South Bend, IN

My students are know-nothings.  They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent.  But their minds 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 it origins and aims, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference about itself.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame.  Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them:  they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject), they build superb resumes.   They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though with their peers (as snatches of passing conversation reveal), easygoing if crude.  They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically).  They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting who will run America and the world.

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?  What was at stake at the Battle of Salamis?  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?  What happened to Charles I?  Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him?  What happened at Yorktown in 1781?  What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural?  His first Inaugural?  How about his third Inaugural?  Who can tell me one or two of the arguments that are made in Federalist 10? Who has read Federalist 10?  What are the Federalist Papers

Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers.  But most students will not know many of them, or vast numbers like them, because they have not been educated to know them.  At best they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance.  They are not to be blamed for their pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature.  It is the hallmark of their education.  They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present. 

Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement.  Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings.  The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school.  It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide.  The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.

During my lifetime, lamentation over student ignorance has been sounded by the likes of E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Mark Bauerlein and Jay Leno, among many others.  But these lamentations have been leavened with the hope that appeal to our and their better angels might reverse the trend (that’s an allusion to one of Lincoln’s inaugural addresses, by the way).  E.D. Hirsch even worked up a self-help curriculum, a do-it yourself guide on how to become culturally literate, imbued with the can-do American spirit that cultural defenestration could be reversed by a good reading list in the appendix.  Broadly missing is sufficient appreciation that this ignorance is the intended consequence of our educational system, a sign of its robust health and success. 

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders.  What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, historyless free agents, and educational goals composed of contentless 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).  In such a world, possessing a culture, a history, an inheritance, a commitment to a place and particular people, specific forms of gratitude and indebtedness (rather than a generalized and deracinated commitment to “social justice), a strong set of ethical and moral norms that assert definite limits to what one ought and ought not to do (aside from being “judgmental”) are hindrances and handicaps.  Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments.   Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.

My students are the fruits of a longstanding project to liberate all humans from the accidents of birth and circumstance, to make a self-making humanity.  Understanding liberty to be the absence of constraint,  forms of cultural inheritance and concomitant gratitude were attacked as so many arbitrary limits on personal choice, and hence, matters of contingency that required systematic disassembly.  Believing that the source of political and social division and war was residual commitment to religion and culture, widespread efforts were undertaken to eliminate such devotions in preference to a universalized embrace of toleration and detached selves.   Perceiving that a globalizing economic system required deracinated workers who could live anywhere and perform any task without curiosity about ultimate goals and effects, a main task of education became instillation of certain dispositions rather than grounded knowledge – flexibility, non-judgmentalism, contentless “skills,” detached “ways of knowing,” praise for social justice even as students were girded for a winner-take-all economy, and a fetish for diversity that left unquestioned why it was that everyone was identically educated at indistinguishable institutions.  At first this meant the hollowing of local, regional, and religious specificity in the name of national identity.  Today it has came to mean the hollowing of national specificity in the name of globalized cosmopolitanism, which above all requires studied oblivion to anything culturally defining.  The inability to answer basic questions about America or the West is not a consequence of bad education; it is a marker of a successful education.

Above all, the one overarching lesson that students receive is to understand themselves to be radically autonomous selves within a comprehensive global system with a common commitment to mutual indifference.  Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people.  Any remnant of a common culture would interfere with this prime directive:  a common culture would imply that we share something thicker, an inheritance that we did not create, and a set of commitments that imply limits and particular devotions.  Ancient philosophy and practice heaped praise upon res publica – a devotion to public things, things we share together.  We have instead created the world’s first res idiotica – from the Greek word idiotes, meaning “private individual.”  Our education system excels at producing solipsistic, self-contained selves whose only public commitment is an absence of commitment to a public, a common culture, a shared history.  They are perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions.  They have been taught to care passionately about their indifference, and to denounce the presence of actual diversity that threatens the security of their cocoon. They are living in a perpetual Truman Show, a world constructed yesterday that is nothing more than a set for their solipsism, without any history or trajectory. 

I care deeply about and for my students – like any human being, each has enormous potential and great gifts to bestow upon the world.  But I weep for them, for what is rightfully theirs but hasn’t been given.  On our best days together, I discern their longing and anguish and I know that their innate human desire to know who they are, where they have come from, where they ought to go, and how they ought to live will always reassert itself.  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.

A version of this article first appeared on Minding the Campus:


  1. Excellent essay. Clearly pinpoints the issue of our current generation. This is a struggle I’m dealing with as I try to help my own children (12 and 9) navigate their homogenized culture. Thank you for putting the problem into words for me.

    • We of faith must help our children steward a faith that will fill a deep need during their dying hour that nothing but abiding in Christ can meet. ErnestO

  2. Most people, including many intelligent people, have for better or for worse no interest in the kind of education the author is advocating for, and would benefit little from it.

    • Knowing facts, understanding the thread of history, being able to name historical people, places, etc. or geographical locations would certainly benefit more than a little from it, in my opinion. The education the author speaks of was the one offered to every American child in the not-so-distant past. It is quite sad. So many of us are homeschooling these days for this very reason.

  3. I have sometimes wondered if it would be possible to show that the quality of educational outcomes has had a direct and inverse relationship with the number of education programs at universities and the number of students enrolled in those programs. Over the last 40 years, it seems as though the United States has gone through one “expert” approved educational regimen after another. Today it is common core. Yesterday it was “outcomes based education”. All of it seems to be little more than a way to justify having education PhD programs and tenured education department faculty. How many education programs were there at universities 75 years ago? And why weren’t our schools pumping out children as ignorant as the current crop back then?

  4. There’s really so much to be said here a book could be written, but I’ll give one of my reactions. I’ll admit that I don’t think I can intelligently answer most (if not all!) of Deneen’s questions from the third and fourth paragraphs above, and I am 36. I will not blame age – I may do better now than I did in college, actually. So why is this? I’ve always had a strong sense of right and wrong (not that I always did the right thing of course, but that *right and wrong were real things*). I’ll credit my parents with that. From a young age, I was attracted to the sciences. I was curious, and a natural problem solver, but I think I also drew some comfort from the fact that in math and science there was always a very clear *right* answer, and many, many wrong ones. I did not see this in the humanities. When I took courses in English, History, even Religion at times (I went to Catholic school) I was frustrated by what seemed like the essential subjectivity of the material. The right answer happened to be whatever each student thought, or what the instructor thought. To me, there seemed to be no real means at arriving at the “right” answer for what a work of art means, or a story, or an event from the past, and tenuous connections between what someone said or did in history and how my life was lived. So for me, all of these things were mostly meaningless (beyond some kind of entertainment value) and therefore useless. It did not seem possible to arrive at an understanding of objective truth. As I’ve gotten older this has slowly changed. But why was my education as a young man like this? Do I blame my teachers? The culture? Myself? I just hope that, like Jeremy, I can help my children develop a better appreciation and understanding of their inheritance than I did.

    • It is unfortunate that your exposure to the Humanities was through teachers who focused only on their subjectivity…their “meaning”. I taught HS English/Literature for 10 years and was always frustrated by the teachers out there who taught that there was only ONE way to understand a given work. That gets really frustrating when talking about symbolism. What should be emphasized are the themes that echo through history and occur in our own times. Macbeth shows us the battle between fate and free will and the dangers of seeking power for its own sake. Hamlet calls on us to reflect on the act of murder, and its causes, consequences and morality. Rome and Juliet clearly demonstrates that 13 year old girls are too young to start dating. No matter the work of Literature, there is an example from History to tie it to and a way to examine its lessons for our own times. Whether one “likes” those plays or not is a matter of personal taste, as it should be. Personally, I can’t STAND Romeo and Juliet. 🙂

    • You went to a Catholic school- a lost opportunity to have come out with strong well formed conscience and foundation. But according to our age, you were already in the midst of chaos originating back to your parents youth. The catholic education should have instilled in you the essential tools in developing your Reason and Intellect to be able to discern the value of all of God’s creation, regardless of your interests (Science/Math); they have connections that unravel the beauty and purpose of the human person. It is never too late to amend our lost opportunities. God is always the answer.

  5. Dr. Deenen,

    Thank you for this article.

    You have distilled the essence of the assorted problems our culture/civilization faces. As you point out, others have clamored along the same lines, but your expression slices closer to the bone than the others, and it reverberates…it haunts.

    “The pervasive ignorance of our students is…the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide… What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, historyless free agents,…”

    This is a terrible truth. Among the many reverberations I hear, a question comes to mind: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

  6. Yes, it is cultural suicide. I will be teaching in the fall at a small school that doesn’t require certified teachers because they teach using a great books program that would be beyond most teachers who came out of colleges of education. When I took the courses necessary to complete my certification, I heard professors misconstruing Descartes to suit their own world view. When challenged, they asked me to stop interrupting. I too weep for the young people I know who have never had the opportunity to learn anything outside of the proscribed cannon of the last 100 years of educational decimation. Thank you for stating so clearly the nature of the problem.

    • Until God is allowed back into the public sphere, no change in curriculum will pull us out of this chaotic ‘educational system’ which produces well intentioned, yet purposeless people.
      Descartes was a confused individual and brought about much destruction to those who listened to him. Read him by all means but discern his error.

  7. “Uprootedness uproots everything except the need for roots.”
    – Christopher Lasch

    Thanks, Professor Deneen, for this excellent essay.

  8. Older people have always complained about the ignorance of the young. They haven’t lived as long as we have so have not acquired the knowledge we have. But if you look back to what was said about previous generations when they were young, you can see the same complaints. In the 1950s for instance, there were fears that our students were falling behind those of the Soviet Union. See for instance “What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t” and the complaints of Admiral Rickover. See also a book by Richard Rothstein “The Way We Were.”

  9. I don’t know whether it is hilarious or deeply depressing that you think critical thinking, diversity, and social justice are content-less and unexamined by the scores of practitioners, myself included, using such VERY EXAMINED pedagogy in our rigorous classrooms. Let me ask you a few questions: Can you name one of the themes of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest? How about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Can you name ten American authors of color from the twentieth century? Ten American women authors in the twentieth century? Quick! You’re on a clock. Some of us think such things are at the very least as valuable, if not far more, than pedantic facts from “Western Civilization” writ large as WHITE MAN’S FANTASY LAND. It sounds to me like you need to SIT DOWN and get educated.

    • Julie Hawk,
      I am an admirer both of David Foster Wallace (whose Kenyon commencement address,”This is Water,” I often recommend to students) and Margaret Atwood (though I prefer her “Maddaddam” Trilogy; that said, I re-read “Handmaid’s Tale” just this summer). I have co-edited a book entitled “Democracy’s Literature” dedicated to exploring American literature (which includes essays about James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor and Octavia Butler). I have an essay in this volume on Don DeLillo). I am editor of a University of Kentucky Press series, “Political Companions to Great American Authors” that is dedicated to exploring the broader social and political teachings of authors with forthcoming titles on Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, and Ralph Ellison and others. I care just as deeply about the cultural inheritance of our nation as it seems you do, and have devoted a significant part of my scholarly life to further our knowledge and appreciation of that tradition. (It’s always a good idea to know a little something about the author before leveling accusations, and revealing that you make assumptions that interest in the classics precludes knowledge of more contemporary work).

      However, I’m surprised that someone who cares about these books and authors would think that love of the classics and more contemporary authors are mutually exclusive. Do you think you can adequately understand Ellison’s “Invisible Man” without knowledge of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”? Flannery O’Connor without the Bible? Mark Twain without “Mort D’Arthur” (in the case of “Connecticut Yankee”) or “The Odyssey” (in the case of “Huckleberry Finn”)? All of these authors were steeped in a cultural inheritance with which to work and explore and “riff” and from which to deviate and challenge. I fear that many of our students don’t care much about the authors you name because, to a great extent, they don’t in turn care about the culture of which these authors were themselves a part and in turn built. They aren’t eschewing the classics in preference to American authors; they are eschewing literature and philosophy and theology and music and art in favor of business and STEM.

      There’s a place for these, of course, but there should be just as valued and treasured place for an encounter with the greatest treasures of our tradition, the works and ideas that have made us what we are. As I hope that my essay makes clear (though I guess it doesn’t to many of its readers who are caught up on the “list” and don’t see the more important diagnosis), I don’t blame today’s students for the absence of a cultural inheritance. I blame their elders, and an anti-culture that we have built that has stolen from them what is rightfully theirs.

      • Excellent rebuttal to Julie Hawk. I have always found a volume written by the Christian philosopher and teacher Francis J. Schaeffer (How Should We Then Live, Fleming H. Revell Company, Old Tappan, NJ, 1976) helpful in tying Western history and Christianity together to trace the human progress (as well as the lack thereof) from Greek and Roman culture through the Middle Ages,, Renaissance, etc. up to the “Modern Era” (1970’s). Or, as Schaeffer calls it the “Post Modern Era”. Perhaps we are now emerging into the era of Eloy and Morlocks (re: H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine). Only the Morlocks do not devour the human flesh of the Eloy, they devour their souls!

    • What, Julie… no reply to Professor Deneen? No mea culpa for your silly retort to his thoughtful article? Typical.

  10. What happens when you drop metallic copper into sulfuric acid? What does it mean that the half-life of caffeine in the human body is approximately 2 hours? What is the main function of the kidneys and how does the heart work, namely what’s connected to each part? Raise your hand if you can write the chemical formulas for sodium hydroxide reacting with hydrochloric acid and for the combustion of propane. The quadratic equation solution formula? The equations of motion for a ballistic projectile? The complex conjugate of (4−7i)×(3+2i)?

    What is discounted cash flow? How far are the Sun and the Moon from Earth? What is kinetic energy, and for a given moving object does it increase more when you double the mass or the speed? Why does the standard error for an estimate matter? How does a pressure cooker do its faster cooking? What’s the difference in market outcomes for an increase in demand and an increase in supply, everything else being constant? What happens at Lagrange Points? What amino acids are essential, and why are they “essential”? What’s Newton’s first law of motion? His second law? What’s an example of the difference in programming languages between a cycle and a conditional statement? Who can tell me one or two main differences between Newtonian physics and general relativity? Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics? What makes quantum mechanics “quantum”?


  11. The sad thing is this sort of critique goes both ways. The generation you excoriate is inheriting a complete and utter mess thanks to the failures of generations prior.

    It would be easy to list dozens of questions equally important as compared to those the author lists, to which he would lack the answer.

    This kind of whiny drivel is worn and utterly boring.

    • Generations may be going too far back. Past generations discovered and created manned flight, moon landings, stopped NAZI genocide, saved Europe twice, invented the internet, computers, some decent medicines, set up the most prosperous country on the planet without conquering land. Have we been perfect? No way, but we try. Mistakes made, yes,that’s how you learn. Over 80% of the world is poorer than almost every child in America. The USA is the largest financial helper to other countries on the planet. You don’t see people fleeing the US from persecution, they are getting here any way they can. Ask some of them. Ill take good old capitalism any day over central control of the masses. See what your generation can do to continue this tradition.

  12. Hey, Jose – I bat about 90% on both Dr. Deneen’s questions – and yours. Turns out that the kind of curiosity that one develops through studying the classics and history works just as well in chemistry and anatomy. It is not an either/or question. Actual intellectual chops allow one to attack whatever questions and problems one needs to. The students Dr. Deneen describes, which description matches my experience of recent college grads exactly, are very poorly equipped to take on any non-canned problems.

    Nebuchadnezzar – it would go both ways, if in fact the issue were what set of ‘facts’ students are called on to ingest and regurgitate. But that’s not the issue, as the sort of careful reading of the essay that a classics guy routinely and habitually applies readily reveals. The question is whether curiosity and the intellectual tools needed to satisfy it are developed or discouraged through modern education. The claim is that modern education does not so develop the mind. The data points represented by the questions presented are meant to illustrate modern ignorance of the origins and import of ideas *that are still current*, and to give some context to modern discussions of such things as justice, fairness, good government, freedom and other perennial ideas. It is against the best thinking of the past that we hone our minds to do good thinking today. Dr. Deneen and I are concerned that the result of modern education is that its victims are rendered incapable of thought, by design.

  13. C.S. Lewis saw all of this coming in his prescient essay “The Abolition of Man.” If anyone reading this piece has, by some misfortune, NOT read “The Abolition of Man,” put it on your to-do list immediately. It’s short and profound. I think it should be required reading for college freshmen (sorry, “first-years,” mustn’t use sexist language).

  14. I see the biggest issue in current education as studying/teaching for any given standardized test. Fourteen standardized tests required in one year? Teachers’ paychecks linked solely to that outcome of said tests? Whatever happened to teaching a lifelong love of learning? We don’t learn everything we need to know during our school-age years. Kids rarely go outside and play (and there are some very good reasons for that safety-wise these days, but the amount of homework they have…), and I think they rarely develop their imaginations and physical bodies as a result. My personal definition of “critical thinking” is simply that: question everything. Many ways to solve any given problem may exist. Just ask Thomas Edison. So thankful to Glen Beitman and Merry Coffman, the former educators of the homeschool classes at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Florida, and Pearce Augustenborg for their encouragement of kids to fail and keep trying … and trying … and trying again. Our author, as well as myself, did not know everything at the age of 18 that he does/I do now. Learning is a lifelong procedure. Encouraging curiosity, failure, and reading nonstop is what, in my humble opinion that matters only to me, will educate our children best. I do agree that a lack of historical knowledge, however, is beyond detrimental, to young and old alike. Thank you, Mr. Deneen, for a thought-provoking article.

  15. Articles like these do what many others have in the past several decades- they point out the obvious, but not the answer. The answer is always very simple yet profound: our societies suffer these problems because they lack God in their lives.
    God is a supreme authority which in turn gives everybody an authority to be beholden to other than themselves.
    God through Christ, teaches people how to live with one another so as to unify and grow in knowledge of our purpose of being. To have Christ at the center of our vocations (parent/doctor/brick layer/,etc) gives us the freedom to EXCEL as a human being, making all that we study throughout our lives has a connection and gives way to the bigger picture of what life is intended to be: ultimately to reach Heaven and secondly, to serve one another in this world with true charity (love). So the simple answer to the world’s indifference toward one another and the consequences derived from it, is to return to the Triune God.

  16. I was talking with a staff member at a super elite independent k-8 school (tuition approximately $20,000/yr).
    She referenced their focus on liberal arts, like painting, dance, and theater.
    My soul cringed.
    We have defined down the liberal ‘arts’ to be “subjective arts” like finger painting.
    We tell ourselves there is no objective truth, no science/knowledge in philosophy or literature or theology…we have completely forgotten that the liberal arts were the original sciences: grammar, logic, rhetoric, astronomy, music, arithmetic, geometry.
    We desperately need to return to the trivium and critical thinking and exploration.

  17. I think the soil of this fruitless tree is established very early–that a culture of masquerades is created for children that signals that it’s morally acceptable to do what it takes to fit the expectations that has been set by parents, pastors, teachers regardless of what is in the heart of the child. Once that series of bridges is crossed the rest is history and it becomes harder and harder for the child and then young adult and then adult to square up with the person they are–with all their inborn diversity traits. An honest life is hard to come by, no?

  18. Never mind Homer, how about Americana? They won’t know who Louis Armstrong was, Scott Joplin, Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hart, Leonard Bernstein, …… Of writers, they’ll know only a few who happened to be PC when they were young. Will they know anything of middlebrow writers such as Upton Sinclair, O Henry, Thurber, Damon Runyan, Dorothy Parker, and so on? Of painters or photographers, probably nothing. Of the Captains of Industry of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, nil. Buster Keaton will mean nothing to them, or Will Rogers.

    Or am I exaggerating?

  19. Jimmies Cricket was that little guy that helped other cartoon characters remain within moral boundaries. This essay is all about the death of poor Mr. Cricket and the death of our spiritual connection to a god outside of ourselves. There has to be a center otherwise we are matter floating in space going nowhere. LIke a grassroots organization that becomes an institution, structure replaces the spirit of the cause. There a Spirit of our cause and it is up to us individually to embrace it or not. That Spirit is real, at least for me!

  20. I am a curricular conservative who taught happily in a great western books required sequence for 30 years at SUNY Geneseo. Many of the details resonate with me. Yet, the article as a whole is absurd. It is conspiracy theory without evidence (like most conspiracy theory). It generalizes far too widely to be meaningful. As a medieval historian and a Catholic, I often lament lack of knowledge of and intellectual engagement with the books and ideas I love. But today’s students know all sorts of things my generation still knows and cares too little about. They have a broader of their own culture, however imperfect, than my generation had. They have a much broader understanding of the world outside the US and Western Europe. They know much more about the environment and are caring for it better than we ever did. They are more committed to a fairer world (aka social justice). I would revise the curriculum in all the schools to focus on history and literature and art and philosophy. I would have everyone read Thucydides and Augustine and Dante, as all SUNY Geneseo students still do. But this piece devolves into a whine, and I am tired of it.

    • Bill Cook, Bravo to you and SUNY Geneseo. It’s amazing that a state college in remote rural western NY has such an excellent reputation for Liberal Arts.

      With many of today’s HS students looking toward college education that leads to a career, the attraction of a Liberal Arts education is a tough sell. How can we convince HS students to spend four years earning a college degree that makes them well-rounded, but doesn’t immediately prepare them for a high paying, secure career?

  21. Charles Murray argues in his book “Real Education” that the number of students who both willing and able to benefit from a true liberal arts education is quite small. Reading Plato, the Illiad, or the Federalist Papers is hardly for everyone (even on elite universities). There are some young people who benefit immeasurably from diving into the great works of Western civilizations (or other civilizations). There ranks are small, and ,often self-selected.
    There exists within some socialist currents a tremendous tension between a love of learning and an egalitarian ethos. Marxist professors support open admission on the one hand, but desire students willing and eager to tackle the more difficult works of Marx on the other. I see no reason why a similar tension should exist in classical liberal/conservative circles. Folks differ greatly in abilities and interests. There are limits to what professors can expect from undergraduates in a society in which college education has been extended to a wide swathe of the population.

  22. Your current crop of prospects is about ten years ahead of the bow wave of children whose closest companion from toddlerhood has been a parent’s tablet or smart phone. Soon even “respectful and cordial” may be a thing of the past. Do we dare hope that a tumbled world will also save us a from a virtual future?

  23. Spot on anslysis. Yesterday in undergraduate microeconomics I discovered that NONE of my students knew of CS Lewis.

    Today I trudge back to classes for midterms. Can my students think? I’m pretty sure we live in an intellectual wasteland. I’m hopeful, though, for my university has a strong liberal arts core. But it is feeling to me like it’s too little too late.

  24. I am a little surprised that none of your students had heard of Lewis (did you ask them if they were familiar with the Narnia chronicles). I ,however, find it more troubling that many American evangelicals have created a C.S. Lewis who bears no relation to the real man (I write as one who worships within the evangelical tradition). There are probably few individuals who would have felt more uncomfortable in modern fundamentalist/evangelical circles. The idea of a non smoking, alcohol eschewing Lewis, raising his hands in worship while listening to contemporary praise music borders on the ludicrous. Yet ,I daresay, this is the vision of the Oxford don embraced by many a youthful Christian.
    A leftist acquaintance once remarked to me that many radicals extol Noam Chomsky because they like the idea that a very smart guy agrees with them. I think many American Christians have a similar relation to Lewis. It is sad that many young folks have never heard of such a prolific author and faith apologist. But it may be more problematic, that many church goers have such an incomplete and caricaturized image of this most important thinker.

  25. Excellent essay, indeed. I have been teaching medieval/Renaissance history at a public university for 15 years, and can relate to the general ignorance which the author laments.

    In reading the list of questions the author poses, I immediately wanted to retort: “What do you think the effect(s) of the 95 theses were?” We used to debate exactly this question when I was an undergrad 26 years ago. Now it is not possible.

    I recently began a lecture on early Christian monasticism only to have one of my brightest students ask, “So what’s a ‘monk?’ I’ve never heard that word before.”

    We’re in a tough fix.

  26. I’m surprised no one here (including the author) has raised the question of the impact of technology on students ability to think and wonder. I didn’t go to an elite undergraduate or graduate school but I have the fondest memories of exchanging ideas and opinions amongst professors and peers. We didn’t hide behind a screen nor did we have instant access to information on our cellphones. We had to critically question and find the answers. I think it’s the natural state of human contact that technological advances has slowly destroyed. Granted I’m only 35 and as I sit with my iPad and iPhone right at my side I’m grateful not to have spent my most precious formative years under the veil of Facebook and selfies. Sadly I’m not sure there is a reason for students to conceptualize the world beyond themselves or just to pass a test and get an “A”. The thinking is already done for them and exchanged through a computer screen. Books are becoming obsolete and before we know it handwriting and live human professors like the author will be a thing of the past. It’s a scary thought. Really enjoyed the article.

  27. When a Notre Dame education costs nearly $65,000 annually, an anxious parent’s question to her offspring planning a liberal arts major is, “what are you going to do with that degree?” All but the wealthiest among us are forced to put practicality before passion, economics before history. Yes, we sit at the precipice.

  28. I think many great points have been made. I tend to agree with the concern that public schools are teaching a cultural ideology that is not actually respecting cultural diversity so much as trying to homogenize it by making everyone out to be the same. I think history and the classics do contribute to a beneficial identity, but I don’t think it is only the schools that are creating this culture. I think the media is far more influential. As the previous comment mentioned, technology has enabled so much information, with so much bias, into our generation (I’m 32) and those coming after us. Actually, my generation does have its own culture, but it was not formed by the classics of history and literature, it was formed by television, movies, and music. For my friends, a good joke is quoting a line from Monty Python. And who doesn’t know the history of the Death Star and the scene of battle of the black gate from Lord of the Rings? So, we have had an education, but what has It taught us?
    It has been a struggle for me, as a mom of a 6 year old now, to set new limits for myself in terms of media and entertainment because I have seen what addiction to fantasy and video games, lost productivity, and no time for Silence or reflection has done to my generation. I want more for my kids, but it is hard to put away the technology for myself, let alone convince my husband that if we dont, we will allow modern culture to influence our kids more than we will ever have time to. If we took all the entertainment time kids spend with media out, they would have time for moral cultural influences, like the classics, and still spend school time learning about all the science, math, rhetoric, like previous comments have advocated for. And more importantly, they would have time to spend with people-people who can speak about virtue and how habits form and they can see what respect looks like because people respect and discipline them. In terms of the education kids get in schools, I would just like to see real critical thinking employed by presenting opposing theories in history and literture so that kids can evaluate an issue with more than one perspective. I think that is where real crucial thinking would be developed. There is media awareness issues being raised in some circles. I like the campaign for a commercial free childhood, if anyone is interested. Check out

  29. ” . . . a little hatchery for future contributors to the Social Security system, non-criminals who will enhance notional productivity while lowering the cost per capita of preventable illness.”

    Marilynne Robinson was describing a modern notion of family when she penned that line, but I’ve always thought it would be fitting as a vision statement for public education.

  30. In my opinion, the comments about the shallowness of the education system are not equally applicable to every field of study. Students in engineering and accounting (and even law) are sometimes shortchanged in liberal arts and humanities, simply because of the competitive nature of their degrees. Although education can be just as competitive, many education majors take time out to study the less practical sources and uses of knowledge.

    Although some business majors view education as an obstacle that must be cleared to start preaching the opinions they already held, some economics majors actually learn that their pre-conceived notions are mistaken. (Others don’t, of course, but I doubt that ever changes.)

    To me, these two events are the hallmark of a good education: Did you learn some things just for “background”, and did you learn something that changed your mind?

  31. Based on the author’s photo, he may be younger than my children. I wondered when they were in elementary school (1970-80s) why the emphasis was on “how to think” when they weren’t required to know any facts to think about. I doubt my children today could tell you what century the Civil War was in or if WWII came before Vietnam. It was all ancient history to them, and they didn’t need to know information.

  32. As somewhat of an answer to Bill Cook, the conspiracy theory is not completely groundless. I was blessed to attend a liberal arts college that changed some of my opinions about learning and what is worth pursuing, and now teach AP US History online (hehe… technology again). One of the things I learned to appreciate and wish to pursue was the history of education specifically in the United States. The whole public school effort was a not-too-veiled attempt to Americanize (read: Protestantize) the flood of immigrants who were threatening the Protestant of British Origin Eminence that the majority of Americans at the time thought was the only proper American way. (Adding Mark Noll’s History of Christianity in the United States and Canada to my reading list has been a good idea, by the way.) Catholic leaders saw this move for what it was and (lacking the political clout to get their own schools publicly funded) started parochial schools.

    So the American public school project was begun specifically to educate immigrant children away from their roots and towards a generically Protestant understanding of what it means to be American. Now, though the question of “what does it mean to be American?” has shifted and lost its overtly religious direction, I don’t think the school system has ever lost its underlying drive to create good Americans. It is just that now, a “good American” is the pluralistic person devoid of any roots lest we offend somebody.

    I suppose the problem gets back to the simple size of the nation. Cato observed in the Anti-Federalist paper #14 that the size of the proposed new nation was already too big “to preserve liberty or protect property”; we might also say that it is too big to preserve a sense of place. Ancient nations have a common history that can be traced back and appreciated; America is a crazy quilt by definition. So how should we educate the different groups? It is a good thing to understand the history of the culture(s) that have dominated global history, but does that mean leaving out what is known about African history and then the rich contributions of African-American origins to the tapestry of America? Insert whatever nation in that spot, too, since immigrants have come from all over. One response might be to divide into groups and let each group explore its own heritage independently, but that would lead to an even more fractured nation. That is why Germany is not happy with homeschooling even today (it was the German system that originally inspired Horace Mann to start the US system, after all).

    Anyhow, that got long. Perhaps a good response would be to inculcate a love of the classics in the early years, so that the college years can build on that with specifics.

  33. When, precisely, was the point in time when *entering freshmen* actually knew a plurality, much less a majority of these things?

  34. This is not about the generation (there were idiots in every generation).. but its about Ivy league and their Catholic peers elite schools and how they have abandoned real education for nonsense.

  35. I am grateful for this thoughtful discourse on the state of education. With a doctorate degree in audiology and a love of history and fiction, I was incredibly blessed to grow up in a home crammed with theological works, philosophy, and my mother’s favorite — Russian literature. My parents would spend hours discussing literary themes and history with me over steaming cups of coffee. No question was taboo. No book frowned upon, provided it was well written and thought provoking. It was a challenge to read Henry James and Tolstoy and discuss with them. And it was tremendously fun.
    I am appalled at what current students are exposed to and what they no longer have access to. I understand that as of this year, my state no longer requires public schools to teach on the constitution. It is optional. That is frightening. Students cannot handle Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne or even navigate through the humor and social commentary of Jane Austen. Culture, philosophy and the arts have been lost to the meaningless voices of today. Sorry, Miley Cyrus will never compare to Handel or Bach. Nor will Gloria Steinbeck ever hold a candle to Plato or Aristotle. We’ve substituted meat and potatoes for cheese ball puffs and are witnessing an intellectual famine driven by iPhones and constant media. I just read that college students cannot even finish reading a book or dissect challenging reading material on their own. I guess the role lies within parents to keep learning new material and set that same fire within their children. Certainly many schools will not be able to provide such a service. We homeschool and this year, my grade one student read about Greek myths and Plato. The very battles you list, she dove right into and to my delight, sat at the kitchen table discussing themes with my husband and myself. We need history to make sense of today. I’m so sorry for these current college students and the wonderful world of learning that they have missed. However, it is not too late to rectify this. Thank you for bringing this issue to light.

  36. As a now retired Navy Reserve O-6 with a specialty in international affairs, I always thought it was important for Americans to understand their history and the global background of the world they lived in. It’s tough to expect that, but if anyone is to be in a decision-making role or dealing with others from around the world, it is important to be informed about US and world history.

    When I found myself given an opportunity to work with HS freshmen as a World History teacher, I eagerly accepted the role. Not so much to teach memorization of names, dates and places, but to understand the evolution of the world’s political scene, and to realize the importance of people in history, their contributions to social and political theory, their decisions, and the conflicts they played a part in and how those conflicts shaped events and history.

    Dr. Deneen’s list of questions is culturally centric and a bit over the top. Knowing about the themes of works by Homer, Dante, and Chaucer are important, but not reading all those works is hardly a sign of a bad education. And I’d encourage history students to know the works of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman before making them read Milton. And to understand the role of states rights in US history.

    Globally, I think it would be as important for today’s history students to understand the rise and fall of the Cordoba, Cairo, and Baghdad caliphates, the causes and effects of the Crusades, the Fall of Constantinople, and the rise of the Rus, the Vikings, and the Ottoman Empire. I would expect every student to understand the importance of the Siege of Vienna and the Treaty of Westphalia. I would also expect students to understand the maritime history of China and Japan and the maritime history of Islam as essential to understanding pan-Asian affairs today, In addition, when teaching about Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)’s role in US History, I’d also encourage students to look at his peer in Arabia, eighteenth-century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). Though influential contemporaries in different parts of the world, most westerners have never heard of the founding patron of the House of Saud nor of the anti-colonial theology that has become the most influential in today’s international security scene.

    There’s a lot of history to learn. The Federalist Papers are a start covering 5% of the world’s citizenry.

  37. It is utterly unremarkable that the bulk of the listed items – books, plays, literature of various sorts, etc – are White, European, Christian in their origins and authors. Those are the roots of the women and men who created America. “The whole public school effort was a not-too-veiled attempt to Americanize (read: Protestantize) the flood of immigrants who were threatening the Protestant of British Origin Eminence that the majority of Americans at the time thought was the only proper American way.” Yes and of course it was. Until public education became entirely a propaganda tool of those whose dislike for America’s origins reached the level of hatred. What do you suppose is taught, in schools around the world, about literature, culture, accomplishment and all of the rest of those now-discarded topics? Why, nothing other than that their nation’s history is exceptional, that their culture’s literature is the foundation of all knowledge and right understanding, that their culture’s religion is the one true faith and so on and so forth. But it is only in America – and parts of Europe – wherein our native culture, history, religion and all the rest are derided and omitted from the curricula of our universities. No, no possibility of a conspiracy there, not at all. Utterly and certainly unintentional, at worst merely a well-intentioned change in pedagogy gone awry. The defining characteristics of “bad” people, “wrong” ideas, and the source of all evil is that it is White, European and Christian. That is what is put about in the public square on a daily basis, that is what is taught in all but a handful of American colleges and universities. No, patently this is just the inevitable product of historical forces. And when the consequences arrive, remind yourselves of how pure the motives of those who destroyed the foundations of our society were.

  38. Here is the result……………….

    April 20, 2016 7:04 p.m. ET
    The abstract for a paper by Patrick Callier in the linguistics department at Stanford University, published in 2014 by the peer-reviewed journal Discourse & Society:
    This article critically examines the mass-mediated portrayal of social class and commodity formulation in a corpus of US television advertisements for the Ford F-150 pickup truck, aired in 2007. The use of stereotypical diacritics of white-collar and blue-collar social identities in the ads circulates a representation of class identities as consumer categories, even as the ads’ portrayals of class difference reproduce hegemonic relationships of markedness between ‘middle-class’ consumers and other social categories. Examining representations of different phases of commodity formulation and social voices loosely associated with these phases, I show how various social identities are subjugated to the commercial ends of the advertising encounter, and how the advertisements both induce consumer behavior as well as reshape hegemonic understandings of social difference and inequality.


  39. The very first goal of our education system is to replace higher level reasoning with appeal to authority, training children to accept the information put in front of them, and then regurgitate it on demand. By adulthood, rather than having developed methods of thinking, they are primed to instead accept the RED or BLUE ‘choice’. Once the ‘choice’ has been made, they proceed to brainwash themselves with their chosen color’s media according to the methods of accepting and regurgitating information they were trained to in school, appealing to either the RED authority, or the BLUE authority, depending on which camp they fell into.

    Our country has been divided and conquered.

  40. This is the most profound and well written essay on the state of the human condition since Tocqueville, with which it is most similar.

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