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Commentary

Tragedy and Comedy in Postmodern Education


     
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“For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man


A few semesters ago, a student remarked with a semblance of popular support, that he received his nightly news from comedic, “mock” news programs on cable television. The immediate ramifications of this seemed quite telling.

It is difficult, if not nigh impossible to promote greater public knowledge via news gathering in a population which has all too many diversionary and at times fraudulent outlets at their disposal. In addition to this, the myriad of actual news sources only serves to add to the confusion due to the attendant and varying levels of “spin” or editorial slant within each media outlet. Lastly, cost, in both time and money, are prevailing factors in a college student’s search for information. Whatever media outlet that provides cheap, quick, easily digestible, and as an added bonus, flippantly clever programming would appear to be in this regard the favorite.

One is inevitably led to the following conclusion. Considering all the abovementioned factors, many in this generation of college students choose to get their daily dose of information, information which will hopefully one day allow them a greater facility for critical political and moral judgments, from the polished, primped, and packaged routines of comedians.

Naturally, out of concern for this oddity, a question may be raised. Why do young people, gifted with everything the most influential society on the earth can provide, seek knowledge from paid comics? The question of course is wrongly posed. It is not serviceable knowledge the student is seeking in one night’s engagement with such personalities. Rather, what is being sought out, at the expense of all else, is entertainment.

It is little different within academia itself. As they ceaselessly pass from classroom to classroom, today’s students are told that they are immersing themselves in a world of letters and thought, which, after a set number of years, will lead them to enter the world of “educated” citizens. Sifting through a multiplicity of courses and fields however, there is a perceptible ethos felt permeating many of the available choices.

In relation to the earlier propensity to favor the counsels of comics, many students are drawn to the ethos of adversarial posturing adopted in many an ivory tower. Though an old tune, it briefly deserves mention. It is the sense that somehow, student and faculty member share a sense of solidarity that is qualified not merely through the relationship between both parties, but by the tie between both against the society outside academia’s hallowed halls. Separated by both distance, and varying income backgrounds, members of this “union” frame the educational experience as a lengthy (and undeniably tedious) tome of self-validation at the expense of those who could not possibly understand the collective pathos now on display. All past and existing semblances of order, familial, clerical, and professional, are now posited as a monolithic, although curiously ill-defined atavism; the adversary by which a society defines itself and its charge. In older times this dragon was something to tilt at and gallop towards. This being a different age, a less daring stabbing at the heels suffices. And, since all the previous elements are stirred up within protective walls with little regard for accountability, what is ultimately proffered up on a student’s tray is yet another form of entertainment.

Clearly, lost in all of this is the very crux and purpose of an education. Lost and drowned out by the incessant self-gratification and posturing against the institutional flavor of the day is a student’s receiving something which will make one’s life, for lack of any other way of putting it, better.

In this current state, education resembles, what the ancient Greeks would clearly call tragedy: a downward progression, or fall from a once elevated, more exalted position. The bodies of research and results pointing to this have by now been extensively documented. Students do not know the Constitution from the Declaration of Independence. Undergraduates fail to learn, let alone master, the rudiments of writing a passable paragraph. Instead of boldly venturing to examine a new field or ancient discipline, college courses entailing students examining only those areas they are most familiar with are flooded to capacity. The academic landscape appears a conglomeration of diversified fiefdoms, each expert a duke or baron ruling over an ever shrinking and alienating domain. As a final insult, and ironically a gift from the latest television programming, adult college graduates struggle to vainly compete with of all people, fifth graders on a game show.

It may be considered by some unduly optimistic, and unlikely, to see comedy arise from this predicament. Perhaps the only humorous value present is akin to the flippancy of the comic-journalists, a rather barren mirth possible only at the expense of others. Yet, as in the sense of comedy written of in Dante’s Divina Comedia, a renewed sense of elevation may indeed prevail. Though lacking the guidance of Virgil, today’s students can still benefit from an authentic education’s upward climb.

A few integral directions, if taken in earnest, would more ably allow beneficial reform to take place.

First, without necessarily undoing the more student- or faculty-centered approaches to learning dominating the academic landscape, a renewed emphasis should be placed on a university’s establishing a core curriculum. Great works from past and present can be evaluated by each institution and tailored to fit each particular circumstance. If an institution chooses to forego this adaptation, there are existing colleges and universities with working models of “Great Books” programs available for research.

The benefits of a successful core curriculum exceed solidly grounding students in the foundations of their civilization. The comedians and academic showmen both attract students by representing themselves as the outsiders or rebels of society. The reality of the situation is the reverse. Comic journalists perform largely in front of settings and demographics they know will be friendly or receptive to their messages of urbane, cosmopolitan flippancy. Postmodern academics have an even better audience: a captive one. What both groups fail to reveal is that they are not the intrepid challengers to the system they claim to be. This conclusion is achieved by the realization that, shrill protestations aside, they constitute the dominant ethos, therefore the majority within the system. It is logically most difficult to tilt at dragons when one is the dragon. Perhaps, this is another reason for logic being revisited as a core curriculum subject.

Core curriculums need not depose existing fields. The former can draw in students for reasons other than being authentically rebellious. These programs are noteworthy not because of novelty, but due to their adherence to substance in learning. Assimilating the early development of Greek philosophy not only adds something of external worth to a student’s acumen. It challenges that student to critically and responsively engage in introspective inquiry, inquiry that goes beyond self-revelation to a captive audience.

Second, in the effort to develop a list of texts to be read in such a core program, special attention needs be paid to each source possessing what Russell Kirk called moral imagination. Citing Edmund Burke, Kirk related this concept as pertaining to “that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events.”

When the heroes of Homer, sung of in The Iliad, made their decisions to pursue glory and thereby be remembered throughout eternity, they did not believe glory required a competent public relations department. Much has been made in the last academic generation of how some age-old conspiracy cryptically mandates certain books to be read in a prescribed canon. This effort, as has been told, maintains what postmodernists view as an eternal desire for control through power over a society. The only insight postmodern thought exudes in this tired account is its own obsession of viewing anything and everything through this pseudo-Nietzschean lens. One has to ask whether these sources are incapable of veering away from this habit, or whether they are simply unwilling, being power-holders themselves, of relinquishing it.

No, Homeric warriors were memorable because they did memorable things, emphasizing timeless beliefs. When Achilles brashly challenges god, man, and river, we are reminded of our own capacity for irrational excesses. When noble Hector falls defending his city, we inwardly weep for the fated death of a city’s, and civilization’s true champion.

Lastly, the texts read in core curriculums need to be introduced to the student by the instructor keeping in mind the student’s intrinsic capabilities. As C. S. Lewis would remind, the tapping of “just sentiments” should be carefully attended to.

Unlike sophists both ancient and modern, who would ply the youth with diversionary, sensibility-stripping entertainment as a prelude to the seduction of their own agendas, an educator buttresses the dormant decency found in all. By showing students the substance behind a solid core curriculum, selecting these works with moral imagination in mind, and fostering the inborn sense of proportion and rectitude in each human soul, educators engage in legitimate teaching. This teaching allows students to see for themselves what separates the clarifying journey of elevation, from the meandering, ultimately waylaid descent into salon sophistry.

Plato and Burke would have seen this fork along parallel sides of the road. If, as Plato maintained, evil was the absence of good, thus darkness was the absence of light. Burke held that evil only prevailed when the good did nothing. The light in the modern academy always has a chance of prevailing. All the darkness ever strives to do is to monopolize power, simply because it knows it cannot stand to face its dread rival.


José Maria J. Yulo is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He received his doctoral degree in the philosophy of education from the University of San Francisco and teaches philosophy and western civilization at the Academy of Art University.






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