Little Boxes of the Mind, Part One of Two

And the people in the houses

All went to the university

Where they were put in boxes

And they came out all the same,

In "Little Boxes," Malvina Reynolds (the premier leftist folksong writer) was protesting against the conformity of the 1950's, when core requirements and a limited number of majors still ensured some measure of common culture among college graduates, but the sarcasm cuts even deeper today when students are free to major in systems analysis or marketing or film studies, and, when they seek refreshment from their mental labors, they can select from hundreds of cable channels and thousands of websites.  

In all these little boxes of the mind, the poor kids are immunized against nonconformity and carefully shielded from all those dangerous thoughts of Aristotle and Shakespeare and Vergil that might lead them to question the assumptions with which the regime has made itself impregnable.  Are all human creatures really equal, that is the same--male, female, and "other," natives and immigrants,  Romans and Carthaginians, Greeks and barbarians?  Is this material life with its grimy pleasures really "all there is"?  Were their really people who once valued chastity, courage, and "moderation in all things"?  I can almost hear a student, exposed to the subversive classics, wondering out loud:  "Kinda makes ya think."

Such moments of doubt or anxiety are becoming so rare as to exercise only a negligible influence on our culture.  These days, when it is an outrage for an actor (Gary Oldman) to defend entertainers (Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin) who shoot their mouths off, it is difficult to imagine one of our box-bred  simpletons confronted with the opinions of Ezra Pound or Hilaire Belloc or Thomas Jefferson.  (Isn't he that guy, who, you know with that black chick Sally….?) Even 40 years ago, if as a teacher I made the mistake of alluding to any writer from Aeschylus to Hemingway, my students stared at me with the blank expression of grazing cattle being treated to a learned discourse on the perils of the slaughterhouse.  

"Ignorance," as Lady Bracknell informs us, "is like a delicate exotic fruit.  Touch it and the bloom is gone." Americans these days are so unspoiled that when Pete Seeger went to his reward, some obituarists praised him for writing "Little Boxes."  A minor error, to be sure, but even in 1976 few college students could name the second President of the United States or pick the century in which the Civil War was fought.  

I do not blame the students.  The fault lies almost entirely with their parents and with their teachers.  Entire university departments are now populated exclusively by trained monkeys who specialize in critical theory or sociology or marketing and know absolutely nothing worth knowing.  The humanities professors I run into are hardly any better.  A professorette specializing in Kate Chopin or Alice Walker will know little of Ben Jonson and not so much as the name of Boileau or Propertius, and there are far too many classicists who can rant, a la Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, against the sexism and racism of the Greeks without having mastered indirect discourse or the basic chronology of the Roman Empire.  

All academic disciplines are supposedly equal, and a degree in "Environmental Justice and Citizenship" or  "African Studies" or "Critical Identity Studies"  is theoretically the equal of a degree in mathematics or chemistry.  By the way, I did not make up these bogus majors:  I took them from nearby Beloit College, a once respected liberal arts college.

Of course the presumed equality of "Critical Identity Studies" and Classics with chemistry does not really prevail in the market-driven American universities where scientists, whose research grants bring in money (and money-bringing students) get paid considerably more than professors in the humanities and the social sciences.  Nonetheless, a doctor of education (amazingly, there are such degrees!) can attend a meeting with chemists and linguists and look his superiors in the eye, doctor to doctor.

The egalitarian spirit trickles down to the undergraduates who are spoon-fed the freeze-dried pap of literary criticism, social theory, and music appreciation, all the while being told they are getting aged steak and home-grown asparagus.  The object, after all, is to make them "people in the houses," whether the houses in question are workers' flats in Bratislava or condos in San Diego, it is all ticky tacky just the same.

I am reluctant to give the devils their due, but grant the academics who have destroyed higher learning one thing: In filling the catalogue with bogus majors--"Critical Identity Studies, for example--and turning the study of history and literature into deadly dull ideological exercises, they have cut off two generations of Americans from the people in the past who might have wised them up to the slavery they so cheerfully accept. Imagine a world in which heroin users were never able to meet or even read of people not on heroin, except as comic book villains. Everyone in the past--from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Proust is either a Hero of the regime who fought for the liberation of mankind or else one of the thousands of faces of the evil Goldstein. Don't trust anyone under 80....

"Conservative" critics of American education often call for stiffening the professional training offered to budding engineers and future business leaders.  In a more honest age, we referred to such programs as "vocational education,"  and we hear similar appeals from the left. When I used to make the mistake of listening to an NPR news broadcast, I heard a commercial for the George Lucas Educational Foundation, which is "dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process through innovative, replicable, and evidence-based strategies that prepare students to thrive in their studies, careers, and adult lives."  I assume they will also cure "the heartbreak of psoriasis."  One might well wonder why, if Mr. Lucas were really interested in an education, he did not take the trouble to educate himself well enough to make a film (with the partial exception of American Graffiti) worth watching. 

The Lucas Foundation's website goes on to dream of a new world it calls "Edutopia" (if only I were making this up), "a place of inspiration and aspiration based on the urgent [sic!] belief that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race."  The poor man funding this edutopian dream is so uneducated (a B.S. from Southern Cal in "cinematic arts") he cannot even hire someone to write his twaddle in passable English, though his ghost-writers may have a point: The only way a belief can be "urgent" is when it is being rammed down someone's throat, which is presumably what the foundation has in mind. 

In America, George Lucas counts as a success.  After all, every dumb kid in America grew up wanting to be Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Alec Guiness was so embarrassed by his Star Wars fame that, when the mother of a young autograph-seeker boasted that her son had seen the movie over a hundred times, Guiness asked her to promise she would never let him see such rubbish again.  He had taken the job assuming the film would be harmless "fairy-tale rubbish," but 20 years later he had begun to worry about what would happen to someone who grew up "living in a fantasy world of secondhand childish banalities."  We no longer have to wonder.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Frank DeRienzo says:

    On the invitation of my Alma mater, a small liberal arts college, I joined an online focus group to discuss the curriculum and other related topics. I was chagrined to find out that recent cuts threatened the existence of the departments of philosophy and history. They both survived, but it was seriously considered. Discussing this with a fellow alumnus and retired philosophy professor, he retorted, “Business has taken over education. Schools are now businesses committed to making a profit and anything that doesn’t is excised as though it’s a cancer.”