Policymakers | General Education

Professors, teachers erasing America’s history and culture

While Americans weren't looking, our schools have largely abandoned their central enterprise: transmitting our history and our culture to the next generation.
COMMUNITIES DIGITAL NEWS   |  August 7, 2015 by Allan C. Brownfeld

WASHINGTON, August 3, 2015—While most Americans weren’t looking, our schools—colleges, universities, and high schools—have largely abandoned what was once their central enterprise, transmitting our history and our culture to the next generation.

A recent report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, found that, “At most universities, English majors were once required to study Shakespeare closely as an indispensable foundation for the understanding of English language and literature. But today—at the elite institutions we examined, public and private, large and small, east and west—he is required no more.”

The four exceptions among 52 schools analyzed were Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, the U.S. Naval Academy and Wellesley College. All four require English majors to take a Shakespeare class.

In high schools, there is a turn away from reading the great books of American literature. The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, mandated many changes to traditional teaching. One of the most basic was a call for students to read more nonfiction. The new standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what students read should be nonfiction, and by 12th grade, the share should be 70 percent.

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, says that some of the nonfiction texts that districts choose seem overly technical and other choices − like opinion pieces on whether cellphones should be allowed in schools or an article about injuries from cheerleading – seem based on a set of low expectations about what will interest students. Without guidance from Common Core standards themselves, he noted, the definition of informational texts “very easily slides into blog posts − it shifts over to topical contemporary discussions of things.”

The days of high school students spending time in English class reading the classics of American literature seems to be a thing of the past. Everything seems to become a commentary on events of the day.

After eighth graders in Naples, Florida read how Tom Sawyer duped other boys into whitewashing a fence for him, they follow it with an op-ed article on teenage unemployment. In Harrison, New York, 10th graders read articles about bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain to help them analyze Holden Caulfield in “A Catcher In The Rye.” Literature, it seems, is seen to be of value only as a lead in to discussing contemporary problems.

Our colleges, which once viewed it as their role to turn out educated men and women who were acquainted with the best our culture had produced, now have become something far different. David W. Breneman, former president of Kalamazoo College and director of the public policy school at the University of Virginia, laments that, “…we are drifting toward turning college into a trade school. And this is ultimately harmful.”

“The original ethos of education was that it prepared people for citizenship,” he continues, “for enlightened leadership and enhanced their creativity. There was a tradition going back to Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, that a liberal arts education was the core of our democracy. If we lose an educated populace, we’re open to demagogy. We need broadly educated people.”

Even many of our traditional and highly regarded liberal arts colleges are altering their curriculum. Dr. Breneman notes that, “Some of them are verging more into professional fields. In 15 years, the number of liberal arts colleges might be down to 120 (from 600 in 1990) because of the pressure to add more practical offerings. And the closing of small private colleges that morphed out of liberal arts long ago is going to continue…We’ve got a whole way of thinking about college that focuses on the rate of return. And that dismisses the intangible benefits.”

The college curriculum has also been politicized in recent years. It has been said that the teaching of Homer, St. Thomas, Shakespeare, Freud and Einstein constitutes the perpetuation of the power of “dead white males” over women and minorities. This ignores the fact that Western civilization offers the hope of a better life to men and women of every race and nation.

In his Wriston lecture on “Universal Civilization,” given more than 20 years ago, V.S. Naipaul, the son of an immigrant Indian laborer who grew up in post-colonial Trinidad and was educated in England, contrasts some of the static, inward looking, insular “non-Western” cultures with that spreading “universal civilization” that he finds to be based, above all, on Jefferson’s idea of the pursuit of happiness.

DIscussing the essence of Western civilization, which sets it apart from others, Naipaul characterizes it in these terms: “The ideal of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system nor generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

It is a contemporary illusion that particular works of art, literature or music are, somehow, the possession of only those who can trace their lineage to the creators of such culture. Shall only Jews read the Old Testament? Only Greeks read Plato or Aristotle? Only those of English descent read Shakespeare and Chaucer, and only Italians appreciate Dante or Leonardo da Vinci?

Western culture is relevant to men and women of all races and backgrounds, particularly those living in the midst of Western society. The distinguished black intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois, recognized this reality when he wrote more than a hundred years ago,

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line, I walk arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously, with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil.”

In an address to the freshman class at Yale some years ago, Donald Kagan, then Professor of History and Classics and Dean of Yale College, declared:

“The assault on the character of Western civilization badly distorts history. The West’s flaws are real enough, but they are common to almost all the civilizations known on any continent in any time in human history. What is remarkable about the Western heritage, and what makes it essential, are the important ways in which it has departed from the common experience. More than any other it has asserted the claims of the individual against those of the state, limiting the state’s power and creating a realm of privacy into which it cannot penetrate…Western civilization is the champion of representative democracy as the normal way for human beings to govern themselves, in place of the different varieties of monarchy, oligarchy, and tyranny that have ruled most of the human race throughout history and rule most of the world today. It has produced the theory and practice of separation of church and state, thereby protecting each from the other and creating a free and safe place for the individual conscience. At its core is a tolerance and respect for diversity unknown in most cultures…”

The West has its sins, Kagan acknowledged, but argued, “…most of its sins and errors…are those of the human race. Its special achievements and values, however, are gifts to all humanity and are widely seen as such around the world today, although their authorship is rarely acknowledged—Western culture and institutions are the most powerful paradigm in the world today.”

Our unity as a nation is threatened, Kagan believes, by those who would replace the teaching of our history and culture with some other curriculum:

“American culture derives chiefly from the experience of Western civilization, and especially from England, whose language and institutions are the most copious springs from which it draws its life. I say this without embarrassment as an immigrant who arrived here from Lithuania…Our students will be handicapped in their lives after college if they do not have a broad and deep knowledge of the culture in which they live and the roots from which they come…As our land becomes ever more diverse, the danger of separation and segregation by ethnic group…increases and with it the danger to the essential unity which, ironically, is essential to the qualities that attracted its many peoples to this country.”

Clearly, the notion that Western Civilization is less relevant to a student because of his or her racial or ethnic background is wrong and is a product of the strange ethnocentrism so prevalent today.

The great works of art, music, literature, science and philosophy are the common patrimony of all. We do a disservice to the next generation when we withhold from them the very essence of the civilization into which they were born.


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