Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!

In Defense of the Classics

One of the charges laid at the feet of people like myself who have read and taught the “Great Books” of Western Civilization is that they are “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” What this means, I suppose, is that they were written by and for those few “effete” intellectuals who can explore the hidden treasures that remain opaque to the rest of humankind. I have always had a problem with this charge and as one who has actually taught many of those books to so-called “marginal students” I can attest to the fact that most of the so-called “classics” can be read and understood by anyone who gives them a chance.

I recall going into a liquor store a few years ago (for a friend, of course!) and running into one of my former students who mentioned that she had thoroughly enjoyed reading Boethius in my class and thanked me for assigning it. She was talking about Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which I required in one of my Humanities courses. We also read a couple of Plato’s Dialogues, several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Inferno, and portions of Homer’s Iliad, among other great books. To be honest, we seldom read entire works (except the short ones like Boethius and  More’s Utopia), but it was certainly the case that those students could have read complete works had they chosen to do so. And some have gone on to do just that. My goal was to give them a taste and get their minds stirring.

Then there is the testimony of people like Irving Howe who noted that:

“There were the Labor night schools in England bringing to industrial workers elements of the English cultural past; there was the once-famous Rand School of New York City; there were the reading circles that Jewish workers, in both Eastern Europe and American cities, formed to acquaint themselves with Tolstoy, Heine, and Zola. And in Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine we have the poignant account of an underground cell in Rome during the Mussolini years that read literary works as a way of holding itself together.”

I also read about an experiment in a New York prison involving a dozen inmates who read and discussed “classics” in philosophy and political theory and were excited about the books and thoroughly involved in the discussions. The notion that these books are “elitist” is absurd. I know that and so did James Seaton whose book, Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism I have referred to previously. In that book Seaton lays to rest, once and for all, the myth that these books are elitist or undemocratic, though he is primarily interested in works or art and literature and the rejection of those standards that would allow us to evaluate great works. I will quote a portion of Seaton’s book at some length because he puts his case very well:

“The notion that the affirmation of standards in art and culture . . . is intrinsically undemocratic depends on the mistaken assumption that the same standards should be applied to both politics and art. The unexceptionable idea that it is possible to arrive at generally acceptable but always debatable criteria for distinguishing between better our worse works of art and literature is confused with the truly undemocratic notion that it is possible to distinguish between those who are fit to command and those who are only fit to obey on the basis of such criteria as race, sex, class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political opinions, or indeed any criteria at all. . . .

It is true that the cultural prestige of the twentieth century avant-garde has lent itself to the notion that those comparatively few capable of appreciating avant-garde art constitute an elite, culturally, spiritually, and even morally superior to the rest of the population. Although this kind of elitism does not have the disastrous consequences associated with elitisms based on race, politics, or religion, for example, it is nevertheless based on false premises. As Henry James demonstrates in discussing Flaubert, it is quire possible to appreciate artistic achievements of modernism without condemning those, the great majority of the population, who are either less appreciative or simply uninterested. On the other hand, the notion that there are a certain number of literary or artistic works whose greatness has been firmly established over many generations is not elitist in any pejorative sense of the word. The so-called ‘canon’ [of Great Books] is established, evaluated, expanded, and re-established in a continuing process by the accumulated judgments of the ‘common reader’ . . .. Ralph Ellison’s thesis that the cultural implications of American democracy include a willingness to recognize artistic excellence wherever and whenever it appears provides a specifically American version of the traditional humanistic literary criticism that art and literature should be judged first of all by artistic standards for which criteria based on class, race, religion, or politics are irrelevant.”

Now it is true that Seaton is primarily concerned about literature and art, but his argument applies to all of those works in the “canon” that are said to be great and which have been swept aside by those who are convinced that they are the root cause of  injustice and human suffering the world over. The works of “dead, white, European, males” are rejected out of hand (by many who have never read them, I strongly suspect) on the grounds that they are elitist despite the fact that they were written or created for ordinary folks and are accessible to all if they are literate and willing to make the effort. The notion that they can be called “great” is rejected out of hand as well because the idea of “greatness” is also said to be determined by an elite group of intellectuals. As Seaton shows, this is false on its face.

The fact of the matter is that there are some works that have stood the “test of time”and remain relevant today. They aid us in understanding the human condition, ourselves and the other members of our human community, in ways that science cannot. In addition, they make it possible for us to appreciate sudden insights and beautifully written prose or poetry and to admire the art that reveals to all of us aspects of our world that would otherwise go unnoticed — especially in an age in which so many of us have our noses buried in our electronic toys.

If you are asking yourself how on earth this is relevant to your world, recall that these deniers are the ones who have brought us “alternative facts” and “political correctness,” among other modern horrors. The rejection of standards of excellence is simply one more sign that most people would prefer not to take the time or the trouble to think and would insist that “it’s all a matter of opinion.” It’s certainly the path of least resistance and we do like to take that.

Culture Studies

I have made passing reference from time to time of the postmodern trend in the academy away from traditional coursework in the standard academic disciplines and toward something that has come to be called “Culture Studies.” These studies are an attempt to replace those traditional disciplines that are regarded by a growing number of academics as irrelevant or even “a part of the problem” in an attempt to radically change the climate not only within the universities but also in society at large. As literature professor James Seaton tells us in Literary Criticism From Plato to Postmodernism:

“In the twenty-first century, the academic study of popular culture has become a part of culture studies, a transdisciplinary approach whose attraction derives in  large part from its implicit promise that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline.”

I have discussed in previous posts the birth from this movement of New History that insists that historians simply express their own particular view of events — without footnotes or corroboration of facts — because, they say, the traditional view of how to write history is based on the absurd notion that there are such things as facts and even a thing called “truth.” In the end, the movement of postmodernism in general agrees in rejecting such “absurd” notions and in the process  moves on toward a more radical manner of viewing one’s world and the things that go on in that world. I have noted the tendency of this movement within the academy to morph into movements outside the academy in society at large — in the form, most recently, of “alternative facts.” In a word, the repercussions of what growing numbers of academics do within the hallowed halls of academe have an effect on the way people think both within and without the academy. Most interesting in Seaton’s remarks above is the notion that culture studies — which is his special concern in his book — are an attempt to replace traditional academic disciplines, especially in literature, history, and philosophy, and transform them into something that loosely resembles sociology, badly done.

To what end, one might ask? The answer is to the end of radically transforming the world. Revolutionaizing the world, if you will. The three editors of an anthology titled Culture Studies and published in 1992 put is quite explicitly:

“. . .a continuing preoccupation within culture studies is the notion of radical social and cultural transformation . . . in virtually all traditions of culture studies, its practitioners see culture studies not simply as a chronicle of cultural change but as an intervention in it, and see themselves not simply as scholars providing an account but as politically engaged participants.”

Thus we should not be surprised that on many college campuses across the land militant faculties and students are turning away prospective speakers with whom they disagree and are steamrolling their political agendas through committee meetings, commandeering professional journals, and turning the curriculum into a homogeneous series of studies in like-minded writers that will indoctrinate students into their way of thinking. This unanimity of opinion is regarded by this group as essential to the ends they have in view, namely “a commitment to education as a tool for progressivist politics.” This has disturbed even a few of those who regard themselves as liberal members of the faculty. As one recently noted (and please note that this person is not a reactionary conservative):

“. . .by putting politics outside of discussion, and insisting that intellectual work proceed within an a priori view of proper leftist belief — conveyed between the lines, parenthetically, or with knowing glances and smiles — all sorts of intellectual alliances have been foreclosed at the outset.”

When he says that “politics[ is] outside of discussion” what he means, of course is that political issues have already been decided: America is a corrupt imperialistic country, our democracy is irremediably damaged, racism and sexism are rampant, and corruption is the order of the day. These things may or may not be true, but they are not to be discussed. The matter has been settled, “foreclosed at the outset.” Their success, which has been surprising, has been due to simple tactics: intimidation and guilt. Much of what they say is true, or at least half-true, but it is all beyond discussion.

Folks like this writer, and a diminishing number of other relics, following in the footsteps of the brilliant Black historian W.E.B. DuBois, attempt to defend what was once called “High Culture” and is now regarded as “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” Such folks are regarded as past their must-sell-by-date, not worth a moment’s reflection or worry on the way toward the transformation of the university  from a place where ideas are freely exchanged and discussion is open-ended and hopefully leads to something we can agree is true or factual (or at least plausible) to an institution where future leaders of shared radical views of society are bred and raised in a comforting and comfortable atmosphere of inflated grades where they will find only support and agreement.

The agenda in “higher” education has changed radically: it is no longer about putting young people in possession of their own minds. It is now about making sure they see that the only way to transform society and eliminate injustice is to read and discuss those who agree with the program that has been carefully laid out for them by growing numbers of faculty who see themselves as having arrived at a place where disagreement can no longer be tolerated if it is likely to lead students away from what they regard as the truth — despite the fact, of course, that they insist that there is no such thing as “truth.”

This may help us to understand why at the moment 45% of America’s college graduates think the sitting president is doing a good job. A figure that surprises many but which makes perfect sense to those who see this man as the embodiment of radical change — and who have not been taught how to think, only what to think.

My Top Ten

No one asked. But a blogging buddy who posts by the name of “Cafe Book Bean” recently posted five of the Classics she has on her bucket list. It gave rise to some reflection on my part: what novels would I list as my top ten? I exclude great books in philosophy, psychology, or the sciences — such as Darwin’s Origin of the Species. This list includes novels that I have the highest possible regard for, though I would add that in the case of most of the authors you can’t go wrong in reading anything they wrote! Huxley is the exception since Brave New World is his only literary work, to my knowledge. But in the case of such authors as Austen, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Wharton, and, of course George Eliot you really cannot go wrong. So (wait for it) here’s the list:

  1. Eliot: Middlemarch
  2. Dostoevsky: Brothers Karamazov
  3. Conrad: Heart of Darkness
  4. Austen: Pride and Prejudice
  5. Tolstoy: War and Peace
  6. Wharton: The Age of Innocence
  7. Melville: Moby Dick
  8. Narayan: The Guide
  9. Balzak: Lost Illusions
  10. Huxley: Brave New World

I have omitted novels by such excellent writers as Wallace Stegner (whose Angle of Repose is superb) and Barbara Kingsolver who is also outstanding –one of the very best who is still writing. And I might also note that the Book Bean also recommended to me novels by Amy Tan and I have read The Hundred Secret Senses. She is a remarkable writer and I look forward to reading more of her novels. But for now, that’s the lot.

Please note that I have omitted other great books by such authors as Dante, Plato, Camus, and Kant because their works are so decidedly philosophical and I have tried to stick with literature, per se. But they also warrant reading for those who have the time and the inclination. Strange to say, the list is hard to come up with because I didn’t want to leave off such great works as Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and House of Mirth by Wharton, Victory by Joseph Conrad, and Sense and Sensibility by Austen. I would also add that I do not regard Huxley’s novel as great literature, but it is one of the most thought-provoking and engrossing novels I have ever read and it demands a place on this list.

One final comment about the list: I highly recommend the translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy by Pevear and Volokhonsky. They have translated all of Dostoevsky’s major novels as well as War and Peace. Their translations (I am told by those who read Russian) read about as close to the original as a translation can hope to do.

As I have noted in previous posts, we live at a time when many both within and without the Academy regard any such list as bogus, because, they say, there is no such thing as greatness. I regard this claim as spurious and suspect at times that those who make the criticism have not read most, if any, of the books they reject. A great book, like any great work of art, is so because it still has something to tell us, it is extremely well done, and it invites repeated visits. Each visit brings with it new insights and a flood of new ideas. Great books provide hours of pleasure and expand the mind. The books on the above list fit those criteria. Thanks for reading!

Good Books

There is an ongoing quarrel in academia about whether or not a book can be called “great.” The postmodern critics who have taken control of the academy and now edit the journals and determine the curricula insist that so-called “great” books are simply books written by dead, white, European, males and as evidence of pervasive male hegemony the same books are continually selected to be read by captive college audiences of young people who don’t know any better, thereby assuring that they will think like those who went before them.  Since there is clearly a political agenda involved, it is said, let the agenda be one that is approved by the postmodernists themselves. So it goes. I have argued in print against this point of view and, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn any more. I think it is tiresome, academic exercise and the result is that young people no longer read the classics.  In any event, perhaps we can at least agree that there are “good” books.

One such book is part of the “masterful tetralogy” The Sea of Fertility written by Yukio Mishima. In the second of these books, the hero, young Isao Iinuma, is an idealistic ultra-conservative in Japan prior to the Second World War at a time when Japan is in a depression and the hero is convinced the nation — and especially the Emperor — can only be saved by people like himself from the “barbarians” from the West who are busily imposing their materialism on Japan. He forms a group of like-minded young men and they target a number of leading figures who, Isao is convinced, are determined to bring Japan to ruin in the name of industrial capitalism and higher profits for themselves. As I read this bells were going off all over the place, and especially when I read Isao’s assessment of the man he regarded as enemy #1, Kurahara, an immensely wealthy capitalist who is described by the narrator as “”the unmistakable incarnation of a capitalism devoid of national allegiance. If one wanted to portray the frightening image of a man who loved nothing, there was no better model than Kurahara.”

I pondered the descriptive phrase “capitalism devoid of national interest” and thought of the many wealthy Americans who think only of themselves and not of their fellow citizens. Their attitude works its insidious way through society by way of those wealthy few who have bought themselves politicians who answer to their every whim. I have had a problem with capitalism ever since I read R.H. Tawney’s classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in college. I was struck by Tawney’s conviction that there is an inherent contradiction between capitalism and Christianity, and have for years wondered how on earth this country, which insists that it has its roots in Christianity could embrace free-market capitalism — an economic system that stresses selfishness finding a home in the bosom of a religion that stresses selflessness. But Mishima’s point does not focus on capitalism, per se, it focuses on “capitalism devoid of national interest.” That is, Isao’s target is a man who “loves nothing,” who embodies the ideal of capitalist selfishness, who has no interest whatever in the well-being of his country or the people who live there.

Is it only me, or does this ring bells with you as well?

Picking and Choosing

As the twentieth century dawned Charles Elliot, president of Harvard College, introduced elective courses to the world. At that point it seemed to make a modicum of sense — after all the young men (no women, of course) who attended Harvard were on the whole well prepared for college work and had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do with their lives. And as Elliot said they were in a better position to determine what courses they needed than their professors who were not omniscient. Indeed not. But even at the time the argument wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. The professors were not omniscient, but they had a better sense of what young men would need to prepare them to go forth in a changing world than the young men themselves.

At that time education was not as focused on jobs as it is now and the young were better prepared for college — compared to today’s entering college students. But if elective courses were questionable in Elliot’s day they are even more so today, given the facts noted above — and they are facts, sad to say. To make matters worse elective courses are now common in high schools as well as colleges where they have become commonplace.

By 1983 more than 50% of the units required to graduate from high school in thirteen states were elective courses, that is, courses young kids could pick and choose among at random. And that number has proliferated since that time. Not only were the courses elective, but they allowed students to take “life adjustment” courses such as “Life and Leisure,” “Home and Family,” Tools of Learning,” Work Experience,” and “Occupational Adjustment.” Often these courses replaced required courses in such things as civics and history, among others. The idea was to whet the appetites of disinterested and unmotivated students to keep them in school and hope that they learn something by the way. Research done by a variety of disinterested sources reveals that the vast majority of those graduating high school students are ignorant of their own history and how the government works. A great many of them also have difficulty reading, writing, and figuring — the three things that have always been the staples of basic education. As a consequence, roughly half of the students who enter college today are required to take remedial courses in spite of the fact that there are some exceptional teachers in the high schools who are asked to do the impossible for very little money.

I must confess at this point that I attended a high school in Baltimore where the entire “college-prep” program was laid out beforehand. I had no electives. I then attended a unique college in Annapolis, Maryland where the entire four years were spent in reading the “great books” and taking four years of required courses leading to a liberal education. I never questioned the right of the faculty to tell me what I ought to study. If I were choosing my own reading material I might have chosen to read trash like Atlas Shrugged, if you can imagine!  It was simply a given that the faculty knew what would best prepare me and my classmates for a changing world — contrary to Mr. Elliot.

Needless to say, I think Elliot was terribly wrong, even in his day. Admitting my bias I would still maintain that today’s students — especially — need to be told what to learn by faculty who are admittedly not omniscient, but who know more than the kids do. How on earth can we expect a disinterested, ill-prepared 17-year-old person to know what college courses will make them wiser and better informed? We can’t. But we do. We hand them a course schedule and turn them loose on hundreds of courses of unequal weight and benefit and hope for the best.

I think it is time to admit that Elliot’s experiment in education went terribly wrong and that the colleges should shore up their basic requirements, at the very least. However, the trend is in the opposite direction as general courses are shrinking in our colleges and universities while electives and major requirements gain in numbers. This is a mistake from the students’ point of view as it makes them increasingly narrow at a time when they need greater breadth of learning across a wide panorama of subjects.

College faculties must take responsibility for the education of the young people who come to them embarrassingly ignorant and who are supposed to leave several years later able to make informed decisions that greatly affect their lives. The job of these faculties is not to turn out historians, poets, artists, accountants, or biologists. It is to turn out educated citizens. As things now stand, college professors refuse to take responsibility as they fight over territory and seek to protect their academic domain while the students look on perplexed and disinterested and wonder where the party will be this weekend after the football game.