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Last of the Romans

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By:E. Christian Kopff | May 28, 2014

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…



5/28/2014 03:32 PM

  Science will eventually re-invent the educational wheel as it has so many other things but "Never that which is shall die." For now and the foreseeable future, given the deplorable state of the liberal arts and those who pretend to teach them, or perhaps I should say study them like a dead bug, it is probably time to quit pretending and allow them to flee to the hills.

raymond olson
st. Paul
5/28/2014 03:45 PM

  Dear Dr. Kopff--I concur completely with your excellent posting. I do, however, have a question about that curious word, "metrics". Does it refer to enrollment numbers or to the money spent on teaching, curriculum, facilities, etc.? Since our "public" universities are decreasingly funded by the states that own and operate them, I suspect the latter, and that the deep pockets opened to universities are those of businesses that want trained employees in overabundance.

5/28/2014 05:44 PM

  Metrics is a new management gimmick/phrase, often employed to decribe what used to be called quotas.

5/29/2014 12:54 PM

  Is there evidence to substantiate the claim that Michigan State "has been a notorious diploma mill since Eisenhower was president" other than Russell Kirk's denouncement?

robert m. peters
5/29/2014 05:29 PM

  The trend, which has been a trend picking up momentum perhaps since the dawn of the twentieth century, is not just to be observed in colleges and universities. The school of which I was the headmaster which has claimed to be a "Christian school" and which had been migrating toward embracing the "Classical Christian Tradition" as articulated in its mission statement, "It is the mission of X school through its curriculum, instruction and assessment to assist students, along with family and Church, in developing character by helping students acquire, internalize and live out the great virtues - cardinal, capital and Christian." Those who have authority over the school have decided to strike that mission statement and the curricular components which make it possible in the classroom and replace that statement as paraphrased above with the following, allegedly a quote from the late Professor Doctor Virginia Satir, "It is the mission of X school to inspire the students to see that they can go far beyond where they are right now." The trivium has been overthrown, the implementation of "The Lost Tools of Writing," developed by the CIRCE Institute on a classical model had been canceled, and Latin which we had introduced two years ago into the sixth grade and which as of this year reached to the 9th grade has been banished and replaced by two high-school years of Spanish. My senior staff and I were, metaphorically, "the last Romans." We are no longer there.


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