Clever Barbarians?

Lately I’ve been asked to write a couple of essays for the National Association of Scholars on the newest fad in freshman fall fashions. Colleges send to students enjoying their summer farewell to home and family a book that they are all supposed to read, usually something in pop sociology or psychology. When they arrive on campus, they discuss the book during freshman orientation, or they attend a seminar or two, before they settle in to professional training, or the usual disintegrative round of courses that have nothing to do with one another, chosen ad libitum.

That’s supposed to give the students some “common experience,” a nod to unity, to substitute for a common fund of knowledge, a common culture, and a common faith. It’s like giving them all a T-shirt reading, “I’ve read X.” The heart fairly flutters at the prospect. Meanwhile, the actual common experience is found in the dormitories and the pubs, and is chosen ad libidinem.

My own mater avaritiae, Princeton, has primped herself up with the new folderol. In the old days, she had a curriculum. Her entrance exam tested a student’s knowledge of the classical languages. In my day, she had no curriculum, only a few vague “area requirements.” When it became clear that most students entering Princeton did not write well, they set up a couple of courses for the freshmen to remedy the ailment.

By far the most popular, enrolling hundreds of students, was Freshman Shakespeare, taught by actor and professor Daniel Seltzer. I had placed out of those courses, but I enjoyed the indirect benefits of Seltzer’s class, because almost all of my friends were in it and talked about it constantly. Seltzer died relatively young, and it doesn’t appear that his course has survived. By far the most popular English course at Princeton, from what I can gather by enrollments posted on line, is on young adult trash.

In any case, Princeton now is in on the fad. Her president, Christopher Eisgruber, has sent to the selection committee his criteria for which book to choose to open the freshman mind to thought and “a meaningful life” and “ethical questions” and all things Princetonian. His fourth criterion is most interesting. “The book,” he says, “should be something that students can argue with and about; for this reason, I’m inclined to avoid ‘classics’ that students might feel obliged to venerate.”

I’m trying hard to imagine college students venerating anything. I’d have thought, as trained as we all are in the crass, coarse, flippant, and vulgar, and as low as we stoop before the idol of New and Improved Humanity, known sometimes as a mirror, we would not be in any special danger of venerating the classics, or of venerating what Eisgruber calls “classics,” with the depreciative punctuation.

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The president seems not to know what great works of art and thought are for, or what makes them timeless. Suppose the students read an abridgment of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. They will be sitting in the same room with one of the best and wisest men that England ever gave to the world; a man with strong opinions, whose moral judgments cut to the quick, before whose gaze humanity stands revealed in its shame and glory. It is a book you carry with you for the rest of your life.

Johnson was a Tory and a royalist, who said he did not want to hear about liberty from slave drivers – a thrust of the saber that makes us Americans do some soul searching. He was a chivalrous man who loved his wife tenderly, yet he said that to see a woman preaching was like seeing a dog walking. You didn’t ask how well it was done; you were startled that it was done at all. Johnson is somebody to reckon with.

So is Homer, so is Dante, so is Tocqueville, so is Dickens. Give the students Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, the greatest of all Italian novels. Encourage the clever barbarians, the new Princetonians, to employ that spiritual muscle of reverence, nearly dead of atrophy.

There is no shame in shutting your mouth for a while to listen to a wise man. Manzoni too will remain with you for life. You will be in the plague-ridden lazaretto, where the young Renzo will be called upon to forgive the man who kidnapped his bride-to-be, and where his own soul hangs in the balance.

Before you reach the point where you can argue “with or about” such a book, as Eisgruber puts it, you have to have opened your mind and heart to its instruction. If the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord, then the almost-beginning of wisdom is at least a reverence for people who have thought harder than we have, seen more clearly, and loved more purely. They can inspire in us a love for the truth, as Plato did for Aristotle, and as Albert did for Aquinas.

Eisgruber’s attitude is common enough, it pains me to say. It favors suspicion over reverence, and prides itself on being “critical,” when actually it encourages a shallow and adolescent flippancy, a refusal to listen to voices other than those pounding in our ears from the mass phenomena of our day.  

Why do I write these words for The Catholic Thing? The purpose of a human education is not to raise clever barbarians. The purpose of a Catholic education is not to raise clever barbarians who attend Mass on Sunday and vote for pro-life candidates. If your Catholic school and its curriculum are not permeated with reverence for the permanent things – if its spirit is that of President Ice Digger and not that of Manzoni – you should shut down and send the children to the public schools. If they are going to get a bad education, it might as well be for free.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Randall

    I teach English in Poland – ‘Catholic’ Poland. Many of my students are teenagers and they are by and large gentle barbarians (Polish kids are still pretty well-behaved and respectful of adults, though that’s beginning to change).

    Most of them tell me they are bored reading the classics in their Polish classes at school. The schools here are now including more contemporary texts. I suppose that’s in part to try to give the kids something that might be more interesting. However the kids tell me those books aren’t very interesting either.

    These kids are also bored with the Church and stay away from mass if they are able to. The ones who go to mass in my parish tend to yawn or whisper and giggle throughout.

    As in the U.S., the kids here are plugged into (literally, via their ear buds) the great wash of filth and mediocrity that passes for music.

    I moved my family here partly as an escape from the poison that pervades American culture. I should have known that same poison is seeping into every corner of the world.

    Saint Joseph, Patron of fathers, pray for me.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    This is not new. When I was at school in England, 60 years ago now, I was taught Classics by masters who were fascinated by Greek and Latin grammar, syntax, prosody and vocabulary and, for them one text was more worthy of study than another only insofar as it yielded more rare inflections, to be noted, recorded and memorised. If they believed that any ancient author had said anything worth saying, they kept their opinion to themselves. We did not study literature, but dissected and anatomised its dead remains.

  • DeGaulle

    Can Ice Grubber not remotely comprehend that the very notion of a place of learning is built almost entirely on the foundations laid by the meticulous and precise reasoning of millennia of thinkers such as the examples that the writer presents. Only a very few generations more of this rejection of Truth will ensure that the barbarians being “educated” will not even be clever. It seems to me that students are being trained to slot into certain cogs in the wheel that is the modern socio-economy which will certainly work so far as that socio-economy is sustained. However, if something major goes wrong the products of this training may not have the wisdom or flexibility required to adapt to radical change. Man may have to reinvent the wheel.

  • Theodore Seeber

    A time of barbarians is not a time for liberalism. In any form. The liberal education is a luxury most of us can no longer afford, either philosophically or materially. If you love your children, enough them to get a career, not a useless degree in dead poets.

  • schm0e

    I’ve paid a heavy price for seeing through college early and walking away before I became terminally infected, but I suppose I would have to do it again. Sooner this time.

  • Richard A

    Well, if they’re going to get a bad education, it might as well be one that’s already paid for once.

  • Mack Hall

    I fully agree, but, as always, there is this question, considered importunate by some, but desperately important: did you vote in your local school board election?

  • Tony

    To Michael P-S: Quite right, unfortunately. Paul Elmer More complained bitterly about it ninety years ago — the reduction of the classics to the “science” of philology and historical linguistics. I suppose human beings will always find ways to duck what is great and challenging.

    To Richard: Touche!

    To Theodore: I don’t agree. I’ve written that forming the moral imagination is not something you do in addition to educating a child. It IS the education of a child. And these days, it isn’t true that a liberal education must be costly. Old books are everywhere, and they are cheap. All it takes is that they be opened.

  • Ray

    No fears, Common Core is going to fix it all for us. Things are only going to get worse and exponentially worse…

  • Stanley Anderson

    The other day, a fellow employee wanted to switch hours with me, something I’m open to if possible. But I told him that since our hours each week are always all over the map, my schedule this particular week meant that I had to leave his requested hours-switch open so that I could make it to a Saturday Vigil Mass in lieu of a Sunday morning Mass that I was already scheduled to work during. He told me he was Catholic too, and said, “I thought there was a Thursday Mass that one can go to instead.”

    Another fellow employee (also apparently having a “Catholic” family background) asked, a while back, “Stanley — you’re Catholic right?” (not sure how this knowledge ‘gets around’ since I don’t blatantly ‘broadcast’ that information, but that’s a good thing I suppose; I must be doing something right). She continued, “Can you tell me, if you go to Mass, do you have to go to Confession first? And when you go to Confession are you confessing to God or to the priest?”

    Understand that there was a long line of customers waiting impatiently for her to get to them. My mind was reeling, trying to come up with some kind of ten-second Catechism. (I opted for a two or three minute Catechism when she was able to take a short break a half-hour later, but I think it may still have been a slightly inadequate timeframe for full instruction.)

    I’m fond of quoting the scene from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where Butch is telling Sundance that they have to jump off the cliff into the river far below to escape. Sundance refuses, saying that he can’t swim, and Butch laughs, saying, “Hell, the fall will kill you…”

    I’m not sure whether the things Anthony describes in the column today and the examples I mention above are the swimming and the falling or vice versa, but it doesn’t look good either way…

  • Seanachie

    So, other than writing whimsical pieces criticizing collegiate orientation practices, what specific changes to curriculum have you designed and implemented at any “mater avaritiae” with which you may be associated? If any, what were the results?

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Thank you for the reference to Paul Elmer More

    And yet, you see, they could not produce their specimens of Aolian Greek, without some gems that made all the drudgery worth while

    Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
    καὶ Πληίαδες• μέσαι δὲ
    νύκτες, παρὰ δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα•
    ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

    The moon is set
    and the Pleiades; middle of
    the night, time passes by,
    I lie alone.

  • John Gueguen

    Don’t disparage all public education. I taught the real classics for 24 years at a large state university and raised a generation of truly educated young people who greatly appreciated reading those old books. There are many of us out here–more, I think, than at the “Catholic” universities.

  • Robert Hill

    At 51 I just read The Betrothed for the first time: Very moving. I won’t say all I read in college (UC Berkeley in the early 80’s) was trash, but a lot was.

  • ROB

    In high school I was taught by a Jesuit who was a chaplain in the Korean War. He carried Boswell’s Life of Johnson in his pack through very dark days. We called him Shimbu Nim, little god, what the Koreans called him. Amazing the things one can learn from an educated man.

  • Randall B. Smith

    Dear Seanachie,

    If I may, yours is not the sort of question a professor can answer easily without: (A) seeming to boast at his or her own accomplishments over and above all others, or (B) whining about the failures of his or her own institution.

    May I say, not in Prof. Esolen’s defense (for he needs none, and certainly not from me), but merely for the record, that Prof. Esolen teaches regularly (and to much acclaim, I am told) in his own college’s “Western Civilization” curriculum. He is also dedicated in his own courses to the liberal arts and to a serious reading of the classics (especially, but not solely, Dante).

    The results, judging from the quality of his students and based on the comments of his colleagues, I’d have to conclude are, well, superb. But please don’t tell him I told you so. The last thing a man who graduated from Princeton needs is anything else to become another “mother of his avarice.” God help him.

  • Tony

    Michael: Utterly splendid. Pure poetry, human, mysterious, understated, lyric.

    Seannachie: Did you really mean that as a question, or just an insult? I hope it wasn’t the latter, and I apologize if I misinterpreted you.

    If you really want to know, in no particular order:

    I was the head of our state’s homeschooling organization for seven years, during which time, among other things, I taught Shakespeare and Latin — and constantly recommended to others the reading of classic works of literature.

    I’ve been teaching in Providence College’s program in the development of western civilization since 1992, almost without interruption. That is to say, I have been teaching freshmen, five hours a week, along with teammates, the history, art, literature, philosophy, and theology of the west, from ancient Mesopotamia to the end of the Renaissance.

    I’ve written about that program in many places, urging people at other colleges to adopt some form of it. I’ve been in on the founding of one or two new private schools with a “classical” curriculum.

    I’ve spoken before audiences at private high schools and colleges, about these same things, and before a conference of school teachers attempting to recover something of the classics in generally hostile schools.

    I have a good number of former students and their colleagues with whom I correspond frequently, discussing the literature they are teaching, and their successes with it.

    I teach ONLY great works of literature at Providence College. I’ve taught a course called Literature of Spiritual Crisis, which allows for a broad range of works that otherwise would not be taught at the school, because they don’t “fit” into any particular department’s curriculum: Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, Peguy’s Portal to the Mystery of Hope, Mauriac’s Vipers’ Tangle, and so forth.

    I’ve written a book on irony in Christian literature. I’ve written essays for six or seven of Joseph Pearce’s new critical editions of classic works. I’ve translated Dante, Tasso, and Lucretius, and provided each book with the apparatus I think that my freshmen would need. What the heck do you want me to do?

    By the way, long ago I offered to come to the local public high school to talk about Dante. No deal.

  • DJK

    Tony, you are the man!

  • MK

    Hey! I know what the heck more I want you to do! How about a website where poorly-educated homeschooling parents like myself can access your reading lists for each grade level along with your insights, interpretations, tips etc.!!!!!! You must have tons of advice at the ready! Take pity on us!

  • Tony

    Hi MK! Have you seen John Senior’s list of the Thousand Good Books? It’s great, and they also are organized for their appropriateness for children of various ages … Check it out.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Our hope is the classical liberal arts tradition which is reemerging through many new Christian and Catholic independent schools.

    I hope it may more and more spread into the already-existing Catholic private and parochial elementary and especially high schools.

  • MK

    Thank you, I will!

  • Chris in Maryland

    I heartliy recommend Tony’s translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

    I am now reading Tony’s translation of “Purgatorio,” having just finished his “Inferno,” and his translation of “Paradisio” is in the mail. And I love watching the internet videos of him teaching the 3 works. I hope to get the set of the DVDs for Christmas from Mrs. Claus.

    MK & Tony:

    Thanks you for the tip on John Senior’s list of the Thousand Good Books!

    We are homeschooling 2 of our 4 kids (1 now in college), and we bought Colville’s series of Shakespeare-for-kids for the younger ones. My 8 yr old son loves reading and re-reading Hamlet & MacBeth, and knows the plots and characters by heart. They are beautifully illustrated also I might add.

    There is hope!

  • Jo Flemings

    We the parents will have to reclaim the classics within the family culture ourselves. This is just practical. Tragically, a Catholic liberal arts college education is cost prohibitive- but the need for a classical education is still critical. So while our kids are either in Catholic high schools with weak literature programs, home schools with THOSE challenges, or public schools, while we get them ready to go to community college for technical degrees and certifications so they can get good paying jobs as young adults, we can also equip them through our higher choices of family entertainment by reading superior quality literature and discussing it at the dinner table,or while we fold the laundry, do the dishes, and trim the lawn.