Commentary, Norman Podhoretz’s once liberal monthly gone cranky neo-right, recently described at some length, “The New Dark Ages on Campus.”
Jon Zimmerman, on-line in Aeon, regrets “How University Students Infantilize Themselves.”
Most, if not all our friends on the right gleefully bemoan the all-too-often clumsy efforts of both students and administrators to come to terms with issues of free speech, overt and inadvertent bigotries, and what at times seems no more than simple courtesy.
Sometimes the clumsy use of words and overt bigotry are seen as one and the same thing, categorized and condemned as “microagression” or “hate speech.”
Our conservative friends sometimes, literally, see such things as “dangerous,” express their disgust at same, and even their fear for “western civilization” itself.
Such condemnations of the outward and visible signs of “higher education” in our time miss entirely the inner and spiritual grace of same
One of the most important, and arguably THE most important, functions of higher education, is to expose young people to new, different, challenging and sometimes outrageous ideas and modes of thought.
With all due respect to “practical” courses of study “higher education” should be more than job training.
It should challenge all values and modes of thought.
It should produce thinkers and debaters; artists and innovators; both within and without the “professions.”
Ideally “higher education” should make your and my children and grandchildren both truly annoying and very difficult to hold our own against at our annual Thanksgiving Table debates.
Conservative parents should be enraged that their children are exposed to the writings of Marx, or Keynes, or Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennet . . . and relish their arguing a cause from their points of view.
Liberal parents should be equally outraged that their kids come home spouting the “truths” of Chicago School economics, Nietzsche, or Kipling at his Imperial best.
In my early days as an oh-so-level-headed physics major I once told an English prof that I was only taking his course because it was “required.”
Rather than showing me the door, he took the time to explain WHY it was required . . . along with mathematics, hard sciences, two foreign languages, history, and other courses.
There are, he said, as many ways of looking at the world as there are languages, or religions, novels, or music or movies, or individual men and women.
To live one’s life ignorant of at least a taste of such perspectives, he told me, would surely be a pity, and worse, it might very well deprive one of insights and points of view that shape a life’s work. And if one is really lucky, they might lead you to people and points of view treasured for the rest of one’s life.
Men are story-telling animals, he continued. We professors of “literature” like to think we collect and pass on the stories and tales of story-tellers who made a difference: men and women who see things other miss, and tell about them in ways that are entertaining, moving, inspiring, and beloved, sometimes for centuries.
The prof, I later discovered (who really knew their profs at 18 before the age of Google) was a war hero; B-17s; wounded when shot down on his seventh mission; captured; survived; came home; taught; and become a true friend, confidant, biographer, and pall bearer for one of the giants of American literature.
Many of the things I learned from him (and a holy host of others at my University) flew in the face of everything my parents and grandparents held dear. And sometimes we fought like cats and dogs about them.
Western civilization, however, lived on, as it always has, since cocksure students first bandied words about the “true” lessons to be learned from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Outrage has always been part of the very essence of a great education.
My favorite example?
On February 9, 1933, a month after Hitler took office as German Chancellor and a month before FDR was sworn in President, members of the Oxford Union debating society voted 275 to 153, that “ . . . this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.”
Just over six years later nearly all of them were in uniform doing just that.
Higher education isn’t in “crisis.”
It is doing just what it should do: teaching young people to think, to challenge authority, and to be challenged in return.
Be thankful that we live in a country where that’s not only allowed, but treasured.