Patrick Deneen has taught at prestigious universities, including Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. Yet he says his students don’t know anything, even though they have great grades and resumes.
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.
This is endemic in Western “higher” education. During a failed effort to reinstate history classes as a core requirement for Stanford University students this spring, Stanford Law professor Michael McConnell wrote: “I have taught law students for more than thirty years. In recent years I have noticed that many students have little or no familiarity with the political, intellectual and cultural history that shaped the American legal tradition. I’ve encountered students who have never heard of Hobbes and Locke, do not know the causes of the American Revolution, are unfamiliar with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, haven’t a clue about Progressivism or the New Deal, don’t know what separates Protestants and Catholics, and have only the vaguest sense what race relations were like before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
These are Ivy League students who will go on to run our country. And they know nearly nothing. Every single high school graduate should be able to easily identify all of these core figures, ideas, and events in world history. Otherwise, how can they be called educated?
The Western education system is like the fabled emperor: It has no clothes. We keep being told a certain credential or university brand ensures competence, when all it reliably ensures is a person’s commitment to empty-minded political correctness. American children — and all their neighbors and fellow voting citizens — deserve far better.