I have been kicking this poor, dead horse for more than fifteen years, starting with my book Recalling Education in 2001. But the following protest by English majors at Yale University — of all places — makes me want to take one more kick. I must say, I know how Bernie Sanders feels (and Cassandra). He knows what is wrong with this country and has a pretty good idea how to fix things. But while there are those who follow his lead (and I do wish I had that many followers!) the people who have the power to actually support his efforts, to take him seriously, simply turn away and ignore him altogether. He is spitting against the wind. I know that feeling: kicking a dead horse while spitting into the wind!
In any event, the following snippet on the ‘net drew my attention:
Some Yale University students are demanding changes to the English Department curriculum: specifically, they don’t think it should feature so many English poets who were straight, white, wealthy, and male.
“It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the students wrote in a petition to the faculty. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”
We can all sincerely hope that this will not happen. But what is interesting here is that these students want to determine the curriculum while they obviously have no idea whatever what education is all about. It is certainly not about what the students want; it’s about what they need. Moreover, it is not about information, “Correct” or “Incorrect,” though information is a necessary condition of education — one cannot do without it and, as we are seeing, the uneducated among us are terribly misinformed and don’t know a fact from a lie. But while information is necessary it is not sufficient. One must be able to assimilate and process information, separate fact from fiction, truth from falsity, recognize hyperbole and humor. And that’s where these students — and many faculty in my experience — go wrong. They confuse cultural diversity with intellectual diversity. The latter, like information, is necessary for an education; the former is not.
Surely, it is a good thing to know about diverse cultures and there is no reason whatever that these students should not be introduced to cultures other than their own. But above all else they must be introduced to intellectual diversity, the difference of opinion, preferably among men and women of extraordinary stature, the great minds among us. This kind of diversity is found in the so-called “classics” of Western tradition, which these students choose to ignore. There are no two minds in that tradition that agree with one another about much of anything. For example, Aristotle was Plato’s student and he disagreed with his teacher about every important item in the panoply of human thought — except that thought itself is essential for the human being to achieve his or her full potential.
Our students, especially at prestigious universities like Yale where the leaders of tomorrow will study, need to know about intellectual diversity. They need to learn how to use their minds, to become free and independent thinkers who are not bound by cultural boundaries and who recognize tomfoolery and bloat when they see and hear it. They need to read and discuss the greatest minds that have ever lived. This will not happen if their teachers listen to their pleas (threats?) and throw out such thinkers as the great English poets and writers who have helped form the warp and woof of the civilization we are all struggling to maintain.
Diversity is important. Information is important. But cultural diversity and mere information are not sufficient to guarantee that young minds will take possession of themselves. They are necessary, but they are not sufficient.
As the article goes on to point out,
There’s nothing wrong with providing a greater variety of courses for students, and if students want to read more female and minority authors, the English Department is welcome to oblige. But there’s only so much that can be done. There just aren’t that many early modern writers who were gay or transgender.
Students should feel comfortable challenging the notion that a Shakespeare or a Milton deserves his place in the canon: in fact, that sounds like an excellent subject for a classroom discussion facilitated by a professor. But professors need to actually teach students about these pivotal figures before those discussions can be had.
In a word, we need to know whereof we speak before we turn our backs on great minds. Those minds are the very ones that can free our own.