Thursday, January 27, 2011


"Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!"

Steven Brockmann has an interesting piece up at Inside Higher Education which examines colleges and what has happened to their humanities departments.
We now live in a radically different world, one in which most students are not forced to take courses like Western civilization or, most of the time, in foreign languages or cultures, or even the supposedly more progressive courses that were designed to replace them. And whereas as late as the 1980s English was the most popular major at many colleges and universities, by far the most popular undergraduate major in the country now is business.
What happened? Why have the humanities departments in major universities steadily dwindled while other departments have steadily grown? Brockmann traces the start to the 1980s in which there was a battle between leftists and more conservative types on college campuses.

The left wanted to jettison western civilization and traditional humanities studies. All those dead white Europeans had to go, you see. It was time for humanities to become more multicultural and diverse (defined as "anyone but white Europeans"). The quality of the literature and arts was secondary if not irrelevant; what mattered was the diversity of the sources. Aboriginal arts and non traditional sources were triumphed. Anything by women, no matter how good or dubious a source was preferred.

In the end, the left won, and humanities became a joke in many colleges. Gone were Rousseau, Plato, and Marx, and in their place new names were promoted as their equal if not superior. Names which people do not recall because they were neither. And students began to avoid these areas, not seeing the point in a humanities education to begin with. Brockmann goes on:
While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.

And who can really blame them? If humanists themselves could not even agree on the basic value, structure, and content of a liberal arts education — if some saw the tradition of Western civilization as one of oppression and tyranny, while others defended and validated it; if some argued that a humanistic education ought to be devoted to the voices of those previously excluded from "civilized" discussion, such as people of color and women, while others argued that such changes constituted a betrayal of the liberal arts — is it any wonder that students and their families began turning away from the humanities?
Brockmann misses a key point here in his attempt to avoid fixing blame on the left, because he can't fix it on the right (although he tries by claiming it was the fight which caused this disinterest - if the right had just gone along there wouldn't have been a fight). He wants to argue that it is the lack of focus in the humanities on what literature actually is which is making students not care for the area. That probably has some impact, but other factors feature much more prominently, in my opinion.

The first is that society has gotten away from the principle of education being an asset in its own right. The idea that education is good simply because it educates has been cast aside for purely pragmatic concerns. Now people want an education in order to get something else; usually a better paying job, more status, more power and comfort. Education which broadens the mind making a better person and citizen is considered a waste. Courses which do not directly and tangibly result in pragmatic, material goals are thought to be pointless. Why study Rembrandt and Aristotle if they aren't going to increase my bottom line?

The second factor is the cost. As the price of higher education pushes six digits for a doctorate, people start to get more thrifty. The pragmatic argument becomes more and more powerful as students look at debt that will take half their working life to pay off. So classes which don't pack that obvious payoff become significantly less attractive.

One thing Backmann does get right, though, is the purpose that western civilization and literature studies served:
One of the core functions of the humanities for centuries was the passing down of a tradition from one generation to the next. The idea behind Western civilization courses was supposed to be that students needed them in order to understand the origins and development of their own culture.
What he doesn't seem to understand is that's exactly why the left wanted it gone. In the 1980s the left pushed for a focus on patterns of perceived oppression and power rather than truth and history. They wanted to avoid students learning the heritage and history of the ideas of western civilization because they wanted a revolution which abandoned those principles and ideas for a different set. Teaching western civilization reinforced and supported that which they wanted abandoned.

Alan Bloom warned about this in his 1987 masterpiece The Closing of the American Mind which warned exactly what has happened was about to happen. He noted (and Brockmann quotes):
"Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be. But this is a lost art. Now we have come to exactly the opposite point."
Now students are taught what they want to hear and learn, they are encouraged in their natural urges and desires and reinforced rather than educated. Because that's what helps the left achieve their goals; its what the left wants themselves. They desire a society where people function based on their urges without any cost and what hey desire is provided by a powerful central government which controls the economy and our lives to protect us from ourselves. This sort of society requires no ethical guidelines, no personal responsibility, and no effort to better ourselves in any way. It requires little actual effort to gain what we desire, because we rely on others to do it for us.

Brockmann wants to offer an apology for what has happened to humanities and education in general, I think that's not nearly enough. The abandonment of the basic principles of education for leftist social engineering has not just been a mistake, it has been corrosive to centers of higher education, society, and the future. At this point, I suspect few of the established colleges and universities can even be saved, they will have to be replaced by other options and newer institutions, let die on the vine to be trimmed away. The faculty and administration are too heavily entrenched and set to change and hold too much power to allow any attempts.

There are signs this is happening today. What people get out of a college education seems to be less and less, but the cost goes steadily up and up. Fewer people are interested in that exchange, and it looks like fewer still every year.

I just wonder how many times the right is going to be ignored and end up absolutely right before people stop listening to the left.

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