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27 November 2001

The WSJ's Battle of the Bulge

Last week (hell week), the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial entitled "The Pilgrims' Magna Carta" which thesis is captured well by the subtitle: Americans can't defend a history they don't know.

I suspect many of my friends will be surprised to know that I think this is a terrible editorial.

The thesis itself is unobjectionable, because its seems only logical that one can't defend something one doesn't know. But the more important question is whether Western Civilization is worth defending! That is a philosophical, rather than historical, question. And even to ask it presupposes that something known as "Western Civ" exists conceptually, that value exists and can be objectively assigned, etc -- all premises that have come under attack over the past few decades in the academy in the form of postmodernism and postcolonialism and historicism and various other trendy "isms." In a sense, it's these philosophical approaches that are responsible for the circumstances the WSJ laments, since there's no real point in studying "facts" about Western Civ (as opposed to any other "culture" or "paradigm") if the prevailing organization of those facts at any given time is simply a product of accident, chance, and/or force.

The WSJ editorial seems to advocate the study of facts of American history as an end in itself. Citing a Roper study of students at elite American universities, the WSJ writes:

No more than 22% had any idea that "government of the people, by the people, for the people" came from the Gettysburg Address. More than half could not identify the Constitution as the source of the separation of powers. This being the day after Thanksgiving, we're too embarrassed to print the percentage who thought the Magna Carta was what the Pilgrims signed on the Mayflower.

I suppose these revelations are supposed to horrify. But frankly, I cannot see why in the hell simply knowing those facts makes one more educated than someone who does not. It strikes me that it would be more important to understand the context of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln's constitutionalism more broadly than to have memorized quotes from specific speeches. It strikes me that it is more important for students to understand popular sovereignty as the ultimate basis for governmental authority in the United States than to pick the Constitution as one of four possible choices as the source of separation of powers (who WRITES these questions?!). And it strikes me as more important for students to have some conceptual understanding of the Mayflower Compact and other early founding-era compacts, charters, and proto-constitutions as providing the background for a uniquely American political theory than to know every minor detail of the early founding. Put another way, facts do matter, but the conceptual organization and analysis of those facts is more critical. Indeed, it is the focus of a liberal education properly understood.

The real crisis in American higher education is not, as the WSJ would have it, that students don't know enough trivial facts. In all honestly, they probably know more than ever! The problem is that they are not receiving the conceptual education necessary to process and organize those facts. Indeed, as Edwin Locke points out here (and as many others have pointed out elsewhere), the intellectual trend in higher education is the exact OPPOSITE. Isn't that a more important issue than when the Battle of the Bulge took place?

[Posted @ 10:15 PM CST]

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