By Anthony Esolen / June 27, 2018
I’ve been in “the academy” since I arrived as a freshman at Princeton in 1977. It’s more than forty years now, and in that time I’ve come to see how big a swindle most of the college system in the United States has become, how far removed from reality, the common good, the intellectual life, and the development of moral citizens out of the raw young stuff of passions and folly.
If I remember correctly, in 1977 four years of tuition at Princeton cost a little more than a year’s worth of my father’s earnings as an insurance salesman. I defrayed what we were charged for one of those years by selling, in the summer of 1979, high-quality pots and pans and china, door to door.
Princeton was in many ways a dark place, where religious faith was rare, dating already gone, fornication the norm, and ambition the leading light. Princetonians thought the world would be better off if Princetonians were in charge of it, and Princetonians were determined to make it so. Yet I received a very good education there. It was not the best that could have been had. There was no curriculum; just a few broad “area” requirements, detached from one another. Much depended upon chance, or following the recommendations of the remarkably frank guide made up by students for students, wherein the abilities and quirks of each professor were duly described, with ratings and quotes. It took one famous professor of mathematics (whom I had, and he seemed chastened by then) many years to live down the utterance, “I’m here to teach, not to answer questions!” Undergraduates prized the best lecturers—that’s what they were, too, lecturers and not leaders of discussions—and would give them a hearty round of applause at the end of the term. My extraordinary professor of Chaucer, John Fleming (a devout Christian, as I learned later), earned an unprecedented ovation during the term, after his lecture on The Miller’s Tale. As for graduate students, they were not permitted to teach courses, though they did lead some of the “precepts,” that is, ancillary sessions of one hour, for small groups, to discuss the material given in the classroom.
We enjoyed the talents of some of the best scholars in the world, who prided themselves on their oratorical and dramatic abilities. I remember in particular, along with Professor Fleming, the wonderful Thomas P. Roche, Jr. (a devout Catholic), and Robert Hollander, one of the two or three greatest scholars of Dante in the world. There were others, to whom I owe a debt I can only repay by passing along their lessons to my own students in turn, which in fact I have done.
So the tuition was not absurd, and Princeton, flush with wealth, had the wherewithal to make the four years affordable to any student who enrolled there. There wasn’t much by way of administration, and I recall no course in the listings that was politics by other means. That is, there were no politically defined “programs,” set aside from the rest of the humanities, wherein intellectual standards were replaced by the political; no attempt whatever, on an institutional level, to shape the political opinions of the students. The first of those would be women’s studies, which Professor Hollander, if I remember aright, opposed on grounds of its intellectual vacuity and irresponsibility. Then came all the rest, at tremendous expense.
Something analogous happened then to my graduate program in English, at the University of North Carolina. When I enrolled there in 1981, the department demanded a broad-based knowledge of American and British literature. Only one or two of the courses were “political” in aim, and these you could easily avoid. Students had to take written doctoral examinations in three periods of literature (mine were eighteenth century, nineteenth century British, and medieval), and oral examinations in their major and minor (mine were Renaissance literature and Latin). They also had to be proficient in at least two foreign languages (I had five at that time), and more, if they were studying the middle ages (typically, depending on their interests, Old Norse, Old French, Middle High German, Old Irish, or Provencal).
Most of that too met the ax, shortly after I left. There is a reason why politically defined courses obey the command of their malign creators, and increase and multiply. That’s because you do not have to know much in order to master the material. If you are going to study Chaucer with the aim of becoming a medievalist, you actually have to learn about medieval theology, philosophy, and art, and English culture; you have to be fluent in Middle English, and you’d better also have Latin and either French or Italian, if not both. You have to know things. Consider the difference between knowing how to build a bridge, and spouting theories about the racial or sexual politics of bridge-building. If you pretend to build a bridge and you don’t know how, reality will soon find you out for a fraud. The old ways of studying the humanities were like that. But you can talk about your theories all day long and never be caught, because at base there is nothing to know, and so nothing to get wrong or right.
After a brief interlude as a professor down south, I came to Providence in 1990, and found a college that had so far resisted the sirens of the political. The school had a Western Civilization Program, which was the locus of its Catholic identity, though that was not the intention of its creators. They wanted only to stand against the rush of university lemmings over the brink into the sea. Other schools were gutting their curricula, but at Providence we would ensure that all students, over the course of two years, would encounter Homer, Virgil, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Milton, and so forth. The program was hated by all the right people, mainly the politicians in the social sciences; nor was there, at that time, a single program in the college that was defined politically.
Well, that is no longer so; the administration is bloated, political programs are all over the place, and there is even a “diversity proficiency” required of all students, defined politically, because you can’t fulfill it by taking a course about a culture far removed from your own, unless perchance it is a politically approved culture; and if you take “Women and Anything,” studying something right now and right here from the approved political position, you can punch your card. The Western Civilization Program has been mangled, and many of the people who teach in it despise it and show as much in the classroom.
In 2017 I came to Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, thank God Almighty, and am free at last; for which blessing I bend the knee in gratitude at the noontime Mass, alongside my colleagues and our students, every one of whom has his eye directed toward what is true because it is true and not politically approved, what is good because it is good and not politically expedient, and what is beautiful, because it is beautiful.
ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.