The Recurring Question: 'What About Education?'
Whenever I am asked to speak before a gathering of conservatives, one question I can count on hearing is some variation of "What about education?" In other words, "Is there any way to reclaim the culture without first winning back the halls of academe?"
Sadly, there isn’t, yet short of violent revolution, there is also little hope for restoring traditional education in public schools that includes civics, moral instruction, and strict discipline. That’s why I tend to be pessimistic about the long-term chances of survival for the free society that is the bequest of the ancient Greeks to our ungrateful generation. Storming the Bastille is one thing, but storming the ivory tower behind its massive defenses of tenure and obdurate tenacity is quite another.
I read with interest, therefore, James Delingpole's lament at Breitbart.com last week titled "O Tempora, O Mores! Social Justice Is Killing Classics." It should be noted first of all that Delingpole doesn’t feel the need to translate his Latin quotation, which is the sign of a true classicist. That signals his expectation that anyone with a decent education ought to recognize the quote from Cicero, the Roman statesman, which bewails roughly, “Oh, what times! Oh, what customs!”
But of course Latin, once a standard tool of education in Western society, was one of the first casualties of the progressive education system advanced by John Dewey at the start of the 20th century. Under the principles advanced by Dewey and now embedded in every public school in America, education doesn’t serve society. It doesn’t even serve the parents who pay for it. Rather, progressive education sees its client as the student, and this, in a nutshell, is why it caters to the whims of children — children, it goes without saying, who have no interest in learning the dead language of Latin with its declensions, cases, genders and a host of accompanying dead writers to rub it in.
As one reporter noted in a news story in 1900 (printed in the Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Journal), the John Dewey school in Chicago is “where children are permitted to grow up and acquire knowledge with the least possible interference from those in charge of them.” No wonder another syndicated writer in 1900, Milton B. Marks, described Dewey’s elementary school at the University of Chicago as a place where children “have little use for books.”
“The casual observer would probably make neither head nor tail of the class instruction as it is carried on in this school,” Marks wrote, “and would conclude that the children were enjoying a perpetual holiday.”
Well, that perpetual holiday has now lasted more than 100 years, and the children who were educated by Dewey taught the children who grew up to teach communist educator Bill Ayers, who grew up to teach the teachers who teach your children, and now your children think that they can do whatever they want whenever they want — and frankly so do most of their parents!
But it would be nice if they would keep their hands off the classics. Plutarch and Homer and Herodotus and Marcus Aurelius were doing just fine before the social justice warriors discovered them.
Sadly, the pesky revisionists of the left have taken over classical studies and are busily cleansing their ranks of backward-thinking scholars who reject identity politics and political correctness. Delingpole recounts the story of Mary Frances Williams, a classics Ph.D. who attended the annual meeting of the Society of Classical Studies for intellectual stimulation but left it in academic disgrace.
Her crime? As Delingpole notes, “She made the mistake of trying to speak out against the corruption of the [c]lassical curriculum by identity politics, race-baiting and anti-male hysteria.” Williams told her own fascinating story in a Quillette essay titled “How I was Kicked Out of the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting.”
To make a long story short, it turns out that a speaker at the conference, Princeton professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, had stumbled upon the “dirty secret” of classics — that old white men were more interested in Latin and Greek than any other group of people. No surprise there, right? Another speaker at the conference, Joy Connolly, said that “ancient languages could not be taught anymore by [c]lassics departments” because students just weren’t interested. Those old white men were, but it seems that their aptitude for ancient languages, history and philosophy means less than their “white privilege.”
Interest in the classics should not predetermine success in the field, Padilla seemed to be arguing — not if you are white. Instead, qualified scholars who happened to be white men should voluntarily step aside in order to improve the quantity of scholars of color enjoying the perks of publication. Sound too crazy to be true? Just read his words for yourself:
“... white men will have to surrender the privilege they have of seeing their words printed and disseminated. They will have to take a back seat, so that people of colour, and women, and gender-non-conforming scholars of colour benefit from the privileges, career and otherwise, of seeing their words on the page.”
According to Williams, “Padilla said nothing about merit, the content of the article in question, or how it was reasoned. He said that articles by white men should be excluded from consideration, regardless of their merit, if members of other ethnic or racial groups submitted work for publication at the same time.”
Williams tells the story of how she rose to speak in defense of traditional scholarship and of the importance of the classics to the development of Western civilization and “the concepts of liberty, equality, and democracy” that underpin it. She never got a chance to argue against using race as the determinant in scholarly publication because her defense of Western civilization triggered those in the audience into a state of near panic. Nothing better encapsulates the state of disrepair of our education establishment than this pitiful encounter that resulted in Williams being banned from the conference and losing a part-time job for another professional society.
With her essay in Quillette, Williams has become an accidental warrior in the battle to preserve the best of Western civilization from the likes of John Dewey and Dan-el Padilla Peralta.
As she wrote, “Of all the academic disciplines, [c]lassics alone has managed until now to withstand most of the corrupting influences of modern critical theory and ‘social justice’ activism. Ours is the last bastion of Western [c]ivilization in the academy.”
If that tiny redoubt has fallen, then we must be even more pessimistic than ever that there is a road back from the brink. If we are to enjoy a new Renaissance, it must begin with a cry of retreat — whether in the form of home-schooling or increased participation in private schools — but then it would ultimately require a non-violent revolution on local school boards. Parents must demand a return to methods of traditional education — the kind of education that insists on students learning not just the fundamentals of knowledge, but also the moral, religious and cultural underpinnings that give that knowledge meaning and significance.
Without such a change, we face a long Dark Age where dogma replaces logic and wisdom is hidden away in hopes of a future generation that escapes the tyranny of political correctness.