Too many are talking about rebellion as if it were exclusively a political act. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rebellion may end in arms, but it begins in the mind:
When the liberal arts seemed destined for shipwreck, three men stood up and decided to do something radical at a state university. They decided to engage in an Experiment in Tradition.
These three men were John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick, and their experiment was the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at the University of Kansas. This writer was a student in this program in the seventies in Kansas. It started small. But I have seen it grow into an international educational movement, with many colleges, primary schools, and curricula based on the educational philosophy of John Senior and the practice of the IHP.
Their revolution was to expose students to real things, to delight in memorizing poetry, song, stargazing, observation of nature, and the great books. This brought out a dormant sense of awe and wonder in students. This was the necessary ingredient to philosophy and all true education, according to Plato and Aristotle, and to Newman.
A movement that began in Kansas perhaps fifty years ago might have become visible to the rest of the nation by now. Would you like to know why you’re only just learning about it now?
False accusations of brainwashing and proselytism arose.
Other professors and administrators were threatened by this highly successful program. It had to be suppressed. You just couldn’t allow students to run around talking about truth as if it could be known. It was the beginning of what we now know as political correctness, the liberal orthodoxy that admitted of only one direction – “progress” away from the West and the jettisoning of our Judeo-Christian patrimony.
The university held hearings, parading students to testify about Jewish conversions, attitudes about women that were too traditional, education that was too retrograde, not open to new ideas. In short, after nearly ten years of success, this program had to be done in, because it was too “controversial.” The radicalism of the sixties was not too controversial, nor was sexual experimentation, nor the embrace of every odd philosophy and cult. But a return to our roots, or at least an exploration of what was good or potentially worth knowing in Western Culture – that was revolutionary. The experiment in tradition had to be killed, as it were, death by administration.
The cited column ends on a hopeful note, but be warned: hope looks not to the present but the future, and the future is not fixed in shape. The mental rebellion kindled by those three daring educators – real educators this time, in contrast to the sort that usually parade the title – might have left seeds, if not at the University of Kansas, then perhaps elsewhere, that will germinate yet.
Not long ago I made a passing mention of a motif from Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness: the Handdara cult, which strives to eschew abstractions in preference for real things and real experiences. It was a discourse on reality as an antidote to the kind of self-indulgent / choose-your-own-premises theorizing that’s led many millions astray this century past. Please refresh your memory of it before proceeding onward with this tirade.
A number of Gentle Readers reacted to that piece by asking “What’s the point of this?” That told me a great deal. In particular, it illuminated the dire necessity of refuting the “Reality is what we say it is” proposition generally known as social constructionism. Samuel Johnson could refute it with a single well-placed kick because the people around him were still in touch with real things. That’s no longer the case today.
These past few decades, the thrust of social, economic, and cultural development – and how I resent that the word development retains positive connotations I can’t flense away! – has been to move many persons ever further from unmoderated contact with reality. To some degree, this was inevitable, as many advances in technology could not have occurred otherwise. Consider how the hyper-abstract mathematical subfield of topology has become critical to the electronics industry and all that it has brought us.
Some of those persons became professional thinkers. That is, they made their livings by producing real things, valued by others, that nevertheless required working with abstractions. But many others produced little or nothing. Some became “paper pushers:” office workers whose livelihoods were divorced from contact with the things they wrote about. Others became “social clients:” persons protected by the rest of us from the consequences of their incapacity. The universities, being especially favorable environments for those who have nothing of value to offer others, filled up with such clients and dominate them today.
Direct experience with real things can be jarring, even deadly. Ask anyone who’s set out to split wood and has misused his axe. The extreme social client – i.e., one whose separation from reality blankets all his experiences – would be in peril of his life if shorn of the protections and supports others provide him. The multiplication of such clients, and the opulence of the support we provide them, has made the universities an active menace to American society. They have an insane degree of influence on what happens outside them.
You get what you pay for. Americans have been paying king’s ransoms for rampaging madness.
Scott Bloch, the author of the cited column, suggests that the universities can be salvaged by the incitement of the sort of rebellion he advocates:
It is a time to re-engage, to start a new revolution of the liberal arts, the kind Newman had in mind, one program at a time, one school at a time, one repurposed curriculum at a time, at the primary level, and in colleges or universities that seem moribund and incapable of a return to education in real things.
Here is where we part company. The existing universities have become so toxic that they cannot be salvaged. Good men who attempt it are routinely destroyed in the act, just as were the authors of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. Their programs are counter-infiltrated by their enemies and brought to ruin. The only thing to do with the universities is to abjure them, withdraw all support from them, and watch from a safe distance as they crumble.
The mental rebellion must begin outside the existing universities, perhaps at institutions that have no traditional connection to education whatsoever. Their “students” must rub up against real things, and have real experiences. They must feed their bodies, minds, and souls with their own hands.
The “ivory tower” is designed to prevent such experiences. That’s why the phrase has such derisive connotations. Their rulers have raised them too far from the ground for seeds scattered among them to sprout.
The great works of our past are legible only when read in the light provided by real experiences. One cannot love them as they deserve to be loved without adequately broad and deep experience of “the rough rub of the real.” The universities are anathematic to such a course. They must be destroyed, or shunned and allowed to destroy themselves through their irrelevance.
(There’s an interesting word for you: irrelevant. Etymologically, it means “of nothing real.” How much more relevant could a word be to the subject of this tirade?)