Sunday, September 2, 2012

Where is Civilization Going?

Roger Kimball is a thoughtful conservative, author of Tenured Radicals and most recently The Fortunes of Permanence. I have read an article summarizing this new book, which sounds a bit like Alan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind.

As such, it should appeal to anyone concerned about the trendy nature of much academic work, about who is teaching what at universities and how this affects education as a whole.

Scholars in my field of English literature and language have been, for at least thirty years, preoccupied with theory (gender, cultural, political, colonial) as it illuminates the writing of the past, which they don't see as containing necessarily permanent values. Reading fiction or poetry of the past, then, is for them (not for Kimball or me) chiefly a means of understanding the treatment of women and minorities or the oppression of third-world cultures.

While such new approaches have produced some revealing studies, Kimball is right to be concerned that so much of the world of academia and art are biased in favor of what's new and opposed to traditional values, including cultivating students' minds in what we used to call the humanist tradition.

My own teaching emphasis on Milton and the 17th century, as well as Dante and Shakespeare, was in large part an effort to understand the best that has been passed down over the generations, even if the voices of women. It is no surprise that no one in my old department of English has taken up the courses I taught prior to my retirement.

While I do not share all of Kimball's ideological biases, I am glad this often scathing critic (who edits The New Criterion) maintains his stance vs. the academy since, as a New York Times reviewer stated, his tirades are usually justified and he is intellectually rigorous.

Yet Kimball, like most polemicists, overstates things, as when he insists that contemporary scholars see the past as support for the "superiority and self-satisfaction" of today's readers and students. We neglect today, he says, the deep wisdom of tradition with its "answers to the human predicament."

In evoking the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as it was often called, Kimball is insisting on permanment values, including ideas of good and evil that do not change, and answers to often unanswerable questions. Yet our understanding of these values must develop and grow; we cannot fear change or the knowledge that continues to double every few years, often jarring our settled ideas about everything from the mind to the universe.

I share Kimball's concern about relativism, about a curriculum that emphasizes innovation and theory rather than the core of Western civilization. Yet I also share the more optimistic stance of Walter J. Ong, my Jesuit professor at St. Louis University, who had one solid foot in the past, the other grounded in the present as he looked forward with excitement, like Teilhard de Chardin, to an unfolding future of new knowledge and understanding.

In other words, humanists of the 21st century must have open minds, be interested in everything, fear nothing, yet be able to separate the trendy from the traditional and always value those thinkers who have made Western civilization what it is.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Well said. Thank you.