Occasionally somebody publishes something that is such a combination of totally uninformed and incredibly condescending that you almost have to admire it. There’s a kind of shit-eating brio that you just have to take your hate off to for a minute.
Then after that minute, you need to take a scalpel to it. Fair warning, this post will be quite long. Let us begin.
Heather Mac Donald writes about the paucity of real learning in the contemporary American university. The argument is old as the hills: universities aren’t teaching “the classics,” whatever those are, and for that reason, we’ve got all the problems of modern society, what with the girls in trousers and the hippity hop language and black people who want nice things.
Mac Donald tells all this through the framing mechanism of the Great Courses recorded lecture series, a set of videotaped or audio recorded lectures. It’s a profitable business, according to Mac Donald, and that’s important– those producing this series aren’t those free loading professors in their ivory towers but are instead among our Galtian overlords. And they achieve this by giving the people what they want… old school Western civilization! The essential trick of the article is to meld your boilerplate “West iz best, suxxors” conservative nostalgia with your boilerplate “the market always leads us to virtue” Randian ramblings.
Now, I’m going to take you through a lot of this thing, because Mac Donald is dishonest and dishonest hackery deserves to be mocked. But it’s really enough to say this: most of the members of the Western tradition that people like Mac Donald lionize without understanding would be totally repulsed by the idea of market driven education that she espouses. You can go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, name checked liberally by Mac Donald and those like her, to find a philosophical tradition totally at odds with market driven education.
In the Oeconomicus, Socrates derides the illiberal and crassly practical knowledges that do nothing but advance the selfish interests of the learner (the banausikai techne). These are thought to be beneath both the pure knowledge of episteme, which advances human flourishing even when it lacks any pragmatic use– similar to the theory, in other words, that Mac Donald disdains– and the noble arts of agriculture and warmaking. And why, according to Socrates, are farming and soldiering to be placed above the self-interested mercantile forms of knowledge? Because they contribute to the common good, because they are not self-interested. These things are valued precisely because they are not market driven. Indeed, the way Socrates describes them seems positively socialist.
If this pre-Christian vision of the right life and right knowledge doesn’t thrill you, you could look at, well, the entire history of Western liberal education. For centuries, Western educators have held as one of their core concepts that their purpose is to engender an understanding and respect of those things that are not immediately valuable or material. Don’t just trust those old pagan Greeks. Listen to the Jesuit priests, part of the Western Christian tradition, who preached that true learning could only take place when one was not attached to material things. Listen to Thomas Jefferson, who felt that the first principle of education was that it train not consumers but citizens, who could set aside their selfish ends to pursue what was best for the republic. Or take another old traditionalist bastard, T.S. Eliot, who said “No one can become truly educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest.” That last is as explicit a rejection of market based education, and the Great Courses design, as I can imagine.
I could go on, and I’m sure readers could supply dozens of quotes from dozens of speakers– all suitably white, straight, and Western, of course, so that the Heather Mac Donalds out there will care to listen. So what is happening here? Are all of these people out of step with Western civilization? How could they be, as they make up Western civilization? This is the baldly obvious and yet almost universally ignored point: the liberalism that has created the modern university and all of the things that conservatives hate in it is in a lineage of Western civilization. It is one strengthened by other traditions, other cultures, and other kinds of people, yes, and all the better. That cosmopolitan regard for difference comes from Western civilization. That’s the most bitter irony of conservative championing of traditional education; it wants to leave out vast swaths of tradition that led the university and our culture to where we are. And these advances did not spring out of nowhere in the 60’s to be heckled by Barry Goldwater but have been building for centuries, as dedicated people have come to insist that Western civilization more fully live out its ideals.
For all of the individual failings of Mac Donald’s piece, it most suffers from a simple internal contradiction: it pretends as though a modern conservative consumerist philosophy is part and parcel with a Western tradition that in fact has routinely rejected it.
If I cataloged all of the risible statements in the piece we’d be here until doomsday. Each could be attended, if we were feeling masochistic, by the various Western ideas about knowledge that she betrays. She writes almost entirely by assertion, making vast and sweeping claims about the state of contemporary university education, without a shred of evidence. This idea that American colleges aren’t teaching a traditional canon is thrown about by conservatives constantly, but is evinced by nothing but anecdote. (True story, Heather: one prominent Western ideal is that claims about the world have to be defended with evidence.) If conservatives really want to push this narrative about universities where you can’t read Homer no matter how hard you try, perhaps the thing to do would be to find out whether that’s true and report what is found. But that takes work, and like all inquiry, there’s the possibility that you won’t hear what you thought, or what you wanted.
Her “evidence” is cherry picked class names that she assumes her readers will reject in knee-jerk fashion, such as “Wesleyan’s “Circulating Bodies: Commodities, Prostitutes, and Slaves in Eighteenth-Century England.” Why slavery and prostitution should be insufficiently scholarly, I’m not sure; they were and are real, and as is the case with all history, we have an opportunity to learn more about them today by studying how they were yesterday. Perhaps Mac Donald assumes that the presence of such a class means you can’t take one in Shakespeare, the oldest, whitest, and deadest of the old dead white men that we are supposedly running out of the university. Well, I won’t make any suppositions about the ease of finding a university without classes on Shakespeare, but as someone who grew up in Wesleyan’s theater department and still has family who works there, I assure you, he’s such a presence I wouldn’t be surprised if you ran into him in the halls.
Mac Donald claims that students at Bowdoin can’t take classes in “American political history, the colonial and revolutionary periods, or the Civil War.” This is interesting, considering that according to their course catalog, they offered classes called “Colonial America and the Atlantic World,” “American Society in the New Nation,” “The Civil War Era” and “The Civil War in Film.” Weird, right? Indeed, those kind of offerings absolutely dwarf the number of classes of the kind that Mac Donald mocks. Apparently intellectual honesty is not a part of the Western tradition.
Mac Donald writes
The advertising copy for “Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life” asserts: “Beginning with the definition of a great book as one that possesses a great theme of enduring importance, noble language that elevates the soul and ennobles the mind, and a universality that enables it to speak across the ages, Professor Fears examines a body of work that offers an extraordinary gift of wisdom to those willing to receive it”—a statement so reckless that it would get its proponent thrown out of the Modern Language Association’s annual convention.
Well, I just happen to have the program from the 2011 MLA convention. It is filled with hundreds of talks and presentations from academics who think that some of the books they are talking about are great, that some possess themes of enduring importance, that some of them are ennobling, that some contain kinds of universality, that some even are in possession of wisdom. Many of these books are even written by dead straight white Christian men. Go figure.
She writes that in literature enthusiasm is “alien to contemporary academic discourse,” which would come as quite a surprise to impoverished lit graduate students who pursue graduate degrees with low odds of being hired. She writes that “women lecture less than men” without the slightest indication that this sort of claim requires evidence and citation. She derides the (unsubstantiated) decline of lecturing without considering whether lectures are in fact always the best ways to impart knowledge. (I can only speak from my own experience, but my students– they don’t like lectures so much. That’s the market for you.) She brags that “each lecture must be 30 minutes long: no ignoring the clock or deferring material to the next week, as on a college campus,” as we all know that it is a crucial part of Western civilization that all knowledge can be imparted in the same time it takes to watch an episode of Mad About You. She berates black and female professors for wanting too much money to lecture. When she is apparently uncomfortable with making up facts, she quotes other people making them up for her. (“Creative writing is such a popular concentration within the English major, [Seth] Lerer argues, because it is the one place where students encounter attention to character and plot and can non-ironically celebrate literature’s power.” Evidence, Dr. Lerer?) She also takes seemingly innocuous statements by professors and surrounds them with what she insists they meant, which is of course always that the university is politically correct, adrift, in need of tradition, and generally unholy.
The whole thing is a stew of bad faith, misrepresented thinkers and ideas, and outright falsehoods. It turns the life of the mind against itself by inventing a pleasing, entirely fraudulent history of what learning once was and pitting that against the sordid reality of people trying to teach and to learn. It can’t decide whether to bash students for insufficient love of the classics or lionize them as consumers. It assumes as a given that students from marginalized groups have no legitimate grievances and that the university has no business trying to meet their particular needs. And again and again, it makes outsized claims about the world with no evidence and no indication that evidence is necessary.
People like Heather Mac Donald want the life of the mind to have lived and died long ago, to be studied like butterflies pinned to a wall. But as I will spend my life insisting, that is a vision denied by the very people that they lionize. Some venerable old man dishing out wisdom for the ages once said “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” I can’t imagine an image more antithetical to Mac Donald’s conception of human knowledge, a conception that is predicated on the idea that the great advances of human kind are over and must never be interrogated, only venerated uncritically. The thing that makes flames both literal and figurative dangerous and powerful is that they have the potential to burn out of your control. A filled pitcher won’t ever overflow, but a flame, properly tended and provided with fuel, could burn forever. That we should let the fire burn in whatever direction it wants, even if it seems silly to those who think the human project belongs in a museum, is not merely humane and sensible. It is entirely in keeping with the Western tradition.