Hence, despite their innate aspiration to membership, young people are told at university that they come from nowhere and belong to nothing: that all preexisting forms of membership are null and void. They are offered a rite of passage into cultural nothingness, since this is the only way to achieve the egalitarian goal. They are given, in place of the old beliefs of a civilization based on godliness, judgment, and distinction, the new beliefs of a society based in equality and inclusion; they are told that the judgment of other lifestyles is a crime. If the purpose were merely to substitute one belief system for another, it would be open to rational debate. But the purpose is to substitute one community for another.
But what is the alternative? If the universities do not propagate the culture that was once entrusted to them, where else can young people go in search of it? Some thoughts in answer to that question were suggested by experiences that began for me in 1979. The writings of Foucault, Deleuze, and Bourdieu were then beginning to make waves at the University of London, where I taught. My students were being told on every side that there is no such thing as knowledge in the humanities and that universities exist not to justify culture as a form of knowledge but to unmask it as a form of power.
In response I asked myself what exactly I was trying to teach, and why. By introducing students to the great works of philosophy, literature, and criticism that I had absorbed at school and university, I felt that I was offering them the frame of reference, the store of speculations, the paradigms of insight and allusion, through which to understand their world. I was offering them membership in a culture, not as a body of doctrine but as an ongoing conversation. And this, I felt, was a form of real knowledge: not knowledge of facts and theories, but knowledge of what to feel, how to relate, and with whom to belong. Yet this body of knowledge, as I assumed it to be, was now dismissed as bourgeois ideology, or—in Foucault’s idiom—as the episteme, the accumulated savoir, of a dominating class.
One day an invitation came to me, by word of mouth, to address an underground seminar in Prague. I accepted; as a result, I was brought into contact with people for whom the pursuit of knowledge and culture was not a dispensable luxury but a necessity. Nothing else could provide them with what they sought, which was an escape route from the world of lies by which they were surrounded. And by discussing the Western cultural heritage among themselves, they were marked out as heretics, who risked arrest and imprisonment merely for meeting as they did. Ironically, perhaps the greatest intellectual achievement of the Communist party was to convince people that Plato’s distinction between knowledge and opinion is a valid one, and that ideological opinion is not merely distinct from knowledge but the enemy of knowledge, the disease implanted in the human brain that makes it impossible to distinguish true ideas from false ones. That was the disease spread by the Party. And it was spread by Foucault, too. For it was Foucault who taught my colleagues to evaluate every idea, every argument, every institution, convention, or tradition in terms of the “domination” that it masks. Truth and falsehood had no real significance in Foucault’s world; all that mattered was power.
These issues had been brought into sharp relief for the Czechs and Slovaks by Václav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless” (1978), enjoining his compatriots to “live in truth.” How could they do that, if they were unable to distinguish the true from the false? And how could they distinguish the true from the false without the benefit of real culture and real knowledge? Hence the search for those things had become urgent. And the price of that search was high—harassment, arrest, deprivation of ordinary rights and privileges, and a life on the margins of society. When something has a high moral price, only committed people will pursue it. I therefore found, in the underground seminars, a unique student body—people dedicated to knowledge, as I understood it, and aware of the ease and the danger of replacing knowledge with mere opinion. Moreover, they were looking for knowledge in the place where it is most necessary and also hardest to find—in philosophy, history, art, and literature, in the places where critical understanding, rather than scientific method, is our only guide. And what was most interesting to me was the urgent desire among all my new students to inherit what had been handed down to them. They had been raised in a world where all forms of belonging, other than submission to the ruling Party, had been marginalized or denounced as crimes. They understood instinctively that a cultural heritage is precious, precisely because it offers a rite of passage into the thing that you truly are and the community of feeling that is yours.
There was another winsome feature of the underground seminars, which is that their intellectual resources were so sparse. Academics in the West are obliged to publish articles and books if they are to advance in their careers, and in the years since the Second World War this had led to a proliferation of literature that, if not always second-rate from the intellectual point of view, has almost invariably been without literary merit—stodgy, cluttered with footnotes, without telling imagery or turns of phrase, and both ephemeral in content and impossible to ignore. The weight of this pseudo-literature oppresses both teachers and students in the humanities, and it is now all but impossible to unearth the classics that lie buried beneath it.
I sometimes think that the greatest service to our culture was done by the person who set fire to the library at Alexandria, thereby ensuring that nothing survived of that mass of literature, other than those works considered so precious that each educated person would have a copy of his own. The communists had performed a similar service to intellectual life in Czechoslovakia, by preventing the publication of anything save those works deemed so precious that people were prepared to produce them in laborious samizdat editions. These would be passed from hand to hand and read with eager interest by people for whom knowledge, rather than career advancement, was the goal. How refreshing this was, after the life among academic journals and footling footnotes!
Of course, the circumstances of the underground seminars were unusual and nobody would want to reproduce them. Nevertheless, during the ten years that I worked with others to turn these private reading groups into a structured (if clandestine) university, I learned two very important truths. The first is that a cultural inheritance really is a body of knowledge and not a collection of opinions—knowledge of the human heart, and of the long-term vision of a human community. The second is that this knowledge can be taught, and that it does not require a vast investment of money to do this, certainly not the $50,000 per student per year that is demanded by an Ivy League university. It requires a handful of books that have passed the test of time and are treasured by all who truly study them. It requires teachers with knowledge and students eager to acquire it. And it requires the continuing attempt to express what one has learned, either in essays or in the face-to-face encounter with a critic. All the rest—administration, information technology, lecture halls, libraries, extracurricular resources—is, by comparison, an insignificant luxury.
When institutions are incurably corrupted, as the universities were corrupted under communism, we must begin again, even if the cost is as high as it was in Soviet-occupied Europe. For us the cost is not so high. The most precious gift of our civilization, and the one that was most under threat during the twentieth century, is the freedom to associate. Because this freedom still exists, and nowhere more than in America, the fact that we can no longer entrust our high culture to the universities matters less. The fate of Harvard and Yale is inevitably of general concern; but there are also places like St. John’s College in Annapolis, or Hillsdale College in Michigan, where people who believe in the old curriculum are prepared to teach it. There are private reading groups, online courses, associations of scholars, think tanks, and public-lecture series. There are institutions like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which offers a rescue service for students beaten down by political correctness. There are journals like this one, which serve as a focal point for discussions that, after all, do not need a university in order to take place. It seems to me that we have allowed ourselves to be intimidated into the belief that, because universities have libraries, laboratories, learned professors, and substantial endowments, they are also indispensable repositories of knowledge. In the sciences this is true. But it is no longer true in the humanities.
However, the way forward is not as clear as the defenders of the old curriculum would like it be. Great Books programs, surveys of our cultural heritage, the comparative study of Western art, music, and architecture—all these are obvious choices. But why? What is it that distinguishes those programs from the courses in pop music, strip cartoons, and gender studies that so easily step in to replace them? To say that the traditional curriculum contained real knowledge as opposed to ephemeral distractions is to beg the question. For we don’t know what knowledge really consists in. We feel it, of course, as my Czech students felt it. We feel the call of the culture that is ours, and we want to say that, in responding to this call, we are leaving the world of opinion and entering the world of knowledge. But why?
Answers to date are either trivial—as when Matthew Arnold tells us, in Culture and Anarchy, that a high culture consists of the “best that has been thought and said”—or else some version of the Enlightenment view that cultural knowledge involves transcending the particular into the universal, replacing our constricted loyalties and imagined communities with some cosmopolitan ideal. And it is a small step from this Enlightenment position to the multicultural and egalitarian curriculum that espouses the human universal only because everything distinctive of a real cultural inheritance has been removed from it. Until we come up with something better than those two approaches, we will not, I suspect, escape the grip of the universities, or feel confident enough to start again without them.