America lost a great patriot and one of its foremost public intellectuals this week with the untimely death of Angelo Codevilla at the age of 78. Professor Codevilla, whose career spanned the Navy, the foreign service, the intelligence community, academe, think tanks, the blogosphere, and the literary world, was one of the sharpest and shrewdest observers of the contemporary political scene — hardly surprising, since the Italian-born scholar produced a notable 1997 translation of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”
The core of his appeal — for his students, for those who heard him speak, for those of us who appeared with him on panels and at public events and had the thankless task of trying to match both wits and breadth of knowledge with him — was Angelo’s ability to cut quickly to the heart of any matter, instantly bolstering his fluent and elegant arguments with examples from history both ancient and modern.
It is therefore, with profound sadness, that we present what might be the last piece he ever wrote, which will appear in “Against the Great Reset,” a collection of some 16 essays by such luminaries as Prof. Codevilla, Conrad Black, Janice Fiamengo, Michael Anton, David Goldman, Roger Kimball, Victor Davis Hanson, Alberto Mingardi, Salvatore Babones, Martin Hutchinson, Jeremy Black, Harry Stein, Richard Fernandez, and others still to come. I have the honor of editing the essays, as well as contributing one myself, along with an overall introduction. We hope to announce the publisher soon.
What follows is an excerpt from “Resetting the Educational Reset.” Although its topic is necessarily specific to the parlous state of our educational system, it brims with characteristic aperçus, sparkles with the joy of intellectual combat, and positively revels in its defense of Western civilization. No happier warrior lived, fighting on the side of the angels — and now, surely, dwelling among them.
Resetting the Educational Reset
The closer one looks at education today, the more one sees that the dumbing down and perversion of America to which people object most strongly is the continuation of a century-old decay in our civilization. Problems with education bespeak civilizational ones, of which the phenomenon of Davos Man is but one manifestation.
Any civilization is the totality of the language, habits and ideas in which people live and move – the human reality that defines their practical limits. To see how grossly unequal to one another civilizations are, it is enough to glance at how much or little understanding of reality the languages they speak contain – what any given language enables, or not. We are accustomed to Greek, Latin, English, French, Italian, German, etc. with their massive dictionaries, full of definitions, pronouns, tenses, moods, and concepts, all tied together by grammar that flows from logic. When we speak these languages correctly, we hardly realize that we are wielding powerful tools of reason, developed over thousands of years.
But acquaintance with the languages that most of mankind speak shows that most contain few well-defined words, and almost no grammar. Little intellection. Almost no reason. Sometimes they lack even the plural. Here we must term those who speak a form of English, French, etc. that they barely grasp as superficially civilized, if at all. Monkeys with keyboards.
Without going to any depth in the debate between the human possibilities that nature and nurture provide, enough experiments have been carried out that show that nature does not limit babies born into primitive tribes to lives near the level of quadrupeds, just as it does not endow the offspring of Ph.ds’s with high I.Qs. Quantification is unnecessary for us to know that much of civilization depends on the habits of body, heart, and mind into which we are civilized.
We may never have heard of Plato’s prescription that the body and mind are best trained for reason by physical discipline, that the right kind of music enhances these and the wrong kind hinders it. We may no longer play musical instruments as much as earlier generations. And yet all who are part of Western civilization carry with us, among other things, a musical heritage based on mathematics and melody that also sets us apart from other civilizations.
Decline is a Top-Down Effect
What, then has education been doing to our civilization? The very concept of IQ, of Intelligence Quotient, of the Stanford-Binet test and things similar, is, as its critics argue, a cultural construct – less a measure of potential than of capacities already developed. No surprise that persons growing up in environments that stimulate and enable the development of human possibilities do in fact develop more of these. Some studies suggest that the complex of what each generation conveyed to the next made those generations more intellectually/morally potent than their predecessors through the early twentieth century, but that this process has reversed itself over about a half-century and average IQ has dropped by some 14 points. The decline seems to have come at the top of our civilizational pyramid. Speculation about the causes is less relevant than noting the effects.
But the deepest philosophical causes are not in dispute. After Descartes’ “Discourse on Method” reduced reality into something wholly comprehensible by truncating it, the very peaks of Western philosophy reversed the relationship between reality and the observer. Kant and Hegel’s “idealism” is neither more nor less than the further affirmation that the mind, for its own sovereign convenience, can take possession of what it perceives. From these philosophical peaks, any number of streams of far less sophisticated thought have flowed that effectively and explicitly place the mind’s product under the sway of man’s will, and hence of man’s various interests.
The intellectual mechanism is straightforward: presume to abolish the objective status of what you see, and presume to retake possession of what you then suppose to be reality, based on what matters to you.
From Ludwig Feuerbach’s injunction to worship Christianity as our own creation, to Karl Marx’s assertion of sovereignty over the mind’s products as “superstructural,” to class interest, to Sigmund Freud’s assertion of perceptions as reflections of sexuality, the main streams of latter-day high Western thought have de-valued reason and reality in favor of all manner of self-indulgence. Today, colleges teach students to disparage reference to facts and logic as “logism.”
Loosening our bounds to reality is attractive also because calling things by whatever names serves our immediate purpose liberates us from the hard work of understanding things not of our making, and gives us the illusion of mastery over our environment. It is especially attractive to those who have power over others, because it frees them from having to persuade the rest of humanity. For society’s mob of lazy under-performers, pleasing the leaders is an easier way of securing one’s place than competing for merit. Anyhow: intellectual/moral deterioration has ever been an easier sell than the hard acquisition of skills and virtues.
In our time as ever, there does seem to be a natural concurrence of interest in imprecision and lack of discipline between those who are happy enough to be barbarians and the despots who naturally dominate barbarians.
The Scam of Higher Education
Cutting the life support of higher-ed institutions requires exposing how little – if any – good they do by comparison with the price and opportunity costs of attending them. A little political action can go a long way in this regard by imposing on them the same requirements for transparency about the effects they have on those they serve as applied to other providers of goods and services.
Reputation, prestige, is literally the main product that they dispense. What do you get for four years at Old State U? What about at Old Ivy? These questions deserve empirical answers. Institutions advertise the percentage of students they admit, and sometimes the entrants’ test scores, implying that they select the best and make them better. But the edu-class rejects categorically comparing students’ test scores (absolute and/or relative) before and after they attend. The rejection’s vehemence has increased as the amount of study required for graduation has fallen. Legislating transparency in educational outcomes is the most potent weapon against scams.
Fact-based challenges to established colleges’ hazy claims to beneficence can also help those who start up replacement institutions. What if, as is entirely possible, test figures bear out that the average student is not better able to think after four years at Old State or Old Ivy than before? Could it be that they did not demand more of the student? There is plenty of evidence that they demanded less than in previous decades. The new colleges can credibly pledge to improve students at the very least by requiring more work of them.
More important but beyond empirical demonstration is that the substance of what is being taught, the manner and ethos of education, especially as it flows down from the peaks of academe, have corrupted – are corrupting – America. All manner of corruption is so immanent from America’s commanding heights on down as to make superfluous the presentation of facts and arguments about it.
Whoever would reset education in America from its current path must begin by noting and denouncing its corruption of our civilization. Each new generation internalizes civilization as it does its maternal language. Restoring the integrity of the civilization into which we educate succeeding generations requires educators to pay attention to its language’s every word.