Victor Davis Hanson discusses The Gods that Failed: Where the University Went Wrong.
This event was part of the Hoover Institution's Spring Retreat 2008.
Victor Davis Hanson
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and military historian, professor of classics, and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of more than a dozen and a half books. His most recent volumes are Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, which Dr. Hanson edited, and The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern, a volume of Dr. Hanson's own essays.
Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007, the Claremont Institute's Statesmanship Award at its annual Churchill Dinner, and the $250,000 Bradley prize from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in 2008.
John Raisian is director of the Hoover Institution, assuming his position in 1989. He also holds an appointment as a senior fellow and is an economist who has specialized in national and international labor market and human resource issues. He joined the Hoover Institution in 1986 as a fellow, while serving as associate director during 1986-88, and deputy director during 1988-89.
He received his B.A. in economics and mathematics from Ohio University in 1971 and his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1978.
Raisian was a consultant to the Rand Corporation from 1974 to 1975 after which he went to the University of Washington as a visiting assistant professor of economics in 1975-76.
From 1976 to 1980, he was an assistant professor of economics at the University of Houston where he received a distinguished teaching award from the College of Social Sciences.
In 1980, he entered public service as a senior economist in the Office of Research and Evaluation, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1981, he joined the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, in two capacities - Special Assistant for Economic Policy, a role he held until 1983, and Director of Research and Technical Support, which he left in 1984.
As a result of his work for the U.S. Department of Labor, he received the Department's Distinguished Service Award. In 1983, he took a leave of absence from the Labor Department to serve as executive director of the President's Task Force on Food Assistance.
After leaving the Department of Labor, Raisian became president of Unicon Research Corporation, an economic consulting firm in Los Angeles, where he worked until joining the Hoover Institution in 1986.
Study beyond the level of secondary education. Institutions of higher education include not only colleges and universities but also professional schools in such fields as law, theology, medicine, business, music, and art. They also include teacher-training schools, community colleges, and institutes of technology. At the end of a prescribed course of study, a degree, diploma, or certificate is awarded. See alsocontinuing education.
Hanson’s point is that the Classics transcend temporal boundaries and represent the human condition in perspectives that help the learning process. The world has changed (as cgsnail stated), but this has always happened, as it is happening now, and it has nothing to do with devaluing a classical education because of its transcendent messages. Society has changed, but mankind has not. The “isms” and “oligies” that he speaks of demonstrate de-evolution of thought to validate meaningless approaches to higher learning. He stresses that today’s students lack the basis for critical thought in a complex world which demands this capability.
Hanson is correct regarding the difference between “education” and “vocationalism,” because I am a product of this system with both a BS and MS (and later an MA). When I attended university it was not to obtain an education, but to garner the skills necessary to enter the workforce on a high-paying career track. At that time there were no remedial classes offered; either you were accepted because you met their admission requirements, or you were rejected because you did not. If you failed to keep up in class, you “flunked out.”
Today, from my experience, businesses lack personnel with requisite skills; how to think about work and solve problems with critical thinking. This is what the classical liberal education brings to the table, and “majors” such as mine do not. It is not a “tired screed,” but a gap between what we need today and what higher education is now producing. The quaint notion that the social discourse has moved beyond classics is proof of its own irrelevance. Debating this is not a worthwhile endeavor; HIP-HOP AND AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHY or HARRY POTTER AND THE ACADEMIC CONVERSATION does not equal studying the traditional works which are the foundations of Western and Eastern cultures, and to think so demonstrates a certain level of hubris. The question is not whether these belong in universities, but are they true academic endeavors.
Today, society certainly requires more than a classical education; advanced mathematics, engineering, and science provide the foundation for today’s breakthroughs in numerous fields. This said, every student will benefit from a meaningful exposure to classics. Several universities require one or two years of seminar on Western civilization which include topics mentioned by Hanson. He should have mentioned these as a counterbalance to the many classes he referred to at CSU system and UCSC which are direct reflection of cultural fads.
Hanson provides insight into today’s divergence from true academics and its drivers. His ideas on changes to the system are at least starting points to being sanity back to the university curricula. I have personally spoken with professors who truly believe their marginal interests should be turned into major academic topics, however they do not meet the traditional requirements of an academic study. Hanson mentions that the teaching community is an echo chamber, and he is correct, but this is to the detriment of the institutions, and cannot resist the cultural shift in this country. India, China, and other countries who will address true academics will overtake the US-trained students who are experts in hip-hop and Harry Potter.
I recognize Hanson does not represent the mainstream professorial perspective, which may be part of the problem. Rather than attack him with straw men regarding his view, I’d like to see convincing arguments of how and why collegiate courses that reflect fad or politically-driven social issues are good for academics. Lastly, if Hanson does this for part of his living, he needs some professional education on presentation, skills he’s sorely lacking.
There is a cliched smugness to Mr. Hanson's complaints that show more evidence of his ignorance of the modern academic world than familiarity. He props up a number of feeble targets that cater to interests in popular culture and then demolishes them with cynicism rather than engage them with debate. I have no idea whether or not any of the classes he targets are worthy of a university environment, but I would not dismiss them based solely on the title proffered in the course catalogue. As a Classics student Mr. Hanson may believe that all wisdom resides in the canon (and some of it certainly does), but in fact the world and its inhabitants have changed, as have their interests and means of discourse. Mr. Hanson is preaching to exactly the kind of audience he decried at the beginning of his talk, a group of deductive reactors, who come with a set of prejudices and pre-conceptions that Mr. Hanson will flatter and compliment. He comes off as shallow and ideological in his thought, and lazy in his thinking and presentation skills. This was a profound disappointment on a topic for which I care deeply.