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A revolutionary education?

Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, January 24, 2007

It’s a common scene early in the semester: students at their computers, shuffling around their classes, sometimes dropping a course or adding another. In an attempt to fulfill the University literature, music or history requirement, a student will scroll through the course descriptions searching for an interesting, or – at the very least – easy, class. It was through this search that a friend alerted me of certain disconcerting choices being offered to fulfill those requirements.

One such class fulfilling the literature requirement in the English Department is called “Decadent Modernity” (ENGL 20405). A glace at the course description reveals that the course aims “to explore visions of decadence spanning the last two centuries and more.” Students are instructed to “bring a tolerance for the grotesque and for authors who deliberately challenge deeply held Western attitudes about morality and values.” Several “literary texts, visual arts and modern cinema” are to be considered, but the “conceptual groundwork” is to be laid with Freud and Nietzsche.

I choose this particular class – there are several others – because I feel it well exemplifies many of the humanities courses being offered at universities across the nation. These courses appeal to students’ anti-authoritarian tendencies to draw them, ironically, to a not particularly tolerant, alternative orthodoxy. “Sticking it to the man,” as some have put it, does not necessarily imply liberation, for what if the new “man” who replaces the old one brings even worse tyranny?

There must always be a “man,” an authority, and those who claim to free us from all authority in reality bind us to their own. Yes, rejecting traditional values sounds enticing, but this proposition raises an important question: what new set of values will replace the old ones we are so emphatically encouraged to abandon? Were this proposed new ethos original, empowering or socially progressive, as it claims to be, it would be worth consideration. But, upon closer examination, it seems to be merely a soufflé of old Gnosticism of different flavors, marinated in the arguments of 1960s Cultural revolutionaries and spiced with some witty quotes from the Pre-Socratics. And, added to it all, in the manner of the Fairy Godmother in the latest “Shrek” film, is “just a hint of … lust.”

An education such as this, of course, prepares us, in a strange but certain way, to be the leaders of the Twenty-First century, to carry on the torch -there was a torch somewhere, wasn’t there? – and, in general terms, to achieve the new, recasted American dream: becoming filthy rich without getting caught.

Chris Spellman


off campus

Jan. 23