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Last of the Romans

Andrew Crocker did not attend his graduation exercises at Michigan State University in East Lansing on May 2. He was home dealing with family matters. So he missed the honorary doctorates. Shirley Weis, a graduate of MSU’s College of Nursing, received a doctorate of Science as the first woman and first non-physician to serve as CAO of the Mayo Clinic. Azim Primji, a graduate of Stanford’s Engineering School, turned his family business, West Indian Vegetable Products, into the international IT company, Wipro Ltd., and works with MSU to promote education and technical training in India. His doctorate was in Humane Letters.

Speaking of humane letters Andrew Crocker’s graduation was noteworthy, because he was MSU’s last Classics major. MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon did not address the suspension of the Classics major explicitly, but her opening remarks were relevant: “During your time as undergraduates, Michigan State University has boldly recast its land grant mission to meet new challenges and opportunities and to innovate our future.” This bold recasting entailed inter alia suspending Classics, American Studies and Retailing. (The Department of Advertising and Public Relations still teaches retailing courses.) Among targeted departments Geological Science and the veterinary technology program were reprieved. Do you see a pattern here?

“Boldly recasting its land grant mission…to innovate our future” may not be idiomatic English, but it has a clear meaning: eviscerating the liberal arts, especially the arts of language (the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric) and treating the arts of mathematics (the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) as gateways to STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and math). MSU is preparing students for jobs, not for citizenship. Historian Clinton Rossiter described the goals of colonial American education as “to think, communicate and lead” and “the cultivation of reason, virtue, honor, and love of liberty,” the goals of liberal arts education since Classical Antiquity. MSU Classics Professor John Rauk told the Lansing State Journal’s Matthew Miller, “The university has a mission, I think, to preserve and transmit cultural heritage and values, and they’ve decided that people aren’t interested in that anymore.” His colleague Professor William Tyrrell, who is retiring this spring, was franker. MSU, he said, was “giving up its commitment to what a university should be.”

Conservatives icon Russell Kirk received his B. A. in History from Michigan State College, as it was called then, before World War II and taught there after the war. In 1953 Kirk resigned in protest at the school’s low academic standards, obsession with high enrollments and desertion of traditional liberal arts education in favor of sports and technical training. It seems a little late in the day to notice that MSU is sabotaging the core mission of universities when Russell Kirk noticed the trend and denounced it two generations ago.

With the moratorium on the Classics degree, Mr. Miller noted, MSU “is the only Big Ten school without an active classics major.” Does the moratorium make Michigan State an outlier or a pioneer? Administrators cut programs on the basis of what they like to call “metrics.” In my experience metrics rarely reflect a concern with quality. Many key cultural institutions, like consensual rule and science itself, were developed by people with traditional liberal arts educations, indeed, classical educations. Can those institutions prosper or even survive without liberally educated people to practice them? Until we know the answer to this question, abolishing classics is a risky experiment. It is not, however, being treated as an experiment. As President Obama says, “the debate is settled.” About 7% of undergraduate majors are in Humanities of any kind nowadays. The liberal arts used to provide the foundation for all majors and post-graduate training as well as citizenship and creativity. Today most graduates lack that foundation.

In the end, the issue is not whether we should be bothered by, or even notice, the curricular decisions of a school that has been a notorious diploma mill since Eisenhower was president. Rather, are curricular and cultural decisions being made that will prove irreversible? It raises Albert Jay Nock’s question: How do we know if we are living at the beginning of a Dark Age? Technological innovation will not tell us. Seventh century Europe enjoyed better plows, the tidal mill and stirrups, which were not available in the Classical world, but literacy declined and cities shrank or disappeared. Decisions to eliminate the liberal arts are neither bold nor innovative. They are reckless and irresponsible. Once the number of schools making them reaches a critical mass, there will be no turning back. Andrew Crocker was on target when he said, “I’m hoping the university will come to its senses.” It is a question of sanity. Quem deus vult perdere…

E. Christian Kopff

An associate professor at University of Colorado, Dr. E. Christian Kopff is the author of  Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition

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