The Conservative Arts

I haven’t done as much writing about the humanities as I intended during the summer, as other topics moved to the fore. It was one of the sub-themes in my piece on public writing for the Chronicle.

Yesterday, a good friend of mine, a libertarian medieval historian, linked to the “Imaginative Conservative.” There are essays here that I am pleased to see exist. Anti-intellectual forces exist on both the left and the right, but only on the right do we see such profound and public distrust of knowledge by party leaders (I cite Rick Santorum’s comments on higher ed as exhibit A). I believe that only people from within a movement can operate significant persuasive force, so I’m glad conservatives are arguing for education, and are particularly arguing for the humanities. I read this essay, from November 2011, on Classical Education and the Founders with interest, just to see how the argument was made.

The author’s bio is:

Dr. E. Christian Kopff teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he also serves as Associate Director
of the Honors Program and as Director of the Center for Western
Civilization. This essay was first presented as an address to the 35th Annual Founder’s Day Breakfast of the Free Enterprise Institute (Houston TX Nov 3 2011).

I am assuming he is conservative, but I don’t know. He talks about the way that classical educations builds good brains, good character, and has a long track record of producing great people.

A few quotes:

“Earlier generations had rejected calls to repudiate traditional classical Christian education, and America had enjoyed 200 years of prosperity, creativity, and freedom.”

I wonder which Americans, exactly, found the 200 years peaceful and free? Also note how classical becomes Christian here.

“Classical Greek texts were still studied in the Eastern Roman Empire, what we call the Byzantine Empire, and in lands conquered by militant Islam, with important results for medicine and science.”

I wonder if the Byzantines and Muslims ever wrote anything we should read here, or if we should just study classical Greek texts. The author is not, I think, advocating adding Ibn Khaldun (to pick a favorite of mine) to the canon.

“The goal of classical education and its two-fold canon of Great Books
was the cultivation of religion, morality and knowledge, words joined in
the Third Article of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787: “Religion,
morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the
happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever
be encouraged.” If we were to re-write the Northwest Ordinance today, we
would begin the Third Article differently. “Science, technology and
engineering, being necessary to human happiness, public schools taught
by unionized education school graduates shall forever be mandated.”
That’s more like it!”

This is sarcastic, just to be clear, running counter to the author’s argument. Now I know unions are seen as the enemy for the right, and I don’t want to get into that, but Kopff is totally derailing here.  He’s just spent some thousand+ words arguing for other forces of causation behind the reification of science, but here he throws in unions, presumably because any piece on education has to trash unions as the problem.


“People like Shakespeare and Michelangelo, T. S. Eliot
and Ezra Pound, Jefferson and Adams, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Galileo
and Newton, Linnaeus and Darwin.”

I notice something similar about these people. In fact, it’s the same thing that’s true of every named individual mentioned in the piece, except Dinesh D’Souza, who he argues with, and perhaps folks like St. Augustine (and Jesus, who is present but unnamed).

I actually have no doubt that a focus on classical education would work. I often make that argument about Catholic education – it works … when, I continue, placed into conversation with broader traditions. Reading a lot of dead white men in Latin and Greek is good for a mind’s development, but perhaps if one is not a white male, might feel a bit dis-empowering after awhile. Perhaps that’s the idea.

P.S. If you read, “Literature and the Foundations of the West,”  you’ll find a different retired professor writing the following:

The courses they generate do not seek to transmit Western culture at
its best, but rather to insult it, expose it, and – fancifully – destroy
it. In the 1950s, widely thought to have been boring, we young
professors competed with one another in a usually friendly contest to
know as much as possible. The professors today who were formed by the
sixties and do much to set the tone of the universities, compete in
generic suffering. That is, they talk about themselves as much as
possible, even if only as suffering witnesses to the presumed suffering
of others. If you are a woman, black, or sexually unusual, the
university is Valhalla. This really is pretty boring.

I’ve been working hard lately at articulating the usefulness of studying Western culture, and studying lots of it, as it’s what I teach. I did not find good answers at the Imaginative Conservative.

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