Dr. Patrick Deneen has taught in some of America’s finest universities. He has been a professor at Princeton, Georgetown, and is now in the political science department at Notre Dame.
So what’s his assessment of America’s best students?
“My students are know-nothings.”
In an extremely important essay posted to Minding the Campus titled “How a Generation Lost Its Common Culture,” Deneen further describes his students:
“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.”
Deneen accurately diagnoses the problem: that schools today no longer seek to initiate students into a particular tradition, their tradition:
“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?”
Usually, people assume that this distressing situation is due to the failures of the modern education system. But according to Deneen, that is not the case. On the contrary, he writes that modern students’ ignorance is the education system’s “crowning achievement… the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide.”
“What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words like ‘critical thinking,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘ways of knowing,’ ‘social justice,’ and ‘cultural competence.’
Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes ‘flexibility’ (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).”
If one holds to G.K. Chesterton’s maxim that a pessimist criticizes that which he doesn’t love, Deneen is no pessimist. He cares deeply for his students, and is frustrated that they haven’t been taught “what is rightfully theirs”.
But he is no false optimist either:
“But even on those better days, I can’t help but hold the hopeful thought that the world they have inherited—a world without inheritance, without past, future, or deepest cares—is about to come tumbling down, and that this collapse would be the true beginning of a real education.”
As Alasdair MacIntyre lamented in After Virtue, “[T]he barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” It’s perhaps too late to avoid a new Dark Age. Now is the time to begin the effort of recovery and rebuilding.