Note: This is a special higher education edition of Prufrock. We start with an excerpt from John Agresto’s new book, The Death of Learning: How American Education Has Failed Our Students and What to Do about It. Agresto was the president of St. John’s College for many years and has worked at the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Toronto, Duke University, and several other institutions. The excerpt below is from his chapter titled “Looking Backwards.”
As we all sense, while other parts of collegiate learning are forever attempting (often with success) to leap forward, traditional liberal education has a different aspect. While not expecting that our students will live in the past, we do often ask that their studies begin in the past and understand the past. But if this form of education is ground so firmly in traditional learning, how exactly can it look to be useful to the present? How can it teach so little about medicine, finance, computers, or pop culture and still have any claim to relevance? And how can it be that a liberal education, which wants to be so liberating, so freeing, always seem to be foisting on us old books, long-dead philosophers, and that most boring of subjects—history?
Think of what an imaginary student might say: “Old music? We like our music. Old books and plays? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to read stuff written today about things going on now? Old thinkers, long-gone philosophers? Haven’t we advanced since then? They may have been great in their day, but haven’t we made progress, lots of progress, since those olden days of yore?”
All of us who teach know students who think this way, even if they don’t say it this way. We know that these sentiments form a large part of the modern critique of the liberal arts: We are a progressive people, and our children should be helped to look forward, not enticed to turn around.
This is rarely an accusation leveled at us by our friends in what we often think of as the more “progressive” fields of commerce, technology, and science. Very often they know what we’re doing and seem to have a modicum of respect for it. Rather, often our most serious antagonists are those in the once-standard and now reformed disciplines basic to the liberal arts themselves—literature, philosophy, history, and classics.
Still, we respond: This turning around is not a form of slavery to the past but, perhaps paradoxically, an openness that will help carry us into the future. As was said at the beginning of this book, the liberal arts are a liberation that helps lead us from opinion into greater knowledge—a liberation from what today “everybody knows” and a liberation toward what might be good or true in itself. A liberation, that is, from thinking we know, even—especially—when we do not.
Seen in this way, liberal arts become the vehicle to carry us ahead, not simply against the winds of public opinion, prejudice, or fashionable “politically correct” views but against the stifling forces of academia itself: forces that often pretend that nothing in the past can be of all that much moral or intellectual value today.
What shall we learn by looking back? How they dressed or what they ate? Some things about their “time and place”? Who influenced their thoughts or who followed those thoughts? Interesting enough, I guess, but not all that valuable.
Reflecting on what we’ve already noted, I can name two things we can learn. First, we learn what is ours. We understand with increased clarity the ground from which our current culture and current problems grew. What, for instance, could possibly lead Lincoln to say that the real question is not whether democracies can be established but, rather, whether they can endure? What did he—and Madison and Tocqueville—see as both the real promise and the deepest problems of democratic life? Despite what the smug among us try to teach, the past was not all prejudice and unthinking convention. Indeed, the ground of all we might take for granted today was often sharper when our way of life was new, when it needed to be rationally argued for and defended against entrenched opposition.
Second, along with knowing with greater depth and clarity what is our own, the other value of the liberal arts is giving us the minds of those whose views and insights are different, even profoundly different, from our own. Perhaps Aristotle’s view of the naturalness of political life can teach us something about the radicalness as well as the limits of modern Lockean/Jeffersonian individualism. Perhaps Thucydides’s expansive view of human nature, hubris, courage, and the problem of piety can give us a richer view of how to approach political life and its challenges than, for example, today’s shallow slogans about whether government or economics is the problem or the solution.
If human nature doesn’t change all that much over time, if it’s possible that good and evil exist independent of societal customs, if the matters and madness of the human heart seem to be as much ancient as modern, why would we willingly cut ourselves off from learning wherever we can?
In this light, the great paradox of the liberal arts becomes clearer: In possessing the minds of the finest writers, artists, and thinkers, we do something that is both backward-looking and simply, totally, progressive. We can see the roots and reasons for what we call our own and be liberated from believing that we and our peers—or even our parents and professors—have the latest corner on human wisdom. That is, by trying to grasp the minds of the finest thinkers and writers who have lived, we might, for the first time, come to possess our own minds.
—John Agresto is the former president of St. John’s College and the author, most recently, of The Death of Learning.
Speaking of looking backwards, the president of the American Historical Association, James H. Sweet, wrote a column raising concerns about historians’ obsession with politics and allowing the present to skew their approach to the past. As Phillip W. Magness notes, “all hell broke loose on Twitter” shortly afterwards. Here’s Magness: “Sweet offered a gentle criticism of the New York Times’s 1619 Project as evidence of this pattern. Many historians embraced the 1619 Project for its political messages despite substantive flaws of fact and interpretation in its content. Sweet thus asked: ‘As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history?’ Within moments of his column appearing online, all hell broke loose on Twitter. Incensed at even the mildest suggestion that politicization is undermining the integrity of historical scholarship, the activist wing of the history profession showed up on the AHA’s thread and began demanding Sweet’s cancellation. Cate Denial, a professor of history at Knox College, led the charge with a widely-retweeted thread calling on colleagues to bombard the AHA’s Executive Board with emails protesting Sweet’s column. ‘We cannot let this fizzle,’ she declared before posting a list of about 20 email addresses.”
In Quillette, William Deresiewicz explains why he left academia—or more precisely, why academia left him: “Anyone in the academic humanities—anyone who’s gotten within smelling distance of the academic humanities these last 40 years—will see the problem. Loving books is not why people are supposed to become English professors, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Loving books is scoffed at (or would be, if anybody ever copped to it). The whole concept of literature—still more, of art—has been discredited. Novels, poems, stories, plays: these are ‘texts,’ no different in kind from other texts. The purpose of studying them is not to appreciate or understand them; it is to ‘interrogate’ them for their ideological investments (in patriarchy, in white supremacy, in Western imperialism and ethnocentrism), and then to unmask and debunk them, to drain them of their poisonous persuasive power. The passions that are meant to draw people to the profession of literary study, these last many years, are not aesthetic; they are political.”
Mark Bauerlein remembers the days when English profs weren’t obsessed with politics: “It may surprise readers of this magazine to learn that the kinds of political and identity work so common to literary studies today were precisely what we were told not to do back in the 1980s when I started graduate school. This prohibition was, in fact, a theoretical demand. We assume that theory and politics in the humanities go hand in hand, but that wasn’t the case at all. These were the years of High Theory, which demanded a whole other recognition that language was not exhausted by political meanings, and that more was going on in the workings of metaphor and connotation than social affairs. To discover racism at the heart of a novel was understood as hasty, simplistic, and inadequately theorized. People who read The Cantos and dwelt only upon Pound’s anti-semitism had failed to address his poetry as poetry. To find imperialism in Kipling took no critical talent. It’s not that politicizing readers were wrong—they were just crude.”
Dale Chu surveys the casualties of the reading wars of the 1980s and 1990s: “The myths about the efficacy of whole language / balanced literacy are legion nonetheless. Its proponents assert that children don’t all learn to read in the same way and that a whole-language approach meets their different needs, and they confidently claim that kids learn more when teachers use this method. Research has shown that neither is true. On the contrary, reading researchers have found that, unlike learning to speak, a natural process that occurs by being surrounded by spoken language, learning to read does not come naturally. That’s because the written word is a relatively recent addition in human history, dating back just a few thousand years. To crack the code of how the spoken word connects to the word on a printed page, children need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. This is the premise undergirding the science of reading.”
Finally, Wilfred McClay argues in Public Discourse that the liberal arts still have the power to save American higher education—and America itself: “The chief public benefit of liberal education is the formation of a particular kind of person, and thus a particular kind of citizen, who embodies the virtues of both inquiry and membership, and therefore is equipped for the truth-seeking, deliberation, and responsible action that a republican form of government requires. We are talking here about moral formation, in the fullest sense of the term. Such a person asks questions, and answers questions asked, responsibly and respectfully. Such a person has an ability to draw back from the flow of events and reflect upon them, consulting the voice of reason and the wise testimony of the past. Such a person has the cognitive and moral strength to see the world as it is, never mistaking a succession of images projected onto the walls of caves, or simulations of ‘public opinion’ conjured on screens, for reality, no matter how large the images or how pervasive their presence. Such a person has the courage to think for himself.”
If you are involved in higher education in some way—either as a faculty member, an administrator, or a trustee—I recommend Stanley Stillman’s excellent Padeia Times. It provides a thoughtful aggregation of the latest news in higher education from a variety of sources.
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In other news, Will Orr-Ewing writes about breaking the smartphone spell: “With some reports suggesting that the average child’s digital media consumption is now up to 9 hours per day, and given increasingly persuasive evidence of their educational and emotional damage, such advice feels naive at best. Have schools got the scale of the problem posed by screen time in proportion?”
Your doppelgänger exists, and you are likely related in some way, The New York Times reports.
Eve Peyser spends a week with “certifiable” geniuses: “About 1,100 Mensans journeyed to the Reno area for this year’s convention, people old and young, conservative and progressive, rich and not so rich, cashiers, scientists, community activists, conspiracy theorists, BDSM enthusiasts, and straitlaced monogamists. They came because they think they are smart, they care deeply about a certain type of intelligence, and they feel most at home in a crowd of other high-IQ individuals.”
Jason M. Baxter revisits The Waste Land at 100: “Just a few years before he started working on Waste Land, Eliot attended a performance of Rite of Spring in London. He loved it: ‘Whether Strawinsky's music be permanent or ephemeral I do not know; but it did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels . . . and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music.’”
Peter Hitchens goes to the museum: “The first museum I ever encountered was a glass case at a boarding school I attended long ago. Normal calendar years could not properly express how far this place is from me now. I suspected at the time that much of it was an undergraduate joke, but I did not mind. Can there really be such a thing as an ‘Australian Garden Spider,’ the description on the label of a gaudy creature near the centre of the display? I shouldn’t think so. But the spiked leather German Pickelhaube, perhaps salvaged from the Franco-Prussian war, was genuine enough. Perhaps, so was the tiny grey scrap of something, in its own brass setting, alleged to have been a morsel of elephant from the Paris Zoo, as consumed by the starving people of that city during the siege of 1870-1871. How this particular tiny ration managed to remain uneaten I do not know. But if I have a lingering and unsatisfied interest in that strange era, half-modern, half ancient, I owe it to those exhibits.”
A history of amusement parks: “The earliest amusement park is thought to be Dyrehavsbakken in Denmark. When a natural spring was discovered there in 1583, it attracted large crowds who brought entertainers and vendors with them. However, it was London's Pleasure Gardens that transformed the concept of leisure. Offering an environment in which societal norms could be cast aside, if only for a few hours, they captivated the public with their heady mix of culture, fashion and vice.”
A life of Henrietta Maria: “She was daughter, sister, wife or mother to five kings and two queens. On her wedding day, her pale blue velvet train was ostensibly held by three princesses of the blood, but so heavily encrusted was it with golden embroidery that a man had to walk concealed beneath it to carry the weight. Such a start in life might seem to presage a pleasant existence of leisure and luxury, but the career of Henrietta Maria, a Bourbon princess by birth and a Stuart queen by marriage, was as full of trouble and strife as the most harrowing of hard-luck case histories.”
Alex Perez revisits the work of Jim Harrison, “that great chronicler of America and her natural beauty”: “A few times, as I read Jim Harrison’s The Search for the Genuine, a collection of nonfiction containing essays, vignettes, and travelogues spanning from 1970 to 2015, I dropped the book and considered bolting out the door like a madman. I even stood up once during a midday Miami thunderstorm, remembering the skinny kid who’d loved murky puddles and rain pelting his face. But before I could make a move, I sat back down like the good, civilized boy I’ve become. The puddle fiend, the connoisseur of tadpoles and frogs, the wild boy I used to be – before the screens and the Twitter hivemind and the ‘culture war’ came to dominate my life – apparently no longer exists . . . Harrison, unlike me, wasn’t a vessel for information, but for the stuff of life, for life itself. He hunted and fished and drank and walked his beloved dogs, but above all, to the delight of his cultish readership, wrote like a motherfucker. By the time he passed in 2016, after seventy-eight years of sucking every last drop of the sweet – and sometimes bitter – nectar of life, Harrison had written over thirty-five books.”
The Alex Perez appreciation of the great Jim Harrison was balm for the weary soul. And paired with the piece on breaking the smartphone spell! This is what makes Prufrock so valuable. May we all put our smartphones down today and take a long walk, perhaps remembering Aquinas’ observation that Nature is God’s first Bible. Thank you, Micah.