Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Revitalizing the Humanities: A Course in Western Traditions

The degenerate state of universities, and especially the Humanities and the Arts, requires no account. The free-market conservatives who argued, from the 1970s onwards, that an end to free tuition and the exposure of institutions of higher learning to market forces would end the leftwards rot were wrong. On the contrary, universities are now almost wholly strange little colonies of leftist liberal ideology the product of which, as Mencius Moldbug astutely remarked, is not knowledge or skill or wisdom but cadre. The rot has advanced apace. The long march through the institutions is done. 

The purpose of this post is not to lament this state of affairs - lamentable though it is - but to celebrate what once prevailed in the Humanities in by-gone days. The present author had the great fortune to teach in a traditional Humanities course in Australian higher education for the better part of two decades. He was asked recently how, if he had his way, he would construct a coherent Humanities course today. It is a matter he sometimes discussed with the late, great Platonist and pedagogue, Roger Sworder. The answer, on the whole, is that he would return to the structure of the 'Western Traditions' Bachelor's Degree first designed by Sworder, along with the poet Clive Faust and Mr Maurice Nestor, which was taught at a regional College of Advanced Education beginning in or around 1981. It was beautifully conceived and very successful and still suggests a model of what an integral, generalist Humanities undergraduate course ought to be like. 

Needless to say, our Marxist and progressivist academic colleagues fought relentlessly to prevent its accreditation, first, and then to bring it to an end thereafter, and eventually they succeeded. But not before it produced hundreds of graduates and demonstrated the good sense of a structured, integrated curriculum based on the classics and 'Great Books' model. It should be stressed that, while it was undoubtedly conservative in its principles and assumptions, it was not by any means just a tool of conservative propaganda. One of its principles and assumptions is that students require exposure to a wide range of points of view in their undergraduate years. Accordingly, the staff who taught the course included among their number classicists, Platonists, Epicurians, Christians, Marxists, atheists, Buddhists, secular humanists and traditional Catholics, among others. Such diversity, in fact, is a conservative value. It is the so-called liberals and progressives, the cultural Marxists, the feminists and the globalists, who have since created intellectual monocultures - complete with 'safe spaces' and 'trigger warnings' - in our Arts courses today. 

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What follows is a flight of fancy. The question is: if you could construct a Humanities undergraduate degree anyway you'd like, carte blanc, without institutional restraints and with unlimited resources, how would it be done? 

The main variation of the degree structure below compared to what was actually offered is that it is expanded from three to four years of study and is thus more demanding. A mere diploma once required some twenty-five semesters of study. These days you can manage an entire Bachelor of Arts in Australia for just twenty units. This has been one of the unforseen consequences of 'market forces' - academic inflation and a race to the bottom. What is clearly needed, if an Arts degree is to have any value, is to make it much more onerous, much more difficult, much more rigorous and only open to students of real quality. 

The abiding assumption underpinning the course is that students ought to know the great treasures of Western civilization. The pedagogical assumption is that a planned, structured sequence of studies is better than a smorgasbord of random and disconnected subjects. In the end, let it be noted, the Western Traditions course with which the present author was associated was brought undone in the name of "student choice". This is the war cry of educational relatvists, and they were empowered by the free-market-will-fix-everything cuckservatives. Freedom be damned. Freedom is the prerogative of post-graduates after they have mastered a discipline.

Similarly, the programme is not "research driven". The "research" fetish in higher education - propelled by the "market's" demand for incessant innovation - is deeply corrosive. What do we need more, an education system that fosters a deep and sensitive appreciation of Shakespeare, or one that encourages reckless speculation about whether or not Hamlet was written by a woman? The purpose of education, to put it plainly, is the transmission of a body of wisdom and ways of understanding from one generation to another. Education, not "research".   

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Studies in Western Traditions: Compulsory Core

The central feature of this structured degree programme is a compulsory core consisting of semester-length studies of important "nodes" in Western civilization. These run roughly chronologically and each has its own emphasis. Greek Mythology features the mythic mode and symbolism. The Biblical World in the following semester features close textual study. Medevial Civilization features gothic architecture. Renaissance Studies features painting. Romanticism, poetry. And so on. Other "nodes" can be substituted for those listed. The present author added a semester-length subject called 'Islam and the West' - the Crusades "node" - to this sequence, for instance. 

1. Greek Mythology
2. The Biblical World

3. Medieval Civilization
4. Renaissance Studies

5. Enlightenment & Romantic
6. Modernity & Post-Modernity


As well as the compulsory core, students are required to take a year-long semiological unit called 'Communications' (or similar) which features reflective studies on different modes and languages. This subject includes cinema (German Expressionism?), advertising, social media and, importantly, an obligatory component of formal grammar. 

Major Studies

For our purposes, the traditional Humanities disciplines are reckoned to be Literature, History and Philosophy. Students must major in one of these. Wherever possible, these disciplines are structured in concert with the compulsory core. Thus, for example, the History discipline begins with Ancient and Biblical history to be studied at the same time as Greek Mythology and the Biblical World. And so on. These disciplines can draw on the compulsory core which frees them from having to provide students with background and context. The emphasis throughout is on 'Great Books' and classic texts.


Minor Studies

Outside of the core disciplines there is, of course, a wide range of other disciplines that might be included: Religious Studies, Theology, Economics, Geography, Anthropology, Art History, and so on. These, however, must be regarded as second-tier studies vis-a-vis the core disciplines. 

Narcissistic victim-based pseudo-studies - an education in resentment - such as 'Queer Studies' and 'Post-Colonial Studies' have no place in a programme like this.

Creative Arts

Students are required to study and practice (to the level of a sub-major, at least) one of the creative arts: story writing, poetry, painting, photography, film-making, a musical instrument, etcetera. 

European Languages

Students are required to study and attain proficiency in (to the level of a sub-major, at least)a European language: Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, etcetera. 

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Harper McAlpine Black

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