Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory, and his recent piece about his efforts to encourage students to read classic books for college credit is hair-raising: the foundations of Western Civilization have been chased from our college campuses. Here’s his story:
Many years ago, in the late ‘90s, three professors and I met with the undergraduate dean at Emory University to discuss a Great Books proposal. Steven Kautz, a political scientist, led the effort, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Harvey Klehr, and I backed him up. The idea was to build a Great Books track within the undergraduate curriculum whereby if a student took enough approved courses, he could add a certificate to his record. Kautz had lined up funding for the program and promises of cooperation from (to that point) three or four departments.
The dean was cautious. He wasn’t really a humanities guy, and none of us knew him well. Soon afterward, in fact, he left Emory to become head of the Bronx Zoo. Without his approval, though, we couldn’t move forward. He listened to Kautz’s pitch without any show of enthusiasm, simply nodding and posing a logistical query now and then. When Kautz finished, he finally made a substantive suggestion: drop the “Great Books” label.
Why would Kautz want to drop the label? Was it the word books? Of course not. He said the word “great” sounded superior. But, why wouldn’t you want your students to be reading superior books? Kautz also said it sounded combative, but why would an assertion of quality be an affront to anything but mediocrity? The story continues:
Professor Kautz didn’t waver on the title, but he didn’t make much of an issue out of it, either. The suggestion trailed off, and we left the dean’s office without any determination one way or the other. As I think back on it now, I can’t conceive of anything we might have said after he offered his criticism that would have gotten past it and left our vision of the program intact. Obviously, we were there because we wanted a mini-curriculum of traditional, Western Civ works available for students interested in that kind of material.
Bauerlein explained that — over the years – he’d watched the core of liberal education erode before his very eyes. But, he explained, “a policy that allowed a student to take a course on contemporary fiction instead of one on The Odyssey disgusted us. To object to ‘Great Books’ was to ask us to drop our basic philosophy of teaching.” Exactly. That’s always their intent: utter destruction. “A clever bureaucrat doesn’t kill an initiative by beheading it,” Bauerlein explained. “He goes after a big toe, a small-seeming request or inquest that, in fact, disables the whole project or discourages the leaders of it.”
That seems like a great deal of fuss over a program that — at best — would affect fifty students? Of course, it’s not about the fifty students, or even the books. Bauerlein continues:
Nothing came of the proposal. Professor Kurtz left Emory awhile later and, I presume, took his idea and funding with him. I never spoke to him about it, but I’m sure the tepid, quibbling response to his initiative spurred him to search the job market for more congenial climes. He should have known better, though, and so should we. As anyone who has attempted such a program has seen, resistance on the part of campus leftists to small and non-competitive projects with a traditionalist flavor is a common occurrence. You must tread carefully to establish something that might smack of reactionary motives, even one that will be beneficial for all and won’t impinge on others’ turf. People are quick to express mistrust and worse.
The dean understood that, and his misgivings should have given us that lesson in resistance. But we could learn it only by not taking his words in earnest. He wasn’t speaking for himself. He was anticipating the reception of the initiative by our colleagues. Administrators, you see, are not the problem (Emory’s leadership has been quite helpful with conservative-oriented programs in recent years). It’s the other professors who don’t want to let it happen, no matter how unambitious the effort. A few weeks later, one of my closest friends at the time, an art historian who was gay and had close ties to Women’s Studies professors (I was still voting Democratic back then), told me that he’d heard Betsy Fox-Genovese was trying to push some conservative program under the radar. “Conservative” here meant “vile.”
Bauerlein’s whole article is worth a read. A population that doesn’t understand the foundations of liberty is destined to lose it… and they deserve to lose it. Thank God there are still places like Hillsdale College, Grove City and Liberty University, The King’s College in Manhattan, (and a bunch of others) that teach actual history and — dare I say it — great books. Their students will be better for it.
America will be better for it.
Hat Tip: Minding the Campus
Image Credit: PXHere