The Canon

The word I have used in my title refers not to the large gun, called a “cannon,” but to a list of sacred works that need to  be protected against the erosion of time. The latter meaning has come to be used to refer to a list of “Great Books” which should be read by all who can read. This list has of late it been called “elitist”  or irrelevant by the multicultural hordes who have taken over the universities and now dictate, in large measure, what the students read — if they read at all.

In 1994 Harold Bloom wrote a large book about the “Western Canon” that included a long list of the books he thought were not necessarily sacred but at any rate ought to be read by anyone who treasures the thoughts of those who have lived before us and who have had important things to say. His book was a best-seller, but has done nothing to quiet those in the academy determined to bring down Western Civilization itself in the name of “justice” and “fairness.”  Those who would defend a list of books written by “dead, white, European males” (as is charged) are a dying breed and students in our colleges and universities now have been turned in the direction of correcting the many wrongs that have occurred in the past, as determined by their professors, and away from the thoughts of great minds. Indeed, the argument is that there are no great minds or, indeed, any such thing as “greatness” itself. We live in a relativistic age in which there is no truth, only opinions or “alternative facts.”

I will print a full disclosure, which will come as no surprise to any who have read more than one or two of my posts: I was educated at a small college in Annapolis, Maryland where we spent four years reading the “hundred Great Books,” as they were then called. We never counted them. We just read them and discussed them in small groups in an attempt to help us think a bit about the most pressing problems exceptional minds worried about in the past and which continue to perplex us today. I am, therefore, a defender of the Canon, I guess, though we never referred to the list of books in that manner. We revered them, of course, but we did not regard them as sacred. We were asked to participate in the “great conversation” with the best minds that had ever set pen to paper.

The multiculturalists who have taken over the colleges and universities intent upon correcting past errors, and who, I strongly suspect, have never read most of the Great Books, insist that those books have brought about the many of the ills that now affect society. They dismiss the books out of hand as simply an attempt by past educators to instill in the minds of the young wrong-headedness, a sort of indoctrination which they will now correct by replacing those wrong ideas with their own. However, as was clear to those of us who read and discussed these books, no two authors in the entire list agreed about much of anything. They were anything but monolithic. Thus reading and discussing the Great Books cannot be viewed as a form of indoctrination because of the sheer variety of the ideas contained in those books. There is no single message. There are thousands of messages and the only way out of the morass is to begin to form ideas of one’s own. One need not be told that the West has a record of injustice if one reads the words of those who have again and again addressed the question: what is justice? One figures it out on one’s own — as one should.

In a word, the Canon should be defended and read in our schools because it contains the best that has been thought and written for thousands of years. It need not contain only the thoughts of those in the Western world who have written; it can be broad enough — indeed it should be broad enough — to include the best that has been thought and written in the East as well. But the selection ought to be carefully made and based on aesthetic criteria and the principle that no single “message” should come through except that what is being read is important and has influenced the minds of those who have gone before us.

Education is not about indoctrination. It is about enabling the young to take possession of their own minds. Education is about freedom, true freedom, and it should not be directed by a handful of instructors who have a not-so-hidden agenda to save the world. It should be directed by the Canon, because the best teachers are the books themselves. And they teach the young how to think — not what to think.

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Communities

In an ideal world, that is a world as I like to imagine it, colleges and universities would be communities of learning, places where folks with different points of view, ages, and preferences meet to discuss with open minds the issues that have confounded humanity for generations. The emphasis here is on “communities,” since the idea is that there is a common purpose, a common goal: all are together to learn from one another and from other minds outside the community that are invited in to share what they know and join in the conversation.

In the real world, the world we all know and love, it is not quite like this. Increasingly, colleges and universities have become warring camps where faculty and students align themselves with one another on political or ideological grounds and dare others to intrude. Increasingly commonplace are such things as the denial of invitations to certain people to come to campus to join in the conversation; such invitations are met with howls of protest as they are regarded as the anathema of what education is now all about. Faculty members select reading material that conforms to their own particular “take” on the issues of the day, insisting that others have done so for generations and it is now their turn. Whether or not this is true, and I seriously question it, there is no place for this sort of selective indoctrination, the hammering into young and impressionable heads the last word on controversial topics that allow for a variety of opinions, indeed, demand a variety of opinions in order to help the young people to learn to think. Cultural diversity, with the stress on the superiority of other cultures (any other cultures) to our own, has taken the place of intellectual diversity, the open expression of a variety of points of view on complex issues. Shouting has replaced civil discourse, and open minds have been closed.

Years ago, when I taught at the University of Rhode Island there was increasing interest among faculty members in the new unions that were forming around the country. At URI we had the American Association of University Professors, the mildest form of union, but one dedicated to guaranteeing freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, and, of course, decent wages for the hard work that many are unaware goes into teaching the young. At the time I worried that this new wave of unionization might well lead to a confrontational relationship between faculty and administration, that it would destroy the collegiality that I though central to the purpose of a community of learning. How naive! But, in a sense, I was right. Unions, for all the good they do, tend to grow like an experiment gone wrong and to become all-powerful and all-important. Instead of working to protect the ideals of communities of learning they lend themselves to the growing conviction that education is all about business and learning must take a back seat.

All of this, I suppose, is the complaint of an old, fossilized college teacher who complains that things were never as they should have been but are even worse today then they were once upon a time. There is some truth in this, of course, as old folks tend to look back with rose-colored glasses. But, at the same time, it is undeniably true that the gap has grown wider and wider between the ideal of education as a place where the young come to gain true freedom, the possession of their own minds, and the reality of college as a business. I have seen it happening and while I have done what I could to close that gap I do realize that it is too little too late. Things were never ideal, and there have always been reasons to complain — legitimately so. But of late, the larger culture has come together with the academy to create a world within a world in which business is the order of the day and intolerance has replaced tolerance while the young struggle to understand why they are there in the first place — and how on earth they are going to pay for the privilege after graduation.

There are success stories, of course, excellent students who want to learn and grow led by dedicated teachers who realize that the student’s intellectual growth is of paramount importance, and it is not fostered by indoctrination posing as education . And these exceptions are the foundation on which to build our hopes as they are in the world at large where good people struggle to do good while all around them folks worry only about how to do well, how to “succeed” in  world in which success is measured in dollars and cents.

Money Well Spent?

I am reposting an earlier piece that has direct bearing on the current hoopla about disrespecting the flag (No, it will not be in the forthcoming book. Sorry). I recently asked the obvious question: why the hell do we sing the national anthem and salute the flag before sporting events? This post answers this question, or at least begins the discussion. Historically I suspect it started soon after (during?) the Second World War. It is clearly jingoistic and designed to instill in all attendees the true spirit of patriotism and love of country. In a word, it is a form of indoctrination. In any event, it is costing each of us a great many tax dollars. Think about that next time you see a “fly-over”!!

As one who has complained from time to time about the role the Department of Defense has played in helping mold the minds of Americans into a shape more malleable to those with deep pockets in this country, I was delighted to read “Point After” in this week’s Sports Illustrated (Nov. 16, 2015) that helps me to make my case. I agree that the point of the SI article was not to take the DOD to task. Rather, it was to take the NFL and other sports groups to task for “paid patriotism” at professional sports games. The teams apparently collect millions of dollars every year.

The article mentions that the DOD paid $879,000 last year to the Atlanta Falcons to put on displays of patriotism before and during games. They also paid the New England Patriots $700,000 according to the article. We can assume other teams received similar amounts of money for the same reason. It goes without saying that this is our tax money, the money the Republicans desperately want to keep flowing in the direction of keeping our nation strong, defending us against ….. what? Disloyal football fans?

We all know about the obscene waste of taxpayer money when it comes to the Department of “Defense.” For example, when I was coaching tennis we shelled out a precious $30,000 for two “Omni” tennis courts as an experiment. If we liked them it was said that we would get four more. This was exciting, since we were playing on six weathered lay-kold tennis courts that saw their better days in 1968, though I never really believed we would ever see four more Omni-courts at that price. In any event, the men who were laying the courts told me they were headed to the Offutt Air Force base just outside of Omaha where they were going to put down 15 of those courts for the officers at the base. That’s nearly a quarter of a million of our tax dollars so the military brass could whack a tennis ball back and forth — when they weren’t playing golf on their own 18 hole golf course. But I digress.

As I say, we all know about such cases of waste of tax monies at a time when Congress cannot find a way to balance the national budget and the Republicans will simply not allow anyone to touch a penny of the “Defense” spending.  But let’s reflect on the waste of this money on fly overs and other examples of “paid patriotism” at professional sports games. What are the implications?  For one thing, it leads to jingoism, which is often confused with patriotism. The difference is a love of country that leads to such nonsense as “my country, right or wrong.” True patriotism requires a citizenry at least enlightened enough to question what the government is doing and suggest from time to time that what they are doing, (if they are doing anything at all) is simply wrong. But the “paid patriotism” displays are a form of brain-washing that leads people to leave the game convinced that we have the most powerful and greatest country on earth when, in fact, there is much that needs to be improved both at home and in the way we conduct ourselves on the international stage. We have a penchant in this country for telling the rest of the world how to live when our own house is filled with dirt and broken glass.

So there is much to regret when finding out how our government spends our tax dollars. But it is really not that surprising, given the trend I have pointed out numerous times to dumb down this nation and people it with obedient citizens who will do what they are told and agree that what their government does is always the right thing.

Why The Classics?

A former honors student wrote a note on Facebook recently and asked whether there was any truth to the rumor he had heard that liberal university faculties were putting pressure on their students to lean more to the left. I assured him that there is truth in the rumor, but that it is also the case that conservative faculty often, in my experience, try to get their students to lean a little more to the right. But, since there are a great many more liberal than conservative university faculty members, the trend he mentioned is decidedly of some concern. Indoctrination in any form, especially when it passes for teaching, is most disturbing.

One of the victims of the left-leaning faculty who have a political agenda (which they take very seriously) is the classics — to the point that it is now proclaimed by those who hold the reins of power in academia that there are no such things as classics; just books, and the ones the students should read are the ones the faculty select for them, books that tend to present the viewpoint of those teaching them. The idea, I gather, is to force open the minds of the students to endless examples of social injustice. This in itself is not a bad thing. But the books should be the teachers, not the teachers. And the authors should disagree with one another about almost everything. This generates thought, not disciples.

It is said that the so-called “classics” or “great books” are simply works that were written by “dead, white, European, males” and are no longer relevant in today’s climate of hatred and political chaos. I have vigorously disputed this over the years in my writing, including a number of blog posts (which I referred the young man to), because I have read many of those books (in translation) and have learned so much from them that is not only relevant but timely as well. One such passage I came across the other day while reading Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” of all things. It is in a lengthy comment made by the chorus and reads as follows:

” — A tongue without reins,

defiance,unwisdom —

their end is disaster.

But the life of quiet good,

the wisdom that accepts —

these abide unshaken,

preserving, sustaining

the houses of men.

Far in the air of heaven,

the sons of heaven live.

But they watch the lives of men,

And what passes for wisdom is not;

unwise are those who aspire,

who outrange the limits of man.

Briefly, we live, Briefly,

then die. Wherefore I say,

he who hunts a glory, he who tracks

some boundless, superhuman dream, may lose the harvest here and now

and garner death. Such men are mad,

their council evil.”

This is a remarkable passage and also timely, given the current trend to keep old wounds festering with talk among the power-brokers of possible political recounts. It seems worthy of a few moment’s reflection and serious attempts to see how it applies to today’s world where so much that happens is beyond our control and simply must be accepted — like it or not. As Candide said, “It’s time to cultivate the garden.”

Great books are classics because they are timeless. It matters not who wrote them or when. What matters is what they have to say to those who read them and take them seriously.  Passages like the above are said to be “irrelevant” and are ignored by many of those who have chosen to teach the young because they have other fish to fry, more important fish (as they see it), which leads me to quote another snippet from Euripides:

“Talk sense to a fool

and he calls you foolish.”

 

Diversity

One of the buzzwords on college campuses these days — and for many days past — is the word “diversity.” The word requires the modifier “cultural” but this is seldom used. The modifier is required because what has become of central importance to a great many faculty members in our institutions of higher learning is the notion that their students need to know more about cultures other than their own. This is not a bad thing, but like other movements within the academy (e.g., the political correctness movement) things have gotten a bit out of hand.

In the name of cultural diversity, the evidence suggests that many faculty members have begun to confuse enlightenment with indoctrination. In the interest of revealing to the captive minds that sit before them spellbound they find themselves presenting one or two narrow perspectives which they themselves find comfortable and ignoring or demeaning many others, including the students’ own. There are even cases of instructors belittling students who defend contrary positions and being graded down if they disagree with the instructor and his or her take on the ills of American culture and the beauty of, say, Native American culture. A growing body of evidence suggests that this is more widespread than we would like to believe.

I have no problem with the notion that students need to have their narrow perspectives broadened, that we all need to know more about cultures different from our own. That is a good thing. But the notion that other cultures are ipso facto superior to our own is a claim that requires support. For one thing, it is difficult to generalize in these cases — just what is a culture? Do women comprise a separate and distinct culture — as many would have it — and is it, or any culture for that matter, superior in all respects to the major culture within which the majority of Americans are brought up? Heaven knows there are a great many shortcomings to our materialistic culture, but then there are many shortcomings to other cultures that are sometimes held in higher estimation than they deserve.

But more important than cultural diversity, from my perspective, is the question of intellectual diversity, the clash of different points of view. This clash is what generates questions and is more likely to lead to genuine thought on the part of the students than is a narrow, and even biased, presentation of other cultural perspectives. If one is taught to think then he or she will naturally begin to think about important questions and even want to explore other cultural perspectives. We seem to have put the cart before the horse. And like other movements that begin within the academy (e.g., again, the P.C. movement) the concern over cultural diversity has worked its way down through the grades and into the culture at large. The widespread reaction within this culture to the bigotry exhibited by Donald Trump stems from a growing awareness that other cultures are no less important than our own, that Trump’s take on the Mexicans or the religion of Islam, for example, is abhorrent to anyone with a grain of sense.  This is a good thing. More to the point, however, the tendency to insist that our own convictions on complex issues are the only ones that need to be known has become commonplace. Instead of inviting diverse points of view and the free exchange of ideas, many of us seek out reinforcement of our own ideas and read and watch sources that sink us deeper and deeper within our own world, ignorant of other ways of living and thinking.

It does seem to me that the job of instructors in our schools is to help young people gain possession of their own minds, to become independent thinkers who are also aware of other points of view. The presentation of diverse cultural perspectives, as I say, is not a bad thing. But it should take a back seat to the need of students to have their convictions challenged and their minds opened to new ideas. Cultural diversity is important, but it is not nearly as important as intellectual diversity. That’s what education should be about.

 

Beware of Thugs!

Back in the Dark Ages when I was in graduate school, we had a professor who would occasionally wander off the subject of 19th Century philosophy and into the realm of current politics. After he was finished he would always apologize and invite members of the class to take equal time to present their own take on the subject. I don’t recall that anyone ever took him up on the offer, though I never doubted that he was sincere. But that impartiality in the classroom is apparently becoming a rare thing.

According to a number of studies, increasing numbers of college professors are using class time to get on their soap boxes and deliver political harangues. Many of these studies have been conducted by conservative groups who are concerned that the kids are being brainwashed by left-leaning professors who always hold the power of the final grade over the heads of their impressionable students. Now while we can question the impartiality of those studies, there are grounds for concern. To begin with, the majority of college professors, though certainly not all, are liberal. Further, they do have captive audiences of young people who may fear repercussions if they speak out in opposition to their professors. I suspect this has always gone on to an extent — by right-leaning professors as well as those who lean to the left. But apparently if these studies are to be believed it is becoming increasingly common. Professors are selecting works to be read that reflect their own ideological preferences and they don’t hesitate to comment on current affairs of a political nature and hammer home political messages. And given the current state of politics in this country it is quite likely that these comments from mainly liberal professors are not favorable to the conservative powers that control the Congress in this country and are determined to make sure that the Democratic president is hampered in his attempts to govern as he should.

In any event, this is a mistake of major proportions, whether the comments reflect a liberal or a conservative bias.  The greatest compliment ever paid to me after I retired from teaching — as I mentioned in passing in a previous blog — was in a review of my latest book on Amazon where a former student said he looked forward to reading the book because when he took my classes he never knew what my political position was. I dare say this is hard for readers of these blogs to accept since I never hesitate to sound off and reveal my prejudices whenever possible — though I do attempt to be fair. But in blogs this is to be expected; in the classroom ideology and personal takes on  tough political problems have no place. Neither does gearing the course toward the professor’s own personal ideology by carefully selecting material that supports his or her own take on things. Education is not indoctrination and as Mark Van Doren said long ago in his book on Liberal Education, we must always protect our students from “thugs who would teach them what to think, not how to think.” Indeed.