087 An Education For Our Time


Major General Josiah Bunting III, a Rhodes scholar who has served at several educational institutions, is currently superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. Having pondered his current assignment, as well as the state of the nation, he drafts a blueprint for us to consider in An Education for Our Time (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 1998). Set forth as an imaginary series of letters from a wealthy, recently-deceased benefactor (“John Adams”) who has provided the funding for a brand new school–a residential college of 1200 students located in east central Wyoming–the book prescribes what Bunting thinks America needs in higher education.

In brief, the book argues for the truth of Thucydides’ assertion: “There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much one from another: but it is true that those who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school” (The Peloponnesian War, 1,1.84.4). More than anything else, Bunting believes, this nation’s youngsters need to be disciplined, toughened to deal with the demanding tasks of life. “We know that ultimately the ‘key to heroic character is not the absence of failure but rather resilience in the face of defeat'” (p. 59).

Rather than making things comfortable, endlessly seeking to entertain and please students, educators must test them, push them, demand nothing less of them than their best. This requires, as was evident in ancient Greece, that physical training must be part of a true education. “The College will demand our pupils be fit and prove it, and often” (p. 105). Outdoor activities, mountaineering, wilderness survival trials, should suffuse the program. “Scaling the sides of mountains–grossly to oversimplify–leads to an ineradicable confidence in one’s ability to function efficiently in circumstances of sustained danger, in which absolute concentration of a prolonged character (like, say, that of an oncologist or a concert virtuoso) is a prerequisite to success and satisfaction both” (p. 106).

In Bunting’s opinion, “We are a soft country, a country of spectators, of passive receptors of stimulations that keep us inert or provide senseless longeurs between periods of work” (p. 111). Homes which once inculcated self-discipline, through chores and rules, have become hang-outs for affluent adolescents. Indulgent parents–the stereotypical “soccer moms”–tend to serve their children as “adult enablers whose own lives pivot on driving them to malls, games, parties, classes, oases of every description where the ‘I wants’ may be gratified immediately” (p. 120). The same pattern persists when the youngsters go off to college, where friendly faculty and student-centered curricula and soft-gloved “student development” programs rarely demand that they become adults.

This softness in higher education, Bunting suspects, derives in part from the lack of physical fitness in the professorate. Most professors, “particularly those who take seriously their roles and status as those who profess an academic discipline, either have never trained their bodies to serve the concomitant needs of their minds and characters, or, out of an aversion to physical exercise or sports in youth, have cultivated an ignorant condescension to fitness, strength, athletic excellence, and to the skills of survival, or of confident living out-of-doors” (p. 111).

Yet physical fitness should be required of university professors, for there are classic virtues (preeminently temperance and courage) which should distinguish them. Ph.D. degrees hardly qualify one to teach in Bunting’s ideal college. Character is the deeper issue. And just as the saints often insist on such things as fasting and physical mortification, so educators must focus on both bodies and minds. Education, in its deepest sense, develops character as well as intellect, produces virtuous persons as well as skilled thinkers. “The business of undergraduate education remains the cultivation of character and mind, of instinct and ability of leadership and service” (p. 10). Above all, a good education shapes moral character, inculcates virtues, encourages morality.

Teachers, accordingly, should embrace John Milton’s call (in his essay Of Education) to embark on ‘”the right path of a virtuous and noble education,'” guiding their students, “by force of character and example–to the ‘study of learning and the admiration of virtue,’ stirring them up with ‘high hopes of living to be brave men and worthy patriots, dear to God and famous to all ages'” (p. 38). To locate and employ such teachers, Bunting declares, is the most important and difficult task! For what is most needed is that elusive quality we call integrity, honor, moral strength–the kinds of things graduate schools neglect!

Good teachers should be independent, strongly opinionated, memorable “characters” who have character! They need a broad experience in the world, not a sheltered track through a series of schools. Rather than researchers and writers, students need to live and study with teachers who love life and who also love to teach, to share their thoughts and ideals. “The young love vivid, outspoken teachers, not cautious calculators of the effects they are making or of the risks they are running” (p. 203). They are anything but the “Grammarian” pilloried in Browning’s poem who “decided not to live but know” (p. 203). Consequently, “those who in late adolescence form an ambition to become college professors–at least of the humanities–are precisely those who need a few years away from books, professors, laboratories, and reclusive lucubrations” (p. 208).

While virtue cannot be poured into students, they can be exposed, primarily through the study of history (which should constitute the heart of the curriculum) to virtuous men. To history should be added a strong emphasis on classical languages, especially Latin. Consider, for example, the character of George Washington, whom Thomas Jefferson described thusly: “‘His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or a Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion. . . . He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known. . . He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man'” (p. 43).

To encourage the development of character, Bunting also emphasizes the importance of a college’s location. In “Setting the Stage,” we learn that the imaginary John Adams loved the Great Plains and decided to establish his college in that rugged, demanding environment. He wanted to inculcate his love for the West, with its mountains and plains, in students who too frequently know little more than shopping malls and video games. In the very heartland of America, he thought, one could still find the kind of society suitable for a good school–for farmers and ranchers and small towns preserve much of what made this nation great. His attorney explained that “He believed that the sky had a moral function, and that contemplating it induced wonder, a sense of possibility without limit, and inspiration. And he believed that on the High Plains, scoured clean beneath the unbordered canopy of the sky, an American might still dream largely and uncynically. In one of his final notes he left an instruction that the daily curriculum ‘require and guard zealously a time, of an hour at least, daily, of contemplative solitude. It should be outside for all but the worst moths of the year, and the students are to have no books with them when they are alone for such times'” (p. 3).

Just as Aristotle concluded that contemplation is the highest of all activities, so Bunting urges us to develop schools which encourage it.

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E. Christian Kopff, a classics professor at the University of Colorado, shares many of Bunting’s convictions in The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (Wilmington: ISI Books, c. 1999). The book’s quirky title comes from a response made by Ronald Knox, a Catholic priest; when he was asked to use English in a baptismal rite, as Evelyn Waugh recorded it, Knox replied, with “uncharacteristic acerbity,” that “The baby does not understand English and the Devil knows Latin'” (p. xv). This book is a collection of essays, very loosely revolving around educational concerns, idiosyncratic enough to prove interesting and enlightening. Kopff is likely to wonder from an ancient text to an event in the 1990’s, to probe the plots of current films as well as Attic dramas.

“The purpose of this book,” he writes, “is to suggest that the permanent things embedded in tradition are good things for human life, and that they have not yet entirely vanished from the Western landscape” (p. xiv). He, linking arms with thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, insists we must discard both “the Enlightenment Project and the Nietzschean critique [that] dominate intellectual discussions” in our era and recover the sounder traditions of classical learning and Christian culture. The Enlightenment, with its “tradition of anti-traditionalism,” has foundered, and we (standing amidst its ruins) cannot persist in prolonging its influence. Rejecting “modernity,” he urges us to join today’s truly radical thinkers who discover ancient truths and delight to promote “pre-modernity.”

As one would expect, Kopff stresses the importance of learning classical languages. “Serious research in the humanities, as well as creative work in them, is impossible without a good knowledge of Greek and Latin–as I once heard Rene Girard tell a group of horror-struck students of comparative literature” (p. 165). Nothing, he thinks, “is more practical than the study of Latin” (p. 25). There are, for example, more than one million English words–and over half of them have Latin roots, with Greek underlying most of the rest! Studying the classic languages opens up the ancient world, with its treasures of history, literature, and philosophy, treasures which were well-mined by the Founders of this nation.

To illustrate, consider the Christian ministry. The careful study and exegesis of classic texts gave great substance to Christian preaching in earlier ages. Unfortunately, especially during the 19th century, the ministry in America shifted “from the intellectual rigor of exegesis and preaching to a caring service profession” (p. 107). Rather than declaring truths which appeal to the mind, preachers turned sentimental, pleading for emotional response. Preachers became empathetic, compassionate counselors, more like social workers than doctors of the soul, more like hospital chaplains comforting the suffering than surgeons knowing how to diagnose cancers and set broken bones. Consequently, “This indifference to intellectual standards has, of course, lowered expectations for the clergy, and we in the pews suffer as a consequence. When the Word is not explained in all its richness and depth, we lose touch with the Christian tradition” (p. 108).

What’s happened in the churches has also happened in the educational system. Teachers have been urged to become friends and mentors, nurturing and empathetic, rather than masters of a body of knowledge which demands self-sacrifice and discipline to attain. The time has come, however, Kopff argues, for a recovery of classical educational strategies!

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John M. Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, offers his views in Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (New Haven: Yale University Press, c. 1997). He writes, primarily, to analyze and reject the “postmodern” movement which has so transformed the study of literature in American universities during the past two decades. When he began teaching, professors sought to objectively study their subjects, standing aloof from the social and political issues which now consume the academy. They understood that “Politics tends to slogans, whereas research cannot tolerate them. That is why bona fide research is often not useful for political purposes: it is too full of hedged conclusions” (p. 142).

The integrity of the scholarly profession, where facts and details and logic prevail, has been compromised of late, Ellis thinks. Thus he addresses issues such as “the origins of political correctness,” now one of the central articles of faith devoutly held by university professors. Take the voguish anti-civilizational posing of many multiculturalists. While some imagine this stance of recent origin, Ellis takes us on a historical journey to show that from Tacitus through Rousseau and Herder and Marx to Margaret Mead we find influential intellectuals advocating aspects of primitivism. Had ancient man never established civil society, according to Rousseau, “‘what crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors’ he would have saved the human race” (p. 16).

Thus we hold “society” rather than individuals responsible for man’s sins. “It is this critical step that determines the nature of politically correct thinking,” Ellis thinks, “because from this beginning it must follow that people are not responsible for, since they are inherently better than, what the alienated insider complains about” (p. 28). The perpetually-alienated intellectual, the constantly critical professor, declares his moral superiority through his discontent with his world. Ironically, however, wherever such discontents gain power and seek to create a good society, they install destructive dictatorships which gravely harm humanity.

Rather than re-making society, Ellis insists the true role of the professor is the study and teaching of literature, in all its multifaceted grandeur. The great texts, and their authors’ thoughts, provide the materials with which teachers should bless their world. To reduce the texts to social commentaries, to use the classroom as an arena where in one propounds political and sexual agendas, impoverishes the academy. The “superficial and contentless” nature of much “scholarship,” the recognition granted feminist extremists such as Catherine MacKinnon, the perennial quest for “race” and “class” aspects of the past, elicit Ellis’s scornful rejection.

Take, for example, the work of the currently fashionable Frederick Jameson, whose “influence in literary studies cannot be overstated. He is probably the most quoted of all American critics” (p. 120) and scores of professors apparently genuflect at the bare mention of his name. Jameson openly champions Marxism, and his “great admiration of Mao Zedong and Herbert Marcuse” still pervades his writings (p. 120). “Maoism is for him the ‘richest of all the great new ideologies of the 60’s,’ and Marcuse ‘the greatest Utopian thinker of that period'” (p. 121). To those of us who might question Mao’s grandeur, who might doubt the goodness of his “cultural revolution,” Jameson replies that it was a noble vision which Mao should have pushed it to its grand conclusion. So too with Stalin! “‘Stalinism is disappearing not because it failed, but because it succeeded, and fulfilled its historical mission to force the rapid industrialization of an underdeveloped country'” (p. 122). Forget the millions that died under Stalin and Mao! They had a marvelous ideology which Jameson applauds and seeks to install in America!

Take, for a second example, the PC logic of Stanley Fish, another academic superstar, who blithely moves from literary criticism to legal theory. Sharing the views of leftists who declare an “anti-foundationalist” stance, Fish joins the deconstructionists, the Marxists, Foucaualt, et al. In his opinion, there is no real difference between “the rule of law and brute force,” since a judge uses his own “force” to pound legal texts into whatever he desires, just as a criminal manipulates the law by forcefully defying it! Fish actually argues “that legal rulings and criminal violence are the same in that the bottom line in both cases remains someone coercing someone else, thereby making the force of law ‘indistinguishable from the forces it would oppose'” (p. 175).

Ellis challenges Jameson, Fish, and his fellow-travelers. Their Marxist fantasies, their fascination with utopianism, their hippie-style primitivism, their dreams for an immanent social revolution–all the silliness of the 60s–simply must be subjected to scholarly scrutiny. “If there is a malignancy left over in the academy from the 1960s, it consists less in the middle-aged political radicals it has bequeathed us than in the denigration of knowledge that began at that time. The demand for a narrowly construed ‘relevance’ amounted to rejecting any relevance to the present of our knowledge of the past. This willed ignorance has made it possible to repeat with Foucault the folly of Rousseau’s primitivist attack on civilization” (p. 219).

This is a readable, informative study, especially strong in its awareness of German thought.

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