Some Suggestions for "Common Ground"

An academic writes that his students -- he has taught at elite universities like Princeton and Georgetown, but currently at Notre Dame -- are "know-nothings." The questions they can't answer are good starts for us.
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....

[A]sk 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?
I have to admit that I've never read Paradise Lost. Nor, ah, Lincoln's third inaugural. His second one is really good, though!


raven said...

There was a book written about this, IIRC-"Cultural Literacy"?

It is the same problem with talking with a leftist- before you can even start, you have to give them a K-12 education, circa 1960, so they have a point of reference. This is of course assuming all you have to do is educate, and not de-program 15 years of indoctrination.

Tom said...

While I agree with the author about a great deal, the use of the term "know-nothings" to describe his students seems itself a bit of cultural illiteracy. The know-nothings were the original American nativists, members of the American Party, who were deeply concerned about preserving Western and specifically American culture and values. They were so concerned with it that they were very suspicious of the massive wave of Catholic immigrants who came over from the 1830s to 1860s, believing they could only ultimately be loyal to the Pope. They included some very well-educated men. For example, Samuel Morse, inventor, artist, and diplomat, was one of their leaders.

Deneen's students are not "know-nothings." They just know nothing.

douglas said...

I'll freely admit I could not give a good answer to each of those questions, but I have encountered the information being asked about in some point in my life, though admittedly, most of it in my post-formal education adulthood. I'm pretty confident that if the Hall were his classroom, he'd have had a number of hands up and a good answer to every question. That's one of the big reasons that coming here is an almost daily requirement for me. It's not like the adults around me would be able to answer these questions either, for the most part. I wish it were otherwise.

Whatever complaints I have about my son's middle school education currently, I am pleased that his History teacher at least generates an interest in the subject in his students- It always killed me that it was so often considered a boring subject by most students around me.

Anonymous said...

[A]sk them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks.
Is this guy 2000 years old, and does he think we live in Greece? That sure isn't MY civilization, though it's certainly an ancestor. More to the point, why does he think this list is either relevant or "basic?"

This is just a grumpy old man.

You want "basic?" You want "relevant"? You want "this civilization?"

Tell me how programming works.
Talk to me about economics.
Explain calculus.
Explain what genes are and what DNA is and why it matters.
Examine evolution.
Tell me about our constitution--much more important, to us, than the Magna Carta.
Explain whether you thought Madison or Jefferson were right.

And so on.

As for this:
"What was at stake at the Battle of Salamis?"
One side fought to have pepperoni classified as a true salami; the other side sought to call in an American outrage. Everyone knows that.

Grim said...

Programming is any information system whose structure is such that outputs can be predicted from inputs. Economics is a branch of philosophy best explained by Joseph Schumpeter. Calculus is a late system of mathematics separately developed by two giants of early modern physics, or late natural philosophy, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, which enabled the calculations necessary for their models. Genes and DNA are living material that functions to carry information that structure life processes. Evolution has a serious problem with its timeframe, which is deeply troubling for the basic assumption of the theory that it is random: my sense is that the truth is that there are only a certain number of forms of organization that are real potentials, which reduces randomness sufficiently to account for it; however, to date scientists working with the theory have not accepted that.

You wouldn't have a Constitution without the Magna Carta. Jefferson was right because he understood the point of the project, human liberty, far more precisely. Madison was too interested in accidents to be as clear about the essence.

I take it you weren't satisfied with your score on the earlier list of questions, but I think it's a good list of things one should know. There's always time to read more if you've missed it so far, and you can take my word that you'll profit from it.

Well, except for Paradise Lost. All I know about that I learned from Animal House.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Just read the first canto of Paradise Lost, like everyone else. Then remember that Satan goes downhill from there.

Ymar Sakar said...

If the students are know nothings, that must mean the professors and teachers are even more know nothing intellectuals on the Pseudo Path.