“Why classical schools just might save America”

One of my many interests is classical education, on the elementary, secondary, and collegiate level.  A more common name for the classical education philosophy is “liberal arts,”  a designation that refers not to progressive politicians but to the Latin word for freedom.  The “liberal arts” referred to the kind of education to equip a free citizen of the Greek democracy or the Roman Republic, as opposed to the “servile arts,” the purely economic training given to slaves.  (Go to this website for more information and resources about classical education.)

Anyway, Owen Strachan in the American Spectator sees the connection between classical education and freedom.  And he sees classical schools as a way to “save America.” [Read more...]

Finding Your Vocation in College

Anthony Sacramone asked me to write something on “How to Find Your Vocation in College” for the I.S.I. website he edits, so I did.  I also took the opportunity to answer the conservative pundits who are saying that college students should all go into technology so they can pay off their student loans and forget about the liberal arts.  Also, Mathew Block at First Thoughts linked to the post and added some perceptive comments of his own. [Read more...]

The death of a true intellectual

Jacques Barzun died at age 104.  A scholar of breath-taking range, Barzun, a French immigrant, was a cultural historian wrote about literature, history, music, philosophy, religion, education, how to write well, and baseball.  (He is the source of the quotation, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”  A champion of the liberal arts, he was a key developer of the “great books” approach to higher education.  He was a critic of Darwinism, existentialism, and other modern and postmodern philosophies.  Though his positions seemed largely in accord with a Christian perspective, he did not profess any personal Christian convictions.  And yet, he was baptized and sometimes attended both Catholic and Protestant churches.  (See this for the question of his religious beliefs.)

From his obituary in the Washington Post:

Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University historian and administrator whose sheer breadth of scholarship — culminating in a survey of 500 years of Western civilization — brought him renown as one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died Oct. 25 in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years. He was 104. . . .

Dr. Barzun was 92 when he published what is widely regarded as his masterwork, “From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present.” Journalist David Gates spoke for a majority of critics when he wrote in Newsweek magazine that the book, which appeared in 2000, “will go down in history as one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.”

Dr. Barzun sustained one of the longest and brightest careers in academia, having first risen to prominence as a professor who helped shape Columbia University’s approach to general education. He later was dean of the graduate school, dean of faculties and provost. . . . [Read more...]

Conservatives won at the University of Virginia

You have perhaps heard about how the University of Virginia board fired the university president Teresa Sullivan, whereupon a huge uproar ensued, and she was hired back.

I’ve heard conservatives lament the re-hiring, saying that the lunatics are in charge of the asylum, that this just re-enforces the corruption in higher education, that this is another example of  academic elites stifling reform, etc., etc.

But in this case a conservative philosophy of education was victorious over more progressive attempts to make higher education, which is admittedly frought with problems today, even worse.

First, the board members who led the charge against President Sullivan were liberals and Democratic appointees.  But more importantly, the issues she was fired over had to do with her championing traditional education over and against the changes that are already damaging many colleges.

She resisted the proposal to have UVA go in the direction of online programs.  (I’m not saying online courses are necessarily bad, but the example of for-profit online colleges is not a good one to follow.)  Most telling was this complaint from the board, her resistance to shutting down “obscure academic departments in classics and German.”

Classics an obscure program?  In Mr. Jefferson’s day, classics (the study of Latin and Greek, as well as the history and literature of those ancient societies) was about the only program there was!   Since classics exists to preserve and pass down the heritage of our civilization, it’s often a haven for conservative faculty and students.  German is obscure?  The eclipse of  foreign language is one of the weaknesses of American education.

What is at issue here is preservation of the liberal arts tradition in higher education over against contemporary academic  trendiness.

The problems in higher education are thoroughly documented in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.  It isn’t the conflict between “impractical” and “practical” education or humanities vs. science.  (Science and math are also part of the liberal arts tradition.)  As that book, written by mainstream scholars and not conservative culture warriors, shows, students are graduating without knowing or being able to do very much, due to the collapse of academic standards, bad teaching, a hedonistic student culture, the bad effects of federal funding, and all kinds of other dysfunctions.  As a result, graduates are learning less than they did under old school colleges (when the values of the liberal arts ruled).

At any rate, this time conservatives–in the sense of conservative educators and conservative higher education theory–won at the University of Virginia.

via U-Va. board leaders wanted President Teresa Sullivan to make cuts – The Washington Post.

College majors & unemployment

Colleges are getting blamed for turning out so many unemployable graduates with “impractical degrees” in the humanities.  Critics are saying that students should take “practical” majors like business or other job-training fields as a way to reduce unemployment.

But that’s exactly what college students, including the unemployed graduates, have already been doing!  Only 12% are humanities majors.  What we have now is a glut of unemployed business majors, computer programmers, and (especially) architecture majors.

Bloomberg’s Virginia Postrel gives the facts and the economics behind the issue (such as supply and demand:  if everyone would or could go into the “high-paying” fields, they would no longer be high-paying):

Contrary to what critics imagine, most Americans in fact go to college for what they believe to be “skill-based education.”

A quarter of them study business, by far the most popular field, and 16 percent major in one of the so-called Stem (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Throw in economics, and you have nearly half of all graduates studying the only subjects such contemptuous pundits recognize as respectable. . . .

Most are studying things that sound like job preparation, including all sorts of subjects related to health and education. Even the degree with the highest rate of unemployment — architecture, whose 13.9 percent jobless rate reflects the current construction bust — is a pre-professional major.

The students who come out of school without jobs aren’t, for the most part, starry-eyed liberal arts majors but rather people who thought a degree in business, graphic design or nursing was a practical, job-oriented credential. Even the latest target of Internet mockery, a young woman the New York Times recently described as studying for a master’s in communication with hopes of doing public relations for a nonprofit, is in what she perceives as a job-training program.

The higher-education system does have real problems, including rising tuition prices that may not pay off in higher earnings. But those problems won’t be solved by assuming that if American students would just stop studying stupid subjects like philosophy and art history and buckle down and major in petroleum engineering (the highest-paid major), the economy would flourish and everyone would have lucrative careers.

That message not only ignores what students actually study. It also disregards the diversity and dynamism of the economy, in good times as well as bad.

Those who tout Stem fields as a cure-all confuse correlation with causality. It’s true that people who major in those subjects generally make more than, say, psychology majors. But they’re also people who have the aptitudes, attitudes, values and interests that draw them to those fields (which themselves vary greatly in content and current job prospects). The psychology and social work majors currently enjoying relatively low rates of unemployment — 7.7 percent and 6.6 percent respectively — probably wouldn’t be very good at computer science, which offers higher salaries but, at least at the moment, slightly lower chances of a job.

Whether they’re pushing plumbing or programming, the would- be vocational planners rarely consider whether any additional warm body with the right credentials would really enhance national productivity. Nor do they think much about what would happen to wages in a given field if the supply of workers increased dramatically. If everyone suddenly flooded into “practical” fields, we’d be overwhelmed with mediocre accountants and incompetent engineers, making lower and lower salaries as they swamped the demand for these services. Something like that seems to have already happened with lawyers.

Not everyone is the same. One virtue of a developed economy is that it provides niches for people with many different personalities and talents, making it more likely that any given individual can find a job that offers satisfaction.

As any good economist will remind you, income is just a means to utility, not a goal in itself. Some jobs pay well not only because few people have the right qualifications but also because few people want to do them in the first place. In a culture where many people hate oil companies, petroleum engineers probably enjoy such a premium. Plumbers — the touchstone example for critics who think too many people go to college — certainly do.

The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino, California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.

via Business: Washington Post Business Page, Business News.

I think the real problem is the academic collapse that has been documented in virtually all subjects that has taken place in most of today’s colleges and universities.  (Not at Patrick Henry College where I serve, I am happy to say, where our graduates with their classical liberal arts foundation are even doing well in today’s job market.)

Athenians vs. Visigoths

Thanks to Joe Carter for posting this commencement address (which he never gave) by the late media scholar Neil Postman. Read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts that set forth the basic paradigm:

I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions. I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments. They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them—Democritus by name—conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology. . . .

The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths, and you may remember that your sixth or seventh-grade teacher mentioned them. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders—ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics. . . .

Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us—in this hall, in this community, in our city—there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values. An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea. Let me tell you briefly what these ideas consist of.

To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question—these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.

To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind’s most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence in distinguishable from another. A Visigoth’s language aspires to nothing higher than the cliche.

To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper.

To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word “idiot.” A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.

And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.

Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees. My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. And I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths. And yet, you must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. There is a direct link between the cultural achievements of Athens and what the faculty at this university is all about. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our class rooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.

Undereducated and overschooled

Anthony Esolen names a common malady:

When my daughter was young, she would often be asked, not usually by fellow homeschoolers, why she kept reading The Lord of the Rings. I told her to reply, “Because I want to know what’s going on in the world.”

That came to my mind today after a discussion I had with a Catholic men’s group at our school. One of the young fellows told me that his professor in Introduction to Sociology — a typical course assigned during orientation to unsuspecting freshmen — expressed her disdain for our twenty-credit Development of Western Civilization Program, required of all students. “You should be studying something that will be of use to you in the Real World,” she said, “like feminist sociology.”

Pause here to allow the laughter to die down.

Homo academicus saecularis sinister, the creature beside whom I have spent all my adult life, is a source of endless entertainment, like a child with wobbly consonants trying to talk serious grownup. I really could not repress the merriment. . . .

I dearly hope that my students will never consider the sand-furrowing child, or the galumphing retriever, or the setting sun, to be anything other than deeply Real, mysteriously and beautifully and achingly Real, and that their encounter with the great poetry and art of the west, not to mention that perennial philosophy of Aristotle, and that wisdom-seeking eros of Plato, and the word of God itself, will confirm them in their love for that Reality. . . .

The college professor who sniffs at the Gilgamesh, Hesiod, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Pindar, Plato, Aristotle, Livy, Cicero, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the letters of Saint Paul — just to take the first semester for example — is not overeducated. That professor is undereducated, and overschooled, a deadly combination. Deadly, but common enough, from what I see, and especially common among people who reduce all matters to contemporary partisan politics, as homo academicus saecularis sinister is wont to do.

via Touchstone Magazine – Mere Comments: The Real World.

Classical Lutheran Education

The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education celebrates its tenth anniversary with its tenth annual conference in Concordia, Missouri, June 22-24.  In addition to all kinds of workshops on curriculum, teaching, and catechesis, the plenary speaker will be Rev. Thomas Korcok of the Lutheran Church of Canada.

He has done some remarkable research for his doctorate on classical education in the Lutheran tradition. I’ve seen it.  He shows how the classical liberal arts were key to Luther’s whole educational project, including the teaching of the doctrine of vocation.  He also shows how the Reformation impacted the liberal arts.  He then traces classical education through church history, including the schools established by the Lutheran immigrants in America, from C. F. W. Walther through the Lutheran educational system of the not-t0o-distant past to the revival of classical Lutheran education as represented by the CCLE today.

Rev. Korcok will be giving three plenary lectures, and I know they will be really good.  I’ll be talking about an integrated humanities curriculum I’ve been working on, the new volumes of the Omnibus series from Veritas Press.

The conference will be held on the campus of St. Paul Lutheran High School, the last of the Missouri Synod’s boarding schools, a little ways from Kansas City.

Homeschoolers, schoolers, teachers, pastors, and anyone interested are all welcome.

Go here for more information and to register:  The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education :: Home.

Classical education as a confessional mandate?

Tracing some of those helpful Luther quotes on vocations that some of you had given me, I came across this in the online Bente Triglotta translation of the Book of Concord. From the explanation of the Fourth Commandment in The Large Catechism:

Let every one know, therefore, that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children above all things in the fear and knowledge of God, and if they are talented, have them learn and study something, that they may be employed for whatever need there is [to have them instructed and trained in a liberal education, that men may be able to have their aid in government and in whatever is necessary].

As I recall, the bracketed text means that it is in the Latin version, but not the German. I believe subscription is to the German version, which is the main text for the modern English translations. Still, it’s surely significant that “liberal education”–which is synonymous with “classical education,” referring to the liberal arts, the education that forms a free citizen)–is advocated in the Lutheran confessions. “On peril of losing the divine favor,” no less, at least for children who are talented.