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Showing posts with label Western Canon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Western Canon. Show all posts

Friday, December 28, 2012

Now Playing on a Campus Near You: De Tocqueville’s “The End of Democracy in America”

It took five centuries before the strychnine of corruption and fatigue finally killed the Roman Empire (nĂ© Republic). It’s taken the U.S. about five decades to reach a point where such a suicidal whimper no longer seems unthinkable.

If you want to know why we’re getting there faster, look no further than Professor Jacobson’s important post the other day at College Insurrection about what’s happening at his (undergraduate) alma mater: Western Civilization driven off campus at Hamilton college.

Read the rest of this entry at Legal Insurrection >>

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dressing Up Standards, Dumbing Down Schools

From Big Government

By Terrence Moore

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, Homer teaches us, something every school child used to know. Beware of politicians and expert educators bearing standards, the last seventy years or more of Progressive education should have taught us. But we are slow to learn.

We have been given almost a month to digest the hundreds of pages of the new National Governors Association’s Common Core State Standards that could well become national standards pressed in some way upon every child who attends a public school in America. So we had better read, write, and think fast. Pundits and educationists, even some stalwarts of education reform, are beginning to praise these new standards as being more comprehensive than any before, far better than what the diverse and unreliable states are providing. Schools will now be held accountable to “higher standards”; teachers will know what they are responsible for teaching; students will be swept up in “the vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century,” which, we must surmise, is very different from what it meant to be literate in, say, the eighteenth century, when the likes of Thomas Jefferson read Latin and Greek for fun. It all sounds wonderful. At least it does until sensible people realize that these standards, which are only the best of the worst of the existing state standards, have absolutely nothing to do with sound education. It will be a mistake to get bogged down in a discussion of whether these standards are better than the various state standards since the whole enterprise is just a diversion hiding what truly ails public schools. The reason is obvious to anyone who has ever listened to some of these so-called experts drone on about standards without ever making a literary reference or drawing a lesson from history or even talking about a book.

Let us imagine an author at his craft, say, Herman Melville while writing Moby Dick, or Jane Austen working on Pride and Prejudice. Now assuredly what these literary artists hoped above all else was that a century or two from their own time students in high schools would be using their great works not better to understand love or honor or revenge or nobility or happiness, but to “analyze how multiple themes or central ideas in a text interact, build on, and, in some cases, conflict with one another”; as well as to “analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).” We know that this sort of innocuous thing is what the authors had in mind because that is what our teachers told us in school. We remember the drill: the plot graphs—rising action, climax, falling action (or denouement)—the cast lists of main characters and outlines of “main ideas,” the possible literary techniques—foreshadowing, alliteration, onomatopoeia. What we do not remember is one dad-gum thing about these stories: what insight they gave us into the human condition, what they portray as heroism, villainy, love, or self-deception. We do not remember any of these life-ennobling themes because those matters never came up in our English (what are now called our “Language Arts”) classes.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Demise of Great Books

From The Daily Texan
By John Davidson

The latest chapter in the long, depressing story of classical liberal education in America is unfolding here in Austin, where the University of Texas has recently snuffed out a nascent Great Books program.

The tale began in 2002, when UT philosophy professor Robert Koons and a few others started working to establish a program focused on Western civilization and the Great Books. Their idea was to develop an alternative liberal arts curriculum that would require undergraduates to read, systematically, seminal western texts such as the Bible, the works of ancient Greece and Rome and the American founding documents. This was considered radical at UT.

Koons and his cohorts persevered despite stiff opposition, and last fall the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions began offering classes. It was, by all accounts, a smashing success: Students were signing up, alumni were sending checks (Koons raised more than $1 million) and a speaker series sponsored by the program was hugely popular. It seemed that classical liberal education was experiencing a renaissance at UT.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Top 10 Books Every College Student Should Read

From Human Events
By Harry W. Crocker III

1. The Bible You can’t be considered a literate person without having read the most important book in the history of Western Civilization.

2. Caesar’s Commentaries I think it was Will Durant who said that Western Civilization is Caesar and Christ. So, as with the Bible, you might as well go to the source.

. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (or Montesquieu’s harder to find
Considerations on the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline) As we all know, empires and republics can decline and fall. Machiavelli wanted to learn from the history of Rome how to preserve a republic -- and so should we.

. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Not a conservative book (though Gibbon was something of a conservative Whig) but a great one: History is the most important subject.

. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France All conservatives pay lip-service to this classic, not enough have actually read it. That’s a shame because it is memorably, beautifully written and provides a necessary check on the unreflecting populism of some conservatives.

6. James Boswell, The Life of Johnson Dr. Johnson reminds us that the first Whig (liberal) was the devil and that a truly conservative approach to politics is anti-ideological, anti-statist, and anti-political: “How small of all that human hearts endure that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind College students who declare themselves conservatives should read Kirk so they’ll know something of what they’re declaring.

. Shakespeare, Henry V All college students are potential leaders; here’s Shakespeare on leadership.

. Siegfried Sassoon, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston Part of the impoverishment of the conservative mind these days is that it has no idea what it wants to conserve (or restore) in large part because so many conservatives don’t bother to cultivate a conservative imagination by reading novels. Sassoon didn’t become a political conservative (and a Catholic convert) until later life, but this brilliant, evocative, gentlemanly book shows a conservative society (which he loved) that produced a generation of heroes, like the author himself, a veteran of the Great War.

George Orwell, Collected Journalism Orwell was another professed Socialist who was in many ways conservative. For a college student, he’s a great tutor on how to write and how to recognize (and avoid) the politicization of language, an area where many political conservatives seem utterly tone deaf as “gender” replaces “sex,” “abstinence” replaces “chastity,” and “perception” becomes relative rather than acute. All of this is freighted with politics, which the left understands but our own folks don’t.

Mr. Crocker is the author most recently of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Summer With Aristotle

From The Wall Street Journal
By Emily Esfahani Smith

On a summer day, inside a Stanford University classroom, a blonde, 12-year old girl rises to confront her professor. “You’re wrong” she cries and storms out in tears. The professor, an ethics teacher at the school, is trying to make the case that it’s morally permissible to kill one innocent life to save five. Still later that night, over dinner, the professor and the girl sit side by side, working out their ethical differences thinker to thinker. The young girl even smiles.

Welcome to book camp. With the close of this summer, the Great Books Summer Program, as it is formally called, will have had its most successful year according to Peter Temes, its academic director. Each summer, students ages 12 to 17 gather against the idyllic backdrop of either Stanford University or Amherst College. They attend lectures, participate in discussions, eat meals, and live together as a community of precocious ­thinkers.

Reading the works of Homer, Virgil, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and so many others, the students are pushed to grapple with questions that have preoccupied the great thinkers of the past 2,500 years. What is the good life? How should I face injustice? What do I owe my neighbor?

The program started eight years ago with a group of 30 students, many of whom were underprivileged, meeting on weekends. Today, the camp enrolls around 600 students and its overlapping one-, two- and three-week sessions run from late June to the beginning of ­August.

Mr. Temes recalls the inspiration he had to start the great books initiative. “There was a brilliant middle schooler in the South Bronx whose teacher one day said to him, ‘I bet you’re really excited for high school.’ The kid stared back at her blankly and said ‘I don’t think I’ll go.’”

Realizing that there were many young students who shared a love of literature and ideas but lacked the “carrot of college dangling in front of them,” Mr. Temes and several others began the Great Books Summer Program “to give these kids a precollege college experience.”

Unfortunately, a great-books curriculum is in short supply even at many colleges today. But recently a small but vibrant group of important professors have been working to restore the great books’ prominence in a liberal arts education. In the past decade, educators at Princeton, Dartmouth and Brown (to name just three schools) have erected centers specifically designed to give students an education in the fundamental texts of the Western canon. Princeton’s James Madison Program, Brown’s Political Theory Project and Dartmouth’s Daniel Webster Project offer or sponsor classes on Medieval and Renaissance political thought, Civil Liberties, Politics and Religion, and so on.

The mere existence of these programs suggests an important trend in student learning habits. The academic radicalism of recent decades is receding, and students are ready to be serious again. Flaky courses—such as Sociology of Heterosexuality (Yale), Philosophy and Star Trek (Georgetown), or Whiteness: The Other Side of Racism (Mount Holyoke)—no longer interest them. Instead, students from book camp and Princeton are interested in “sitting down with Plato, St. Augustine, and James Madison, to think through the perennial issues of politics and citizenship,” says Robert George, a professor and director of Princeton’s James Madison Program.

Since its birth nine years ago, the James Madison Program has dramatically grown in its offerings and influence on the Princeton campus. That’s only been possible because “students are very interested in learning about founding principles. Our class enrollments are very high,” says Mr. George. “In the Constitutional Interpretation class, which has the reputation of being the hardest non-science class at Princeton, 100 to 125 students are typically enrolled.” To put that in perspective, most classes at Princeton hold fewer than 19 students. The James Madison Program’s numbers, along with the Great Books Summer Program’s, say it all. Students want to learn this stuff.

Still, too many colleges are not meeting that demand. Mr. Temes and Mr. George’s programs are one step in the right direction. But without more efforts like theirs, says Mr. Temes, many students will be condemned to “live in a world created by thinkers they don’t know nor understand.”

Ms. Smith is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal this summer.