If you can’t read Chaucer without a translation, or puzzle your way through a page of Cicero’s Latin, you aren’t educated. If you don’t have a few dozen tags of Homer within easy reach in your mind, or a few hundred lines of Shakespeare, you lack part of what high schools and colleges were created to teach. If you can’t name the books of the Bible, or the circles of Dante’s Hell, there are pieces missing from what we once assumed learned people should know.
For that matter, if you can’t say how the Romans lost at Cannae, or how the Ten Thousand marched from Persia, or how Troy was defeated, then what was all your schooling for?
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If you can’t walk your way through patristics from Clement to Augustine, or describe the history of the English novel from Defoe to Joyce, or tell the story of Western music from Gregorian chant to Wagnerian opera, then contemporary academia has failed you. Yes, you might have a college degree, but no, you don’t have an education. The full tradition of Western learning never found its way to you.
Which may not be a problem. Certainly as a culture, we long ago decided that we were going to curtail what we expected college graduates to know. The second language most often known by American presidents? Latin, by a huge margin—except that there hasn’t been a president since Hoover who really practiced it.
Still, even after the cultural impetus was gone, the prep schools and colleges kept alive for a while at least the ghost of traditional education. It involved some math ("Let no one ignorant of geometry enter," as the sign above Plato's Academy read), together with a little science, a good bit of geography, a solid dose of history, and a whole lot of philology—all aiming straightforwardly at the goals of schooling.
You want to know the definition of what you didn't get in college? It's simply this: Traditional Western education is the study of philosophy, theology, and art, by people trained in Ancient Greek and Latin. Everything else is just one form or another of vocational training, created for people who don't have the intelligence or financial resources to expend four years of their early adulthood learning how to pursue the deep thoughts of civilization in whatever leisure time they have over the rest of the course of their lives
Bah. Who is there left who believes any of that, these days? Just to write those words is to open oneself to a charge of elitism so dated that it has no targets left to be deployed against. Contemporary education has been reforming itself at least since John Dewey, speaking from the cultural heights of Columbia University's Teachers College, demanded a practical, pragmatical form of American education. And once you ask the question of why Latin matters, Latin has already ceased to matter.
In other words, we suffered a massive failure of nerve, no longer believing in the great tradition of Western culture, and consequently no longer teaching it as an end in itself. And everything that has happened to our educational systems over the past fifty years stems from that failure of nerve—that original doubt about the high moral purpose of the old education. Events on campus in recent years have made abundantly clear that, if higher education ain't about Homer and Plato, Virgil and Cicero, then it's about nearly anything that anyone can force on anyone else. The problem with disbelieving in a classical foundation isn't that we thereby believe in no college education. It's that we thereby believe anything is college education, and we grasp vainly at every stray fad and moral velleity to keep us from sinking.
Or, in yet other words, Frank Furedi’s brutal new book, What’s Happened to the University?, is exactly right about college education these days. Bad as you think the situation is, Furedi shows that our schools are actually even worse. Free speech is being hounded to death, while seminary training and religious indoctrination now hold a huge amount of academic real estate, masquerading as ethnic and special-interest studies. Students are coddled and taught to take that coddling as their deserved right, both in the Club Med settings of the dorm rooms the schools have built for them and in the disturbance-free content of their courses.
Worse, the book argues, are the psychological pathologies festering on modern campuses. An emeritus sociology professor at the University of Kent, Furedi is the author of 17 previous books, from the 2001 Paranoid Parenting to the 2013 Authority: A Sociological History, and he naturally zeroes in on the social psychosis he thinks our universities are both indulging and incubating.
Safe spaces, microaggressions, and trigger warnings are outward and visible signs of an inward weakness that barely holds back a bubbling, psychotic violence. Students are told to have neither thick skins nor self-restraint. In fact, they are rewarded for thin skins and uninhibited anger, ready to lash out at anything that they can imagine disturbing them. "Fragility and vulnerability are the defining characteristics" that colleges believe their students to have, and any criticism of their ideas becomes "an unacceptable challenge to their personas."
As a catalogue of abuses and a critique of absurdities, What's Happened to the University? is a first-rate guide to the problems of contemporary academics. Furedi goes wrong only when he proposes the solution of returning to the university he knew in his own undergraduate days—a place of great freedom and robust debate that allowed the students to grow in intellectual and psychological maturity while preparing them for the rough and tumble of adult life after their schooling was completed.
One senses that the golden light of happy memories—ah, things were so much better when I was young!—may play a little too much on his picture of the ideal university. But even if we accept his vision, he offers no mechanism by which we might keep the gains that he thinks our return to the relatively recent past might bring us. Does Furedi think that our arrival at our present state has no history? Does he believe that we can jump back fifty years and not simply retrace the steps that brought us here?
In truth, the path was marked out from the moment our universities began to lose faith in their own cultural mission. That failure of nerve might have allowed a brief golden moment that graced Furedi's generation. But if we no longer believe that the humanities are their own reward—if we no longer suppose that the primary purpose of a college is to deliver to students the civilization's deepest thought and art, so they can live their lives in the midst of greatness—then what is schooling for?
Well, partly it's for vocational training, and that answer appears in defenses of college education that insist on the utility of science courses or declare that the college-educated prove better-trained employees: better-socialized worker bees in the white-collar hives that students are being prepared to inhabit. But even the pragmatic notion of college is having trouble surviving the actuality of grievance studies and pampered coursework that is neither practical training nor profound humane learning. The unapologetic engineering and science schools are still doing well, but they aren't the largest stream of university education—or the subject of Furedi's book.
And so our universities drifted, unable to teach the old truths but equally unable to think of themselves as purely vocational training centers. And what far too often they became was predictable from the first moments of the great failure of nerve: To a large degree, American universities today are semi-politicized and semi-religious summer camps for parking our children, many of whom are too emotionally weak and psychologically fragile to face reality at the tender age at which most people in the history of the world have been counted as adults.