By Anthony Esolen
Whenever anyone asks me what sealed my commitment to teaching the heritage of the West, I recall a minor uprising at my college long ago. In some ways it was tame enough. No sit-ins, no public obscenity. A group of students, led by a newly arrived sociologist, had been roused to indignation at having to study Dante and Homer and Thomas Aquinas. They called themselves Students Organized Against Racism. What they wanted to study instead they never specified. It wasn't math.
So the school organized a panel discussion, attended by a hundred students and a few dozen professors. The panelists were polite. There was a leftist ex-nun in blue jeans, who intoned, "Teaching is a political act," that great first tenet of the academic credo. A history professor tried to defend the old regime, then shrugged and admitted that a little change couldn't hurt. The students included a young lady driven by the cause, petulant and pretty, and a young black man who played the Guiding Star, intelligent, well-spoken, an obvious leader, but ignorant, as most people at that age are.
Back then I too was a left-leaning professor, but I had long fallen in love with Plato, Chaucer, Pascal, and the rest, and so I found myself at an impasse. I figured I'd try to persuade the attendees that if they really wanted to advance their causes a sinistra, studying the heritage of the West would be a fine strategy. So I asked the young lady a simple question: "Why do you study Virgil?"
I expected an ideological reply, with the requisite pepper of scorn: "To confirm the patriarchy" or something similar. What I got instead stunned me.
"I don't know why we study Virgil."
I then remarked that Rome had exercised a profound influence upon the men who had founded the United States, and that the influence was not always benign; that John Adams, for one, looked to Livy for his political inspiration; that there were legends in Livy -- Horatius slaying his sister when he found her weeping, because he had triumphed in battle over her Alban fiancee -- that could expose Roman and Western ideas of virtue to searching criticism.
"If you're reading Virgil and Livy and you're not subversive," I said, "you're not trying."
Then she shocked me again. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said. And the audience erupted into laughter and applause.
I'd assumed that the discussion was about what is good to learn -- what will bring us closer to goodness and truth. I have not made that mistake again. As I sat in disbelief, one of the panelists, a gentlemanly and half-mad fellow, held up a dollar and triumphantly declared that wisdom transmitted orally, from Africa, could match anything transmitted in writing, from anywhere. "Why is there a pyramid on the dollar bill?" he cried. That gained him a long ovation, and thus the meeting ended.
There you have it. A melange of hormones, searching for a handsome messiah; professorial agitprop; Masonic folklore; self-congratulating ignorance. It was a vision of breathtaking banality, a spiritual blank. I began from that evening to question not my love for Virgil, but my adherence to a politics that reduces all intellectual endeavor, all art, all human thought, and even the love between man and woman, to counters in a tawdry partisan struggle.
The professoriate will sometimes deny having any animus against the west. They only want students to be "exposed" to China, India, wherever. Do not believe it. Such exposure is epidermal, as of a tourist leering among the geishas. There is no mass movement to learn Mandarin Chinese or Sanskrit. Students will organize no reading groups to study Confucius, that quintessential conservative. They will be as likely to spell the title of the Bhagavad-Gita as they would be to parse the first sentence of Paradise Lost, or to tot up the cost of three orders of fries without a calculator.
What then explains the professoriate's desire to teach against their own heritage? Too many things to enumerate here. Ingratitude, envy, vanity, and sloth come to mind. But there are immediate and practical political benefits. One benefit of teaching non-western material that you don't really know -- because you can't read the original language, and the work has had no influence upon your art or culture -- is that you can impress its writers and thinkers into service as political coolies. After all, a lot of track needs to be laid between here and Utopia. There's a similar benefit in teaching what you don't really like. Medievalists will have their students read the maunderings of the half-wit pilgrim Margery Kempe, not because they hope to instill in them the lady's passion for Christ, but because Margery is malleable enough to do with as one pleases. She can become transfigured into Margery the Feminist, and rise to the wisdom of Cosmopolitan. And that explains the benefit of teaching what is not really great. Margery's principal virtue is that she is not-Chaucer, just as Harriet Beecher Stowe is not-Melville. You can spend a month teaching Uncle Tom's Cabin, as one of my Americanist colleagues does, without ever having to worry that the eternal questions will rise up out of the sea, whale-like, and smash your politics to matchsticks.
The folly of it all returns me to that night, and my brush with evil. Perhaps that's too strong a word. Yet how else to characterize the swindle that so much of higher education has become?
A stranger with a gold tooth knocks at the door. "Hello, sir," he says. "Ed's the name, school's my game! I'm here to separate your children from their faith, their love of country, their common sense, and their money. I'll dull their imaginations with twaddle and call it political activism. I'll corrupt their morals with porn and call it literary adventure. I'll make them despise Shakespeare as a dead white man or love him as the forerunner of Karl Marx. When I'm done you'll hardly recognize them as your own!"
"That's a tall order," says the man, scratching his head. "How can I pay for it? Will you let me put my house in hock, please?"
"I have the scalpel and the documents right here, sir!"
Can we really be such dupes? Ah, but then, why is there a pyramid on the dollar bill?
Anthony Esolen is a Professor of English at Providence College and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide To Western Civilization.