Because we can frequently find answers to present problems in the past, most established colleges and universities actively discourage the genuine study of history, especially since they themselves have created a crisis that cries for a solution.
“We have succeeded in sending a great many people to college and university,” legendary scholar Russell Kirk noted more than a quarter century ago. “We have not succeeded in educating most of them.”
Dr. W. Wesley McDonald, himself a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, shows us how much we can still learn from the sage of Mecosta, Michigan in Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology (University of Missouri Press). Dr. McDonald had worked as a research assistant to Dr. Kirk in the 1970s.
From 1953, when his seminal book, The Conservative Mind, was published, until his untimely death in 1994, Dr. Kirk proved an inspiration to generations of students and scholars in search of relief from an increasingly oppressive academic orthodoxy.
Eerily, the key problems in education that Dr. Kirk enumerated in his book A Program for Conservatives, published 42 years ago, are hauntingly familiar today. To wit:
- The “wisdom of our ancestors is deliberately discouraged.”
- An “impossible future of universal beneficience” is “taken for granted.”
- All “the wealth of myth and fable, the symbolic study of human nature, is cast aside as so much rubbish.”
- Religion “is treated, at least covertly, as nothing better than exploded superstition, or at best a vague collection of moral observations.”
- The “splendor and drama of history is discarded in favor of amorphous ‘social studies.’”
- “Imaginative literature of twenty-five centuries is relegated to a tiny corner of the curriculum, in favor of ‘adjustment.’”
- The “physical and natural sciences are huddled incoherently together, as if they formed a single discipline, and then are taught as a means of power over nature and man, not as a means of wisdom.”
- The “very tools of any sort of apprehension of systematic knowledge, spelling and grammar, mathematics and geography, are despised as boring impediments to ‘socialization.’”
“His writing, or ‘scribbling,’ as he referred to it, resulted in 30 books, 500 National Review articles, 2,500 newspaper columns, and 400 essays,” Dr. Kirk’s widow, Annette, recounted in a talk after her husband’s death. Three of those books were on education, Dr. McDonald points out, while at least four of his other books contain chapters on the same subject.
Dr. Kirk was quite visionary in detecting the trends that would afflict higher education, particularly the government-subsidized variety, and experienced them firsthand while still a student at what is now Michigan State University. “Conformity to present state policy,” he discovered, lay at the heart of what was wrong with that form of education then.
The state universities, Dr. Kirk concluded, were trying to impose “a uniform character upon the rising generation, rendering young people obedient to the state from habit and prejudice, even when the state has dissolved the ancient loyalties that bound man to man.”
His solution, which he laid out in 1978: a three-year college in which instructors would teach moral philosophy, humane letters, rhetoric, history, political economy, physics and higher mathematics, biological science, classical and modern languages and literature. In Dr. Kirk’s model college, he thought that the administrative offices “should be as small and uncomfortable as possible, to discourage educational bureaucracy.”
While he, unfortunately, never built his model college, he did teach many students, not only in countless lecture tours but in his home on Piety Hill. Fortunately, they, along with his fine family, provide a living legacy that will ensure that the great man’s words and works get passed on from generation to generation. I myself had the pleasure of knowing and working with quite a few of them, including three of his four daughters.
“Of the disciples who at one time or another had beaten a pathway to Piety Hill,” Dr. Kirk wrote towards the end of his life, “some had become lawyers, and some teachers, some journalists, some professors; some were in the book trade, others had been ordained, yet others obtained posts in government.”
“They might leaven the lump of American society.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.