Teaching at a time when civilization is in such obvious disarray and such marked decline imposes even more stringent and pressing obligations on the teacher. I have reached the conclusion that what American teachers must do is really very basic: Teach young men and women how to read and write, how to imagine beyond themselves, their experiences, their lives, and their world, and, if we are fortunate, how to think.

I.

Had someone told me forty years ago, when I was about to graduate from college, that I would become a teacher, I would have found the suggestion preposterous. I was going to be a jazz musician. Then, in 1980, there occurred a small episode in my life, the significance of which arose before me only in retrospect. I was an undergraduate, a senior at Hiram College, but I had all sorts of secondary occupations. I was, of course, a musician, but I also had worked in the steel mill, to which I would return, if only for a brief time, upon graduation. Gene Peters, one of the philosophy professors at Hiram, suggested that I act as the teaching assistant for his Introduction to Philosophy course. Although majoring in history, I had taken a great many courses in the philosophy department, and had shown some aptitude for the subject. The introductory section was uncommonly large that semester, and Dr. Peters doubtless did not want to grade the tests and quizzes without help. He told me that, if I were so inclined, I could also run discussion sessions for interested students and help them prepare their assignments. Dr. Peters offered me a stipend of $500 for the entire semester, which he clearly regarded as a princely sum for an undergraduate. (Ordinarily, I would have agreed. He had no way of knowing that I earned at least $1,000 a week and $4,000 a month working at Republic Steel, even though at the time I had taken a hiatus from the mill, and another $300 or $400 playing clubs and bars on weekends.) I accepted the job not for the money or even for the experience, but because Dr. Peters’s solicitation flattered my intellectual vanity.

There came that gray, desolate, hopeless day in late September when I made my way across campus to an antediluvian classroom crowded with students not much younger than me. I do not now recall much of what we discussed, but I do remember the unexpected satisfaction I received from teaching, or, more accurately, from summarizing Dr. Peters’s lectures. I felt the pleasure of purpose at what I now recognize was a confused and sad period in my life, as the fabric of the world I had known and loved was beginning to unravel. One by one, the steel mills were closing. Men with whom I had worked were suddenly unemployed; some took their own lives. Families packed up their belongings, put their houses on the market (few sold), and moved away. The secure and certain world I had known all my life was reaching its end. But for a few hours each week I was doing something that I thought useful. I derived an element of intellectual gratification from the work as well, and had the unexpected insight that by explaining things to other students, I was augmenting my own understanding, and not, for once, with the purpose of calling attention to myself so that others might be astonished at how much I knew. Only years later, upon reading St. Augustine, did I discover what was happening to me: by giving something such as knowledge away, by sharing it with others, I was not impoverished but enriched.

Yet, that troublesome and intractable element of vanity had not disappeared. I was still an undergraduate. I had not yet attained a bachelor’s degree and here I was, teaching a college course. Sort of. I was at least the one standing in front of the room. I was the one writing on the blackboard, the students sometimes avidly following my words and writing them down in their notebooks as if they were important to remember. Teaching invested me with a kind of authority that I had never before possessed, or at least I thought it did.

So, after all, I enrolled in graduate school, earned a Ph.D. in history, and became a teacher. After nearly thirty years, teaching has lost none of its charm or excitement, but neither has it proven as easy, as pleasurable, or as rewarding as I initially assumed it would be. My fear at first (and I believe the fear of every beginning teacher) was that I might not have enough material to fill up the class time. My problem has turned out to be the opposite: I have (or I think I have) too much to say. I enjoy teaching, but I have never cared much about having an academic career or rising through the academic bureaucracy. Truth be told, I cannot abide even the thought of it. I find the dullness of the academic world to be exceeded only by its pretense, and suppose that I have revealed my own dullness and pretense by saying so.

My boorishness notwithstanding, academics and the academy are less important than most persons are wont to think. Universities have nearly always been detached from the most important cultural movements of the past. During the Golden Age of Spanish art and literature, for example, the universities in Spain were wretched. Oxford and Cambridge contributed little to the English Renaissance of the sixteenth century, and French universities played no role whatsoever in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth. It is not the detachment and otherworldliness, but rather the petty worldliness and vaulting ambition, of academics that I deplore. More than once, I wished that I had pursued a career in music (ignoring for the moment my distaste for poverty and a steady diet of government cheese), that I had continued to work in the steel mill until it closed, or that I had gone into the Mafia when an opportunity presented itself to do so. The last option was real, but it is also another story. Suffice it here to say that as this fantasy plays itself out in my imagination, I am in the end either rich or dead. Either way, the problems and frustrations that continue to vex me have ceased to matter.

In the pursuit of academic rewards, we seem to have lost the sense of vocation and craft, which is more important than academic rank or status. Many scholars, some of my acquaintances, now read too little and write too much. They publish to lengthen and fatten their résumés and to enhance their professional reputations. The quantity of their work has come to matter more than its quality. I can only hope that judgment does not also apply to me. For by the time I became a teacher, I also wanted to be a writer. That is, I wanted to make my living and my reputation as a writer whose works enjoyed widespread and popular readership.

When I began teaching, I was still in my late twenties. I hoped that, by the age of fifty or fifty-five, I could retire and devote myself to writing. That did not happen. Yet, something else did—something that emerged gradually and imperceptibly. I discovered that I am, in fact, as much a teacher as I am a writer. In the beginning, the chief purpose of my teaching was to afford me the time to write. The relation between my teaching and my writing is no longer so uncomplicated. Difficult and maddening as teaching has often been, I have experienced moments of deep intellectual joy both from teaching and, especially, from the long hours of preparation that teaching requires.

Among the satisfactions of teaching, although one that is fading, is having a captive audience who on occasion actually listens to me (intellectual vanity still?), an act that became increasingly rare during the late twentieth century and one that is virtually nonexistent now. During that miserable century, the habit, practice, and capacity of listening deteriorated. In all walks of life, in all circumstances, among all kinds of persons, attention was disrupted and curtailed because of the noise constantly assaulting the ears and overwhelming the mind. It is my guess that people used their minds and their senses differently three or four hundred years ago. Consider only the length of sermons in the seventeenth century or the length of political speeches in the nineteenth. Among the more frustrating aspects of teaching contemporary students is their appalling inability and unwillingness to pay attention to anything for very long, even if it is a serious film or piece of music.

Having a captive audience who at least sometimes listened to me was thus a luxury that I hope I did not take for granted. In the classroom, for one hour and a half, I could tell them so many things, some of them interesting, some even important. It occurred to me a long time ago that I probably reached many more persons in this way than I have through my published writings.

Although most of the students I have taught over the years have been invariably polite, even obsequious, they have also been lazy and apathetic. What they lack in vigor and discipline, they make up for in ignorance and docility. I have always wanted and encouraged my students to challenge me by asking more questions, but they are timid and shy and so remain mostly silent. I regret their lack of initiative, curiosity, and imagination. At the same time, I find the celebrated desideratum prevalent at American colleges and universities (certainly at my own institution) of a dialogue between students and teachers too often superficial and false. The students commonly have so little of value to say that it might be better if they did remain silent. There is a deeper truth in that statement. Both the students and I know that my knowledge is more extensive than theirs. They accept, and even savor, that circumstance, although often from bad motives. It relieves them of the responsibility for knowing anything, since I can do the work of informing and explaining. They at best need be no more than passive receptacles. Yet, they are also intimidated by my learning, a problem that I have never found a way to circumvent.

This condition, which is in part natural and healthy, places special obligations on the teacher. In traditional societies, the teacher is respected if not revered. Confucius taught that the relationship between teacher and student is one of the basic forms of human connection and interaction. The teacher has something to give the student: knowledge and wisdom. The student, in turn, owes the teacher deference and gratitude. The formalities of this relationship are essential, but have been ignored, obscured, or denigrated in contemporary American society, where the assumption, at least among many of the undergraduates whom I teach, is that their mentors exercise mere power over them, and enjoy the experience of domination. Prevailing assumptions make adversaries of students and teachers. The students are skeptical that anyone actually possesses wisdom and the moral authority that arises from it. Teachers only impose their opinions, which students are powerless to resist. At most, teachers are enjoined to train students in a variety of methods and techniques rather than to carry forward a tradition and to convey an ethos.

Teaching at a time when civilization is in such obvious disarray and such marked decline imposes even more stringent and pressing obligations on the teacher. I teach history, but I also feel compelled to teach my students a humane way of thinking. They must come to understand that their thought is complete only when they become aware of the relation of their ideas to the past. Much of my teaching has thus, of necessity, involved what we might call “unteaching,” the attempt to rid their minds of the errors, minutiae, and deceptions that otherwise clutter and poison them. I am dismayed at the frightful ignorance of my students, but I am even more disturbed by their sullen reluctance to surmount it, or worse, their utter indifference to it. This ignorance, seemingly so persistent and tenacious, involves, I have come to think, more than a lack of knowledge, just as teaching involves more than disseminating information. The ignorance of my students reflects and reveals the breakdown, even the failure, of their minds.

I have tried to remind—to remind rather than to instruct—my students that they can think, and when they do, that they already think historically. As the late John Lukacs was fond of pointing out, such thinking comes more naturally to them than it did to men and women in the past. “Historical thinking has entered our very blood,” affirmed the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga.[1] The first assignment I used to give to the freshman in the introductory courses on Western Civilization that I taught for so many years (and that the college has now discontinued in the most recent curricular reform) was to write an essay explaining who they are. Inevitably and invariably, the essays they wrote were historical, as opposed to biological, psychological, sociological, patriotic, or religious. They rarely, if ever, identified themselves as Protestant or Catholic, or as the member of a particular social class, at least not at first. They found that they did not know, and could not describe, themselves without referring to their own history, to the story of their lives. They explained their origins and their identity in historical terms. My students already thought historically without my instruction. I only showed them how they conceived of self and world, and perhaps encouraged them to recognize that their epistemology was historical.

There is for me, though, also a melancholy aspect to this discovery. As George Orwell noted, in the twentieth century humanity had sunk so low that it became the duty of thoughtful men and women to restate the obvious. I also recall Jean Dutourd’s observation that for those who live in dreary times (like Orwell, Dutourd was also writing about the twentieth century) a bit of common sense was enough to give the impression that one is a first-rate philosopher. And so it remains. I suppose that seeming to be a first-rate philosopher by displaying a little common sense and restating the obvious has been the saving grace, and likely the crowning achievement, of my career.

I have put most, if not all, of my energy as a teacher into researching and writing my lectures. Doing so has taken a tremendous amount of time and effort, but it was necessary if I were to be effective in the classroom. I learned through experience that I do my best work when I have done my thinking and organizing in advance. I am most thoughtful and most organized when I write. As a consequence, each one of my lectures is an essay that is connected to the other lectures in the hope of forming a coherent, analytical, and thematic whole. I do not read the lectures to the students, but the lectures provide the clear framework that I believe contemporary students require. I have occasionally made use of slides (remember those?), films, music, and even the Internet in my courses, but less so with each passing year. I find that, despite their visual (as opposed to verbal) minds and imaginations, students are usually no better at viewing paintings or photographs, at listening to music, or at watching films than they are at reading books. They lack the attention span for such activities. After a short time, their minds begin to wander. In addition, most have insufficient command of the language to write effectively about any subject or experience, let alone subjects as complex as art, music, film, and culture. Perhaps the real reason that I do not make more use of the array of audio-visual instruments at my disposal is because I have not time to do so. There is too much that I want to say, and I do not wish to interpose anything between my captive audience and me.

Nevertheless, despite being my captives for three hours a week, most of my students remain inattentive and disorganized, have poor work and study habits, do not know how to listen or pay attention, are woefully ignorant of their world, their history, and their culture, possess an alarmingly feeble sense of humor, and are unfamiliar with the words and books upon which Western civilization rests. Yet, if I insist on rendering such a grim and unsympathetic critique of my students, it is only just that I apply the same standard to myself. In one important sense, and it is, perhaps, the most important, I have failed as a teacher. For most of my students, I cannot do, or in any event, I have not done, what my best and most admired teachers did for me. I cannot open windows onto new worlds. I rarely excite their interest in anything beyond what they think is immediately relevant to their lives, if I can even accomplish that much. I hardly know any more what is relevant to them. I have thus reached the conclusion that what American teachers and American colleges must do is really very basic—basic but neither simple nor easy: we must teach young men and women how to read and write, how to imagine beyond themselves, their experiences, their lives, and their world, and, if we are fortunate, how to think. Helping my students attain these goals will remain my foremost preoccupation for the rest of my teaching career.

II.

When I started teaching, I thought teaching had nothing to do with writing. (It is mostly blather and nonsense that professors can bring their research to bear on their courses at an undergraduate liberal arts college.) I made and still make it a point never to assign anything that I have published, even on those rare occasions when it might be appropriate to the course. My dual careers as teacher and writer remain separate, for I have kept them so.

Yet, a strange and unexpected convergence has taken place that formed a bridge between these dual crafts. This development is more significant and, in its way, more wonderful than I could have effected, or even imagined. My writing has unexpectedly profited from my teaching. I owe what clarity and economy of style it possesses to teaching undergraduates in general and freshmen in particular. I refer to the need to speak about large and complex subjects briefly and clearly, and yet without superficiality. Such a requirement has aided my thinking and writing so much that perhaps in this instance a virtue has grown from necessity. If nothing else, my students have forced me to learn how to explain my observations and ideas lucidly and succinctly when discussing periods, events, persons, and places that are unfamiliar to most of them.

The English philosopher Owen Barfield once admitted that he wrote not to make a living or to gain a reputation, but because he could not help it. I have never found a better reason or a more sensible excuse. During the summer of 1946, George Orwell published “Why I Write,” in which he recalled “from a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.”[2] I had no such intuition. As a child, I liked to read and I read voraciously, pouring over the books in our house and those that I brought home from the William McKinley Memorial Library, a stately, columned granite palace that looked out of place in downtown Niles, Ohio. But I never recall associating my reading books with the possibility of my writing them. Becoming a writer was unthinkable. I was a working-class Italian kid. Persons like me did not write books, or so I thought; few bothered to read them.

In addition, even then, I realized that writing is a form of self-expression. As a young boy, I had nothing to say and no inclination to say it. Unlike Orwell, I did not suffer a lonely childhood that prompted me to make up tales, adventures, or conversations. Nor did I feel isolated and unappreciated. For a long time, I was content with the words of others, and felt no compulsion to add my own. I suppose that I discovered a fondness for writing in junior high school, when I first wrote what I considered serious papers about serious books by serious authors. I early persuaded myself that I had a facility with words and an aptitude for writing, which my grades confirmed to my satisfaction, enough to encourage me to continue writing on my own. Yet, even then, I never considered becoming a writer.

The motive to write gradually emerged from a desire to understand and to vanquish some intellectual uneasiness that tormented both my waking and sleeping hours. Perhaps initially I wrote so that I could reclaim some measure of the mental peace and quiet that had formerly come from reading. The discipline of writing also appealed to me, for I believed that if I focused my mind long enough on a problem eventually I would clarify my thinking. At a minimum, I thought, or rather, I hoped, that I would know and understand more when I finished than when I had begun.

The transformation that prompted me to want to become a writer occurred much later, while I was an undergraduate. I began to notice that I disagreed with some of the books my professors had assigned. My frustration mounted because I could not articulate the source or nature of my quarrel with the authors. I felt the pain of my inadequacy and a dissatisfaction with myself. I did not know then that these provocative and wearisome episodes marked the beginning of my real education as surely as they marked the beginning of my career as a writer, long before I had done any literary or scholarly work. By the time when, in my early twenties, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in history, I already knew that I wanted to become more than a professional academic, a historian. I wanted to be a writer. With the arrogance of which perhaps only youth is capable, I persuaded myself that professional academics too often wrote for other professional academics, thereby limiting not only their potential audience, but also, and more important, their range of vision and their understanding of human nature.

As my views about the past matured, I became absorbed by the elusive nature of truth. In the nineteenth century, Leopold von Ranke established the standard to which historians still adhere when he wrote wie es eigentlich gewesen. Historians, Ranke insisted, must explain what really happened, how things really were. During my years in college, I sensed—sensed rather than understood—that it was possible to write a history in which every “fact” was precise, accurate, and true and that nonetheless gave an impression that was false. More recently, I determined that this paradox occurred because “facts” as such do not exist except in and through their association, that is, in their relation to other “facts.” “Facts” are also inseparable from the statement of them, and every statement is made for some purpose, which is often impossible to know with certainty. Words are thus more important than facts, at least for a writer. The writing of history, therefore, is never final or definitive; it does not and cannot establish or confirm immutable “factual truth.” However admirable, Ranke’s enterprise to interrogate the past in an effort to find the truth and nothing but the truth, to say what actually happened, to explain how things actually were, was impossible to complete and absurd to undertake. Thucydides, by contrast, intimated that the purpose of writing history must not be to determine the truth but, if possible, to eliminate untruth.

Today untruth abounds, much of it the result not of ignorance or error but of deliberate lies. In “Why I Write,” Orwell asserted that his writing always originated from “a sense of injustice.” He wrote because “there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”[3] More than four hundred years ago, Michel de Montaigne pointed out the dangers of lying, and the ruin that invariably followed in its wake. When lying becomes widespread and general, when one man can no longer trust the word of another, it brings about nothing less than the destruction of society. “Lying is an ugly vice,” Montaigne began:

which an ancient paints in most shameful colors when he says that it is giving evidence of contempt for God, and at the same time of fear of men. It is not possible to represent more vividly the horror, the vileness, and the profligacy of it. For what can you imagine uglier than being a coward toward men and bold toward God? Since mutual understanding is brought about solely by way of words, he who breaks his word betrays human society. It is the only instrument by means of which our wills and thoughts communicate, it is the interpreter of our soul. If it fails us, we have no more hold on each other, no more knowledge of each other. If it deceives us, it breaks up all our relations and dissolves all the bonds of our society.[4]

Is it too obvious to say that, as both Montaigne and Orwell discerned, the quest for truth involves the problem of language, of having the capacity to face reality with a cold eye even when it is unpleasant and to describe it in words without flinching? Language ought to bring reality into focus, to clarify it, not to reject or distort it, or to flee from it.[5] I have spent most of my career as a historian, writer, and critic determined to investigate and explain the faults and deficiencies of others, living and dead, even those whom I admire. More than once, I have dissected causes in which I want to believe and ideas that I want to love. However painful these confrontations, a writer must, in the end, also come face-to-face with himself.

At the same time, I have sought to do more than criticize and dismantle. I have sought to affirm something. Like Orwell, mutatis mutandis, I have sought to make the writing of history and criticism an art. “I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article,” Orwell confessed, “if it were not also an aesthetic experience.”[6] Similarly, I have long struggled to make every word I write an assault on all that is vulgar, crass, stupid, dishonest, and repugnant. My style, which I have often feared was too reserved and decorous for the times, has turned out to be my weapon. I take some comfort in the observation of Georges-Louis LeClerc, the Comte de Buffon that “Le style c’est l’homme même.” I have tried throughout my mature work to show what the world could be, what it might have been, if it were genuinely civilized, by revealing again and again that it is not. I will leave it to others, now and in the future, to judge the degree of my success and to measure the extent of my failure.

Although I may not have wished to become a writer, or imagined that I could be, I cannot now envision a time when I will no longer write. What I did not anticipate, and perhaps could not have done, was that during my lifetime writing itself might become superfluous, if not altogether obsolete. Six hundred years ago, the so-called Modern Age began with innovations in printing such as Johan Gutenberg’s invention of movable metal type, which helped to spawn the rebirth of learning during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: the Renaissance. In the last thirty or forty years, reading has gone into what I think is a permanent decline. This phenomenon is neither superficial nor transitory. My students, and many of their parents, no longer read for pleasure. They view reading as an arduous and unwelcome task that is best to avoid. The homes of many of my neighbors and friends are bereft of books.

Yet, in truth, it was not so different one hundred years ago. There were not many serious readers then, either. But the influence of those who did read was considerable. Today the opposite is true. A segment of the American people has grown more vocal not in their analysis but in their dismissal of ideas and their mistrust of those who consort with them. We now live under the cultural influence and the political authority of men and women who do not read because they are not in the habit of reading. They do not read because they no longer have to read, and, more important, because they do not want to read. Paradoxically, the decline in reading has taken place when “education” in the United States and throughout the Western world has become nearly universal and at a time when the number of books published and in print increases year after year. The deluge of books may, in fact, inhibit reading. Contemporary social psychologists have taken to calling this development “option paralysis,” an unprecedented, but not surprising, mental and emotional collapse that arises from having too many choices. Even those who wish to read may not know where or how to begin. In addition, computer technology has led to a catastrophic torrent of information that is overwhelming and beyond the human capacity to “process,” as if the human mind were just another operating system and hard drive.

As a consequence, we do not know what is happening to us. A sense of disorientation has become our reality. We are confused and perplexed, sensations that have always beset men and women in times of crisis. Our bewilderment leads, first, to exasperation and to a world overflowing with extreme yet transitory phenomena with which we inebriate and stupefy ourselves. Desperation follows in the acknowledgment that there is no hope of respite or escape. Although we continue to live, we find no idea or action satisfactory. We move like automatons, conducting the necessary business of life, but finding in it little of joy and nothing of value. We come at last to feel an unconquerable loathing for the world.

III.

In the distant past, those who were lost, bitter, and estranged retired to the desert, or found some other place of solitude. They tried to simplify and solve the problems of life by reducing contact with the world to a minimum. This retreat came amid, and, indeed, because of, the expansion of knowledge and yet none of it enough, the splendor of riches, appetites, and pleasures and yet none of them fulfilling or complete, the persistent stir of activity and yet none of it endowed with meaning or purpose. Under those circumstances, life became empty, incompetent, and unstable, dominated by fictions and falsehoods.

We have lived not only through the end of the twentieth century, but also, as John Lukacs long argued, the end of the Modern Age. Ours is an interregnum in which much of the old world and way of life have died but in which most of the new world and way of life have yet to ripen into what they will become. As a result, turmoil and uncertainty prevail. Writing in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, by contrast, lived in a world where, in a literal sense, tragedy did not intrude. I mean the intellectual and moral tragedy of losing our way and our identity, of falling into decadence and dementia. Aquinas knew on what he could depend, and had a repertoire of clear and uncomplicated ideas that enabled him to elucidate and remedy all the major problems of his age. From his integration and synthesis of competing and often incompatible ideas and beliefs, his Summa Theologica, emerged the culture of the High Middle Ages, which both explained life as it was lived and gave it meaning.

Three characteristics mark periods of cultural disintegration such as ours. First, culture becomes too intricate and abstruse, overpowering human intellectual and moral capacities. Second, ideas lose their vigor and standards of conduct their force. Third, culture ceases to be genuine, organic, and spontaneous, and becomes instead disconnected from, and irrelevant to, life as it is lived. Under such conditions, there is no way for anyone to be who they really are, except by withdrawing into the self and remaining alone. Before expressing a thought, opinion, idea, or belief, before taking any action, persons must pause and enter into the self to determine whether that thought, opinion, idea, belief, or action is their own. To remain centered in the self is the only alternative to a hectic, unruly, deranged, and falsified life. Hypocrisy is preferable. Although the hypocrite pretends to think or believe something that he does not, he at least understands what his real ideas and beliefs are, even as he conceals them. If men and women continue to live on borrowed ideas, embracing and repeating them only because they have heard someone else do so, then, unlike the hypocrite, they will not be deceiving others. They will deceive only themselves. Farewell then to repose. Farewell to serenity. Farewell to truth. Farewell to all that is real.

Everyone, but especially those who teach and write, must take responsibility for their ideas. The young are always vulnerable and are now nearly defenseless. Education is the means of helping them to make reasoned and conscientious choices from among the welter of ideas and beliefs they are likely to encounter. Teaching is the guidance we provide to students so that they may mature into adults able to think for themselves and to explain why they think as they do. Such an education constitutes liberal learning—liberal insofar as it liberates young men and women from the constraints of self-interest and self-delusion. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus recognized more than 1800 years ago: “Only the educated are free.”

Real learning, then, is not simply the accrual of information, the mastery of technique, or the attainment of professional credentials; it is, rather, the development of a comprehensive vision of reality. The learned man or woman sees beyond the moment, and will thus not be manipulated by lurid sound bites or dominated by popular enthusiasms. Education, in the words of John Henry, Cardinal Newman, provides “a clear conscious view of . . . opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches [a man] to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.”[7] No one who has been observing current political debates will fail to ascertain the importance of a liberal arts education for contemporary American society. The inability of politicians to conduct civil, lucid, and honest discussions of war, health care, the environment, the economy, and a host of other issues confirms the maxim that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A future historian may well conjecture that the United States perished from an excess of false and superficial learning.

Most students these days have no opportunity to learn anything of value in college, least of all the ability to read or write well or to think for themselves. Apart from their ignorance of written, and often spoken, English—and I mean those for whom English is the principal language—what is most conspicuous about them is the paralyzing banality and utter vulgarity of what they have to say. Although they are not blameless, students are more sinned against than sinning, more the victims than the agents of a failed system of education that is, in fact, no system at all, but a peculiar amalgam of job training, political indoctrination, and custodial care. Much of what is currently taught in college can only be described as banausic, courses intended to prepare students for a lucrative career. But what human being is, or can be, defined solely by their employment, their material possessions, or their wealth?

To complicate matters, the approach of most students to their studies is mistaken, and we teachers have encouraged and compounded the error. The young have faced myriad distractions in every age. In our time, these have grown exponentially, and are relentless in commanding students’ attention. The most entertained people in history, modern Americans have learned habits of work and leisure that are inimical to a liberal arts education, to say nothing of developing a well-cultivated and well-furnished mind. Drawing on the worst aspects of the Puritan heritage, Americans have come to understand leisure as the absence of work. Students logically but erroneously conclude that once their work is done, they are free, and their leisure, to be genuine, must be mindless if not brutish. Education is not entertainment, but in an effort to win favor with students who fill out course evaluations and to placate administrators by keeping the customers happy and promoting the brand, teachers have attempted to make it so. The digital classroom, to cite only the most prominent and obvious example, contrived to attract and hold students’ interest, to enthrall, to fascinate, to amuse, in a word, to entertain—has done nothing less than reproduce a new, electronic version of Plato’s cave, with its shadowy distortions and misrepresentations unaltered.

The dissolution of learning is part of the more general breakdown of communication that has accompanied the end of the Modern Age. Our external communications are technological marvels, not only the movies and television, but now and more so the Internet, smart phones, and the entire panoply of digital media that accompany them. Paradoxically, the development of these forms of external communication is attended by the failure of interior communication. Teachers and students, parents and children, husbands and wives, colleagues, neighbors, friends, and lovers no longer pay attention or listen to one another, which among other consequences means pervasive isolation and loneliness. We might reasonably identify the so-called Information Age of the twenty-first century as the Post-Human Age.

There is evidence of an even greater paradox that afflicts liberal arts education, to say nothing of society itself. Beneath what we presume to be the revolutionary character of our time lurks an extraordinary intellectual stagnation. Ideas move with a deadening sluggishness and lassitude. As he did with so many other aspects of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated this devolution, urging his contemporaries not to mistake appearances for reality. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote:

We live in a time that has witnessed the swiftest changes in men’s minds. But perhaps some of the main opinions of mankind may be soon more stable than ever before in the centuries of our history. . . . People suppose that the new societies are going to change shape daily, but my fear is that they will end up being too unalterably fixed with the same institutions, prejudices, and mores, so that mankind will stop progressing and will dig itself in. I fear that the mind may keep folding itself up in a narrower compass forever without producing new ideas, that men will wear themselves out in trivial, lonely, futile activity, and that for all its constant agitation humanity will make no advance.[8]

I can imagine no more effective road to autocracy and despotism than inviting uninformed college students to chatter on about trivia, to proffer any random notion that creeps into their heads as a critical insight, and then to call it a liberal arts education. This scheme is rotten, pernicious, and immoral. It denies to students the knowledge and the wisdom they need to resist the sensational and the ephemeral, to raise their minds above the influences of chance and necessity, and to keep at bay the ontological insecurity that today afflicts so many in the United States and around the world. It abandons them to ignorance, superstition, and fear. It leaves them powerless before deceit, treachery, and exploitation. Men and women who can think clearly, who can expose the latest intellectual fad, social trend, or political dictum to the test of evidence and reason, do not after all make jovial consumers, docile workers, or obedient subjects.

What are we to do? The short answer is nothing for the simple reason that there is nothing we can do. The problems of education are now too ingrained and extensive to be susceptible to reform. In any event, there are too many persons with a stake in the current educational establishment to permit meaningful reform to go forward unimpeded. It is useless to speculate about the future of the liberal arts in the United States, but it is difficult to believe that it will be auspicious. The financial crisis of the last decade, although it has abated, seems permanently to have eliminated many sources of funding that were already tenuous. At the same time, although most have no idea about what constitutes an education, parents, legislators, and donors have come to regard with growing skepticism colleges and universities that seem divorced from the real world, if not arrogantly contemptuous of it. For their part, administrators, and many faculty, have adopted, whether with reluctance or enthusiasm does not matter, programs that they can market as the pathway to affluence and security. Only thus can they justify to parents and students alike the expense of getting a college education, and perhaps of going into substantial debt to pay for it. I find it hard to imagine, then, that business as usual for institutions of higher learning will continue indefinitely, or even for much longer.

Toward the end of After Virtue, published in 1984, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre remarked that the world was no longer waiting for Godot but for another St. Benedict to inspire a renewal of the civilizing work that the Benedictine monks had performed to resist the violence and anarchy of the Dark Ages. Nearly forty years after Mr. MacIntyre wrote, the world is still waiting, and the prospect that a contemporary St. Benedict will emerge seems more remote than ever. For the purpose of education is not at last utilitarian. An enterprise so unheralded by the public at large, education is unlikely to yield tangible benefits in our lifetimes. But that is not my concern. Education, and especially a liberal arts education, involves something far nobler and more important than transforming students into businessmen or workers, scholars or intellectuals, statesmen or citizens. The liberal arts makes human beings; it brings an enlightenment and an illumination that preserves the health of mind and spirit. If we can accomplish that monumental task, the rest will take care of itself. If we do not or cannot, or worse, if we no longer care to do so, if we embrace what Richard M. Weaver called “the splendid efflorescence of decay,” then no power on earth can save us.[9] We may be grateful that, for the moment, the choice is still ours to make.

I recall once reading a letter that Niccolò Machiavelli wrote to a friend after the Medici had forced him into exile. Cast out of his beloved Florence and living near Percussina, Machiavelli described how he spent endless hours playing backgammon with the innkeeper, the miller, and two local bakers. They quarreled often about the game. There were recriminations, shouts, and curses aplenty. But at the end of the day, Machiavelli recounted, he withdrew to his rooms. In silence, he removed his dirty clothes and dressed in his finest raiment, as if he were to attend the court of a prince. Then he took down his books from the shelf and had as his companions the greatest minds in history. Welcoming him to their company, they shared with him their wisdom, enlivening his mind, stimulating his imagination, and restoring his self-respect.

Whatever the perils of our age, I, like Machiavelli, have enjoyed more than my share of consolations. I do not earn much money from my writing, certainly not enough to support myself, and I gain even less recognition. Yet, my essays, books, novels, and poems are published and read. My writing has brought me some extraordinary friendships. Add to those the men and women, previously unknown to me (the high school principal in Little Rock, the Roman Catholic priest in Toronto, the Presbyterian clergyman and divinity school professor in Philadelphia), who have read some of what I have written with a serious and abiding interest that fills me with gratitude and does me more credit than I deserve. In an era that another future historian might reasonably call the “Age of Celebrity,” I imagine to my delight acquiring the reputation of someone who is the opposite—someone who strives to recover a sense of vocation, a craft, and a calling, and to forsake the desire for transitory renown.

A celebrity is a person who is famous for being well-known. Between the extremes of despair and the surety of imminent deliverance stand others who see the evils of our time. They do not know how we are to remedy them, but they continue to work and to hope. They strive to understand. They prepare to bear witness. I hope that I may count myself among their number. I know at least that I prefer honor to fame, and that I do not at all mind toiling in modest obscurity to carry on the labors that those Benedictine monks began so many centuries ago. There are worse ways to pass the time and to spend a life.

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Notes:

[1] Quoted in John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (New Brunswick, NJ, 1994), 5. See also Lukacs, At the End of the Modern Age (New Haven, CT, 2002), fn. 28, 83 and C Vann Woodward, The Future of the Past (New York, 1989), 8.

[2] George Orwell, “Why I Write,” in Essays (New York, 1968), 1079.

[3] Ibid., 1084.

[4] Michel de Montaigne, “Of Giving the Lie” in The Complete Works, Book II, trans. by Donald M. Frame (New York, 2003), 614.

[5] This observation calls to mind the haunting conclusion of Friedrich Heer’s Intellectual History of Europe, Volume II: The Counter-Reformation to 1945 (Garden City, NY, 1968), 320 in which Heer wrote:

Today it is improper to speak of anything important. The press, the film industry, the managerial class and most publishers go out of their way to avoid most of the serious questions of politics, society, and philosophy. Our anxieties have created forbidden zones. In such zones of fear an internal inquisition functions noiselessly and an apparatus of defamation grinds forward to co-ordinate all Europe behind a few slogans. The expansion of technical abbreviations and compound words is part of this trend. The abbreviations look innocuous on the surface. Like all simplifications, they contain a real danger, the danger that the little letters will become magic. It is not an accident that abbreviations are the products of the monster organizations of our age. In a more refined form the word-creations of a number of poets and writers serve the same purpose. Rilke and his disciples are really intellectual ad men. Their language is a drug. It is meant to anaesthetize the author and the reader alike. . . . Language becomes a spider which sucks the blood of everything it touches.

[6] Orwell, 1084.

[7] John Henry, Cardinal Newman, “Discourse VII,” in The Idea of a University (Washington, D.C., 1999), 160.

[8] Alexis de Tocqueville, “Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare,” in Democracy in America, Vol. II, trans. by George Lawrence, ed. by J. P. Mayer (New York, 1969), 644-45.

[9] Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, 1948), 12.

The featured image is “A Teacher and His Pupil” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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