Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Hanson Cannon...uh...Canon

Classics professor, military historian, and über-hawk pundit Victor Davis Hanson has a big problem with the education the kids are currently getting in our universities. Let's take his argument in small pieces:

Is the Iraq war, as we are often told, the “greatest mistake” in our nation’s history?

Because Israel and the United States have a bomb, is it then O.K. for theocratic Iran to have one too?

Americans increasingly cannot seem to answer questions like these adequately because they are blissfully uneducated. They have not acquired a broad knowledge of language, literature, philosophy, and history.

Agreed. When it comes to the knowledge of traditional humanities content, Americans suck. But this isn't new. A country with pragmatism as its de facto national religion in service to relatively unrestrained capitalism, has historically given short shrift to the humanities -- there isn't any money in it nor does it serve the purpose of our other national religion, evangelical Protestantism which don't need none of that Catholic book learnin' to have a personal relationship with the Almighty.

Hanson continues:

Instead, our youth for a generation have been fed a “Studies” curriculum. Fill in the blanks: Women’s Studies, Gay Studies, Environmental Studies, Peace Studies, Chicano Studies, Film Studies, and so on. These courses aim to indoctrinate students about perceived pathologies in contemporary American culture—specifically, race, class, gender, and environmental oppression.

Yes, such courses are out there and they're on the margins of the margins. Take a look at the top ten majors and ask yourself how much time these kids are going to spend in those classes. Maybe the Psych majors and they aren't going to study Latin or philosophy anyway unless it's required. Disagree? Go find a psych major and inquire yourself.

Of the top ten, only #7, English, is in the humanities -- so maybe some of those kids might be diverted from traditional humanities classes into Gay Penguins 101. All the other majors are vocational if one accepts that Poli Sci is de facto pre-law.

Such courses are by design deductive. The student is expected to arrive at the instructor’s own preconceived conclusions. The courses are also captives of the present—hostages of the contemporary media and popular culture from which they draw their information and earn their relevance.

Will the college professor who is not teaching deductively (I think Hanson really means to say didactically) please step forward. Although Hanson finds this to be a fault unique to the cultural left, in my experience, it isn't. Most PhDs have come to hold a certain position which they believe to be correct and they tend to not be shy preaching it. It's the nature of academe to case-build and to copiously impart data favorable to one's conclusions and to limit and/or disparage data which does not. Rare is the academic inoculated from this all-too-human trait.

The theme of all such therapeutic curricula is relativism. There are no eternal truths, only passing assertions that gain credence through power and authority. Once students understand how gender, race, and class distinctions are used to oppress others, they are then free to ignore absolute “truth,” since it is only a reflection of one’s own privilege.

By contrast, the aim of traditional education was to prepare a student in two very different ways. First, classes offered information drawn from the ages—the significance of Gettysburg, the characters in a Shakespeare play, or the nature of the subjunctive mood. Integral to this acquisition were key dates, facts, names, and terms by which students, in a focused manner in conversation and speech, could refer to the broad knowledge that they had gathered.

Second, traditional education taught a method of inductive inquiry. Vocabulary, grammar, syntax, logic, and rhetoric were tools to be used by a student, drawing on an accumulated storehouse of information, to present well-reasoned opinions—the ideology of which was largely irrelevant to professors and the university.

This is the meat of Hanson's case and the weakest. What Hanson is arguing is that if we stuck to the traditional Western canon both in terms of content (Shakespeare, Aristotle, St. Augustine) and skills (Aristotelian logic and rhetoric as opposed to Hegelian dialectics or, God forbid, deconstructionism) then the kids would be able to give a "better" answer to the "Is the war in Iraq the "greatest mistake" in our history?" question. In other words, they would give Hanson's answer of an emphatic "NO!" In other words, program the kid with the right history, philosophy, and syllogistic constructs and he won't end up in the squishy liberal traitor camp. Deductivism Hanson-style, yeah, baby!

But why is it so important to study the Western canon? Get your boots on, it's gonna get deep:

If few Americans know of prior abject disasters during the winter of 1776, the summer of 1864, or January 1942, then why wouldn’t Iraq really be the worst mistake in our history?
Huh? I consider myself to be a pretty decent student of American history, especially the periods Hanson cites and I'll be damned if I'm aware of any "disasters" associated with those specific frames. Of course, that's not what the disingenuous Professor Hanson is really trying to say. They were all low points in terms of morale of the eventual winning side in an American war but no scholar would ever denote nor conflate them as disasters.

On the other hand, informed people did make cases that certain decisions made by General Washington and the Continental Congress might not have been the best as those parties never enjoyed more than a 35% level of support of the American population. Lincoln's presidency teetered during the entire summer of 1864 and would have likely been lost to McClellan had Sherman not taken Atlanta. And FDR was subjected to a full-blown GOP-led congressional investigation as he struggled to get the country on a war footing on three continents and two oceans.

But those political obstacles were not mistakes any more than potholes are car wrecks. Contemporaneous critics certainly found plenty of mistakes to harp on in all three cases but criticism of policy and actions is not the same as a country experiencing self-doubt and low morale. And as a student of history, of the classics, Hanson knows better. He knows that the self-doubt and low morale need not be fatal to the polity suffering them. The strong country with a leadership steeped in the humanities sees low points as opportunities for reflection, for creativity, for the development and application of new strategies and policies.

But to gloss over the obstacles, to anesthetize the nation's geopolitical woes with jingoism, to distract the body politic with incessant fear mongering over jihadists, to marginalize those of us who are patriots but who strongly disagree with the path the country took in March of 2003 indicates inherent weaknesses in solely relying upon Hanson's stunted version of the Western canon. Reliance on Hanson's version of the canon only would ensure the quagmire in Iraq continues unabated because it does not allow for the possibility that a mistake was made, regardless where it lays in the pantheon of American missteps. Furthermore, Hanson's dysfunctional fetish for a militarily dominant, imperial Western Civilization with the United States as its phalanx , with the mission to bend the rest of the planet to its will, is indeed a strong argument for the broadening of the canon and to receive it as tool for shaping the future, not to defend the privileged tribe in the manner which Hanson would have us inculcate our youth.