Love may make the world go round. Irony certainly sets its course. In the instance of a particular piece of reactionary commentary I discovered of late, it illustrates the wayward myopia that has lately navigated America’s factious path.
A recent article by a well-published author and professor of Classics at CSU Fresno, Victor Davis Hanson, is making the email rounds and came to my attention. Hanson’s article contends that higher education’s shift from what he classifies as “traditional education” to “therapeutic education” has denied the future elites – so to speak – of America the proper framework of knowledge to make moral comparisons. In essence, it is an argument that specialization of study focusing on societies’ fringes leads to moral relativism, while traditional studies give one a comprehensive view of the world: a lens through which the entirety of globe and time on earth, not just the particularities of a certain population segment or time period, can be analyzed.
This is not the case. If anything, comprehensive education informs us that there has always been complexity and conflict in the world, always hypocrisy and always questioning.
The Results of Traditional Education Examined:
There is something to be said for generality in study. I entered university with the intent of achieving that “catholic education”, and so absorbed a large scope of generalities – Introduction to Political Science, Mass Media and Politics, Theories of War – as well as specialties – 18th Century British Literature, Female Sexuality, Terrorism and Genocide. Yet Hanson’s article uses his argument about the effects of the shift in higher education to dismiss criticisms of conservative attitudes as lacking the proper historical perspective. Particularly, he cites the assertions made by some critics – that Iraq is the “greatest mistake in our nation’s history” and because the US and Israel have a bomb, it is alright for theocratic Iran to have one too – as being a result of this ignorance:
Is the Iraq war, as we are often told, the “greatest mistake” in our nation’s history?
Because Israel and the United States have a bomb, is it then O.K. for theocratic Iran to have one too?
Americans increasingly cannot seem to answer questions like these adequately because they are blissfully uneducated. They have not acquired a broad knowledge of language, literature, philosophy, and history.
Both his basic argument and the extension of it are inherently flawed, and the contemptuous, narrow perspective they espouse are antithetical to the evolving demands of a global community.
The notion that traditional education programs in higher education leads to contemporary conservative values assumes a number of specious factors. One is that contemporary conservative values are synonymous with traditional values. These lodestones of principle would derive from what Hanson categorizes, “absolute truths”:
If there are no intrinsic differences—only relative degrees of “power” that construct our “reality”—between a Western democracy that is subject to continual audit by a watchdog press, an active political opposition, and a freely voting citizenry, and an Iranian theocracy that bans free speech to rule by religious edict, then it will matter little which entity has nuclear weapons.
In the end, education is the ability to make sense of the chaotic present through the prism of the absolute and eternal truths of the ages. But if there are no prisms—no absolutes, no eternals, no truths, no ages past—then the present will appear only as nonsense.
Considering the reaction to wars such as the Mexican-American War (America’s first war of choice, and in which some American soldiers were summarily executed for refusing to fight a “war of choice”), the Civil War (resisted by the Draft Riots and other significant protests) and to FDR’s argument that we should intervene in the adolescent World War II (staunchly resisted by Republicans in particular and much of the public of the 1940 election season in general), I would advance that there has always been political strife in the country, especially in times of debate over the course of a war. Struggles over civil liberties, abuse of power by government and American use of warfare against non-government threats have always been present in our history, even with the vigor and topicality of today – such as the fight over executive privilege involving spying by the Jefferson White House, the concern over the Alien and Sedition Act, and the war with the Barbary Pirates, the famed “shores of Tripoli” from the Marine Corps anthem.
So having a general knowledge of traditional history does not, actually, provide easy answers to the conflicting contentions of our modern times, nor does it negate liberal arguments. Even Hanson’s specific examples, that of whether Iraq is the greatest mistake in our nation’s history and whether Iran having the bomb is simply not okay even though the US and Israel have them, retain their complexity and are not resolved by an instant moral acuity when viewed through history’s long lens.
In the latter case, Hanson should know this all too well. He has written on the war that brought the doom of the golden age and imperial era of what is touted as the “world’s first western democracy” – Athens, Greece in the 5th century BC. The Peloponnesian War was a grueling, exhausting conflict between Athens and its dwindling allies and Sparta and its growing Delian league allies. It saw use of terror on both sides, asymmetrical warfare; many of the principles, if not the specific practices, in use in modern warfare.
It is the basic game theory that the inspiration for the Peloponnesian War can be distilled to that is particularly pertinent.
In this specific instance, Athens was massively powerful following the wars with Persia and wanted to rebuild its walls; Sparta, seeing those defenses as the crowning device to make Athenian defensive power as extreme as its offensive power, objected. The principle of that objection – seen in today’s debates over Nuclear Arms and Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Systems – is that if you can’t attack your enemy, but he can attack you, he has more incentive to attack you. In short, unless one’s abilities to harm the other and succeed are as co-equal as possible, there is more incentive for conflict than cooperation. This is the “Prisoner’s Dilemma“, and it is the basis of the “MAD” (Mutually Assured Destruction) security arrangement that kept the Soviets and the US from annihilation during the latter half of the Cold War – the mean comfort taken by both nations that if either of them used nuclear arms, both sides would entirely be destroyed, and thus is made no sense to use nuclear arms.
Again – this is the basis of a conflict that spawned a war that Hanson has written an excellent book on: if Athens has a wall, it cannot be attacked, but if Sparta does not have a wall, it can be attacked, and thus Sparta is incentivized to attack Athens before it has a wall. While this specific arms issue did not lead to war, the germ of inequality is what ultimately sickened the peace between Sparta and Athens – helped along by Athenian arrogance, Spartan insecurity and the usual turmoil that comes from history’s progress.
And yet Hanson apparently does not see the applicability of this game theory to whether it is allowable for Iran – and other rogue, developing nations – to have the bomb just as the United States does. While MAD has prevented conflict between we and Russia, the other nuclear superpower, but the building of the Athenian walls led to a fatal inequality that devastated the world’s first democracy, which seems the more “allowable” scenario?
The Value of Specialized Education and the Nature of Critical Thinking:
History is pertinent to the present not only when it is directly compared to today, but when the game theory, philosophical principles and relational dynamics are compared. In essence, though it is helpful to know the minutiae of the kit an Athenian soldier carried or the specific concerns of the Burr Treason Jefferson was spying on, it is when those incidents are distilled to their basic dynamic framework that they can be mined for conclusions to influence the ongoing experiment of history. In fact, it is therein that Hanson’s argument about the relative worthlessness of “therapeutic education” begins to entirely dissolve. He disparages the “deductive reasoning” these courses allegedly inculcate in the student, contrary to the “inductive reasoning” allegedly cultivated by general education:
…The student is expected to arrive at the instructor’s own preconceived conclusions. The courses are also captives of the present—hostages of the contemporary media and popular culture from which they draw their information and earn their relevance.
The theme of all such therapeutic curricula is relativism. There are no eternal truths, only passing assertions that gain credence through power and authority. Once students understand how gender, race, and class distinctions are used to oppress others, they are then free to ignore absolute “truth,” since it is only a reflection of one’s own privilege.
By contrast, the aim of traditional education was to prepare a student in two very different ways. First, classes offered information drawn from the ages—the significance of Gettysburg, the characters in a Shakespeare play, or the nature of the subjunctive mood. Integral to this acquisition were key dates, facts, names, and terms by which students, in a focused manner in conversation and speech, could refer to the broad knowledge that they had gathered.
Second, traditional education taught a method of inductive inquiry. Vocabulary, grammar, syntax, logic, and rhetoric were tools to be used by a student, drawing on an accumulated storehouse of information, to present well-reasoned opinions—the ideology of which was largely irrelevant to professors and the university.
Chicano Studies and Women’s Studies are specialized areas of study, but it is the essentials of the events they study more than the details that have their applicability to positively influencing the course of events today. They study the plight of the oppressed, models of organization, and how change can be brought about. Film Studies is indeed about some technical aspects of film – arguably it is a course of study that has more science to it than most “liberal arts”. But to be a screenwriter, director, even a producer, one must understand the basics of story-telling, narrative structure, the traditional dynamics of drama. And, considering it is not going far to say that life imitates art in many ways, understanding how we interact in narrative forms and why is a close cousin to understanding how we interact in a cultural or political medium.
This argument in favor of the specialized areas of study is precisely the one that has been customarily advanced to protect the ailing area of study of Classics – the very area of study Hanson teaches. People throughout the 20th century have argued to the inapplicability of Classics – “latin is a dead language”, “the political struggles of that time have no parallel in today’s liberal democracy”, “why study dead Greeks?” And Classics professors – defending the ageless wisdom of Thucydides or the genius insight into human interactions of Homer or Virgil – have argued, accurately in my opinion, “the events may be dated, but their lessons never will be.” In short, they argue that though theirs is a speciality that has millennia between its actuality and today – far longer than Chicano Studies or Film Studies, I feel I should add – the spirit, sinew and lessons of that speciality are living, wondering and dying in today’s world.
Want to study oppression and revolt? One could look to Cesar Chavez or the Spartacus revolt. Want to study the human side of a political battle over an unpopular, dragging war? Read “The Iliad” or study the German film “Untergang”. The value of education is in the mind that seeks the applicability of the material, assesses it honestly, and applies it unflinchingly.
Critical Thought from Specialization vs. Selective Thought to Satisfy an Agenda:
That students acquire a broad scope of knowledge is good, but it is the courage to delve deep enough – to grasp the heart of the lesson, especially if it is unpleasant – that has most value.
It does not seem Hanson applies the same principle. I say this on basis of the limited example of his comparison of the “mistake” of the Iraq war to the significant military reversals of 1776 – Washington’s Army in retreat; 1864 – the flight to Gettysburg; and January 1942 – presumably our retreat from the Pacific Islands in the face of Japanese onslaught. Were those not similar “mistakes,” that could inspire similar handwringing? Were they not greater than Iraq, considering the materiel lost, the lives devastated?
And, no, in fact, they were not. Only if one employs the kind of post-modern myopia that has leftist radical Chicano Studies majors suggesting Chavez’s unionization for farm workers is moral, ethical and functional basis of an argument for total amnesty and open borders. Or that feminism’s analysis of the power dynamic between men and women in the west leads to the necessity of a “gender homeland for women” – Andrea Dworkin’s separatist agenda. But despite how Dworkin or Hanson would like it to be, incidents have to be viewed in their greater historical context.
Unionization is fine, but total amnesty and open borders would be a disastrous financial drain on the US, just as it was for Rome. Men do abuse women more often than women do men – unless you buy some studies with some exceedingly dubious research methodologies – and yet separatism is ridiculous on a number of biological levels. And while Washington was surely worried of the fate of the Revolution, Lincoln of the Union, and Roosevelt of our staging grounds in the Pacific, these were not “mistakes”.
It was not a mistake for us to leave Britain’s rule; it had been brewing for some time, was practically inevitable, and, arguably, turned out pretty good. It was likewise not a mistake to fight the Confederacy, or even switch from McClellan’s strategy to Grant’s, because not only did they attack us, but a divided America would have been nearly unsustainable. And as for whether 1942 was a “mistake”: We had enjoyed an enormous military build-up that left us at parity with, if not superior to, Japan; Japan attacked us and Germany declared war on us, thus pitting what was arguably the greatest military bloc in the world against us; if fascism had conquered Communism, it still would have been us or them, so there was no keeping out of it; and, most importantly, we turned around and beat the bejeesus out of every single nation – replacing Britain, chaining the Soviets behind the borders established immediately post-war, and actually occupying Germany and Japan.
These are not mistakes. These are examples of dire times, yes, but nobody thinks we “blew it” by throwing off the British yoke after we’d been considering it for a good half-century. We were not “woefully unprepared” in 1942. We did not lack a “clear political objective” in the civil war.
But invading Iraq with the intent of regime change was a mistake. We did blow a lot of strategic credibility and moral prestige by shoving the war down the UN’s throat, going anyway without their support, and then failing to resolve things at all. We were woefully unprepared, sending in an army of around 150,000 to conquer Iraq when 650,000 were what we used to merely kick Iraq out of Kuwait, having inadequate post-war provisions for the Iraqi people’s basic securities and human needs, and charting a haphazard political course for their fledgling government, if even that. And we do lack a clear political objective – we are critically lacking. This war is economically disastrous, strategically humbling and morally confused. And many great thinkers knew it would be that way – conservatives included – and the Administration either fired, ignored or talked over them and went anyway. That is a mistake.
“Greatest mistake?” One of the traditional notions of assessing history is that it has “cycles”. Empires rise, decline, must assert power to rise again. Either they redefine the definition of power – like shifting from military to economic and dominating the new way – or they assert themselves militarily. In this era when dearth of human-sustaining resources and conflicts over industry-sustaining resources are the predominant factor in much of the world’s conflicts, American could have used the former course. We could have – and still can – sustain our “Imperial Power” through technology that makes us dominant while mitigating the causes of global poverty, regional dispute and biological disaster. But the Administration did not. Instead, it chose the military course – in keeping with the imperatives set by the perspective of the influential essay, “The Clash of Civilizations“. Fight global Islam, dominate it militarily, replace it with western liberal democracy. It did not work out. At the beginning of the first and biggest ambitious project for an America struggling to define its Imperial nature post-Cold War, we picked on a puny set of nations – Iraq and Afghanistan – and could not win. We have not lost yet, but we have not won either. And for a world that saw us crush the ghost of the Soviet Union in the deserts of Iraq in ’91, calm the definitive realm of ethnic strife in ’95 and ’99, and raise to new heights of human rights commitment and economic power during the 90s, this was a humiliation and an argument against our strength unseen in American history.
In short, we went out to prove we were still the Fascism-thrashing, Communism-throttling, Balkans-conquering Empire, and have ended up wounded, bogged down, and poor. No wonder our enemies crow. No one beats us as thoroughly as we do ourselves through limitation of mind and limitation of spirit.