Putting the 'PC' in Providence College

My friend touches on the larger point in his response to Dr. Morgan:

[I]nstead of educating undergraduate students who arrive in college with little (if any) knowledge of the foundations of Western Civilization, the courses will not waste any time in teaching them but will jump straight into “unearthing" its “problematic foundations.”  Even before students are able to acquire a modicum of familiarity with the works that provided those foundations, they are prompted to criticize them. And it is a very specific kind of criticism that is imposed on those classics and on those unknowing students: the contemporary ideologies of feminism and racism. Instead of enabling students to understand, for instance, how Cathedral schools from the 9th through the 11th century paved the way for the great philosophical achievements of Scholasticism in the 13th century, or the great culture that gave us Gothic Cathedrals, the Summas, medieval polyphony and the great literature of the 13th and 14th centuries, they will be summoned to identify, in those works, what comfortable 21st century academics of a certain inclination have placed on top of their agenda, namely sex and race. Instead of letting the works speak for themselves so that the students can learn from them, those works will be submitted to the ideological cookie-cutter of racism and sexism, stripping them of their essence as classics and leaving only the ugly, imaginary charge with which they were condemned before being read.

In a very puerile if telling metaphor, Ms. Illuzzi declares that the explicit goal of the courses is to “remove those pieces,” as if Western Civilization were a big jig-saw puzzle with faulty parts. And then she wants to “rebuild and reshape” the foundations of Western Civilization. We certainly cannot accuse her of having small goals. But rebuilding and reshaping are activities pursued in the realm of political action, not college education, at least not in a college that intends to remain Catholic and Dominican.

What is significant about this episode is not Providence College or Dr. Illuzzi. They are merely symptoms, instances of an epidemic affecting American higher education tout court.  The disease has many facets. Morally and politically, it involves a stunning loss of confidence in the achievements of the West. We send our children to a liberal arts college for a few reasons, one of which is the grubby practical matter of getting a credential: you give us $250,000, we give you a piece of paper that is (for most) a sine qua non for tenure in the middle class. At least, it has been a conditio sine qua non for the keys to that economic and social promised land. Whether it will continue to afford such entry is very much up for grabs. That, indeed, is one reason Glenn Reynolds’s prediction of a “higher education bubble” is so pertinent.

We also value a liberal arts education, or at least we say we value it, because of the liberating promise implicit in the name: by leading us out of our private selves (that “leading out” is the true meaning of education), a liberal arts education frees us to confront the most thoughtful alternatives to the question “How should I live my life?”

Dr. Morgan was exercised that my friend should have written to criticize his colleague and the Western civilization program at Providence College. I think his missive was a public service. For it not only calls attention to the poverty of what passes as a program in Western civilization at many colleges today, it also prompts us to ask anew a question most parents are too timid to press: To whom is a college faculty accountable? To the extent that it holds itself accountable to its pedagogic duties, it is accountable to itself. To the extent that it repudiates those duties, it is accountable to the society in which it functions and from which it enjoys its freedoms, privileges, and perquisites. Faculties take it amiss when critics appeal over their heads to alumni, trustees, or parents. But ultimately teachers still stand in loco parentis, if not on everyday moral issues (except regarding racism, sexism, “homophobia,” and the like: they are plenty moralistic about all that) then at least with respect to the content of the education they provide. Many parents are alarmed, rightly so, at the spectacle of their children going off to college one year and coming back the next having jettisoned every moral, religious, social, and political scruple that they had been brought up to believe. Why should parents fund the moral de-civilization of their children at the hands of tenured antinomians? Why should alumni generously support an alma mater whose political and educational principles nourish a worldview that is not simply different from but diametrically opposed to the one they endorse? Why should trustees preside over an institution whose faculty systematically repudiates the pedagogical mission they, as trustees, have committed themselves to uphold? These are questions that should be asked early and asked often. I’m glad that my friend attempted to start such a conversation at Providence College, though given the president’s decision to out-source a response, I suspect it will fall on deaf ears.