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Saving The Humanities

Last night I watched my eighth-grade daughter packing up her schoolbooks after finishing her homework. She had been reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses,  for one of her classes. That’s eighth grade at Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge. Tuition at the classical Christian school is about $4,000 per year, and from my perspective, worth every penny. The school operates on a shoestring budget. Everything goes into the classroom. This is not a school for gifted and talented kids, but for all Christian kids. It’s demanding, but it’s amazing to see what kids can do when challenged.

I thought about Sequitur just now while reading the British political philosopher John Gray’s essay explaining why he believes that the humanities can’t be saved in universities. I encourage you to read the essay, because the problem, according to Gray, is probably not what you think. Excerpt:

The ideology of deconstruction aims to demystify this Socratic faith, along with everything else. As Nietzsche understood, once Socratism knocks away its metaphysical foundations it becomes a type of nihilism.

If Nietzsche’s diagnosis is even half-way sound, some awkward conclusions follow for the future of the humanities. Many lament the collapse of standards of truth and evidence in higher education. But what is their remedy? To restore rationality, no doubt. It seems not to have occurred to them that this may not be possible.

In other words, the radicals have destroyed the foundations on which rationality are built — and unless they are reconstructed, the humanities cannot be saved. Gray, who is an atheist, says that it makes no sense to commit to earning a degree in the humanities today, because the teachers, by and large, instruct students in progressive dogmatics, and nothing but:

[Students] also learn that disagreement in ethics and politics is illegitimate. Anyone who departs from the prevailing progressive consensus is not just mistaken but malevolent. When enforced in universities, this is a prescription for censorship and conformism. What is being inculcated is not freedom of mind, but freedom from thought. Losing the ability to think while attending a university may be considered a misfortune. Incurring fifty or sixty thousand pounds of debt in order to do so looks like carelessness.

Gray concludes:

It would be better to admit that the battle there has been lost, and advise young people to get to know the canon by themselves. It will not cost them tens of thousands of pounds to buy a copy of Montaigne’s essays, Emily Dickinson’s poems, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, for example. If they want to move beyond western traditions, they can read Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic and hilariously funny Demons, the delightful Chuang-Tzu and dozens of other world classics.

Read it all. I look forward to hearing in the comments section from traditionalist university scholars in the humanities. Is Gray right? If not, why not? As I’ve written here, even the world of Classics scholarship is being infused with the nihilistic energy of wokeness.

Let me offer some encouragement. As I indicated in The Benedict Option, classical Christian schools today are functioning as a kind of early medieval monastery, in that they keep a dying tradition alive. Writing in Christianity Today, Louis Markos delivers a terrific essay explaining what this model of education does. Excerpts:

In the fall of 2018, I spoke at Mars Hill Academy, a classical homeschooling co-op in Lexington, Kentucky. It began in 1995 and offers classes in Latin, Western civilization, rhetoric, and worldview, as well as English, math, and science. A cynic might have warned me that I would be greeted by insular families trying to protect their children from secular culture, a rigid Bible-only approach to learning, a legalistic mindset, and a withdrawal from civic engagement.

What I found instead were parents, students, and teachers with a shared vision of an educational program steeped in the Great Books and committed to glorifying God, freeing the mind from the marketplace of idols, and shaping virtuous, morally self-regulating citizens.

I’ve seen this phenomenon in many of the classical Christian schools I’ve spoken at—with some startling moments. Once, while explaining to an attentive group of teachers and students that the classical virtue of courage represents the Golden Mean between a lack of courage (cowardice) and an excess of courage, I asked what Aristotle might have meant by an excess of courage. A nine-year-old boy in the front row with white hair and a piercing glance shouted “bravado.” This young man had already begun to absorb the classics.

As in most schools I’ve visited, Mars Hill’s curriculum balances pagan (i.e., Homer, Aristotle) and medieval Christian (i.e., Dante, Chaucer) authors with major authors from the last 500 years of European and American literature (i.e., Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Faulkner).

In contrast, Western society today is increasingly eager to cut itself off from both its Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman roots.

Markos talks about how fundamentalists and evangelicals of the postwar generation withdrew into an intellectual ghetto — but now, that’s changing:

This was the predominant attitude of evangelical Christians in the 1950s and 1960s. Conversely, today Mars Hill Forum is one of a growing number of evangelical homeschooling co-ops that want to raise up a generation of Christians who know the Bible and who live virtuous lives, and who are also firmly grounded in the pagan classics of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the Roman Catholic classics of the Middle Ages. I’ve spoken to a number of such groups across the country and have found in each the same contagious atmosphere of learning and desire to be salt and light in the wider culture.

So what caused conservative evangelicals to reverse themselves on the classics?

You really need to read the whole thing to understand this important evolution in the lives of American Christians. Part of it has to do with the influence of C.S. Lewis:

Lewis helped unlock in the evangelical soul a longing for things of which they had been taught to be suspicious: tradition, hierarchy, liturgy, sacrament, numinous awe, and literature that was not specifically Christian. In both the medieval Catholic and classical pre-Christian world, evangelicals began to find works that stimulated them to ask the big questions. (Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?) They realized that by wrestling with the classics, they could gain a more holistic vision of how God has worked in history and thus become more effective ambassadors for Christ in a modern and postmodern world.

In some cases, this tectonic shift in the evangelical world has led significant numbers of conservative Protestants to become Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican—not only out of a longing for liturgy and sacrament but because the classics brought with them a re-encounter with the early church fathers. And yet most evangelicals who cross the Tiber, the Bosporus, or the Thames maintain much of their passion for the Bible, the Cross, and the spreading of the gospel. Many stand at the forefront of a new conservative ecumenism.

Amen! Markos points out that contrary to those critics who say classical Christian education is only about privileging dead white European males, the movement is spreading to include ethnically diverse student populations, and even spreading abroad, to non-Western countries. Indeed, two summers ago, at a national classical education conference, I talked to four young Christian men from Chengdu, China, who were planning to start a classical Christian school there. They didn’t see learning about the Western intellectual tradition through the eyes of ethnicity. They saw the great thinkers and artists of Western civilization as giving something to the universal church, and indeed to all of humanity.

Here’s the most hopeful paragraph from Markos’s piece:

Paul addressed his pagan audience from Mars Hill, and in a sense all classical Christian education, whether Protestant or Catholic, takes place on that hill, on that dusty crossroads where pre-Christian Greek poetry came together with biblical prophecy to offer a unified witness to Christ. Hundreds of classical schools and classical presses are aiming to raise up a generation of young people who embrace and practice traditional virtues and who are equipped to defend the Christian worldview and make it appealing to a fragmented, relativistic society.

Again, read the whole thing — and share it widely. This is how we build the resistance! This is how we light candles against the darkness, and grow them into brushfires! We need more than elementary and secondary schools. We need visionary colleges too — new ones, and established ones who re-engineer their humanities curricula to focus on the classical Western tradition. But this is how we begin.

Rescue and renewal requires just this kind of radicalism, though. Let the dead bury their dead. Those who want to live, and their children to live, have a harder but better road ahead of them — through the past to the future.

If you want to know more about the movement, spend some time on the website of the CiRCE Institute. 


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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