I am pretty sure I will get some querulous e-mails after my opinions about students as modern barbarians, if anyone paid attention. The anonymity of social media is a great fan for the flames of indignation. Fortunately, I am rather impervious to those whom Mencken termed “the booboisie,” though I am always grateful to those who speak well of me. However, figuring that some of you who love, or perhaps engulf, your children will take umbrage at my terming most college students “barbarians,” let me make the following clarification:
When I call so many of my former students “barbarians,” I do not necessarily impugn their intelligence, their morality, their innate goodness (which I will not term “original sin,” at least for now), or anything except their ability to bore others – and at least as bad, themselves. I mean first that they are largely incurious, partly from having come to the inaccurate but common conclusion that they are already wonderful. All the pedagogy of the last century has tended to “affirm” the little darlings, but as Prager University’s video on the “N-vitamin” points out, what they actually need is a lot less “yes” and a good deal more “no.” Always to be “affirmed” is to grow closer to becoming Henry VIII than “Good Queen Bess,” assuming you like “Good Queen Bess.”
Curiosity, as opposed to mere nosiness, may kill cats, but within reason, it makes humans human. I used to enjoy teaching the earlier survey courses, that is, until I realized that only a handful of my students had sufficient background even to be interested in the heritage of the West – their rightful birthright as Americans, no matter what their family’s origins. For that matter, what is not to like about a subject dealing with all sorts of sex, revenge, murder, love, lust, and the vagaries of Fate and Providence? Apparently for most students, lots. Most of my students had no more curiosity about the Human Condition than I have for People magazine. (If People and its plutocratic cousin, Town and Country, are indicative, most celebrities would bore not only the Algonquin Round Table but the valets who parks their limousines.) Celebrity creates a perverse curiosity; it actually undercuts interest in the Human Condition and replaces it with eavesdropping on the notorious and rich, with is not quite the same as concern for “the lives of others,” to borrow from the title of a great film (and there are a few). The “lives of others” comprise a subject that not everyone else apparently finds of interest. They should, for we are all “others” to the rest of the world.
I could let the soapbox grow under my feet (former professors can no more forego lecturing than oenophiles can stop drinking), expounding the glories of the Humanities (which includes History). All civilizations depend on old books, but I leave that discussion for another day. Students’ lack of curiosity is my current concern. Curiosity has been replaced by self-sufficient ego, and the result is an inability to be educated that would be shocking in a one-room country schoolhouse in the Wild West.
For example, like most High School males, I was mortified when a dance troupe performed for us – shockingly the men looked as if they had spray-painted their leotards on! Now I will stay longer in line for Bach or Monteverdi than I will for ballet or modern dance, but I was curious enough when I got to London to take in some dance performances, including a fascinating version of Rashōmon. This dabbling lead to a box in Covent Garden for Baryshnikov’s Romeo and Juliet and culminated in my having a ballet dedicated to my Mother in honor of her 100th birthday. While dance is not my greatest pleasure, I was curious enough to have enjoyed some marvelous moments in the most artistic of all athletics. (A football player who fumbles the ball is hardly in any danger compared to a premier danseur who drops a ballerina!)
Similarly, though I always liked choral music, I had no idea that I liked opera that much until I tried it again when a friend had an extra ticket to the opera at Glyndebourne and took me with her. Now I hadn’t been to an opera since a miserable teenage date; the girl I took wanted a white Easter Bunny, which I got her. She then handed me the rabbit to go to the loo in the interval, which meant that I stood there in a dark suit, looking like an idiot, holding the wretched rabbit that kept me from going to my own relief. As a result, opera was something about which I was largely incurious. But when I went to Glyndebourne, I had a blast! I went back several times (not always with the same woman) and loved it! What is not to love about a Handel opera with an 80-minute break for a picnic?
My point is that two things I now like would have eluded me wholly had I not let a little curiosity lead me off the beaten path. One does not have the moral right to disdain things he has not tried, and more than once. (Well, within reason. I suppose one can appropriately disdain murder without killing anyone.) With my former students, I would ask them to try something more than once with as open a mind as they could manage. I have no wish to take Lady Gaga away from anyone who likes her (including Tony Bennet), but I would like my former students to see what Western Civilization has wrought for all of us. Someday you, too, may find yourself sitting “in the Gods,” awaiting the glorious moment when the Countess begins singing “Dove Sono.” Your life will have changed. For the better. For ever.