We live in a pathetically dumbed-down culture. Levels of literacy and numeracy plummet and levels of ignorance rise. Knowledge of the past disappears, its lessons unlearned, as the present shows its contempt for the wisdom of the ages and its sages. In short and in sum, and to put the matter bluntly, we live in an age that is characterized by the arrogance of ignorance, which knows nothing but is certain nonetheless that it is smarter than every age that preceded it.
Five minutes with Homer and Sophocles, or Plato and Socrates, could show us that we know less than we think, or, for that matter, five minutes with Dante or Shakespeare, or a few minutes with the inimitable Miss Austen. The problem is that we no longer spend any time with these paragons of wisdom, and we certainly don’t spend time with them at school, from which they have been unceremoniously banished.
But there is good news on the horizon. As a latter-day Bob Dylan might say, the times they are a changing.
The past decade or so has seen a striking rise in the desire for real learning, rooted in the Great Books, and a hunger for real meat and gravitas instead of the thin gruel of relativist “relevance”.
One recent example at the University of Oklahoma illustrates this healthy hunger. A course in the Great Books which was described by those teaching it as “the hardest course you’ll ever take” has received “sky high” enrollment as students rose to the challenge. Inspired by a syllabus taught at the University of Michigan in 1941 by the British poet, W. H. Auden, the course requires 6,000 pages of reading: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Horace, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Pascal, Racine, Blake, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Henry Adams, Melville, Rilke, Kafka and T. S. Eliot. And that’s not all. For good measure, the course also includes opera libretti from Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Bizet and Verdi.
Wilfred McClay, who designed the course based on Auden’s original syllabus, was initially inspired to do so by the negative reaction to the discovery of Auden’s syllabus in 2012. The universal response to the demanding nature of Auden’s syllabus was that today’s students could never survive such a course and would not tolerate the level of work that it demands. Reacting to such negativity, Prof. McClay thought that students might rise to the occasion if set the challenge. Prof. McClay and the two colleagues working with him broke “every rule of the postmodern academy” in designing the course, “creating a highly demanding sequence of classic works, setting high expectations, and eschewing the grayness of theory and the reductionism of identity politics in favor of an intense engagement with the texts themselves.”
To everyone’s surprise, except perhaps for the three cavaliering professors who designed it, the course proved to be a great success when it was first offered in Fall 2017, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its being promoted as “the hardest course you’ll ever take”. The course filled up quickly and disappointed students were turned away. “The enrollments for the course have been sky-high for every semester we’ve offered it,” Prof. McClay said. “Given the sad condition of humanities enrollments, that is a fact that speaks rather loudly.” David Anderson, one of the triumvirate of professors teaching the course, said that his faculty colleagues were genuinely “stirred by the idea that students are eager to do so much reading, falsifying the charge that undergrads want to cruise through college, doing the bare minimum,” adding that the course has “taught us something about how compelling the current generation finds serious books and rich ideas.”
This was confirmed by Robert Bellafiore, one of the students who had taken the course. “The most important takeaway from the course was the importance of demanding excellence from others,” he said. “Our professors expected far more from my classmates and me than any other professors I’d had. They presented the course as a challenge and insisted that we could overcome it. Rather than overwhelming people and convincing them to give up, the course inspired us to rise to the occasion.”
The exciting example set by the University of Oklahoma will remind many people of the pioneering work of John Senior and his colleagues at the University of Kansas in the establishment of the highly successful and hugely inspirational Integrated Humanities Program. Senior’s vision continues to inspire new generations of educational pioneers. One thinks perhaps of Wyoming Catholic College and also and especially of the many classical academies that are springing up around the country. One of these, Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, exemplifies what a solid education in the integrated humanities can achieve, even at high school level. This is illustrated by the topics chosen by this year’s senior class for their senior theses. The depth and breadth of learning that these students have achieved is evident in the depth and breadth of the topics that interest them. Here are a few of the topics chosen, each of which speaks for itself:
The Separation of Church and State: Good for Our Nation?
Church Music: Congregational and God-Centered
The Environment and the Extent of Man’s Moral Obligation
Love: How Objective and Subjective is it?
Individualism and Atomism: The Destruction of Family and Society
Discoveries in Genetics and the Flaws of Evolution
Medical Ethics: Treating Both Body and Soul
Technology: When Seeking Freedom Enslaves Man
It is astonishing and very encouraging that young men and women, still in their teens, are questioning and challenging the status quo with such insightfulness and eloquence. These are the men and women of the future who will pass the torch of civilization to the next generation, keeping the light of intellectual life blazing in a darkening world. As the night gets darker their lights will shine all the brighter for the darkness, attracting people with the goodness of truth and beauty. Enlivened by the past, they are the future.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Book of my Remembrance” (1792) by William Blake, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.