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To Remain Forever a Child

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Hattip to Dave Griffey at Daffey Thoughts.  Patrick Deneen who teaches political theory at Notre Dame decries the ignorance of his pleasant students in a post entitled Res Idiotica:

 

My students are know-nothings.  They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent.  But their minds 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 it origins and aims, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference about itself.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame.  Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them:  they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject), they build superb resumes.   They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though with their peers (as snatches of passing conversation reveal), easygoing if crude.  They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically).  They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting who will run America and the world.

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?  What was at stake at the Battle of Salamis?  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

He contends that this pathetic ignorance among students who should be the most learned among their generation is no accident:

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders.  What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, historyless free agents, and educational goals composed of contentless processes and unexamined buzz-words like “critical thinking,” “diversity,” “ways of knowing,” “social justice,” and “cultural competence.”  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).  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.

Go here to read the rest.  Now such ignorance is appalling but why?  Cicero said it best:  “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.”   One of the chief goals of education should be to produce morally responsible men and women, not forever children, and hard won knowledge is usually an essential part of the process.  Deneen has a series of questions to underline the ignorance of his students:

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?  What happened to Charles I?  Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him?  What happened at Yorktown in 1781?  What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural?  His first Inaugural?  How about his third Inaugural?  Who can tell me one or two of the arguments that are made in Federalist 10? Who has read Federalist 10?  What are the Federalist Papers

Now why is it important to know any of that, and to know it in your bones rather than in a scurried Wikipedia sense?

Saul of Tarsus, Paul, more than any other man, shaped Christianity.  He is one of the founders of our civilization in the West.  If you do not know him and what he wrote, you cannot understand our society.

The 95 theses by which Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation is one of the crucial dividing lines of our culture.  Viewed either as a tragedy or a triumph, the rest of Western history is gibberish unless one understands this dire period in our history.

Magna Carta, (Great Charter) signed by an unwilling King John 800 years ago last year, was part and parcel of Medieval attempts to restrain the power of the State.  It has survived in the history of the Anglo-sphere as an essential rallying cry against usurpation  of power by the State.

The death of Thomas Becket at Canterbury during the reign of Henry II of England in the second half of the twelfth century established his cult as the most famous martyr of the Middle Ages.  It also stood as a victory by the Church in its battle against the State, a victory overturned by Henry VIII when he plundered and broke up the shrine.  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales gives us a glimpse during the fourteenth century of  the world that was lost when the common Faith was broken asunder during the sixteenth century by Henry VIII and his minions.

Charles I, what images are conjured by that name:  cavaliers and roundheads, a bloody civil war, the rude beginnings of modern parliamentary government, religious intolerance, the rise of Cromwell and the New Model Army, the rule of the sword, and the strange transformation when unwise Charles was brought to trial for his life and in his defense suddenly began to speak more for the liberties of his people than those who sought his blood.  It is impossible to understand the English speaking countries in the 21rst century without understanding this far reaching conflict in the seventeenth century.

Guy Fawkes:  “November, November, the Fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot.  I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”  Desperate Catholics, treated as criminals in their home country, sought to blow up Parliament at the beginning of the reign of James I.  Guy Fawkes Day thereafter would be used to whip up anti-Catholic hatred.  Still “celebrated” in England, it is largely forgotten in the US, largely due to George Washington strongly condemning it after he became Commander in Chief in 1775.

At Yorktown, Washington and our French allies forced Cornwallis to surrender his Army in 1781, ending, mostly, the combat portion of the American Revolution, although negotiating the peace would take until 1783.  Understanding of the United States is impossible unless one comes to grips with the American Revolution and its aftermath.

In his second inaugural, Lincoln largely attempted a theological treatise pondering why God had allowed this terrible civil war on both North and South.  He assumed it was because of slavery, and pointed the nation forward to learn from this terrible tragedy and to bind up the nation’s wounds.

In his first inaugural Lincoln unsuccessfully appealed to the better angels of our nature to avert war, but made it clear that war was preferable to disunion.

Lincoln had no third inaugural.  (Without a substantial knowledge base, students are always prey to the trick question!)

The Federalist Papers were a collection of newspaper articles to support the ratification of the Constitution.  They were separately written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.  I have read the Federalist Papers, but as to the contents of Federalist 10, I will have to defer to my distinguished colleague, and resident Federalist Papers expert, Doctor Paul Zummo!

Unless we have such basic knowledge of our own civilization, as represented by these questions and hundreds of others, we do remain forever children, always would be victims of every demagogue and tin pot dictator that our times vomit up.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

20 Comments

  1. We are in for a lot of trouble. Ignorance is not bliss; it is a tragedy.

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

  2. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

    Condemned to repeat its more harrowing aspects of it.

  3. Marcus Tullius Cicero – my favorite statesman!
    .
    If I had my way, his writings would be mandatory reading in high school – in the original Latin.

  4. I might add that the effect, if not the very purpose, of modern education, is to erase all ties between western civilization and its Judeo-Christian roots.
    The battle is always, as St Paul reminded us, with the powers and Principalities….

  5. Think this is new? I graduated from high school in 1982 – a third of a century ago. I never read any of those works, not in high school or college, for which I was ill prepared both academically and financially.

    School systems teach tests now as a sign of “academic excellence”. Ha.
    Young people, thanks to their parents and their never ending infatuation with pop culture, have no knowledge of God, only of the half truths and lies taught as fact about Christianity.

  6. Penguins Fan has a point. I graduated in 1976. Mine was the last Latin class. I was the last person to be taught Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Catullus, Tacitus and Aurelius in that school. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid – all things I had to read in high school (and I had to translate the last one) are unknown to today’s wide-eyed spoiled brat millennials. It’s depressing. I as a Catholic even know the Bible better than my Sola Scriptura Baptist friends. People nowadays – unless it is something directly related to their jobs or a hobby they do at home – are bone head ignorant. So if they don’t know Plato and Cicero, then how can we point to Aquinas’ arguments about God’s existence in Summa Theologica as they argue for materialistic scientism taught in today’s Academia? There is no common ground. They have no foundation. They do not know nor would they understand that our Republic is built on Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Zeno, Epicurus, Epictetus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Herodatus, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Cincinnatus, Scipio Africanus, Cato, Cicero, etc. are all names meaningless to these idiot children. And they are our future. God help us.

  7. The problem is multi-generational, since Deneen isn’t saying anything that Bloom hadn’t already said. Barzun too, for that matter.

  8. Deneen is making a different argument than Bloom did. He’s citing the same symptoms but giving a different diagnosis. Bloom described cultural ignorance as more of a bug. Deneen describes it as a feature. It’s a provocative position, but I’m not sure that I agree with it. I think the answer is that awareness of our common culture and history is just a very low priority.

  9. At Yorktown, Washington and our French allies forced Cornwallis to surrender his Army in 1781, ending, mostly, the combat portion of the American Revolution, although negotiating the peace would take until 1783. Understanding of the United States is impossible unless one comes to grips with the American Revolution and its aftermath.

    I know that one!
    “At Yorktown the British could not retreat
    Bottled up by Washington and the French fleet.
    Cornwallis surrendered and finally we had won! (The Winna! Hurray!)

    From the shot heard ’round the world
    To the end of the Revolution
    The continental rabble took the day
    And the father of our country
    Beat the British there at Yorktown
    And brought freedom to you and me and the U.S.A.!

    God bless America, let freedom ring!

    As you may guess, it was not from school history class.
    ****
    Lincoln had no third inaugural. (Without a substantial knowledge base, students are always prey to the trick question!)
    You had me wondering if it was a trick question, or if I was somehow messed up about what an inaugural address was. 😀
    Which actually wraps around to a big point– there isn’t much of a cost to not saying anything. But if you speak up, and get it wrong– or, worse yet, say something true that the teacher doesn’t like– there can be a very high cost.

  10. Foxfier, I have always contended that The Shot Heard Round the World, from Schoolhouse Rock gives an excellent summary of the Revolutionary War. It manages to include the opening battles of the war, Washington as the central figure of the war, the role of the militia, the endurance of the Continentals, the battle of Trenton, Valley Forge, the frequent defeats of the Americans, American determination, the importance of diplomacy and foreign intervention, constant raiding and skirmishing and the decisive victory at Yorktown. I confess to always tearing up a bit at “The continental rabble took the day.”

  11. That’s where Barzun’s House of Intellect comes into the mix Pinky. Culture is a low priority because the Culture cultivating and transmitting institutions treat their primary mission as secondary as the true primary mission becomes endowment building.

  12. One cannot know why things are the way they are until one knows history. Bill Clinton, the first infatile President, was quoted, I believe, to think that nothing important happened before his birth.

    A whole lot of the problems we face today began or accelerated with him. Knuckleheaded young people fall for Bernie Sanders’ garbage. The MSM is in the tank for Shrillary the should Be Convict.

  13. What’s in a name? Garbage by any other name would still stink the same. Perhaps the Democratic Party is due for a name change. Rather than strain their brain in search of a novel new name, I suggest one discarded and available. The Know Nothing Party is presently quite descriptive of their party.

  14. Talk about ignorance? How about Catholics? Tell me what percentage know or understand Catholic history or Church teaching? It is the fault of the Church. How often have you heard a priest in his homily explain church teaching? Why do we believe Christ is most present in the Eucharist? Why is the Church against abortion and contraception? Why would Christ prefer we confess to a priest? Why pray to the saints? I could go on and on.

  15. It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject), they build superb resumes.

    Colleges and universities get the students they admit.
     
    Then there’s the example of a graduate of my region’s Jesuit high school, a kid from a Catholic family and a product of Catholic parochial schools, who upon meeting a classmate years after high school graduation was startled to discover that his classmate was now a Catholic priest then said, “I’m not Catholic any more. I’ve become a Christian.”

  16. Think this is new? I graduated from high school in 1982 – a third of a century ago. I never read any of those works, not in high school or college…
    Penguin Fan

    I’m of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus’s vintage. I apologize that we used up all the books and didn’t leave any for you. I thought everyone on a high school college track was assigned some Chaucer, Wife of Bath at least. Maybe it became thought too bawdy for high school kids when that moralizing Southern Baptist from Jawjuh was elected National Sunday School Nanny president. I encountered US History in grade school, middle school, and high school; Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in high school; all that English history in high school; read the Iliad and Odysseyin translation in sixth grade (that was the first time I had a man for a teacher, he liked to teach those two stories and a smattering of ancient Greek history–Thermopylae!–with ’em) but missed the Aeneid because I was too chicken to attempt high school Latin. (Like millions of other kids looking for an easy way to meet a college foreign language requirement, I took Spanish instead, 5 years of it between middle school and high school but I can’t speak it and I’ve never been to a Spanish-speaking country–unless you count Texas and California. If only I’d been brave enough to have taken German, that turned out to be useful in my working years multiple times.)
     
    Then I went to university to study engineering. Six non-skill courses was the breadth requirement for Engineering majors. I took a philosophy class and petitioned to be graded pass/fail ’cause I was a gear-head dummy who din’ know nuthin’ ’bout literature an’ dem liberal arts things. When the class was over I was relieved to have earned a Pass grade. I had felt like an impostor who didn’t belong there. The professor asked me why I hadn’t taken the class for a letter grade. I explained and the professor told me too bad, my marks had earned an A.

  17. Bravo to Micha Elyi. I wish I could have studied under a professor like you at college. There are two few of such people left anywhere.

  18. Talk about ignorance? How about Catholics? Tell me what percentage know or understand Catholic history or Church teaching?
    *looks guiltily at her collection of half-finished Conspiracies and Catholicism posts* Working on it, takes a little while with the whole run and find out yourself stuff…..
    *****
    I’m of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus’s vintage. I apologize that we used up all the books and didn’t leave any for you. I thought everyone on a high school college track was assigned some Chaucer, Wife of Bath at least.
    It’s not that the books aren’t around, it’s that you can’t get a straight, simple, basic class about them. (Look at various “by the Bible” churches to see how horribly wrong just reading stuff yourself can go– and that assumes you don’t run into someone’s pet hobbyhorse dressed as objective scholarship.)
    It’s all deconstruction– which is fine if you already have the foundation, then you can build something up again, but when the only way you’re ever introduced to something is to have planks ripped out of it and thrown at your head, not so much.
    A lot of the time it’s like the American hating history classes– the training is designed by someone who, 60 years ago, got the very basic “I cannot tell a lie” level of history and has worked for their entire adult life to correct it.
    I can’t count the number of times that me, being the type of person I am, asked a teacher why we were hammering so hard on a specific point– and long story short, it’s correcting for a “lack” three generations back. It would be alright if the thing it was correcting had ever been offered to us…but it wasn’t.
    We spent more time on the thrice-cursed 60s than we did on all of Europe’s history pre-Bismark. (and we only learned about Bismark at all because the gym teacher had a big rant about how if he’d been in charge, Germany would control Europe; no idea how accurate it was, because we didn’t get any blessed information!)

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