Under Attack

I often wonder how many people outside the Academy realize (or care?) how severe the attack on Western Civilization is within the Academy as students and faculty on a growing number of campuses across the country have determined that Western Civilization is the source of most of the world’s  problems today.  Indeed, I wonder how many people within the Academy are aware of the seriousness of the problem.

In a recent acceptance speech at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni annual banquet, one of the recipients of their “Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education,” Ms Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Fellow at the John Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, paints a bleak picture indeed. She cites a battle at Stanford University in 2016 in which a group of students sought to reinstate a course requirement in “Western Civilization” that had been eradicated 25 years ago. The attempt was overwhelmingly rejected by the student body.

“In the run-up to the vote, one Stanford student [a young woman in this case] wrote in the Stanford Daily that ‘a Western Civ requirement would necessitate that our education be centered on upholding white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations.'”

The ignorance of this student’s comment beggars belief and, sad to say, it is a view that is shared by what many think is the majority of students (and faculty) on today’s campuses. Let’s take a look at this comment.

To begin with, one course requirement would not result in an education “centered” on Western Civilization. The is what logicians call a “straw man” and it is a fallacy. The young lady would know this if she knew more about Western Civilization, since logic was first formalized by Aristotle and later refined by the Schoolastics during the Middle Ages. In any event, even if the course were required, it would not comprise the whole of the students’ study for his or her four years. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that there could not also be a requirement in “Eastern Civilization” as well. But, more to the point, the comment ignores the benefits of Western Civilization that this student has chosen to ignore — if, indeed, she was aware of them. I speak of such things as women’s equality, the abolition of slavery, individual freedom, religious tolerance, and freedom of expression (which makes possible ignorant comments like that of the student in question). As Ms Ali points out:

“One cannot dismiss the sum total of Western Civilization without losing one’s moral compass. And one cannot participate meaningfully in the battle of ideas raging in the world today while dismissing the value of Western Civilization as a whole.”

While there are many things to note and regret about the luggage that has been brought with them by folks who have struggled to create what we call “Western Civilization,” and here we would have to acknowledge the half-truth hidden in the rhetoric of the Stanford student, we must insist upon a wider perspective and note the extraordinary beauty in Western art, the intellectual triumphs, the moral gains (as noted above) that form the warp and woof of Western Civilization. Perspective, when speaking of such a large issue, is essential. And this student has lost hers entirely (if she ever had it to begin with). To take an obvious example, capitalism, for all its faults, has made it possible for this particular student to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the world. She bites the hand that feeds her.

As one who has read, taught, and defended the Great Books of the Western World I have an obvious bias against this sort of blanket condemnation. But even if this were not the case, the intolerance built into the ignorant comment by this student would be disquieting. After all, college is a place where one broadens one’s mind, not shrinks it — ideally. And the comment reflects the growing attitude on many college campuses across the country that results in the exclusion of certain “types” of speakers from appearing on campus, because they represent views that are regarded as unacceptable. This includes Ms Ali who was denied access to Brandeis University by militant students and faculty  after initially being invited to speak about the crisis within Islam and receive an honorary degree. It is an attitude that has also resulted in the prohibition against saying certain words or thinking certain thoughts, an attitude that reflects a fascist approach to eduction — if this is not, in fact, a contradiction in terms. The “battle of ideas” requires that we keep an open mind.

My concerns are obvious to anyone who has read any of my blogs. But I do not think they are misplaced or even exaggerated. Higher education is supposed to be a place where the students do not learn certain things, necessarily, but they learn to use their minds to determine which things are worth knowing and which things are not. And a blanket condemnation of the whole of “Western Civilization” by a group of students at Stanford University who, we may assume, know little or nothing about that which they reject, is nothing short of presumptuous, if not arrogant. And the fact that the faculty at Stanford did not take the lead in determining which courses were to be required in the first place is also to be regretted, but not surprising in an age in which the students and the children are mistaken for those who should lead rather than follow. And here we have a graphic example of why they should not be allowed to lead.

Cheating As A Rule

The possibility of a cheating scandal at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities has raised concern in many circles. So a recent story begins:

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — An unusually high number of students at Stanford University are suspected of cheating during the most recent term, putting faculty members and administrators of the prestigious institution on alert.

University Provost John Etchemendy sent a letter to faculty members highlighting what he called “troubling allegations” that stem from “a smattering of concerns from a number of winter courses,” the San Jose Mercury News reported Friday. Etchemendy said the students are cheating themselves and risk severe consequences.

When I taught at the University of Rhode Island years ago word came down to our department that a copy of someone’s logic final had gotten out. We all had to come in a 5:00 AM and write a common final exam that would be given to all students, even though there were five of us and we all taught the course differently. It was a nightmare and most students badly failed, I’m sorry to say. The innocent were punished along with the guilty. Later, it was learned that a plastic overlay from the mimeograph machine (remember them??) had been pilfered from the trash and was being used to sell copies of one of the finals at one of the fraternities. In any event, students lined up to buy the exam though someone eventually blew the whistle. We had no idea whose exam it was, and that’s why we all had to come up with a common exam. The administration knew which fraternity was involved, but that fraternity was never disciplined because the university “didn’t want a scandal.”

Cheating is not new, of course. Just recall Tom Lehrer’s wonderful song long ago about plagiarism and those who cheat, graduate, and are “forgotten with the rest.”  We have learned what universities will do to “avoid a scandal” — The Paterno scandal comes to mind. It seems that not only in athletics, but in the university climate as a whole the possibility of a scandal leads administrators to do strange things to “cover up.” That, in itself, is a scandal since the universities are supposed to lead by example and this is a very poor example indeed. But it appears to be the norm. The common defense is: hey, I’m just  doing what the others do — which seems to the cornerstone of this culture’s ethics  — so we should not be surprised.

Anyone who has taught at a college or university is familiar with the drill involved to check on the sources of student papers and watch carefully during exams to see that no one is looking where they shouldn’t be. It’s commonplace, though it most assuredly should not be.

So we have a perfect right to ask why and wish that it were otherwise. Stanford University has strict rules about cheating and that’s a good thing. Let’s hope those who are caught with their fingers in the cookie jar are appropriately punished. The notion that an action is perfectly right if others are doing it is the most shallow, even cynical, sort of ethics. Cheating is wrong. It may be widespread, but it is wrong — not only in universities, but anywhere.

Reading Great Books

I received an email from a friend and former college classmate recently that highlighted a program initiated by several major universities, including Stanford University, that will involve young people in reading and discussing great books during the Summer. This was encouraging in an age that seems determined to dumb-down the curriculum at our schools until no pupil is left behind — a system that is certain to turn out numbskulls and leave the bright students totally bored and stupefied by their electronic toys. The notion that our kids simply cannot do tough intellectual work is utter nonsense; it sells them short and is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we expect very little from them we will get very little in return. The fault is ours, not theirs.

I taught at several colleges in two of which I required students, including so-called “marginal students,” to read selected great books and was constantly delighted by the results. But unfortunately there are two problems with expanding such programs into our schools and colleges. To begin with, we don’t think that our kids can read challenging books, even though the books were written in the first place for anyone who could read and not just for supposed experts. As John Stuart Mill said, we won’t know what is possible for people until we ask them to do the impossible. Having young people read great books is not impossible, however, as is shown from my own experience and from numerous experiments around the country — including a remarkable program run in a women’s prison in New York a few years back in which a dozen women were encouraged to read and discuss great books; they not only took to the work like ducks to water, they all turned their lives around and several of them went to college and got their degrees after they were released from the prison. A similar program has been introduced in three prisons in Tennessee that is very promising indeed and there are other such programs sponsored by the Great Books Foundation involving prison inmates and former inmates as well. One can, after all, select works carefully with the reader in mind (hint: read Candide, skip Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason).

The second problem is that there are growing numbers of intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities who deny that “greatness” can be defined and reject the notion that any books are great. Instead they prefer the ones they themselves have read that promote whatever political agenda they happen to have up their sleeves at the moment. But, as my friend “Jots” has noted in a recent blog, “greatness” can be defined. She defines it as “ageless and recognized in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and forms.” Indeed. I would only add that greatness can be recognized by those who have been exposed to it and know whereof they speak. And whether or not you accept Jots’ definition, we have the testimony of Robert Pirsig who noted in his seminal book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that value (and greatness) can easily be recognized when we encounter it — if we know what we are looking for. Many of those who reject the notion of greatness in books and the fine arts have never bothered to look closely at what they reject, if they looked at all. But there are books that are “ageless,” and these books can be read by anyone who is willing to make the effort. And they are great because they enliven the minds of those who read them.

One problem that stubbornly remains, however, is the fact that fewer and fewer of our young people read at all and are rapidly losing the ability to read and comprehend what they do read. Thus the reading of books, great or not, becomes an ongoing challenge. But it can be met. Take it from me. Or take it from the folks at Stanford University and other such places of higher learning who are placing the books before young, inquiring minds and expecting great things. And, I predict, they will be pleased by the results. As I said, we sell our kids short — and we should really take the toys out of their hands and replace them with books.

True Diversity

There is a disturbing movement afoot on America’s college campuses. I speak of the growing tendency to exclude certain points of view from being heard. In the name of defending the campuses from what they regard as “hate speech,” numbers of liberal students and faculty members are banding together to make sure that opinions they strongly disagree with are not heard.

In an article in this month’s “Intercollegiate Review,” an author with a familiar name (David Ortiz) tells of a number of instances in which speakers have been refused a voice on a number of campuses. At Stanford University, of all places, a group known as the Anscombe Society attempted to get funding to bring in a group of “nationally renowned speakers”  to discuss public policy issues “driving the marriage debate.” The campus  LGBTQ community launched protests against the attempts and the funding, which had originally been approved, was withdrawn. Then the Anscombe Society was told it would be necessary for them to pay a $5,600.00 “security fee” to protect the student body against possible violence. Now, whether one sides with the political left or the right in this issue, it beggars belief that a group of students and faculty on today’s campuses would argue against listening to a point of view, no matter how strongly they happen to disagree with it. Whether one is for or against same-sex marriage (and I am in favor of it as it happens) a college campus is a place where one would think it is not only possible, but desirable, to hear opposing points of view. It engenders healthy debate which is the life-blood of intellectual growth.

This is only one of several examples of intolerance across the country on college campuses cited by Ortiz. Others involve Brandeis University, which refused to allow prominent women’s rights activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people, to be their commencement speaker. Her offense? “She has dared to critique radical Islam for its history of violence and bigotry against women.” More than seventy-five members of the faculty joined student leaders to force the Administration to withdraw the invitation. Similar incidents occurred at Rutgers University involving Condoleezza Rice and at Azusa Pacific University (whatever that is!) involving right-wing author Charles Murray. As Murray noted in a letter he wrote to the students at Azusa, “[Your] administration wants to protect you from earnest and nerdy old guys who have opinions that some of your faculty do not share. Ask if this is why you’re getting a college education.”

Clearly, this is part of a growing problem across the country — and one that was pointed out in a recent speech in Iowa by former president Bill Clinton: people are increasingly refusing to listen to opposing points of view. While dialogue is vital to a democracy, genuine dialogue is dying out. On college campuses, in the name of what many regard as cultural diversity, there are movements to “protect” students against intellectual diversity. And this is the real problem here. As I say, whether or not one agrees with a person’s opinion it ought to be allowed to be given a voice — especially in an institution that claims to be promoting a liberal education. Listening to only one point of view is not education, it is indoctrination. There is considerable truth in the cliché “a closed mind is an empty mind.” And of all people, liberals (so-called) should be opposed to indoctrination. For years they have insisted that conservatives have indoctrinated students on America’s campuses by promoting ideas put forth by “dead, white, European males.” Whether or not this is true, and I strongly believe it is not, intolerance is wrong no matter who happens to be practicing it. The students, who are paying through their noses, are the real victims here.

We live in strange times. But they are times that demand open and searching minds because the problems we face as a human race grow larger by the day. Any attempt to close those minds, especially by so-called “educators,” is alien to everything that is demanded in today’s world. Whether or not we have children in college we must all be concerned about the growing tendency to silence voices that should  be heard — from both ends of the political spectrum. Intolerance of any type should never be tolerated on a college campus, or anywhere else.