My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.Yes, they're clueless at intellectual trivia.
But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?Put another way, the destructive forces have been working.
Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?
Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not their “fault” for pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present.
Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).Maybe, although that de-cultured homogenization is too coherent a belief system for the trendy nihilists. By their fruits shall ye know them.
In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice”), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps.
Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments. Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.
I love my students – like any human being, each has enormous potential and great gifts to bestow upon the world. But I weep for them, for what is rightfully theirs but hasn’t been given. On our best days, I discern their longing and anguish and I know that their innate human desire to know who they are, where they have come from, where they ought to go, and how they ought to live will always reassert itself. But even on those better days, I can’t help but hold the hopeful thought that the world they have inherited – a world without inheritance, without past, future, or deepest cares – is about to come tumbling down, and that this collapse would be the true beginning of a real education.The collapse might begin with the elite institutions, suggests Victor Davis Hanson.
In the past, there was a clear bargain. The university said, "Leave us alone to do our business that we know best, and we promise to turn out the best-educated and most inductive generation of American youth.""Least prepared yet most politicized" might be the U.S. News problem. The breach of the social contract looks different from the land-grants and mid-majors.
Universities are now breaking their word. Students, if they even graduate (about four in 10 do not, even after six years), are not "universally" educated. Instead, they are the least prepared yet most politicized graduates in memory. Arrogance and ignorance are a bad combination.
If the university cannot fulfill its original compact of broadly educating youth while keeping within bounds of American laws and protocols, then it will either have to change or slowly become irrelevant.
The market is already sensing a void -- and thus opportunity. Online degree programs proliferate. Private vocational and trade schools sprout up around college campuses. Even Ivy League degrees have become mostly empty brand names, like Gucci or Versace, that convey status and open doors but hardly guarantee that graduates are knowledgeable or inductive thinkers.
All of these growing alternatives to borrowing a collective $1 trillion for university education reflect that it may not only be a bad deal, but a rigged one as well.