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

Bill Kerr billkerr at gmail.com
Wed Nov 21 15:23:57 PST 2007

This (Peter Berkowitz) anecdote from mark's review is worth exploring
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.

I suspect that many would agree with the flabberghasted student, that free
choice ought to play a large role in education, cf. medicine where correct
decisions are often a life and death issue. Education is about "freedom",
"choice", "self" and not seen as a life and death issue. The notion that
there is important core knowledge which you require to be an education
citizen of the modern world has slipped out of view.

Mark's post reminded me strongly of a book I read and reviewed
recently: *"Where
have all the intellectuals gone?"* by Frank  Furedi. At least some
intellectuals are now speaking out against the dominant post modernist, all
truth is relative / subjective trend

Furedi outlines a number of trends that are working in synergy against
public intellectuals:

Instrumentalism: Knowledge is for practical purposes only

Disenchantment with the Enlightenment legacy: The previous century is
perceived as one where big ideas such as communism were tried out and
failed. People came to see rationality as destructive. Rationality is now
marginalised by the sacred and spiritual, eg. nature worship

Relativist approach to knowledge and other cultures: Our western culture has
no special merit. Other cultures have a spiritual dimension that we lack.

Knowledge domains are evaluated externally to themselves: Rather than
respecting the internal dynamics of knowledge development it is evaluated by
criteria such as economic advance, personal identity, providing therapy or
social engineering

High standards are attacked from both the Left and the Right: The Left from
the point of view of "inclusion", the Right from the point of view of "back
to basics". The cultural "Left" (what I call the pseudo left) is more
dominant, they promote a politics of inclusion, participation and flattery.
It sounds progressive to include people. But it's not a response to a demand
from below, it's imposed from above by cultural commissars who are looking
around for some way to "engage" the "disengaged masses"

Post-modernism denies the whole concept of Truth: All truth is regarded as
relative, it depends on your local conditions and point of view. The
universal values from the Enlightenment have to be replaced by the
"progressiveness" of particularity and situatedness

Public intellectuals, who wage battle for public hearts and minds and who
influence overall social development have been replaced by the professional
expert of a particular but limited knowledge domain. These experts use hard
to understand technical specialist language. Many of them are academic

This book is not without fault but it ought to be read and discussed IMV

-- =

Bill Kerr

On Nov 17, 2007 11:51 AM, <mmille10 at comcast.net> wrote:

>  Hello folks. I found a good panel discussion on C-SPAN's BookTV (at
> http://www.booktv.org/program.aspx?ProgramId=3D8828&SectionName=3D&PlayMe=
> that I thought would be of interest. It was called "Can the American Mind=
> Opened?" The inspiration for the discussion was the 20th anniversary of t=
> 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 sit=
> 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 =
> 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 a=
> 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 decli=
> 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 thou=
> 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 exclusiv=
> by alumni and foundations, is the flagship of all such 'cartel busters'. =
> focuses on constitutional law and political thought, and by many accounts=
> 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=
> well be developing a center for creating Anthrax. So secretive must be th=
> 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 dest=
> 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.' . . . Recentl=
> the faculty at Hamilton College in New York tried to create an alumni-fun=
> center for the study of Western civilization, and the faculty brought that
> one down. Well what was this toxic mission that so antagonized the facult=
> 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 titl=
> Well because the program wouldn't have been approved if it used the words
> 'Western Culture' in its title, the director says . . . The paranoid secr=
> 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 =
> 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=
> 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 fi=
> neither of those explanations persuasive. The ignorance of today's studen=
> 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 expla=
> 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 Hay=
> turning out oratorios and operas, but it's not happening. And yet for eve=
> 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, wh=
> 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 h=
> an absolute duty towards t hese geniuses. 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 La=
> duties that go along with rights, and the more complex dynamics of democr=
> like competing interests and compromise. I've seen evidence to support th=
> position. IMO all one has to do is look at the turmoil and accusations th=
> 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,=
> 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 =
> 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 rip=
> 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 t=
> 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, 'Is=
> 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=
> the analogy. It barely made any sense to her. And I need to emphasize her=
e 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 h=
> 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 o ne common 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 =
> be special areas of inquiry that our professors in the humanities, the
> social sciences, and the sciences happen to be pursuing that year. Studen=
> 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 t=
> 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 la=
> 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 ha=
> by narrow classes that reflect professors' highly specialized research
> interests. It's warped on the other hand, as we've discussed today, by Le=
> 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 studen=
> 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 p=
> 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 =
> in education. Always people went to college for careers. We all know well=
> the "Gentleman's C" at Harvard, in the pre-1950s era. But I think you wou=
> 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 ha=
> to publish prolifically, and (I think) he indicated this is tough to do a=
s a
> classics professor. He said "It's rare if a great teacher, and only a gre=
> 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 =
> 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 =
> 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=
> 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=
> 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 communi=
> 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 =
> 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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