Exercises in Unreality:
The Decline in Teaching Western Civilization
by Anthony Esolen
There’s a chilling image from my youth that I’ve never been able to scrub out of my mind. It might not seem at first glance to amount to much. It was a blue spiral spray-painted on our street, a sort of insect with enormous eyes, with a caption suggesting LSD. In those days, the newspapers were filled with war and rumors of worse than war—of the wholesale collapse of the social order. It was when the Students for a Democratic Society engaged in their violent demonstration against that inoffensive, old-fashioned liberal Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “Off the pigs,” cried the Black Panthers, whose tongues were not in their cheeks when they said it; rather their thumbs were ready to cock their pistols if any “pig” of a policeman were to get in their way.
I don’t know that it was very heaven to be young in those days, wallowing naked and hungry and snuffling in the rain and mud at Woodstock, but to be a child was like being perched at a high window of a riverside house, watching the waters rise and lap at a bridge beginning to tilt and crack. Perhaps those of my generation who were nine or ten years older than I can indulge themselves in rosy memories of it all, if they were not dragooned into the fever swamps of Indochina: of porn flicks suddenly advertised in the newspapers as cutting-edge, hip, hot from Sweden; of Christians chucking their prayer books into a bonfire of pieties; of the suddenly prominent evils of divorce and child murder; of music made by drug-addled geniuses, the music of loneliness, lust, rage, foolish hope, and wickedness. My family was strong and my backcountry coal town was not entirely insane. Still, my memories are not rosy.
I had no idea then that the college classroom was its own sewage spillway, overflowing into the quads—or perhaps the sewage flowed in the other direction. It hardly matters. At age nine I could see through the stupidities of the New Math: set theory for children, rather like teaching toddlers how to talk by drawing blueprints of the oral cavity, or how to walk by naming the bones and muscles in their legs. Long before I read Orwell I could perceive that most new things were empty and that the higher the diction that people used to name them and describe them, the emptier or more sinister they were. Call it Esolen’s Law of the Distributive Property of Stultification over Tradition.
What I could not see was that the stupidity came from on high, and that college education lay in the balance. My parents graduated near the top of their classes in high school. Like most Americans, they considered college education as something of a dream—college was a place of intelligence, profound learning, some risible pride, and venerable tradition. Gaudeamus igitur! My mother could not have known that she was more likely to study Latin in her little town than were the college students at Berkeley.
None of us knew who John Dewey was. But there was a nice line to be drawn between that man and the people, both professors and students, who went down to the bridges in rafts to help the floodwaters do their work. Dewey was classically trained but would have none of it for the ordinary democratic masses. He had no use for the useless things—that is, the best and noblest things: no use for poetry, flights of imagination, beauty, religion, and tradition. He was a hidebound innovator. His children and grandchildren in the 1960s had been well trained in his democratic scorn. Out with the notion that the academy is not a place for political recruitment, precisely because it is to be devoted to the truth. “What is truth?” said the serious Dewey, and he could not wait to give us all his answer: truth was only what could be ascertained by empirical observation and measurement. That meant that only the hard sciences could rest upon their foundations. Every other building could be commandeered by the politicians, or blown to bits.
And that is what the young politicians did. They began to turn arts and letters into instruments of politics, or to blow them to bits. Thus the demand that literature be “relevant.” Homer is relevant to me because Homer is relevant to man. But once you deny that there are stable truths to be learned about man by studying his history, his philosophy, and his art, what is left for Homer but to be adopted by a few curious souls who happen to like him, or to be drafted into the New Model Army? And there are nearer ways to go to burn down buildings than by struggling over Homeric verbs. So in a few short years, centuries of learning were merely tossed aside. The central pier cracked, the bridge buckled, and the waters came crashing through.
Read more: home.isi.org
Read more: home.isi.org