“Humanities” is Western society’s name for the academic expression of its fundamental values. There are other branches of learning—medicine, law, engineering, and business, all of which benefit from the humanities—but only the “liberal arts” reflect a society’s soul, central beliefs, highest aspirations, and ultimately its culture. Yet during the last half-century America has witnessed the degradation of the ideal expressed by a humanistic curriculum.
Such has been my conviction since the late 1950’s when, after a decade of teaching, I wrote The Future of Education. My view of American education was so dim that I never considered writing another book on the subject. Why indeed try to “improve” and even discuss something so hopelessly mediocre, something resembling not so much education as conditioning and brainwashing? Though I have continued to teach, I have never been stimulated in an American classroom, never felt that ineffable excitement that contact with informed intelligences or simply eager minds always brings.
The anti-elite often argues that nowadays classroom instruction counts for less than the pop culture absorbed from magazines, concerts, museums, and television. This is true insofar as classroom instruction, with its audio-visual aids and other tricks, has become a poor shadow of what it should be. But classroom teaching, with its irreplaceable relationship between human beings, remains central to learning. Unfortunately, I only find it done successfully abroad.
In this country, the poverty of the classroom has not changed since 1950, the year I began to teach. Like-minded friends try to convince me that the situation in the schools has worsened. Except for manners and security, it is only just as bad. Those raw intelligences I do still occasionally find have been corrupted by the criminally lazy habits acquired in high school from frivolous courses and uncultured teachers. But students in the 50’s were just as unprepared and uninterested as they are today, and my colleagues, then and now, have endlessly debated at futile meetings such questions as, “Why do we teach?” and “What is excellence?” I told one man back in 1951 that he should not be teaching if he doesn’t know why he chose the profession—end of discussion.
I have always believed that teaching is a vocation second only to the priesthood. But in the academy all I have found is hypocrisy, silly slogans, ideological conformity, and a thinly disguised greed for money that is wrapped in high-sounding jargon. I know of no profession as conformist and cowardly as teaching. How can an educator transmit the love of knowledge and respect for moral intelligence? Anguished colleagues ask me how to avoid being given bad grades by students (the grades received from little ignoramuses may blacken their files and block promotion), but when I tell them simply to refuse to play such a humiliating game, they recoil in horror as if I had suggested that they commit a crime. (These are the people who condemn Russians and Germans for not standing up to their totalitarian governments.)
America is interested mainly in money-making and its auxiliary occupations such as publicity and the media; purely cultural education is something extra and is regarded as a luxury. We want schools to teach “excellence” as we want our cars to have a shiny finish. But we borrow the word from business, not from culture, knowledge, refined literary taste, and philosophical conversation. Are there outstandingly cultured citizens? Of course there are. But only because at age 25 or 35 they understood that the system had cheated them all along. They work hard to catch up. Quite a few succeed, but they know better than to return to the classroom to teach. Even the best professors would leave if it were not for tenure and other, often lavish, benefits. Students, colleagues, and the academic atmosphere are not the reasons they stay.
What about the Jacques Barzuns, the Allan Blooms, and the other ritual pleureuses who, at regular intervals, bemoan that education, and with it the “house of the intellect,” is in hopeless disrepair? Johnny can’t read (not even as a Harvard freshman), Johnny couldn’t care less when the Civil War was fought, and older John, by now ambassador or President, confuses Bucharest and Warsaw. The true reasons for this state of affairs are—intentionally—never discussed, only the symptoms are listed with much simulated indignation and gratuitous prediction of better times ahead.
In May Mrs. Lynne Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave (at Hillsdale College) one of those neither-fish-nor-fowl speeches that our officials so love. She listed some appalling percentages of ignorance, in history, literature, language, science. But she offered not one word of political or sociological analysis why this is so; not a hint of what the causes are or who’s to blame. Only gratuitous lamentation and empty rhetoric. A shaman from Siberia would better scrutinize the cause-and-effect relationship of why our liberal arts education is the laughing stock of the world, and why American students abroad are dismissed as ignoramuses, why they consistently rate the lowest.
The reasons are several: society’s and the academy’s lack of interest in serious knowledge and the life of the mind as the highest ideal, even though only a very few can adopt it (ah, but democracy is for all . . . ); refusal of any effort that does not wield immediate and tangible results; and the schools’ openness to whatever irrelevancy the ideologues and the merchants bring in. Even today, when modernism and American influence are ruining Europe’s schools, their level is infinitely higher than that of the best in our country. Last time I was in France I talked with a twelve-year-old boy in the first year of the lycée. His curriculum was the same as mine was in two countries of Eastern Europe, fifty-some years ago (thank God, no progress!). Creek and Latin, English and German, a weekly five hours of French composition and literature, history and geography, mathematics and physics, music, drawing, and gymnastics. Compare that with our college students’ curriculum, exposed to the psycho-pedagogues’ tender mercies, taking only four courses for fear their psyches and social schedules may suffer. John Gray of Oxford writes that after a recent lecture at a Polish university students asked him to comment on the quality of their studies. He was impressed enough to advise them not to make changes, certainly not through an imported curriculum from the West. Strange as it may sound, forty years of a Marxist regime could not destroy school programs there the way NEH directives and the teachers’ colleges have in the United States.
Not only Europe and Japan, but also Argentina and Chile are far ahead of us in the art of forming cultured individuals, although for managerial training their sons swarm to Harvard Business School and for science they go to MIT and Stanford Medical School. What is missing in the humanities that is present in technical education? Perhaps it is the inability of our educational system to develop and then impose a common discourse that would allow people to talk and understand each other, to stimulate each other, to commune in the same beauty and truth—and, at higher levels, to expel the trivia that clutter mass discourse in a mass-democracy.
The closest American students come to this humanistic ideal is when, after a suitably abundant display of democratic-pluralistic scruples, a college introduces a “core curriculum” in the humanities. Such is the bare minimum for cultural literacy, we are told—immediately raising the question of why humanities students should be content with a bare minimum when physicians and atomic engineers reach for the maximum? But even this minimum rarely survives being cut down and retailored by the “experts,” or kicked out by student-power. The consequence of this scrapbook approach to learning is that one student learns a few things about the Baghavad Gita, another about ecology, the third about female rights in Outer Mongolia. What will they talk about? Sex and rock.
Americans regard liberal arts studies in Europe and elsewhere as programs of elitist societies. This is totally false: that European students are almost completely subsidized by the state will simply not register in American minds. Theirs is the proletarian’s response to the practice of selecting by talent, hard work, and achievement: if X has been selected, X is a fascist. The democrat knows only what is necessary for business and social intercourse. The rest is nonsense at best, and perhaps suspect, too.
Some say, ritually of course, that there are bright spots here and there, one school in the Bronx, another in Denver. Bennett’s last report as Education secretary tried to be optimistic, but the most recent Cavazos report admits we have hit bottom. “America’s business is business”—everything else is merely tolerated, and then only insofar as it can justify itself before the high court of pluralism and egalitarian democracy. If humanistic education can hardly have gotten worse than it was 34 years ago when I published The Future of Education, it is only because a vacuum cannot lose substance.
In such an atmosphere, even bright students sitting around a bright professor in the blessed isolation of their seminar room—optimal conditions—come to feel their superfluity, their lack of importance. Can minds be thus shaped, insights prompted, scholarly habits implanted and cultivated? It is difficult when society so belittles learning and so rewards the shallow, the loud, and the primitive.
I repeat that the situation described here has not changed since the 1950’s. American education has always followed the prevailing winds, and the general deterioration of society has made these winds increasingly poisonous. When I first became a teacher, I was amazed at the freedom that business enjoyed on campus and in classes. Later I was not so surprised when the businessman’s place was taken by the ideologue, later still by the revolutionary. Now, in the 90’s, the campus lives under the signs of sex, violence, feminism, racial tensions. The ultimate culprit is perhaps the notion that the university is not a place for selected minds (no matter from what social class or race), but for all invaders and idlers, no matter how frivolous, obscene, or vulgar, from the publicity stunt-man to the sexologist and the drug dealer. If this is freedom and education, then the liberal arts must indeed fail, because their vocation is much narrower: freeing the mind and the soul for higher pursuits. The reorganization of the schools, the appointment of miracle men, the budgeting of billions of dollars are only cheap tricks, acts of a hypocritical society. Our entire value system needs to be turned around, a metanoia. And that is a futile dream.