Roger Scruton, in the American Spectator, describes how sloth, self-indulgence, and intellectual cowardice led the modern university to surrender to egalitarian relativism and thus to be politicized.
As universities expanded, the humanities began to displace the sciences from the curriculum. Students wished to use their time at university to cultivate their leisure interests and to improve their souls, rather than to learn hard facts and complex theories. And there arose a serious question as to why universities were devoting their resources to subjects that made so little discernible difference to the wider world. What good do the humanities do, and why should students take three or four years out of their lives in order to read books whichâ€”if they were interestedâ€”they would read in any case, and whichâ€”if they were not interestedâ€”would never do them the least bit of good?
In the days when the humanities involved knowledge of classical languages and an acquaintance with German scholarship, there was no doubt that they required real mental discipline, even if their point could reasonably be doubted. But once subjects like English were admitted to a central place in the curriculum, the question of their validity became urgent. And then, in the wake of English came the pseudo-humanitiesâ€”womenâ€™s studies, gay studies and the likeâ€”which were based on the assumption that, if English is a discipline, so too are they. And since there is no cogent justification for womenâ€™s studies that does not dwell upon the subjectâ€™s ideological purpose, the entire curriculum in the humanities began to be seen in ideological terms. …
Subjects like English and art history grew from the desire to teach young people how to discriminate art from effect, beauty from kitsch, and real from phony sentiment. This ability was not regarded as an unimportant skill like fencing or horse riding, which students are free to acquire or not, according to their interests. It was regarded as a real form of knowledge, as vital to the future of civilization as the knowledge of mathematics, and more closely connected with the moral health of society than any natural science. It was only on that assumption that the humanities acquired their central place in the modern university.
If, however, the humanities are to avoid the cultivation of taste, it is not only their central place in the curriculum that is thrown in doubt. Given their prominence in the modern university, and the fact that increasingly many students come to university who are unprepared for any other form of study, any change in the humanities is a change in the very idea of a university. Conservatives often complain about the politicization of the universities, and about the fact that only liberal views are propagated or even tolerated on campus. But they fail to see the true cause of this, which is the internal collapse of the humanities. When judgment is marginalized or forbidden nothing remains save politics. The only permitted way to compare Jane Austen and Maya Angelou, or Mozart and Meshuggah, is in terms of their rival political postures. And then the point of studying Jane Austen or Mozart is lost. What do they have to tell us about the ideological conflicts of today, or the power struggles that are played out in the faculty common room?
The true conservative cause, when it comes to the universities, ought to be the restoration of judgment to its central place in the humanities. And that shows how difficult a task the recapture of the universities will be. It will require a confrontation with the culture of youth, and an insistence that the real purpose of universities is not to flatter the tastes of those who arrive there, but to present them with a rite of passage into something better.
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