[Squeakland] Panel discussion: Can the American Mind be Opened?

mmille10 at comcast.net mmille10 at comcast.net
Fri Nov 16 16:51:53 PST 2007


Hello folks. I found a good panel discussion on C-SPAN's BookTV (at 
http://www.booktv.org/program.aspx?ProgramId=8828&SectionName=&PlayMedia=No) that I thought would be of interest. It was called "Can the American Mind be Opened?" The inspiration for the discussion was the 20th anniversary of the publishing of Allan Bloom's book, "The Closing of the American Mind". You can watch streaming video of the discussion at the URL. You'll need RealPlayer. It is an adult discussion and there is a mature subject discussed briefly, so I would not encourage children to watch it. Unfortunately I can't say how long they'll keep the video up on their site. They keep some videos on there for years. Others disappear after a few months.

I thought I'd share some of the discussion here (excerpts, I've sanitized it). It kind of relates to a discussion we had earlier with Bill Kerr on the subject of teaching the non-universals, except the focus is on the university level. I think some of the issues discussed will dovetail with that discussion. The focus was on the problematic state of the arts and humanities. They also discussed a couple solutions, which it sounds like have had mixed results so far. It sounds in parts like they're painting universities with a broad brush, but they're specifically talking about arts and humanities (A&H).

The event was sponsored by the Manhattan Institute. It took place in early October. I tried to get the quotes as close to correct as possible, but I may have messed up a bit on the wording.

Heather MacDonald, co-author of "The Immigration Solution", was the first speaker.

She said that the predominant characteristic of today's universities (A&H) was narcissism. She pinned this down as the main cause of the decline in the teaching of Western culture.

She said: "Professors have made whole disciplines out of the shallow material of their own self, defined exclusively along a single axis . . . Predictably students have absorbed the lesson that college is about their own narrowly defined identity, not about exposure to greatness and beauty far beyond their puny selves."

She quoted Allan Bloom: "When a university refuses to think about the content of liberal education, all the vulgarities of the outer world will flourish in it. Those who had the power to stop it didn't care, and those who cared didn't have the power."

She said alumni, along with the Manhattan Institute have figured out a way to reintroduce serious scholarship to campus, called the VERITAS Fund. "It provides independent support for professors who understand that their primary obligation is to expose students to the monuments of Western thought and expression without the gloss of self-indulgent political posturing."

Talking about professors who teach under the aegis of VERITAS she said, "If they have tenure, a pot of money separate from the university budget, and administration support, they can create exciting courses in such taboo books as 'The Federalist Papers' or 'The Wealth of Nations', and even sometimes recruit faculty to teach them. Robbie George's James Madison program at American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, funded exclusively by alumni and foundations, is the flagship of all such 'cartel busters'. It focuses on constitutional law and political thought, and by many accounts it has changed the intellectual climate at Princeton . . . VERITAS has taken this model and applied it to other campuses."

"Now, please don't think that creating such outposts of non-political learning is easy. Indeed, in the early planning stages the architects may as well be developing a center for creating Anthrax. So secretive must be their efforts. An Ivy League government professor was looking into starting a similar program on American democracy at his campus, and he begged me to keep the effort secret, because otherwise the campus feminists would destroy it. His concerns were, of course, justified. In 1995 you may remember the Yale faculty torpedoed a $20 million grant from Lee Bass to strengthen Yale's Western Civilization curriculum. As one Yale history professor put it, 'The chief export of Western civilization is violence.' . . . Recently, the faculty at Hamilton College in New York tried to create an alumni-funded center for the study of Western civilization, and the faculty brought that one down. Well what was this toxic mission that so antagonized the faculty? The study of the origins of
 freedom, democracy, and capitalism.

Now, even when a program is up and running its directors may still have to operate with stealth, like the early Christians huddling in the catacombs. There's an alumnus funded program at Duke University . . . with the mysterious title 'The Girst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies'. It's about the great books, but why the indirection of the title? Well because the program wouldn't have been approved if it used the words 'Western Culture' in its title, the director says . . . The paranoid secrecy in which reformists must work is the clearest proof of how desperately academia needs to change. And that change will come about only if alumni get smarter about giving."

She went on to say that most alumni "beyond a certain age" continue to give generously to their alma maters, despite these problems, which effectively nullifies any boycotts by concerned alums.

"Committed alumni have an alternative. They can inquire about supporting classically-oriented faculty on their campuses, if any still exist. And if their overture is rebuffed, they should direct their giving to professors elsewhere who are committed to non-ideological teaching, whether directly, or through the VERITAS Fund."

She said VERITAS is not trying to shut down the other programs. It's merely trying to give students a choice. "Note as well there is no infringement on academic freedom, though the anti-Humanist faculty will desperately scream that there is to shut down such distasteful student topics as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes."

"This movement to restore attention to the classics may start a revolution. Already professors who still believe in non-narcissistic scholarship are starting to come out of the closet, and are organizing. They're creating principles. They're forming consortia. And the Hamilton College facility that I mentioned has just simply moved off campus. It's still going on. It's not the ideal solution, but there's still hope there."

After decrying the state of cultural education at our universities she offered this analysis:

"Try as I might I can no longer by a cultural declinist. I've tried two types of utilitarian justifications offered today for the university. One is the health of a democracy depends on an educated citizenry . . . And we've also heard that we need to teach students how to lead the good life. I find neither of those explanations persuasive. The ignorance of today's students, and indeed of today's society is undeniable. The cultural rot that Mark Steyn so powerfully described is undeniable. And yet, try as I might, I cannot see that our democracy is suffering. It's a paradox. I can't explain it. Perhaps some of you can.

I find democratic debate is healthy. The technology, innovation, economic innovation is thriving. Our ignorance should matter, yet it seems not to! Nobody has greater contempt for the ugliness of popular culture. I wish we could all live in the Hapsburg Empire and be blessed with Mozart, and Haydn, turning out oratorios and operas, but it's not happening. And yet for every Jay-Z CD, I have to notice that I can buy every single Vivaldi opera on Amazon like that [she snaps her fingers]. I have more classical music, which is my source of life, available to me today than any composer in human history. So somehow despite our grotesque ignorance things are going very, very well in my view. So I come to the most difficult argument to make of all for what I think the university should be, and it is completely non-utilitarian. It should be about the debt that we owe the past for strewing in our laps beauties that we cannot possibly hope to merit. We have an absolute duty towards these geniu
ses. My ideal university would be constituted by love for the gorgeousness that poets, composers, philosophers, and painters have given us."

Perhaps as Alan Kay has spoken of in the culture of computing, the cultural decline is on the micro level instead of on the macro level. Perhaps the decay is imperceptible to someone like MacDonald. I'd be interested in hearing/reading other views on this.

In terms of her democracy argument, I would guess the reason for this is that democracy is still taught in basic ways in the public schools, and in social life. So the children are already socialized in it by the time they reach college. What they probably won't understand, unless they've been specifically taught it of course, are the ideas of a republic, Natural Law, duties that go along with rights, and the more complex dynamics of democracy like competing interests and compromise. I've seen evidence to support this position. IMO all one has to do is look at the turmoil and accusations that came out of the 2000 presidential election to see that. This is but one example (and it's happened before, more than a hundred years ago). Fortunately we've managed to stay in one piece despite these misunderstandings.

There may be enough people who choose to learn on their own what they did not learn in college--a behavior of self-improvement--that we maintain our cultural understanding despite the lack of acculturation in college. There are plenty of Americans who travel abroad. That in itself is educational, or at least the beginning of an education, for those who are open-minded.

I found MacDonald's "we're doing well despite our ignorance" analysis interesting. On a certain level I think she's right, but I wonder if she's looked deeply enough at the issue. According to the panel these problems in A&H have only been showing up in the last 25 years. Perhaps the effects of this are delayed, hidden below the surface of our apparent societal health for now.

I think what is a crying shame, if nothing else, is that people can receive such a low quality education by majoring in A&H at our country's top universities, and yet pay such a high price for it. They're being ripped off.

Peter Berkowitz, the author of "The Future of American Intelligence" spoke next. He talked about a research assistant that worked with him. She asked if he would do things differently than the then-current curriculum at the university where he worked. He said yes, and laid out a core curriculum that he would like to see: classics, foreign languages, etc. He said he thought it would be reasonable to expect that a student could complete it in two years.

He said: "With barely suppressed indignation, and perfect lack of irony, she asked, 'But who is the university to tell students what courses they should take, or what subjects they should study?' To which I replied, 'Isn't that what professors are paid to do? When you go to a hospital,' I continued, 'you don't expect to tell the doctor what surgery he ought to perform and what medicines he ought to prescribe.' She was flabberghasted by the analogy. It barely made any sense to her. And I need to emphasize here I was dealing with an ambitious, accomplished, very able student. She was a high performer. She wanted to learn. She proved to be an excellent researcher. So where did someone like this get the idea that professors have neither the right nor the responsibility to teach students what is worth learning, and to impose form and coherence on students' education? Of course, she learned that lesson from her professors. Indeed the central lesson that our universities teach, the one co
mmon idea, is that there is no core to higher education . . . 'Take what you want,' universities instruct. A little of this. A little of that. "This" and "that" turn out to be special areas of inquiry that our professors in the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences happen to be pursuing that year. Students conclude that there is no content to the notion of an educated person, not because they disregard what they learn at our universities, but because they pay attention all too well to what our universities are teaching."

"As Bloom stresses, 'Intelligent young men and women like to read. They like to discuss, and yes, they like to debate serious books that raise large questions about how men and women ought to live their lives.' So let me close with a final practical remark, which I echo something that Heather said. The current curriculum is warped by two main factors. On the one hand by narrow classes that reflect professors' highly specialized research interests. It's warped on the other hand, as we've discussed today, by Left liberal politicization. The curriculum as it presently exists is not designed to serve 
students' interests. It is designed entirely by professors almost entirely to serve professors' interests, which not surprisingly differ from students' interests."

He explained that he did not mean that the Left needs to be countered by the Right, but rather that students need a true liberal education.

They entered a question and answer period. I'm only covering part of it here:

I can't remember what the first question was, but MacDonald said in answer to it that there's probably never been a "golden age" of education. She put forward a theory that the reason for the decline in A&H was probably economic.

Berkowitz answered with: "Reluctantly I must quarrel just a little bit with Heather. I'm sure that she's right that there's never been a golden age in education. Always people went to college for careers. We all know well of the "Gentleman's C" at Harvard, in the pre-1950s era. But I think you would be hard pressed to find a time in the history of higher education in the United States in which a majority, or at least a significant percentage of those whose job it is to teach and safeguard the university, are really devoted to ignorance; are devoted to depriving students of the things of beauty, which Heather wants them to appreciate."

A question was asked about incentives and how they've changed at universities. The questioner said that people who expect to get tenure have to publish prolifically, and (I think) he indicated this is tough to do as a classics professor. He said "It's rare if a great teacher, and only a great teacher, gets tenure in today's modern universities."

Berkowitz answered saying that not only is the curriculum set up to give the advantage to professors' pursuits over students', so is the university system, promoting the research of professors over education.

This matched with complaints I had heard 10 years ago about Ivy League schools, that the professors were not spending enough time educating undergraduates. Instead a lot of undergraduate classes were being taught by graduate students. What I heard at the time was that more prominent professors tended to be more interested in research than in teaching, and the universities were accomodating them, because they were a draw for students, and funding. It sounded like a "bait and switch" at the time, because these folks were not interested in teaching them. It sounds like the same old story in this case, but with a different twist.

What I've read causes me to come to a similar conclusion as MacDonald. Some of the reasons this rot has happened at our Ivy League schools is for financial reasons. Even though the arts and humanities are decaying, the math, science, and engineering disciplines (perhaps the business colleges as well) tend to not be suffering these effects. The reason seems to be that these other disciplines are more popular, because they're seen as a means to a goal: a career. The arts and humanities, not so much. Since the money is going into the "career majors", A&H get neglected.

I really appreciated them having this discussion. It's something I've been concerned about for the past 5 years. Up until I found the Squeak community I felt as though I was one of only a few people who had concerns about it. Not that I suffered the ills they speak of in the humanities when I went to college, but I'm glad to see that solutions are being tried to bring the classic liberal arts curriculum back where it has whithered.

---Mark
mmille10 at comcast.net
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