‘One must never underestimate,” the great contemporary sociologist Peter L. Berger has written, “the human capacity for forgetfulness and imbecility.” In his most recent book, Berger ruefully notes that “relativism has massively invaded everyday life, especially in Western societies,” for complex reasons, not least of them the fact that “increasing numbers of people [are] going through an educational system in which teachers propagate relativistic ideas.”
We live in an age ignorant and resentful of theology and metaphysics, whose elites and academic establishment also hate the very idea of “classic” or “canonical” literature, from Dante to T. S. Eliot and Solzhenitsyn (both of whom unflatteringly document different kinds of modern inferno). As Lionel Trilling noted in 1961 in his fine essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (helpfully reprinted in Leon Wieseltier’s anthology of Trilling’s essays, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent), “Nothing is more characteristic of the literature of our time than the replacement of the hero by what has come to be called the anti-hero, in whose indifference to or hatred of ethical nobility there is presumed to lie a special authority.” As a distinguished “neo-conservative” adherent of Matthew Arnold’s view of the civilizing power of education and great literature to produce “ethical nobility,” Trilling also argued, regretfully and ominously, in the same essay, that “Nothing is more characteristic of modern literature,” especially since Nietzsche, “than its discovery and canonization of the primal, non-ethical energies.” The audio-visual power of New York and Hollywood has made this increasingly true and habituates us (and everyone else reached by airwaves and images) to violence and sensuality.
Thus history may be the last durable matrix, measure, and mirror in which the human person can dependably seek ethical self-knowledge. As autobiographical reflection is the means of individual self-knowledge, history is the means of collective human self-knowledge: Instead of looking vainly at the screen (Milton Shulman’s “ravenous eye”) or drunkenly (to paraphrase Housman) into the pewter pot and seeing the world as the world is not, we look into the mirror of personal and collective history to see the world as it really is. It is often an unflattering sight, as the great Kierkegaard knew. “Memory says, ‘I did that,’” he wrote; “vanity says, I wouldn’t do that!’ Vanity wins.” As Eliot put it, “This is a sentence not taught in the schools.”
Of the many regrettable anomalies unleashed and then institutionalized by John Dewey and his now-vast legion of followers in American K–12 schools and teachers’ colleges (and their worldwide disciples), two have been particularly damaging to the American Republic: first, the emptying out of specific, graduated, cumulative academic content in elementary schools and its replacement by helter-skelter play, experimentation, and uncoordinated, ephemeral “units,” and, second, the related replacement of high-school history with present-minded “social studies” and classic literature with contemporary fads (e.g., the International Baccalaureate’s recent elimination of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in favor of works such as the comic book/“graphic novel” Persepolis). “The effect of Dewey’s philosophy on the design of curricular systems was devastating,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964 in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. “Progressive education” has proved to be the great enemy of real educational progress, bringing about an extraordinary “dumbing down” of the hapless and helpless students subjected to it. The profitable success and low quality of the commercial audio-visual and literary culture that preys on them is a sad commentary on the result.
In a brilliant 1961 book, the renegade conservative Protestant thinker R. J. Rushdoony carefully analyzed “the messianic character of American education,” the translation of residual religious longings by increasingly heterodox liberal Protestants and liberal Jews into what T. E. Hulme had called, before the First World War, the “spilt religion” of secular “Progressivism.” Another voice crying in the wilderness was Russell Kirk, who, in the pages of National Review and in a series of careful, detailed pamphlets written on K–12 school curricula, critiqued the ahistorical, offbeat, eccentric, and sheerly disorganized character of the modern K–12 American school, once the envy of the world but now transformed by Dewey and his followers.
More recently, in what is perhaps the most promising development of the last half-century at any level of American education, the enormously distinguished, courageous, and productive scholar and dogged publicist E. D. Hirsch Jr., of the University of Virginia, has not only critiqued “progressivism” but worked with other teachers, parents, and scholars to create a sensible, coherent scope and sequence of studies for K–8 students, the Core Knowledge curriculum. It is now in use in over a thousand American elementary schools and is attracting intense attention in Italy, Spain, France, and Britain, where Education Secretary Michael Gove is a great admirer of Hirsch and promotes his ideas to improve British education, to the consternation of his own “progressive” educational establishment.
Starting out as a garden-variety left-liberal while teaching at Yale, and a scholar and admirer of Romanticism, Hirsch has gradually but radically changed many of his views since moving to the University of Virginia (English Department, not education school) nearly 50 years ago. Despite great, international eminence as a literary theorist, in the Seventies he voluntarily took over the usually thankless task of running the undergraduate English Composition program at the increasingly competitive and eminent flagship of the Virginia university system, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, one of the nation’s best public universities. To his shock and distress, the promise of the Sixties civil-rights movement, with the admission of blacks (and poor whites) to the formerly elitist Virginia, had turned into disappointment. Many of the African-American students had been so badly educated in the K–12 schools of Virginia that they could not do university-level work and were in need of remediation, leading to an ironic and defensive re-segregation in Black Studies courses. Most of them (and many lower-class white students) did not have the common coin of the literate realm, the “cultural literacy,” as Hirsch called it, to take effective advantage of the newly available opportunities of access to elite institutions.
In Hirsch’s 1996 book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them – just now translated into Spanish in Spain with an introduction by the eminent American educational-policy specialist Charles L. Glenn Jr. – he launched a full-scale critique of educational Romanticism – of “messianism” and “spilt religion” – worthy of Tocqueville and Hulme (both of whom he has quoted), as well as Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and Russell Kirk (whom he has not). As against the self-indulgent, sentimental, pantheistic longings, seductive illusions, and quicksilver bromides of Rousseau, subsequent German Romantics, Emerson, Horace Mann, Whitman, Dewey, and Dewey’s teachers’-college parishes all over the country, the intellectual historian Hirsch carefully critiqued the foolishness and ineffectuality of Romantic-Progressive educational thought and practice since 1900, a record of fecklessness and incompetence noted by Hofstadter in 1964 and devastatingly documented recently in Diane Ravitch’s indispensable Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000).
Hirsch’s critique drew for its authority not only on his careful anatomy of Romantic-Progressive incoherence and incompetence in K–12 education, but also on the great, positive, historical sources of prudent, civilizing ideals in Western education, among them Plato, St. Augustine, and the American Founding Fathers. He also remembered gratefully, and praised, earlier opponents of the Dewey juggernaut, including thoughtful Columbia Teachers College minority voices William C. Bagley (d. 1946) and Isaac L. Kandel (d. 1965), author of the prescient, anti-skeptical The Cult of Uncertainty in 1943, both of whom were buried under the Dewey landslide from the 1920s to the 1960s and ended in oblivion. Hirsch was apparently unaware of anti-Dewey critiques by Kirk, other conservative writers, and another Columbia Teachers College rebel, Philip H. Phenix (d. 2002).
Now 85, Hirsch is himself possessed of a historical sense, making him aware of what he has called “the perils of romanticism” and agnostic about claims for radical pluralism and multicultural “diversity” (Kandel’s “cult of uncertainty”), eventuating in “e pluribus plures,” from many, many, instead of the decent, sensible, republican-democratic “e pluribus unum.” He knows that reflection on history implicitly teaches ethics and a degree of prudent rationality, despite fashionable scholarly skepticism, esoteric specialization, and the militant, reductionist “gender-race-class” grid of so much contemporary university teaching and writing in the fields of history and literature. He saw the radical, post-modern, left-Nietzschean relativism of the Mandarin academy close up in his own Department of English and Comparative Literature at Virginia, especially in the person and work of his ironic, radically skeptical, “anti-foundationalist” colleague Richard Rorty. In the dishonorable but revealing career of the immigrant Belgian deconstructionist and chameleon Paul De Man – brilliantly exposed and anatomized by David Lehman in Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul De Man (1991) – post-modern relativism had massively penetrated Yale after Hirsch’s departure: fashionable Francophone decadence and radical relativism corrupting and disgracing a once-great and beneficent Literature Department.
But is it true that history implicitly teaches ethics? Not, of course, if the historian is an anarchist or a Marxist, or some other form of determinist or fanatic. But the premises of rational generalizability – “What if everybody did that?” – and moral evaluation — this event, person, or idea is deficient, evil, or destructive (e.g., slavery, anti-Semitism, prostitution), that one good – are implicit in the conceiving, writing, and teaching of history. George Orwell’s eloquent, hard-won understanding of common “decency” as a standard is the effect and product of the long-term, residual momentum of the Natural Law tradition. It is incarnated in the history of Western law, classic writers such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Hawthorne, and Dickens, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution, Washington’s Farewell Address, and the speeches of Lincoln, not to come nearer in time to the writings of C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther King, or Solzhenitsyn.
As well as teaching children to read through phonics, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum systematically exposes young students to this humanizing patrimony of history and literature, remote as it may be from Allen Ginsberg and Mick Jagger. In the century since 1914, the consequences of the various substitutes for classical-Christian Natural Law/Natural Rights common sense – the matrix of most great English literature and the American founding documents and institutions – have been and continue to be catastrophic, an argument brilliantly articulated and documented by Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al-Qaeda (2006).
Another partisan of Kandel’s “cult of uncertainty,” the agile liberal relativist Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), has been given far too much credit for invoking toward the end of his life the wisdom of Kant’s famous assertion that “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made.” True enough, but it is simply a secular paraphrase of the Christian doctrine of original sin, endlessly illustrated throughout human history: G. K. Chesterton called it “the one empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian religion.” Human proneness to egotism, to force and fraud, to the abuse of power in all its forms, is what led wise men such as Madison and Hamilton, and most of the other American Founders, to craft their documents and institutions as they did. The durability, serviceability, and importance of these documents and institutions are unique and incalculably valuable, but – like all historical phenomena – vulnerable to forgetfulness and erosion. The theoretical and practical work of the educational pioneer E. D. Hirsch – blessed and graced with historical sense, literary skill, and civic commitment – serve the American (and human) “res publica,” justify the prudence and chaste hopes of the American Founders, and help redeem the time from anarchy and oblivion.
— M. D. Aeschliman is professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland and professor emeritus of education at Boston University. He recently edited a new edition of Charles Dickens’s great historical novel on the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Press).