Pat Lang’s post on the U of VA sent genuine chills
through me. He put his point with some eloquence:
“What is happening at Charlottesville appears to be part
of a state wide effort to convert the state's many fine colleges and
universities into trade schools to support industry and the business community
generally. The process has had a certain elegant simplicity. Wealthy
business people give a lot of money. They then are appointed to governing
boards. After that they begin to agitate for "pragmatic"
reforms. This generally means attacks on the Humanities. These are
deemed to be "dreaming of the past" rather than studies in which
critical, independent thinking is nurtured and fed on the experience of
Albert North Whitehead once said that civilization
is a precarious balance between “barbaric vagueness” and “trivial order.” The
current dispute in the University of Virginia clearly embodies this balance and
places in peril the whole idea of a cultured education.
But when the country is governed by a mass of people
with no clear intellectual ability, one of the first causalities is the idea of
education because such people have no idea of its significance, its enduring
value, the kind of spiritual growth and the promotion of reasonableness among
people that education at its best can produce. What is lost at the outset is
the moral obligation to be intelligent. We live in an age where the majority is
hostile to anything that is not useful. Such people have only strong views
about the immediate because it is only the immediate and the useful that they
It should be pointed out that the ancient state did not share the utilitarian view of recognizing culture only as it was useful to the state, and it was very far from trying to weaken or destroy those impulses and activities that did not have immediate useful applications. The very reason
the ancient Greek had for the state a strong admiration and thankfulness, so
abhorrent to our modern, bumptious barbarians, was because he realized that only without state protection, the germs of his culture could not develop. To the ancient Greek, the state was his
companion and friend and the protector of his spiritual development. They were
In America, this situation has been reversed.
Today in America, the educational institutions are at war, hiddenly and openly, with the
spirit of education. In America, real talents in America life are being democratized in order that people may be relieved of the labor of acquiring culture and their need for it. There are two
main tendencies: a striving to achieve the greatest expansion of education on
the one hand, to expand it to the greatest possible extent, and a tendency to
minimize and weaken genuine education and culture on the other. In America,
most people are eager to obtain just the right amount of culture that allows
them to make a living. People are allowed just enough culture compatible with amassing
monetary gain. The greater number of such people, the happier the country will
be, goes the ordinary reasoning. But we cannot escape the fact that American
educational ideals are vulgar and superficial. We are addicted to any idea of betterment without understanding what genuine betterment means. Too often sober, practical men have no ideas worth having. They don’t know much that is worth knowing. They don’t revere the mind
and don’t want to make the effort to master a subject. Their object is money predominance, not
Schemes of financial betterment neglect the obligation to be intelligent. It neglects the obligation to develop the human personality to its fullest ranges. For the students, merely to be useful demands a much smaller energy and power of will on his part.
It should not be forgotten that there is an enormous
disparity between the multitude and the minute numbers of the truly educated. Nietzsche
said somewhere that the whole secret of education -- namely that the
innumerable host of men struggle to achieve it and work hard to that end, is
something too difficult for most to obtain.
So why is the education of the masses being pushed so ruthlessly on such an extended
scale? Because the structure of education wants to drive single great individual
into self-exile. The insidious vanities are no longer constrained by any real
barriers and have allowed or permitted the desire of the brainless to speak his
untutored mind. Originality of response to the classics, the humanities, is
demanded by today’s educators of their students, but only in the form that will
end by being by passed over in favor of the useful, the immediate, and the
desire for financial aggrandizement. It is a seeding ground for thoughtless
Classics are there as a link to the past, a connection that places us in contact with past heroes and their deeds, who, like us, were animated at least in part by the feelings that reside in us. This is a
tough job that requires a talent for fine, discerning minds. It means a teacher
has to have a key critical impulse, the astuteness to separate the worthy from
the hapless trash.
It might too be helpful to remind the sponsors of
education that both science and mathematics are liberal arts.
But be warned: the useful means contributions by
students that aid in building up the strength and prosperity of the state. The scope of this is narrow and demands a much lower order of ability. There is a much higher form of vitality necessary
to realize the highest, most choice and most select achievements of the human
mind. To concentrate on being useful, to be a “problem solver” neglects the
effort needed to realize higher and more important abilities necessary to the
development of the human personality.
Nothing hobbles the mind more decisively than to
become merely a “problem-solver.”
The complete want of style, the crude, characterless
or sadly swaggering methods of expression, are the key characteristic of our
age. Gone is the ideal to bring to life the disciplined, practical, and well-thought out as a sacred duty. Instead we have irresponsible scribbling newspaper reading destroys any sense of any
kind of style.
Most ordinary life is lived on an ordinary level. When classes are dismissed, the student is drowned in the mediocrity of the current, the fashionable, the loud but false, the gossip novel, scandal, the tabloid. Students can easily drown in the vast oceans of falsehood and feverish overstatement. But
an advantage in studying liberal arts consists of presenting a whole world of thought and reflection has to be set before students for them to peruse.
We live in a debased mass culture where the newspaper is the chief engine of informing.
Any time any seeds of culture are sown, they are soon crushed flat by the steamroller of pseudo-culture.
But language has to be respected as the vital means of expression and has to be mastered and
used with skill. Nietzsche said that by the treatment of our other tongue we can see clearly whether we esteem the art of expression. He said, “If you notice no physical loathing when you meet with
certain words or tricks in speech in our journalistic jargon, cease striving
Teaching is no longer seen as being part of the
highest sphere of human activity.
The teaching profession today embodies the spirit of
bureaucracy. Only a narrow mind is solely interested in problem solving or
financial or social advancement. Education is supposed to develop mental
faculties and talents as opposed to learning the technique of business success.
But to be successful, a teacher must have a mental life which includes reading books, studies, interests and having a reverence for ideas. They should have strong interests outside of their specialty. Remember, there are fewer born teachers than born poets. Teachers must reject and repel the idiot idea that they were simply older versions that their students and not better informed than they are. Teachers should do better than have vague habits copied from life. Otherwise, classrooms
are often merely centers of the waste of expensive human material.
One should look at Napoleon. People become captive
of their own schemes and intrigues for advancement at the expense of real
spiritual and intellectual growth. Napoleon had trained his memory and his
analytical powers of reason by sheer hard work and determination under the spur
He plunged himself into a course of self-education devouring particular books on military
or political history. In order to train his memory to hang on and utilize what
he had read, he wrote a prefis of the books he had read, and these voluminous
digests still survive. They cover his field of subjects and indicate the trend
of his thoughts and ambitions. He was more or less a negligent student, but his
mind, once awakened, his mind became a powerful machine, grinding through all
the materials that had come within his reach, appropriating them, absorbing
them and sorting them into compartments where they would be effective. And he did this in poverty – in conditions that would discourage any prolonged or arduous study.
It is a stunning example to emulate.