Paper presented by the Director at Chavagnes Studium’s conference ‘Literature and the Light of Christ’, Chavagnes, France, July 2019
All is not quiet on the Western Front: can the Centre hold?
This paper examines the expansion of available knowledge in the modern world and argues that we have passed far beyond the stage at which a comprehensive mastery of any subject is even possible. Premature specialisation, already at primary school level, has been an inevitable consequence, and the teaching of ‘core’ subjects such as history and literature has been weakened or even abandoned as schools and universities strive to train their students in merely occupational skills. The impossibility of mastering the available literature has led many to deny the reality of objective truth, while humane cultural values are increasingly neglected. One response to this is the ‘Great Books’ approach to liberal education, yet the difficulty of arriving at a universally agreed ‘canon’ appears insurmountable. Instead a profound re-engagement with core subjects is proposed as being central to a truly liberal education and the only possible basis for the restoration of a common human culture.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…
…The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Though we may have backed away from the ebullient Victorian belief in materialistic science-driven Progress, it is undeniable that the human race is far from static. Our life is much more complex than that of even our most recent predecessors, and the physical comforts and advantages now available to us have entirely outstripped, in their brilliance and variety, everything that went before. The most positive construction we can put on this, from a Christian perspective, is that we are advancing from the simplicity of a Garden to the City of God.
One of the indicators of the ineluctable movement in which we are all caught up is the mushrooming of the written record. Just 500 years ago libraries counted their books in the hundreds; now the size of the world’s book stock is almost beyond reckoning. Until the High Middle Ages and perhaps for a century or two afterwards it was possible, at least in theory, for one man in his lifetime to read everything that had been written and preserved in the libraries of the West. Yet with the rise of the universities, and even before the general availability of printing, this point had been passed.
The effect of this growth on education has been cataclysmic, for the emphasis has necessarily shifted from gleaning facts to, effectively, culling them, from training memory to side-stepping mere recollection as a poor cousin to abstraction. My use of the word ‘culling’ may appear impolitic; certainly ‘edit’, ‘select’, or ‘research’ are kinder. But I prefer ‘culling’ as being closer to the somewhat unpalatable truth. Within every single subject of study, even within a particular speciality of that subject, it is now impossible for one scholar to read all the available material. Anglophone specialists may occasionally suggest that they have achieved a mastery of their subjects, but by and large we are poor linguists and the assumption, too often beneath the surface, that everything worth reading is available in English, is both impertinent and dangerous.
The apparent impossibility of coping with the growth of knowledge has been a major factor in the rise in our schools and universities of a nebula of petty and unrelated subjects, many of which are driven by the ephemeral fancies of the day.
Everything that is now written, and very much of all that has ever been written, is now digitalized. Search engines can now discover in a trice what a researcher of just a few decades ago could struggle to unearth in days or weeks. Our corporate memory has increased a millionfold, but each individual’s RAM, his ‘onboard memory’, is no greater than it was a thousand years ago, nor is there the slightest chance that it will increase. We may be sceptical about the possibility of artificial intelligences such as Hal, in Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, evolving to the extent of having human feelings and ambitions, but the Hals of this world already run rings around the rest of us in their capacity for memory and calculation. Our problem is knowing what to ask them to do, and that is a problem that is becoming more, not less, difficult with every passing moment. No individual knows very much, in proportion to the world’s knowledge; even panels of experts, to state an unwelcome truth, inevitably against such odds fall short of mastery.
Not only is our memory restricted and finite, but our capacity to make moral judgments is no greater than it ever was. Many wise people would argue that it becomes significantly diminished as we forget how to think for ourselves and rely increasingly on ‘science’ to solve our ethical dilemmas.
Where do we look for resolution, when the world’s corporate knowledge is outstripping our individual personal intelligences almost literally at the speed of light?
Because we are individuals trying to make sense of such overwhelming forces, an element of the personal has a necessary place in each man’s response. I had the great good fortune to receive a more or less classical education in Latin and Greek. By the time I arrived on the scene the great days of the Classics had already passed away. No longer might a British general announce his victory in a telegram, with a single Latin pun, in the certainty that it would be understood. No more could a man like Prebendary Gaisford boast:
The advantages of a classical education are twofold: it enables us to look down with contempt on those who have not shared its advantages, and also fits us for places of emolument not only in this world, but in the next.
But for all that I am deeply and unrelentingly grateful to have had the opportunities that I happily stumbled upon, and greatly deplore the powerful trend in my own days to dismiss the classics as ‘irrelevant’, and Latin as a tedious, soul-destroying waste of time. That attitude was an over-reaction in favour of the ‘new’ scientific disciplines of Maths, Chemistry and Physics (which are valuable and necessary) as well as Sociology, Psychology, Geography (which, as undergraduate subjects, are perhaps less so).
Their strength as a discipline lay in their breadth of vision: they embraced the mental discipline of learning other languages, together with the psycho-social discipline of trying to get inside the heads of other cultures that shared our humanity yet were so utterly alien in their thinking. The classical world had long passed away, but its internal complexities were a world in microcosm, a closed laboratory, small enough to be studied at depth, whose subsequent effects upon our own culture were not only discernible but hugely inescapable. They shaped our world in ways so various and at depths so diverse that modern men (especially those who have little awareness of history) struggle to retrace the steps they have taken. We are indeed dwarves on the shoulders of giants.
Of course a recovery of the great days of the Classics on anything like their former scale, even if that were desirable, is inconceivable. There will always be people who study the Classics for personal or scholarly reasons, at least so long as Western Civilisation endures, but such studies will never again be the bedrock of conventional education.
There is evidence that some serious thinkers about education are reclaiming lost ground and positively reevaluating much of what in our folly we once rejected out of hand, but unfortunately there are stronger forces at work.
During the 70s of last century the term ‘Mickey Mouse subjects’ was coined to describe certain arts and semi-scientific subjects that universities were at that time starting to make available to undergraduates in response to the rapidly growing number of enrolments in the post World War II world. This trend was driven by the universities’ fast emerging view of themselves as retailers of knowledge: to stock their shelves with an attractive range of pre-cooked and easy-care products made very good business sense. In this strategy they formed a not always easy but generally workable liaison with the political left that had as its own agenda a radical restructuring of society towards the advent of a Marxist and post-capitalist future.
Could anyone forty years ago have dreamed of the extent to which this trend would come to permeate the university sector as it does today? Arts faculties have become laughing stocks in some modern universities. There was a time when arts students were respected by their fellows in Law, Medicine or Science, as being engaged in worthwhile and demanding, if apparently impractical, intellectual exercises. Nerds and Geeks we might have been, but we were not negligible. When we enrolled in our courses we knew that we would be expected to cover a range of material that may not have interested or pleased us in every one of its aspects, but was necessary in order to achieve a broad understanding of our subject.
It was inconceivable then that a person could complete an undergraduate degree in English, let alone a PhD, without being well read across the genres and the centuries. The same is true of History. Specialization in a particular area of literature or history without a broad-based training in the whole scope of the discipline would have once been unthinkable but is now common. Women were very well represented among the novelists, but not so well among the poets, for the reason that relatively few women are reckoned among the great poets of our or any other literature. This may be a sad truth, but it is a truth nevertheless. It was not allowed to skew our judgments. The emphasis was on choosing the best, not righting perceived wrongs or applying with hindsight the moral principles currently in fashion. This does not mean that social justice is now or was then unimportant, but there has been a huge shift in thinking about how and when it is to be striven for. The Arts have suffered most in this reorientation, because they are by their very nature more open to interpretation, and none more so than the Disney-esque ones.
What all the modern ‘specialisms’ have in common, in contrast to more traditional academic programmes, is that they seek to narrow rather than broaden. Gender and Women’s Studies may be acceptable at a postgraduate level, but they can have no integrity when erected on a base other than classical Sociology; polemical courses on racism and other such other causes are not the primary business of English or History departments, and will have no bottom unless well founded on broader studies. The awful truth is that young people are treating universities as cafeterias, choosing very unbalanced diets, and what is worse, the universities are pandering to them, meeting their needs and, of course, encouraging them. Business is business. And the universities have utterly shirked all moral responsibility. Does this sound familiar? –
‘In such a state of society, the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on the level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word and deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loathe to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young.’
Plato knew a thing or two!
Literacy is in decline, but the greatest loss of all is history. Ignorance of history, even of comparatively recent events, or their submersion beneath various fatuous forms of identity politics, is a modern human tragedy. Evidence for this is not hard to find. But students will all be able to tell you that ‘equality’ is a basic human ‘right’ (whatever that might mean) and assert any number of meaningless platitudes. G K Chesterton laments the modern habit of looking at the past‘only from the modern end’. Those brought up without awareness of history, he says, ‘rebel against they know not what, because it arose they know not when; intent only on its ending, they are ignorant of its beginning; and therefore of its very being.’ The neglect of history is perhaps the greatest disaster to have afflicted the contemporary educational world.
Postmodernism, with its aversion to the notion of objective truth, cringes before the enormity of the task of understanding the world. It masquerades as a kind of Socratic scepticism, which is what makes it attractive to so many. The well-known definition of pessimism as ‘optimism with the facts’ is clever and amusing, but it exposes the sad truth that for many people in our privileged western world life is cruel and meaningless, that the beauty and wonder have gone out of learning, and that in the end everything is hopeless. This has led, as inevitably as the needle turns to the pole, to a sense of frailty in the face of the universe. Correct vision perhaps, but wrong solution if it leads, as it almost always does, to premature specialization. Far too many children leave school never having learned to read, write and think straight, before going on to university to become criminologists, sports psychologists – or teachers. Education can now be chopped up into even smaller units and modules for ease of digestion and subsequent oblivion.
Is there any escape from this frenzied abandonment of the objective aspirations of broad-based education?
If a young person is taught well to communicate and to think, he can be trained, and re-trained, to do anything else. And to do it better than one who has had no basic training in humane skills. There is ample evidence to support this, and young people are themselves increasingly aware of the deficiencies in their own education. Anyone who has worked in an educational institution will have met intelligent students who realize that they have been short-changed.
So is there a workable solution? Certainly there is no returning to the past – the only way is forward.
The conservative response will be to seek to look for those qualities in humanity that are universal, drill down into them with disciplined energy and extract the core material which is (or should be) the fundamental stuff of all education for work and for life. The notion of the trivium, the first stage of a liberal arts education that evolved in antiquity and continued through the Middle Ages to the very birth of modernity, is a reasonable focus deserving of reappraisal and even recovery. On the face of it, to the modern eye, the actual content of the trivium – grammar, logic and rhetoric – appears unexciting in the extreme. Why on earth would one commit to subjects of that kind when one could be doing ‘relevant’ things like rock music or tourism studies? Actually there should be no contest: you will be a better rock musician, or businessman, or doctor, or lawyer, or anything else, if you first prepare yourself as a fulfilled and integrated human being. The fundamental building blocks of these so-called liberal arts are clear thinking (twinned with efficient and accurate comprehension) and effective communication in speech and writing. To the modern eye the trivium looks absurdly naïve, but paradoxically its very simplicity and its open-endedness are its strengths: reading, writing, reasoning and persuasive eloquence constitute the foundation of rock on which everything else can be built. Do the hard yards first, so that criminology, journalism and marketing (for example) can reasonably follow in their due place.
The gulf between Arts and Sciences, widening to breaking point within the past century and a half, has been another tragedy of modern education. That divorce, now almost absolute, has in my view greatly contributed to the crazy proliferation of arts courses, on the one hand, and narrowing of the scientific imagination on the other. Darwin would not have understood it, nor would Galileo or Newton, Mendel or Einstein.
In an ideal educational world one would hope for a rapprochement between what we now describe as the artsand the sciences. It is fair to say that people in the artsstream very often, as I have already argued, have a far too narrow experience of their cultural matrix as well as an ignorance of the sciences; but it is equally true to say that premature specialization in scientific and technical studies results in profound ignorance of the arts, especially history. If there were to be a rapprochement, what Arts courses ought a young student look for? They will need guidance. Adults, whether parents or counsellors, who have the privilege of having their advice accepted should prioritize breadth of vision: will their choice of subjects lead them to seek connections between different cultures and customs? Will it assert the objective reality of truth and the distinction between good and evil? Will it help them to value the things of today in the context of history and tradition?
Some educators, at least, recognize that early specialization produces high achievers in specific areas who are less than competent outside their fields, even profoundly ignorant of whole areas of human knowledge that were once considered essential to human civility. How can a young man or woman be reasonably expected to make a life-long commitment to a career at 17 or 18, whose mind has never been properly exposed to the richness of human thought, in a world in which, as futurologists like to predict, many will need to re-train several times in the course of their lives? Surely we are asking too much (or too little) of the young people who are both the inheritors and shapers of the future? As a former president of a liberal arts college whose goal is to educate for life and not just for a job, I couldn’t agree more.
In my admittedly fond view, Campion College addresses this problem well. All students take the same core subjects – History, Literature, Philosophy and Theology, all of which are integrated horizontally and vertically: in their first year students will study ancient authors such as Homer and Virgil, New Testament and patristic theology and ancient history, Plato and Aristotle. In their second and third years they move on chronologically, acquiring in three years a broad and expansive understanding of the flux of human thought and activity, a grasp of those basic and powerful ideas that have formed our actions, and a sense of the mutability and at the same time the universality of human life.
An alternative to the Campion approach is the notion of a literary ‘canon’ of Great Books that all should read. Yet in a western culture that appears to be in terminal decline there can be no easy agreement on its content. To say so is not to be overly pessimistic, but merely observant: the time has long passed when we lived in a monoculture that agreed on the essential components of a sound education. Such a notion stems from a Judaeo-Christian matrix, in which the Bible and some of the classics of Christian literature hold unquestioned place. Some American institutions have adopted the Great Books as the basis of their undergraduate syllabus. Even among like-minded colleges, though, there may be variance between the lists, and the notion of such a ‘canon’ holds much less appeal for that growing sector of modern intellectual life whose members think sceptics such as Lucretius and Dawkins more deserving of a place in the literary hall of fame than an Augustine or a Chesterton. Quot homines, tot sententiae: in the post-Christian global village the notions of what constitutes the corpus of great books will be legion. An almost inevitable weakness of modern attempts at framing a canon is that they are often heavily weighted towards modern authors and do not adequately reflect the diachronic and evolutionary character of human culture. They are in a sense two-dimensional: they expose the culture on top, but may tend to ignore the process by which it grew.
A solution may be to look at the manuscript tradition, to identify the books that shaped the western mind. Even sceptics would concede a place for the Bible, if only as a literary work, in the canon of western culture. There, and perhaps only there, is there some agreement. In secular letters, Homer and Virgil are strong candidates. And if Virgil earns inclusion, so must Dante and Milton, both heavily dependent on him. This is just one example, of course, but that same process can be used to trace other affinities and connections. I suspect that with the passage of time many of the works now being considered fit for inclusion in the canon will drop out of sight, and that if we are ever to have something approaching an agreed canon it will be a little more elongated in time, a little less mushroom-like in appearance, than any current model.
The universities will not change unless the market does. Only greater discernment among its ‘customers’ can drive change, but how can the community change its attitudes when its leaders and role models are leading it in another direction? Perhaps Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is right in asserting that the humanities should be taken out of the hands of the universities altogether. He makes a powerful argument, but it would be sad indeed if such were to happen.
I am aware, however, that much of what I have said above might be construed as the mere maunderings of a grumpy pessimist nostalgically longing for a past that probably never was and certainly never will return. I plead in extenuation that the solution to a problem arises naturally from its recognition: if we know that most Arts students are wasting their time on quasi-academic fripperies, and that many people are getting into the sciences and professions with poor communication and reasoning skills; if we hear journalists and public figures talking nonsense about our own nation’s history, whether through guile or ignorance; if signs such as these are there for all to see then we know we have a problem to which broader and truer education is the only real solution. But if the blind lead the blind, what hope is there for betterment?
I began this chapter with some profoundly pessimistic verses of the poet Yeats, but in fact I am an optimist. There is a discernible groundswell of opinion in favour of doing things better. It will not easily prevail, and there is no denying that we are close to the brink of a catastrophic collapse of the Western culture, but I think there is a good chance that we will squeak through. As a lecturer with the University of the Third Age I know well that many older people are conscious of important gaps in their education. But more importantly my work with students over the years has brought me into contact with students who feel acutely that they have wasted or are wasting their time and their potential in studies that contribute little to their career prospects, or to their enjoyment. There are also those, it is true, who have been so stifled that they have lost all interest in matters of the mind. And, grimmest of all, there are those driven by other agendas entirely who approve the radicalization of education and would welcome the collapse of existing institutions and a refashioning of human society along entirely different lines. The battle lines have been drawn up but we can find strong allies in all those who now realise that they have been short-changed by the educational establishment. If we can fight our way back to a re-ordering of priorities, to a positive re-evaluation of the essential disciplines of reading, writing and reasoning, then the Great Books of human culture will self-select and we shall re-align ourselves to give due acknowledgement to ‘the best that has been thought and said’.
Excerpt from W B Yeats, The Second Coming.
Examples are Gilbert, Bishop of London 1128-34, called ‘Universalis’ because he was thought to have read everything, and his contemporary William of Malmesbury who had a reputation as the most learned man of his day.
There is, I think, a discernible tendency in modern scholarship to despise memory. Lawyers seem to hold little law in their heads, though they doubtless know where to find it; historians often despise populist writers who are prodigiously well informed as to detail, but lack (it is claimed) analytical capacity. Ancient writers of porphyrian or acrostic verses, more difficult to compose than the most cryptic crossword puzzles, are dismissed as mere poetasters. Perhaps Medicine is the only modern discipline that requires its practitioners to hold in their memories at any one time a substantial amount of their subject. Many an emergency room patient must be thankful for that!
I once knew a woman who was accepted as a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern studies by a distinguished Australian university. Her supervisor told her that it was ‘not necessary’ to learn Arabic.
General Napier was said to have announced his 1843 capture of Sindh – ‘I have Sindh’ – with the single word peccavi(‘I have sinned’). In fact the story is apocryphal, but the fact that it first appeared in Punch illustrates exactly the same point about the wide public familiarity with Latin.
This is very possibly apocryphal too, or if genuine was certainly intended ironically, but generations of classics students have delighted in it.
quasi nanos gigantium humeris insidentes: a remark ascribed by William of Malmesbury to Bernard of Chartres.
Plato, Republic, 563a
St Thomas Aquinas, from chap. 3, ‘The Aristotelian Revolution’, Kindle edition.
For a succinct survey see Mortimer Adler (Editor-in-Chief), The Great Conversation: a Reader’s Guide to the Great Books of the Western World,University of Chicago/Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1992.
For example Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, California.
B. Munk Olsen, Catalogue des Manuscrits Classiques Latin copiés du IXe. au XIIe. Siècle(CNRS Paris 1985) lists nine manuscripts from the eighth century or earlier, and two dozen from the ninth, exponentially more in each succeeding century, that contain all or substantial portions of Virgil’s works.
Talks at the recent Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies Colloquium resonated with attendees who say the ‘wonderful’ speakers are the reason they continue to attend each year.
Held at Jane Franklin Hall on June 29, this year’s colloquium attracted speakers and attendees from Tasmania, interstate and overseas.
The theme – ‘Rebuilding the walls of Sion’ – was enthusiastically taken up by the speakers who spoke on topics from Gnosticism in the 21st century to the film Babette’s Feast.
Liberal Senator Jonathan Duniam gave the address at the Colloquium’s closing dinner.
Peter Cunich’s presentation on the role of intercessory prayer in the construction and maintenance of Christian communities resonated broadly with those who attended. For Mavis Beattie, 88, of New Norfolk, who attended the colloquium for the fifth year in a row, the talk brought up the issue of honouring those who have passed away.
Attending for the third year in a row, Mrs Jenny Spinks, 65, of Sydney, says she always leaves with things to contemplate. ‘I’d just encourage people to come down and enjoy the colloquium because they’re all such wonderful speakers. And it’s lovely to listen to other people, and we can all get something out of it.’
For Mrs Beattie, the colloquium is an opportunity to share challenges and gain strength. ‘I think it’s nice to know that we can come together on an occasion like this and share our thoughts about the problems that we face as a faith community. And we gain strength I think from hearing other people’s points of view.’
Dr David Daintree, Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, says that Christian civilization is under threat and that its value is denied or ignored by most in the community.
‘All our colloquia have been aimed at the idea of trying to regain lost ground, trying to preserve what’s valuable and trying to tell other people about it, to enrich their lives,’ he said.