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 is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.