Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Old Man Yells at Kids
To Get Them the Hell Out of His Yard

And who could do it better than Joseph Epstein?
When asked what he thought about the cultural wars, Irving Kristol is said to have replied, “They’re over,” adding, “We lost.” If Kristol was correct, one of the decisive battles in that war may have been over the liberal arts in education, which we also lost. ... 
For many years, the liberal arts were my second religion. I worshipped their content, I believed in their significance, I fought for them against the philistines of our age as Samson fought against the Philistines of his—though in my case, I kept my hair and brought down no pillars. 
As currently practiced, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to defend the liberal arts. Their content has been drastically changed, their significance is in doubt, and defending them in the condition in which they linger on scarcely seems worth the struggle. ... At the University of Chicago I read many books, none of them trivial, for the school in those years did not allow the work of second- or third-rate writers into its curriculum. Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, or their equivalents of that day, did not come close to making the cut. No textbooks were used. You didn’t read “Karl Marx postulated .  .  .”; you read Karl-bloody-Marx. The working assumption was that one’s time in college is limited, and mustn’t be spent on anything other than the first-rate, or on learning acquired (as with textbooks) at a second remove. 
Nor did Chicago offer any “soft” majors or “lite” courses. I remember, in my final year, looking for such a course to fill out a crowded schedule, and choosing one called History of Greek Philosophy. How difficult, I thought, could this be? Learn a few concepts of the pre-Socratics (Thales believed this, Heraclitus that), acquire a few dates, and that would be that. On the first day of class, the teacher, a trim little man named Warner Arms Wick, announced that there was no substantial history of Greek philosophy, so we shall instead be spending the quarter reading Aristotle and Plato exclusively. ... 
Had I not gone to the University of Chicago, I have often wondered, what might my life be like? I suspect I would be wealthier. But reading the books I did, and have continued to throughout my life, has made it all but impossible to concentrate on moneymaking in the way that is required to acquire significant wealth. Without the experience of the University of Chicago, perhaps I would have been less critical of the world’s institutions and the people who run them; I might even have been among those who do run them. I might, who knows, have been happier, if only because less introspective—nobody said the examined life is a lot of laughs—without the changes wrought in me by my years at the University of Chicago. Yet I would not trade in those three strange years for anything.
Go read it all here.  On that nature and practice of reading (and much else), Epstein would surely find shared sympathy with Patrick Kurp.


Ken Houghton said...

Yeah, the first thing anyone thinks when reading Adrienne Rich is, "Gee, what a second-rater. Why should I waste my time on her instead of "Murder in the Cathedral" or."The Old Man and the Sea" or "Old Possim's Book of Practical Cats" or "Fire and Ice" or Sandburg or "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" or yet another round with Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity or Walt Bloody Whitman?

Better a mediocre Trollope (of which there is FAR too much; Stephen King hits the high notes more consistently) or Balzac (ibid and then some, also suffering from C. K. Scott-Montcrieff disease, from which all translation sounds the same) than deigning to deal with _Mother Night_ or _Beloved_, or realizing the essential shortcomings of Kerouac and his buddies in a classroom. Much better to reread _A Separate Peace_ than look for its Bloody Obvious tup-of-the-hat in The Half-Blood Prince.

Epstein has been playing that one note so long you would think he was Cecil Taylor--not even Philip Glass and certainly not Mozart. Why ate people stupid enough to still pay him to write the same tripe?

Buce said...

He always spoke well of you, Ken.

Anonymous said...

I had to search to read the whole article (your intended link is broken). It is very interesting to read the lamentation of somebody who I can sympathize with very much, but who I ultimately must disagree with.

In the mid-50s when he went to college, only about 7 percent of the population had a 4 year degree. That is 1 person in 14. Now, the proportion of people who have a 4-year degree is much closer to 1 in 3 (30% by the 2010 census). 56% have at least attended some school beyond high school even if they didn't get a degree.

When you look at the demographics, then the kind of transition he describes seems much more inevitable. Both the student body and faculty become much more diverse. What seemed to be a consensus about a 'canon' of literature fragments as a larger proportion of a vastly expanding population all have their say. 'Liberal Arts' died because the kind of curriculum tailored to the smartest and/or richest part of the population cannot extend to broader segments without transforming under the pressure.

His generation was merely a vanguard of the much larger hordes of baby boomers behind who by their very number could not help to remake higher education into something new. This would indeed be a tragedy except that as some paths to a thoughtful life are closed or made more difficult, other paths open up. Today it is hard to get a slot at one of the few elite ivy league colleges. But it is much easier to watch lectures and find the source materials that form the foundations of these programs.

Buce said...

Link corrected, I think. Thanks.