The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants...

Isn't it remarkable that so many who came before us turn out to have been pretty smart? This is no new revelation; it's been known for some time. Indeed, an early 12th-century reference is attributed to Bernard of Chartres who is quoted as saying that "we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants." We can see and understand more, and accomplish more, than those who came before us, not because we are smarter than they, but because they were such giants and have raised us to greater heights. 

Friederich Nietzsche
Bernard was neither the first nor the last to believe this. Indeed, Isaac Newton said much the same thing in a 1676 letter: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." Of course, believing this contradicts today's progressive ideologues who have convinced themselves that our predecessors and their ideas have little to teach us today. This rejection of the accomplishments and intellectual heritage of the past, especially the distant past, is particularly evident when the sources of these accomplishments are dead white European males (or DWEMs as they are arrogantly abbreviated). 

Driven by ideology -- whether Marxist, feminist, multiculturalist, atheist, environmentalist, or some grotesque fusion of several or all of these -- far too many of today's educators increasingly dismiss the works of such greats as Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. Can you imagine a college survey course of English literature that ignores Shakespeare? Well, believe me, such courses are being taught in many colleges and universities today. 

Not long ago I encountered something even more troubling. I had the opportunity to speak with a young graduate student who had volunteered to help out at our soup kitchen while she visited her grandparents here in Florida. She'd recently earned a BA in philosophy at a rather prestigious private university. When I asked about her undergraduate course of study, it became evident she had read neither Plato nor Aristotle. "The old Greeks really aren't very relevant today," she explained, kindly substituting "old Greeks" for DWEMs in the presence of this living white male. That's when I decided not to ask her about Augustine or Aquinas or Duns Scotus or any of the medieval thinkers. Whom had she studied? Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Marx, Dewey, Marcuse, Peter Singer, Chomsky...all the usual suspects. 

It's all very sad, watching today's educators limit their vision by refusing to climb onto the shoulders of the giants who came before us. Even worse they are effectively blinded by willfully descending into the ideological pits they've dug for themselves. There they see nothing but the dirt beneath their feet and on the walls that surround them. If only they would look up, they would see the light.

More and more colleges and universities are descending into those pits by eliminating programs that focus on the great thinkers who helped Western Civilization flourish and replacing them with courses designed to undermine its foundations. For example, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Heather MacDonald describes the recent changes to UCLA's humanities program:
Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the "Empire," UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.
The idea, of course, is to destroy the dominant culture and replace it with some amorphous, politically correct multiculturalism. In other words great literature is being replaced by garbage. And UCLA isn't alone. Instead of studying Bach and Mozart at the University of South Carolina you can take a course in "Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame." Or how about a course at the University of California Irvine on "The Science of Superheroes"? Or perhaps you'd prefer a Harvard University course on "Vampires in Literature and Film"? Or you can spend your time at Appalachian State University studying "What if Harry Potter is Real?" Instead of celebrating the greatness of our civilization, we now celebrate its decadence. And in the process education is trivialized.

According to the National Endowment for the Humanities -- and these figures are from 1988, over 25 years ago! -- one could graduate from 37% of American colleges without ever taking a history course, from 45% without taking a single course in either English or American literature, from 62% without a course in philosophy, and 77% without studying a foreign language. Just imagine what the percentages are today. Far too many students, after putting themselves (and/or their parents) into deep debt are graduating uneducated. Some leave these schools with an acceptable level of technical expertise, equipped to handle the basic requirements of their chosen field. They are prepared for work at its most elementary level, but are they prepared for life? They might know how to be a chemical engineer, but do they know how to be a human being, created in the image and likeness of their Creator? 

This did not happen overnight; indeed it's taken centuries. We now find ourselves approaching the end of a 500-year experiment in humanism, an experiment in which virtually all the obstacles, especially the moral obstacles, to the human will have been obliterated. Once we reject God as the source of all authority and reassign that authority to ourselves, everything changes. Once we reject Christ crucified and replace Him with man deified, we can shout, along with Hegel and Nietzsche, "God is dead!" At that point, anything goes, and I'm reminded of the lyrics of Cole Porter's 1934 song...
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes.

The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today,
And black's white today,
And day's night today,
When most guys today
That women prize today
Are just silly gigolos
And though I'm not a great romancer
I know that I'm bound to answer
When you propose,
Anything goes.

Today, 80 years later, "anything" has been expanded well beyond the anything of Cole Porter. The Catholic philosopher and historian, Thomas Molnar, in his 1988 book, Twin Powers, described our society's cultural decay as well as anyone when he wrote:
"Culture has come to mean, of course, anything that happens to catch the fancy of a group: rock concerts, supposedly for the famished of the third world; the drug culture and other subcultures; sects and cults; sexual excess and aberration; blasphemy on stage and screen; frightening and obscene shapes; the plastic wrapping of the Pont-Neuf or the California coast; the smashing of the family and other institutions; the display of the queer, abject, the sick. These instant products, meant to provide instant satisfaction to a society itself unmoored from foundation and tradition, accordingly deny the work of mediation and maturation and favor the incoherent, the shapeless and the repulsive."
Western Civilization has been around for quite a while, and so I suppose its ultimate disintegration shouldn't come as a great surprise. In his 1993 book, America's British Culture, Russell Kirk accurately summed up our culture's current condition:
"If the decay goes far enough, in the long run a society's culture sinks to a low level; or the society may fall apart altogether. We Americans live, near the end of the twentieth century, in an era when the general outlines of our inherited culture are still recognizable; yet it does not follow that our children or our grandchildren, in the twenty-first century, will retain a great part of that old culture."

Russell Kirk
Much has happened in the twenty years since Kirk wrote those words. Certainly the moral and ethical decay is evident to anyone who can see. But the culture has also experienced a broader intellectual decay as many rewrite history to fit the demands of their ideologies. The European Union, in a remarkable display of intentional ignorance, has dismissed the role of Christianity, and especially Catholicism, in the development of European civilization. And here in the United States religious freedom, once thought to be the most fundamental of our freedoms, is under constant attack. Enshrined in our Bill of Rights as the first and foremost right of the people, it is now treated as meaningless by those who hold positions of power thanks to that same Constitution. Yes, the dwarfs still refuse to climb onto the shoulders of the giants who went before them.

Of course, this is all just symptomatic of the disintegration of Western Civilization. If the foundational elements of a civilization are tossed aside, if the cult is excised from the culture, the civilization can do nothing but crumble. When and how this will happen is anyone's guess. Will it occur with a whimper or a bang? Will it happen tomorrow or a century from now? I certainly don't know. But because our Christian faith is universal, unattached to any civilization or culture, I know it will survive and flourish until the end of time. 

Instead of worrying about the future, or trying to predict it, perhaps we should simply echo the prayer at the very end of Sacred Scripture: "Come, Lord Jesus!" [Rev 22:20]

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