October 21, 2019

None Dare Call It Education

Each year the National Association of Scholars compiles a list of books from over three hundred colleges and universities that are recommended for summer reading by their incoming freshmen. The Association calls its list “Beach Books,” although it is unlikely that few, if any, will be read anywhere, much less at the beach.

What is disturbing about the list is that the great books of literature, “classic” books, if you will, are almost non-existent. In fact, only five of the schools suggested a book written prior to 1910, while more than half of all the books were published after 2010. Educationists refer to these modern books as “common reading.” According to Ashley Thorne, the executive director of the National Association of Scholars, “Common reading is designed to mold students’ attitudes on current debates. Many of the readings are memoirs or biographies of social activists, which hint that students ought to follow suit.”

Of course, the schools that push this tripe will never admit that their goal is to brainwash their charges, but, when pressed, their justifications for excluding the classics fall into three categories.

First, older books are irrelevant. Thorne writes, “They are more interested in the topics du jour–some of which right now are immigration, racism, global warming, the elusiveness of the American Dream, LGBT life, genocide in Africa, ‘food justice,’ and the war in Iraq.” Again, the key word here is relevance. So, instead of teaching students to understand the world by reading the classics, the goal is “toward shaping activists to change the world.”

The second reason for rejecting classic literature is accessibility. This does not mean that students can’t find or buy the book. It means that they are incapable of understanding the content. Several professors admitted to researchers that many of the incoming freshmen have never read a book in their entire twelve-year school career. (I know this seems impossible, but apparently it is a fact of life.) So, apparently it is asking too much to go from texting to Tolstoy.

The third reason to avoid the Great Books is that they are “too privileged.” Thorne quotes Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber, “. . . the book should be something that students can argue with and about; for this reason, I’m inclined to avoid ‘classics’ that students might feel obliged to venerate.” Thorne explains the implications of such muddled thinking:

The derogation of ‘dead white men’ now means the marginalization of texts and ideas that have shaped Western culture over the centuries. Far from being venerated by intimidated students, these books are increasingly ignored and forgotten.

I have shared the above because, at the same time I came across this study, I was reading Bradley Birzer’s American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll, a fascinating biography of the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. Though born in Maryland, Charles was sent to France by his father to assure an exceptional education.

At the age of eleven, Charles entered the College of St. Omer in France. Over the next six years he studied literature, science, and philosophy. He was expected to make frequent recitations and be involved in discussions and debates and to participate in scholarly contests. He had to learn Greek and Latin. In addition, he studied the writings of some of the great authors of the Western world, including Cicero, Horace, Homer, Virgil and Dryden. Each year he was ranked as one of the top six students in his class.

This exert from the biography is most instructive:

From the age of eleven until the age of twenty-seven, Charles received an intense education in France and England. From French Jesuits, he learned the liberal arts and the greats of Western tradition . . . at the age of nineteen, Charles successfully defended his thesis in “universal philosophy” and became a master of arts. With a firm grounding in the classics and liberal arts, Carroll studied civil law in France for two additional years, and in 1759, he went to London to study common law.

Charles’s education proved invaluable when he returned to America and began to rub shoulders with many of the Founders of this nation. But his knowledge was not unique, for many of these men were well grounded in the ancient classics, subjects they began to study at a very early age. Birzer writes about the requirements to enter most colonial colleges:

When a student entered college (usually at age fourteen and fifteen), he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek. According to historians Forest and Ellen McDonald, he would need to “read and translate from the original Latin into English the first three of [Cicero’s] Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin . . .”

Know any fourteen-year-olds who can do that? No, I don’t either. Obviously, expectations were different in colonial America. Expectations are so low in American colleges today that a student who has never read a book can be accepted. I don’t know if we should laugh or cry.

(May I make a suggestion? If you are invited to a high school graduation this year, take a moment to ask the graduate what he considered to be the best five books he read in high school. His answers will tell you a lot about the school he attended.)

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Written by
Thomas Addis

THOMAS ADDIS is a retired high school teacher and published author, most recently authoring a children's book, A Gift of Light, which is available at Amazon. An M.A. graduate of Oakland University, he is Associate Editor of Catholic Journal. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and cycling.

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