I love reading Victor Davis Hanson. He makes you really think about shi.
About 15 years ago, John Heath and I coauthored Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, a pessimistic warning about where current trends would take classics in particular and the humanities in general. It was easy enough then to identify the causes of the implosion. At the very time the protocols of the universities were proving unsustainable—more expensive administrators and non-teaching personnel, soaring tuition hikes, vast non-instructional expenditures in student services and social recreation, more release time for full professors, greater exploitation of part-time teachers, and more emphasis on practical education—the humanities had turned against themselves in the fashion of an autoimmune disease.
For example, esoteric university press publications, not undergraduate teaching and advocacy, came to define the successful humanities professor. Literature, history, art, music, and philosophy classes—even if these courses retained their traditional course titles—became shells of their former selves, now focusing on race, class, and gender indictments of the ancient and modern Western worlds.
These trendy classes did the nearly impossible task of turning the plays of Euripides, the poetry of Dante, and the history of the Civil War into monotonous subjects. The result was predictable: cash-strapped students increasingly avoided these classes. Moreover, if humanists did not display enthusiasm for Western literature, ideas, and history, or, as advocates, seek to help students appreciate the exceptional wisdom and beauty of Sophocles or Virgil, why, then, would the Chairman of the Chicano Studies Department, the Assistant Dean of Social Science, the Associate Provost for Diversity, or the Professor of Accounting who Chaired the General Education Committee worry about the declining enrollments in humanities?
Even more paradoxical, humanities professors began to adopt the very values of the caricatured corporate world to define the successful humanist. The campus exemplar became the grandee who won the most time off from teaching, garnered the most grants, taught the fewest undergraduates, and wrote the most university press books that in turn were largely critical of the subject matter that ensured his university position in the first place. Now, in the latest round of declining interest in the liberal arts, the problem is not just one of declining enrollments and interest, but also that there is no longer any institutional safety net to subsidize an eroding but still vital mode of education.
If the humanities could have adopted a worse strategy to combat these larger economic and cultural trends over the last decade, it would be hard to see how. In short, the humanities have been exhausted by a half-century of therapeutic “studies” courses: Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Environmental Studies, Chicano Studies, Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Asian Studies, Cultural Studies, and Gay Studies. Any contemporary topic that could not otherwise justify itself as literary, historical, philosophical, or cultural simply tacked on the suffix “studies” and thereby found its way into the curriculum.
These “studies” courses shared an emphasis on race, class, and gender oppression that in turn had three negative consequences. First, they turned the study of literature and history from tragedy to melodrama, from beauty and paradox into banal predictability, and thus lost an entire generation of students. Second, they created a climate of advocacy that permeated the entire university, as the great works and events of the past were distorted and enlisted in advancing contemporary political agendas. Finally, the university lost not just the students, but the public as well, which turned to other sources—filmmakers, civic organizations, non-academic authors, and popular culture—for humanistic study.
In the zero-sum game of the college curricula, what was crowded out over the last half-century was often the very sort of instruction that had once made employers take a risk in hiring a liberal arts major. Humanities students were more likely to craft good prose. They were trained to be inductive rather than deductive in their reasoning, possessed an appreciation of language and art, and knew the referents of the past well enough to put contemporary events into some sort of larger abstract context. In short, they were often considered ideal prospects as future captains of business, law, medicine, or engineering.
Teaching the humanities is what college used to be for. Of course back then, college wasn’t for everybody. It wasn’t even for everybody who went to college. It was for the male children of the aristocracy and financial elites. But since they were probably gonna be the future leaders, it was considered a good idea to train their brains.
That is what the humanities is really for – brain training. Higher education was for opening minds and exposing them to a much greater world. You weren’t supposed to graduate knowing everything, you were only supposed to be introduced to it.
You (if you were one of the privileged few) were supposed to spend the rest of your life after graduation learning and adding to the sum of human knowledge. You would write essays and engage in thoughtful debate with your intellectual peers. That’s how we got guys like Tom Jefferson and Jim Madison.
The system wasn’t perfect. Many who were given access to higher education weren’t worthy and learned little or nothing from it. Even worse, many others who were more than worthy of higher education were denied access to it because of social class, gender and/or race.
The system today is no better and is in many ways worse. In order to offer near-universal access to higher education we dumbed it down and diluted its worth. By glorifying the credential we have substituted possession of a piece of paper for actual accomplishment, causing the rise of a self-declared “creative class”, a pseudo-elite exemplified by Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias.
In a true meritocracy admission to college would be based on ability, not heredity. Those of lesser ability would still be valuable and indispensible citizens, but they would be directed into more mundane careers suitable for their talents.
Unfortunately, human affairs being what they are, there will never be a true meritocracy. Somebody’s thumb will always be on the scale. The best we can hope for is a system with enough freedom and opportunity to let the cream rise to the top.
The kind of freedom and opportunity that you find in a small-government capitalist democracy. The kind of nation where a marketplace of ideas can thrive.