In my twenty-seven years of teaching, I have always been doubtful of the “progress” of education, especially that of higher education, which makes me, for all intents, a heretic. I have seen the latest trends in teaching methodology and testing come and go and be repeated for decades, none of them improving student learning. Despite these efforts, most of which have been politically driven, we’ve experienced an increase in ignorance, a causal relationship between what is taught and the decline of education.
A student told me once he disagreed with my opinion as to when colons and semicolons should be used in a sentence. Relativism, so instrumental in defining modern education and by extension our society, gives a measure of truth—relative “truth,” that is—to this student’s claim that one can put these structural symbols anywhere. Former teachers and professors had very likely allowed his “creative” punctuation, many of those educators perhaps even unaware of any infelicity.
One of the most notorious of today’s language transgressions is pronoun agreement, using the possessive pronoun “their” in lieu of “his” or “her,” as in “A student will tend to Twitter or Snap Chat on their cell phone during class.” The grammatically correct version, “A student will tend to Snap Chat on his or her cell phone during class,” is considered cumbersome or even politically incorrect because of the gender designation. Progressive education? To sacrifice the clarity of communication, the science and acumen of grammar itself, at the altar of “Political Correctness,” is a societal travesty.
It follows that if there is no higher-order truth, then certainly there exists no lower-order truth, so everything—especially punctuation and grammar for the sake of politics—is a matter of opinion. When as a college student, in 1978, I stepped into my Philosophy 201 class, relativist thinking was but one wing of the great paradigm, the yin to the yang of the absolutist. I recall an entire class dedicated to that debate, one young man who looked like Warner Sallman’s depiction of Jesus proclaiming that if “ice melts in your hand, there are at least two truths: one, the ice is too cold; and two, your hand is too hot.” The student disputed the idea of absolute truth. The professor promptly dispatched his analysis with some Hegelian passage. So much for nostalgia. If you’ve spent any time in an academic environment the last forty years, you know which side ultimately won.
In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom wrote that some of the benchmark moments in education’s corruption occurred in the 1960s on college campuses like Cornell, where he taught, and Berkeley in 1964. The infamous Berkeley takeover began in good faith: activist students were helping to mount a front for causes like free speech and the voter rights of African Americans. The key moment, however, had little to do with the trampled rights of black voters or free speech and much to do with the future curricula of academic America. On December 4th, the protest became heated, escalated, then ended in a mob of students storming the administration building of the Berkeley campus. The inmates took the prison, demands were made and met.
Changes to the curriculum were neither immediate nor direct, but college-campus incidents like this were a flashpoint for the long-term effect on what is taught in liberal studies, at least. Bloom’s argument in The Closing, however, indicted every facet of contemporary life he could think of, including rock music. Granted, some of his charges seem comically antique to contemporary sensibility, but many are apt. He perceived the social revolution of the Sixties as a catalyst for the backsliding of liberal studies.
In the fall semester of 2015, I taught a senior-level modern literature class at the University of Arizona. In order to determine the reading list, I canvassed the class. Out of eleven students, only one or two had read The Great Gatsby, and not one of them any work by Hemingway. Two students had read stories by William Faulkner and John Dos Pasos, and few had ever heard of Tennessee Williams. Dead white guys are staying dead, and there has been a concerted campaign to keep them that way. How could these students, most of them English majors, have emerged from four years of school untouched by these artists?
Certainly, I sympathize with diversifying the literary canon and know that many consider the culture wars fought and won. I even cede that the canon needed some diversifying but at the expense of what? The “Eternal Verities” Faulkner cited in his 1949 Nobel Prize speech are just that, and they are represented in works by artists of any colour, gender, creed—or political disposition. We cannot dismiss The Waste Land or Glengarry Glen Ross because Eliot converted to Catholicism or Mamet “confessed” his more conservative leanings. Lately, any kind of discourse that even smells like it leans a right is met with outrage.
Last year at Berkeley the editor of Breitbart, a conservative news service, was kept from speaking by an angry mob. Windows were broken, fires started. The irony of this incident is self-evident, and history is rife with the quashing of dissenting voices, those who don’t fall in with current orthodoxy. How many steps will it take from an enforced party line to the Killing Fields of Cambodia; the yellow Star of David hung from doors, shop windows, and the chests of the subhuman; the offending witches of Salem hanged high above the town for all to see? These tend to be the “final solution” wages of Orwellian group think.
Of course, these are college students, and cultural shifts tend to reverberate most passionately in young people, most of whom ultimately become peaceful, productive citizens. Still, I’m slightly unnerved at seeing kids, much like the ones I work with, forming violent mobs. My relationship with students tends toward the mundane, like finding reasonably priced textbooks and making sure my class fits with their major. Most students aspire to make their own quiet and noble contribution to the world. No yelling, no picketing, no stones hurled.
Many of them are seeking secondary education degrees, and judging by some of their papers, they don’t seem to be participants in protest rallies, but a few of them do consider punctuation and pronoun agreement a subjective matter. It concerns me that what they internalize about grammar, punctuation, and literature will be more deeply impressed on them than trysts with antisocial involvement. This is not to say they are not bright and conscientious. A couple of them have been, in fact, brilliant—mis-educated, indoctrinated in relativist, contemporary “progressive” thinking—but brilliant. I am not mounting an attack on critical theory, nor am I saying it precludes any class discussion on broader human experience, but contemporary approaches to literature are a component of the great relativist war machine.
And what officers of that army we are making in these bright students, who will put forward their great truth of non-truth to their own students. Many contemporary ministers of literary tradition (if you can call it that) regard all printed work as “text,” Hamlet and Benny Hill relegated as equals to the same stack, and discourage students from “privileging” one writer over another. The attitude belies great art as the plaything of “intellectuals”—it’s only art if we in the ivory tower extol long and hard enough about it, if we can make it fit our Marxist or pet sociological agenda. Hamlet, therefore, from a psychological theorist’s view, would have “Mommy and Daddy” issues and is—in queer theory—carrying on a frustrated love affair with Horatio. For the sake of these fashionable examinations, the higher truths of great literary works are ignored and dismissed, and soon enough readers will be rendered blind to them.
Faulkner in his 1949 address lamented: “…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” What would Faulkner make of the academy now? Many in my field would say, “Screw Faulkner, and the shabby buckboard he and his characters rode in on.” Still, years from now, between the dusty covers of some book, a ten-year-old character named Sartoris Snopes in Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” will be torn between what is right and the love of his father. Great truths, like young Snopes’ conflicted heart, remain just that, buried or not.
Today’s classroom and popular culture have buried these truths under a mountain of cultural relativism. A few years back I began again to probe for a common text in my basic writing classes; I came up with The Lion King, but fewer and fewer of my students even know that one. Twenty-five years ago most of my students raised their hands when asked, “Who’s read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter?” Now only about half of them are familiar with The Lion King. When I ask them what they remember about the story, they look at me blinking, wishing they could get back to their cell phones.
The public has been sold the utilitarian virtues of education, and their interests tend to be strictly pragmatic. For most students, subjects in the humanities fall somewhere between social sciences and underwater basket weaving in the current cast of the academic curriculum. It’s just the flapdoodle they have to trudge through in order to get to the real classes. Regrettably, in a way, I think they are right. Great art has been made mere artifact in the “progress” of the humanities, perhaps because it makes it more accessible, less disturbing, and easier to deal with. The student once came to college; now college comes to the student. The stable rock of academy was freed from the river bed and taken by the swift current of popular culture. And the sad truth is that the academy itself upended it.
The acquiescence of the university administrators in the 1960s to the demands of the students was perhaps the precedent. Maybe those black-tied bureaucrats were charmed by the anarchist spirit and call for social justice, nostalgic for the idealism of their own youth. Perhaps it was then, as it certainly is today, mere cowardice. Ultimately, higher education has kowtowed to the infantile demands of the “clientele.” Students struggle to read Hawthorne, and his question of Hester Prynne’s culpability is no longer relevant. Of course, she is a victim and wrongly prosecuted! With contemporary sensibilities, we are left without the prism of moral ambiguity through which to question and examine these old truths. While Hawthorne’s book may give rise in the secondary or even college classroom to the question of single motherhood, a limited view of the text at best, this discussion cannot take place if the book is not prescribed in the classroom. The pressing question of Hester’s virtue in the context of an unchecked Calvinist-gone-pathological system, and the incipient structures of the U.S.’s moral codes would now go unnoticed.
A teacher is likely to address even the richest work of literature through the lens of progressivist politics, thus Gatsby, were it taught at all, would be looked at in terms of the inequities of the American class system, Huckleberry Finn in terms of racial oppression, and The Old Man and The Sea with perhaps an environmentalism slant. Text is just text, to be manipulated to fit the popular discourse—what is insidiously, the elite discourse. To be fair, this is not the fault of the middle-school or high school English teacher; a fish rots from the head down, so this is the fault of his or her (“their”?) teachers. I teach college, I’ve seen the enemy, and it is us.
Thus far, I’ve only roused the torches and pitchforks with no call to action, and I’m not sure what that action might be. In the last fifty years, cultural developments have significantly impacted the liberal studies curriculum, and those developments have somehow managed to shut out and even expunge much of the literary canon. The direction of the humanities, among other disciplines, appears to have marched toward a “progressive” totalitarianism. The impulse to strike out the voices and even skin colours that don’t square with the prescribed program is prevalent. By its very nature, the single-party system presumes some direct line on the truth, that it has things figured out, that it bears no need nor responsibility to hear dissenting voices. It is through this insidious progression that the academy has laid siege to our culture and kidnapped our young.
Education has tried everything in the last fifty years from the Bell Curve to state-sponsored capstone tests to the “learner-centered” classroom. There is no secret to teaching save rolling up your sleeves and putting your back into it. The spokespersons for education for years have called for more funding, more innovation, but I can teach Joyce or Faulkner under a tree. The basics of a thing don’t change.
Certainly, good minds can imagine a pathway to better learning in the public schools and a more fair and balanced curriculum. After all, school athletic programs are now more fair and balanced; there are more women’s college athletic programs than ever before. If sports can become gender equitable, why not make the curriculum more politically and culturally balanced: for every Marxist English professor on campus, federal funding could be contingent on hiring a formalist in Flannery O’Connor; for the Darwinist in one classroom, a proponent of Intelligent Design in the adjoining. For every guest speaker calling for a liberal view of social justice, insure a protected forum for a counter speaker like Condoleezza Rice. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s call for conservative thinkers in his field is not misguided. He has determined an unhealthy lack of balance in the social sciences, and he worries for the skewing of research unless his discipline becomes more diversified. While I respect his good intentions, I think it’s a safe wager Haidt is a little late on the uptake. Still, why dismiss these measures? This is not a desire to silence voices but to augment the discussion.
Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish-born English statesman and philosopher, asserted that the only way to progress is to know the wisdom of the ancients, that to move forward we must first look meticulously backward. Real insanity is to dismiss, then forget, those great thinkers who came before us. “Progress” is not merely changing things, but how well we can improve, yet protect, the old, the fundamental. The automobile and the horse-drawn carriage have different power sources, but they are essentially the same. Old wisdom, meanwhile, knows that round wheels work best.[pullquote]
Enjoyed this article? Help keep us solvent by tweeting it or sending it to you Facebook. Subscriptions (paper magazine or online) from as little as £10 a year)