May 8, 2010
Defining Dumbness Down
Having no substance of its own, the left is inherently parasitic; like a cancer cell or virus, it survives by posing as a healthy member of the same host it attacks and ultimately destroys. This pattern of "mimic-attack-conquer" has given us liberty-hating "liberals," leftist mainline churches that publicly embrace what their own teachings explicitly prohibit, and educators whose goal is to ensure that all children get left behind.
This last item is exemplified by the distressing transformation of the backbone of the Western Canon, the liberal arts, into something decidedly "illiberal." Under the direction of leftist educators, the very institutions charged with the liberation of young minds from the chains of ignorance and groupthink have become increasingly effective indoctrination centers and breeding grounds for rigid, unreflective political orthodoxy.
This transformation has been long in coming. A look at where the liberal arts began puts in clearer relief the full extent to which our educational system has been hijacked in the service of the left's political agenda.
The seven liberal arts have deep roots in the ancient world and are divided into two groups. The artes triviales, or Trivium, consist of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. They correspond roughly to what today are called "the humanities." These early studies focused on the proper use and mastery of language and verbal reasoning. Today's grammar schools are the direct pedagogical descendants -- through numerous intermediaries -- of the private academies in fourth-century-B.C. Athens.
Having mastered the elementary lessons of the Trivium, the pupil was prepared for the study of the more advanced Quadrivium, or artes quadriviales, of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.
Taken together, the Trivium and Quadrivium constitute what came to be called artes liberales, the liberal arts. These were considered the proper pursuit for free minds pursuing knowledge and wisdom and were contrasted with the illiberal arts, artes illiberales, which aimed at mastery of only a particular subject or skill set.
The spirit of the artes liberales is manifest in Pythagoras' (c. 570-c. 490 B.C.) classification of the attendees at the Olympic games: the vendors, athletes, and spectators.
The vendors attended the Games for material gain and were consequently the lowest group. Just above the vendors were the athletes, who exemplified excellence and virtue (arête) in sport but did so for the merely instrumental purpose of achieving victory. Their real goal was honor, not excellence.
The third and highest group was the spectators. The spectators observed and studied the excellence and virtue on display before them, but they had no stake in the results. Their study of virtue for its own sake made them superior to the athletes.
This same elevation of wisdom over honor and utility is at the heart of the liberal arts. The knowledge and skills gained in the course of a genuine liberal education are among the least of its blessings. The liberally educated person's most cherished possession is the love of learning itself, for its own sake. No person who regards learning as merely instrumental is liberally educated, no matter how encyclopedic his knowledge. Wisdom is not a means; it is the ultimate end.
Tragically, for most of even the best, brightest, and most privileged of today's youth, the liberal arts are no longer an option, as they have been redefined virtually out of existence. The professionalized, leftist professoriate places politics above all.
I will never forget the open sneer from a former colleague -- an intelligent and multi-talented feminist history professor -- that greeted my advocacy of "free and unfettered discourse." The very idea struck her as absurd, and she acted as though I was running some kind of intellectual con. She averred that "free and unfettered discourse" was code for permitting the expression of bigoted, racist, and otherwise "illegitimate" points of view. For such closed-minded, anti-intellectual academics, the liberal arts' commitment to free inquiry is itself a serious threat, and it is treated accordingly.
Like a virus, the academic left has "reprogrammed" the host to do its bidding by replacing the content, and even the method, of the liberal arts without changing the name.
In other words, the liberal arts and the Western Canon itself have been zombified.
The corruption of the Quadrivium is clearly to be seen in the Climategate scandal and other examples of pseudo-scientific quackery, but the real damage has been to the Trivium. Like so many other cherished traditions and institutions, the "trivial" arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (which include logic and critical thinking) have been co-opted and subordinated to an explicitly political agenda.
Grammar, even broadly conceived, has yielded to multiculti gibberish in the freshman English classroom. Rhetoric, if taught at all, consists principally of learning to denounce politically incorrect opinions, not to evaluate, refute, or engage constructively with them. The only "dialectic" a college student is likely to encounter is the dialectical materialism of Marx and his Merrily Murderous Marauders in the guise of the latest academic fad.
How and why has this happened?
The "how" is easy. As with its successful conquest of mainline Protestantism, the left has taken over the educational establishment via the long march through the institutions. Admitted Pentagon-bomber and alleged Obama ghostwriter Bill Ayers is well-regarded by many in academe, as is radical leftist Professor Angela Davis, among many others.
These are not marginalized fringe characters. They represent the academic mainstream. They run the joint. The barbarians are not merely inside the gates; they control them, and like Plato's philosopher-dogs, they are quite good at distinguishing friend from foe. Does one really expect such people to give a hoot and a holler about some racist, sexist, bigoted system of education founded by dead white guys over two thousand years ago?
The "why" is only slightly harder to grasp. As rooted in the classical Greek conception of excellence and virtue (arête), the Trivium and Quadrivium continually incline the diligent student's gaze both inward and upward. Self-reflection and correction lead to the development of a character that loves the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Such a character is strong enough to repel attacks and sufficiently principled to give assent only to such propositions as can withstand logical and critical scrutiny.
In addition, study of the seven liberal arts tends to persuade the open-minded and inquisitive that there is something beyond the here and the now. A belief in a transcendent order that predates us and has some manner of authority over us is anathema to today's radical, arrogant, solipsistic, illiberal, and anti-intellectual left. They do not inquire because they see no need to do so. After all, why study what you already "know"?
Leftist pseudo-educators care greatly about ensuring that the peasants have the correct opinions, but not a whit about the integrity of the process by which such opinions may be intelligently formulated -- and challenged.
In contrast, the liberal arts create independent-minded, freethinking citizens who follow no light except that of Truth itself. By defining dumbness down, leftist intellectual patricians churn out generation after generation of malleable plebeians who are under-informed, intellectually incurious, and easily led. A critical, intelligent, well-informed citizenry is political kryptonite to the left's ongoing transformational agenda.
Daniel H. Fernald has written numerous academic articles and books, including Atheism Answered. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and rhetoric from Emory University. firstname.lastname@example.org