Hattip to Dave Griffey at Daffey Thoughts. Patrick Deneen who teaches political theory at Notre Dame decries the ignorance of his pleasant students in a post entitled Res Idiotica:
My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their minds are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten it origins and aims, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference about itself.
It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject), they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though with their peers (as snatches of passing conversation reveal), easygoing if crude. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting who will run America and the world.
But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian war? What was at stake at the Battle of Salamis? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?
He contends that this pathetic ignorance among students who should be the most learned among their generation is no accident:
We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, historyless free agents, and educational goals composed of contentless processes and unexamined buzz-words like “critical thinking,” “diversity,” “ways of knowing,” “social justice,” and “cultural competence.” Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical). In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps. Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments. Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.
Go here to read the rest. Now such ignorance is appalling but why? Cicero said it best: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” One of the chief goals of education should be to produce morally responsible men and women, not forever children, and hard won knowledge is usually an essential part of the process. Deneen has a series of questions to underline the ignorance of his students:
Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? What happened to Charles I? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What happened at Yorktown in 1781? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? Who can tell me one or two of the arguments that are made in Federalist 10? Who has read Federalist 10? What are the Federalist Papers?
Now why is it important to know any of that, and to know it in your bones rather than in a scurried Wikipedia sense?
Saul of Tarsus, Paul, more than any other man, shaped Christianity. He is one of the founders of our civilization in the West. If you do not know him and what he wrote, you cannot understand our society.
The 95 theses by which Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation is one of the crucial dividing lines of our culture. Viewed either as a tragedy or a triumph, the rest of Western history is gibberish unless one understands this dire period in our history.
Magna Carta, (Great Charter) signed by an unwilling King John 800 years ago last year, was part and parcel of Medieval attempts to restrain the power of the State. It has survived in the history of the Anglo-sphere as an essential rallying cry against usurpation of power by the State.
The death of Thomas Becket at Canterbury during the reign of Henry II of England in the second half of the twelfth century established his cult as the most famous martyr of the Middle Ages. It also stood as a victory by the Church in its battle against the State, a victory overturned by Henry VIII when he plundered and broke up the shrine. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales gives us a glimpse during the fourteenth century of the world that was lost when the common Faith was broken asunder during the sixteenth century by Henry VIII and his minions.
Charles I, what images are conjured by that name: cavaliers and roundheads, a bloody civil war, the rude beginnings of modern parliamentary government, religious intolerance, the rise of Cromwell and the New Model Army, the rule of the sword, and the strange transformation when unwise Charles was brought to trial for his life and in his defense suddenly began to speak more for the liberties of his people than those who sought his blood. It is impossible to understand the English speaking countries in the 21rst century without understanding this far reaching conflict in the seventeenth century.
Guy Fawkes: “November, November, the Fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.” Desperate Catholics, treated as criminals in their home country, sought to blow up Parliament at the beginning of the reign of James I. Guy Fawkes Day thereafter would be used to whip up anti-Catholic hatred. Still “celebrated” in England, it is largely forgotten in the US, largely due to George Washington strongly condemning it after he became Commander in Chief in 1775.
At Yorktown, Washington and our French allies forced Cornwallis to surrender his Army in 1781, ending, mostly, the combat portion of the American Revolution, although negotiating the peace would take until 1783. Understanding of the United States is impossible unless one comes to grips with the American Revolution and its aftermath.
In his second inaugural, Lincoln largely attempted a theological treatise pondering why God had allowed this terrible civil war on both North and South. He assumed it was because of slavery, and pointed the nation forward to learn from this terrible tragedy and to bind up the nation’s wounds.
In his first inaugural Lincoln unsuccessfully appealed to the better angels of our nature to avert war, but made it clear that war was preferable to disunion.
Lincoln had no third inaugural. (Without a substantial knowledge base, students are always prey to the trick question!)
The Federalist Papers were a collection of newspaper articles to support the ratification of the Constitution. They were separately written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. I have read the Federalist Papers, but as to the contents of Federalist 10, I will have to defer to my distinguished colleague, and resident Federalist Papers expert, Doctor Paul Zummo!
Unless we have such basic knowledge of our own civilization, as represented by these questions and hundreds of others, we do remain forever children, always would be victims of every demagogue and tin pot dictator that our times vomit up.