web page of your nearest university, look up the bios in the Women’s Studies program, and search for cross-listing. Same for African-American Studies.

        Or, in short, D’Souza is simply not trustworthy.Report

        • Avatar Michelle says:

          Right-wingers also misunderstand affirmative action as being a quota system, which it isn’t.

          They also seem to forget that it was initially created by executive order of Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    The year was 1979 and America was sick. Bilious and unhappy, beset with woes. Iran had seized our hostages and was demanding the return of the Shah, the guy Eisenhower and the CIA had put in office. Three Mile Island steamed horribly in the Susquehanna River and the Bee Gees were on tour.

    The cars were most exceeding ugly and OPEC was again screwing us like a two dollar whore. The prime interest rate rose from 11 something and essentially doubled over that year, going to 20% in early 1980. Evil days, my friends.

    1979 and 1980 were America’s nadir. James Earl Carter earnestly stared at us on the television, wearing his cardigan. No Big Brother, this Carter. We did not love him and he never asked us to love him. Carter boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics because the USSR had invaded Afghanistan.

    Folks, when times are tough, there’s nothing America likes so much as to be scolded. Comes with our Puritan Tradition. We are infested with Calvinists in High Places.

    Into this hortatory gap steps Christopher Lasch. Never you mind that in 1979 America was already miserable. Never are things so bad but what some disenchanted Marxist turned Bughouse Square Jeremiah can’t make us feel worse.

    And America just couldn’t get enough of it. Why had we never seen it before? We were enjoying ourselves far too much! Colleges and universities were indulging the youth in all manner of unseemly instruction. If Rampagin’ Negroes had burned down the inner cities in 1968 and 9, why should colleges attempt to explicate the matter from other revolts of the downtrodden throughout history? If girls wanted instruction on the subject of women through history and sought out an actual education in preference to a fate of connubial bliss, surely nothing but sorrow and spinsterhood lay down that road, of that Lasch seemed quite certain. Better that Impressionable Youth should again revisit the Victorians. A good university education should never teach living authors: an author should age like a sharp cheese — for at least half a century, preferably half a millenium, ere his works are fit for the Educational Establishment, where current opinions are irrelevant and the dead are not around to defend themselves from the haphazard dissections of their works by arrant pedants. It is no accident the Mortimer Adlers and his ilk hated Postmodernism and Deconstructionism so sincerely: thus had the Professors dissected the classical mummies since the first professor of the Classics hung up his placard.

    Dinesh D’Souza is infected with intellectual progeria, grown prematurely old and senile. A man deprived of his youth is a wretched creature, a Young Fogey. Christopher Hitchens politely eviscerated him:

    The person violating the principle of William of Ockham here, I think though, Dinesh, is you. I mean, everyone remembers what Laplace said to Napoleon when he produced his—he was the greatest scientist of his day—his orrery, the solar system as viewed from the outside, never been done before in model form and the Emperor said, “Well, there doesn’t seem to be any God in this apparatus,” and Laplace said, “Well, Your Majesty, it happens to operate perfectly well without that assumption.” So it does. Dinesh asked earlier and I should have taken him up on it, isn’t it the case that the three questions where are we from? where are we going? and why are we here? there are three “nopes” from our side. That’s not true at all. It was incredible that he alleged it. To the question of where are we from, both in the macro and the micro term, where did we come from, the cosmological, the Big Bang and the micro, the unraveling of the human string of DNA and our kinship with other animals and indeed other forms of non-animal life. We are enormously to a greater extent well-informed about our origins and what we don’t know we don’t claim to know—very important. My admitting that I don’t know exactly how it began is not at all the same as Dinesh’s admission that he doesn’t know either because he feels he has to know, because if it’s not a matter of faith and not a matter of God he can’t say he believes in it a little bit, it must be a real belief to be genuine, and it must have some explanatory value. And he doesn’t hold it very strongly and it doesn’t explain anything for which we have better explanations.

    And therein lies the heart of the problem: Western cultural traditions are well worth preserving, insofar as they inform us of some Larger, More Inclusive Picture. An Enlightenment for our times, if you will.Report

  7. Avatar Pinky says:

    The last paragraph feels tacked-on. It’s true that caricatures of the left don’t serve any purpose, but neither do caricatures of the right. Academia has always been willing to integrate new perspectives into its fields of study, and is perfectly capable of bringing the stronger points of modern criticism into its fold. But isolated studies programs work against that tendency. A Lit class can deal with Othello and Huck Finn in a number of ways; a Black Studies program can only approach them from one angle. One corner of the history of the Progressive Era can be studied by the Women’s Studies department, whereas a History department can study the era as a whole. And the fact that there is Othello and DuBois and Harriet Beecher Stowe and a hundred other examples shows that Western culture, and Western academics, are expansive.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Othello? He’s a fictional Arab (not black, though he’s generally portrayed as black these days), written by a guy who’d probably never met one. Shylock too, since Jews had been expelled from England centuries beforehand.Report

    • Avatar Michelle says:

      I don’t disagree that you can deal with literature and history in a number of ways but I do think that–save for a lot of ground-breaking work done in the wake of the 1960s–these new perspectives would not have been introduced to more traditional subject matter. Yes, a lot of the people doing this research were on the left. Without some of these new departments, the impetus for researching certain controversial subjects may well have been lost.

      Is it now time for synthesis? Yes. But a lot of that has already occurred. I can’t imagine anyone teaching American history these days without bringing in insights from African-American studies or Women’s Studies. Because they tend to be interdisciplinary, faculty in most of these specialty departments usually have double appointments, one in a more traditional department and one something like Women’s Studies.Report

  8. Avatar T. Greer says:

    I appreciate the even handed tone of these essays. It is difficult to step into a culture war without sounding condescending or shrill. Thank you for respecting those you disagree with it.

    There seems to be two different objections to current GE system of most modern universities. Your last two posts outline both of them:

    1) The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because post-modernism, gender studies, area studies, and multiculturalism generally have replaced them. This is bad. (the argument 1970s-2010s)

    2) The Western cultural tradition is dying on campus because social science and statistics has
    conquered the humanities and specialization has made GE irrelevant to the average student’s education. This is bad. (The argument 1930s-1960s).

    Of the two, I find the second both more convincing and alarming.

    Adler and his kin often talked of the Western cultural tradition as a “great conversation.” Said he:

    “What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways” [1]

    As Adler sees it, understanding Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Conrad requires a knowledge of what came before them. Their words, ideas, and works were inspired by the good that came before, written in response to the bad which they deplored, and full of allusions to both. It is hard to appreciate or engage with these authors in isolation.

    The multiculturalist objection to all of this is easily resolved. How can we support a “great conversation” that excludes so many voices? The answer: what stops us from including them? This has been the course I have followed in my personal education, and have found it rewarding. I have learned just more from Sima Qian and Ibn Khaldun than I ever did from Herodotus or Aristotle. The Great Conversation has excluded the view points of women and minorities? Then let us add Sei Sh?nagon and K?lid?sa to it! This cross cultural approach has deepened my appreciation for and understanding of the Western canon. Moreover, in a world interconnected as ours is, almost any argument for attaining cultural literacy in the Western tradition can (and should) be applied to the Indic and East Asian traditions. Cultural literacy in the 21st century reaches far beyond Athens and Jerusalem. [2]

    The second argument is the more worrisome. The eclipse of the Western tradition has just as much to do with specialization as it does multiculturalism, though some habits of the newer humanities – such as the general distaste for studying “great men” at all – have contributed. The general expansion of college education from an elite endeavor to career-prep for the masses is another part of the story. I think so many critics of the university ignore these things because multiculturalism is an easier target. Changing a reading list is easy; changing the structure of higher education is not.

    The consequences are the same, either way. There is something to be said for education that has coherence; there is something to be said for seeking to learn from lives long gone. I fear that we are cutting ourselves off from the past. When we do not leave room for the “great conversations” in our studies, then it dies. Thousands of years of human endeavor and emotion are found in the Western tradition. And unlike our predecessors, we have the option of adding to this tradition, to expand it from Western to human. I find that exciting. Alas, the academy does not. “Tradition” is not a word worth much there.

    [1] See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1

    [2] This is something most non-Westeners understand. At sundry times and places I have been friends or colleagues with Chinese men and women. I was very surprised at how historically grounded the Chinese are – Chinese popular culture, even at the level of the uneducated layman, is saturated with its history and literature. It took some getting used to (and it presents a very practical language learning problem!) Among educated Chinese, I have been very impressed with their desire to learn about and absorb Western history and culture. They value that of their own world, and seek that of the new, thus beating out Americans twice over, who do neither.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      This is a decent summary of the debate.

      I do think that the academic left has handicapped themselves by finding only “unheard voices” that agree with them. Surely there are some people in the future canon who don’t sound like Pablo Neruda or Angela Davis? The conservative senses that there’s something afoul.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Douman Sayman… mark my words, he’ll be in future canon.
        I’m not sure what the conservative would have to say about his work.Report

      • Avatar Michelle says:

        Likewise, the right has handicapped themselves by their unwillingness to expand the canon to include the likes of Neruda and other thinkers, other voices. Traditions, cultures, and canons change as time goes by; there’s no reason some texts cannot be discarded and others included.

        The problem with the canon wars is similar to the problem with the current culture wars. Both sides tend to talk past each other; both sides tend to demonize the other. Both need to open up if there’s any common ground to be found.Report

        • Avatar Pinky says:

          But the canon has changed over time. Freud had been dead less than 20 years when the Hutchins/Adler canon was compiled. James and Tolstoy weren’t that much colder. And it goes the other way, too. Abelard and Fermat would have been guaranteed slots in this series in earlier years.

          As to my earlier point, The Art of War or The Koran are obvious candidates for any list of culturally important books. But it seems like the people who complain about the Great Books canon are interested in modern social activism rather than representing the broader thought of humanity.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            Meh.
            I’m actually suggesting philosophers for the Great Books canon.

            Of course, no truly great canon is complete without a few works of epic trollery.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Oh, give me a fucking break. We’re going to have some fine architects come to our city (pittsburgh) for the Carnegie’s major exhibition. They’ve been consulted on multiple video games.

      I’ve played videogames with monsters constructed out of ancient Egyptian gods.

      Hell, i start talking with content creators, and they’re able to tell me scads upon scads about European mythology (catching hobgoblins on artistry).

      You can’t watch the Simpsons and not see people pouring their hearts and souls into understanding history and culture.Report

    • Avatar Michelle says:

      Yes. Thanks for this comment. The Great Conversation didn’t make it into Part II because of time and space constraints, but Hutchins and Adler did indeed believe that the Western canon made up an ongoing conversation between thinkers. There is no reason that conversation cannot be expanded to include other thinkers from non-Western cultures, and to include the voices of women and minorities.

      Moreover, Hutchins and Adler recognized that specialization was pushing general education off campus as early as the 1930s which was, in part, why Hutchins proposed that the educational system be reorganized to combine the last two years of high school and the first two years of college, call it college and award a B.A. at its conclusion. Students who then wanted to go onto more specialized studies would matriculate into the university.

      Finally, Americans tend to think of education as being terminal, whereas Hutchins and Adler saw it as a lifelong proposition. As we get older and gain experience, we bring more to the works we read and study. In one of his later books, University of Utopia, Hutchins proposed that adults be given breaks to return to school to restudy books they’d studied earlier in life.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Good lord. Some books are just simply unsuited to an adolescent mind (Austen springs to mind. John Donne too. ). I’d rather we studied them when it makes sense to study them…Report

  9. Avatar Kimmi says:

    A different perspective: I know a person who would fail any logic course, though he’s excellent at argumentation. He also would, nearly automatically, fail any musicology course on the Western Music History.

    … dyslexia, you see.

    Certainly, there’s arguments for a “general education” that everyone ought to understand. But there’s a good deal of folks who won’t be able to participate, because some people’s brains are different.

    By removing the need for physical education from “general education”, we allow many more klutzes to succeed.

    … just something to think about.Report

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