Revolution and Tradition in the Humanities Curriculum

A few years ago I found myself in the belly of the beast. To be more accurate, I was actually in the appendix of the beast, the Department of Education, giving a paper on curriculum reform. Secretary Bennett, who preceded me, spoke with his accustomed exuberance of the then current crisis in the humanities and of the need to recover our inheritance. When the time came for me to speak, I could not help remarking upon how familiar it all seemed. For nearly eighty years conservatives like Irving Babbitt, Albert Jay Nock, and Russell Kirk had been complaining about the state of American education, and the worse things got, the milder the criticism had grown. Babbitt would have restored the classics to their preeminence. Nock wanted to educate only a saving remnant, but Mr. Bennett was willing to settle for a few readable books that promoted democratic ideals. In educational criticism, as in education, there has been a Hesiodic progression from an Age of Gold to the Age of Iron in which we find ourselves.

The decline is nowhere more apparent than in the most recent controversies over curriculum. The strife surrounding Stanford's decision to abolish its "Western culture" course in favor of something more sensitive to the needs of minorities attracted a great deal of attention in the press. Who can forget the images of Jesse Jackson leading his band of Red Guard cultural revolutionaries in the chant, "Hey Hey Ho Ho, Western...

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