[Milton-L] Liberal education

Nancy Charlton charltonwordorder1 at gmail.com
Tue Jun 28 00:57:12 EDT 2016

The following is copied from
Facebook, because I thought a lot of you might like to see this. Al
besides, it asks how many students ever read PL and the other monumental
epics of Western civilization. And what is happening to the latter?

Nancy Charlton

A good one:  "My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice,
pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent.
But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge
that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a
previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a
civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a
result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.

It's difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I've taught -
Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions
have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they
know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they
rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one
subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to
their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect
diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they
are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They
are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a
generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be
inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks.
Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato
teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the
Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?

Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what
was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas
Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him?
What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How
about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?

Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky
old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students
have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental
knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not
their "fault" for pervasive ignorance of western and American history,
civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what
we have asked of them - to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a
fleeting present. "
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