“Culture is to know the best that has been said and thought in the world,” Mathew Arnold, the great Victorian poet, once famously said. I wonder what Arnold would have made of Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield in this morning’s Wall Street Journal on the horrible choices of majors young people today make.
It somehow doesn’t sound as if the students Mansfield writes about are aiming to acquaint themselves with the best that has been said or thought in our expensive universities. They would be more likely to dispute the notion of “the best” and then sign up for Women’s Studies, which I regard as the worst choice.
Only the military academies, certain Great-Books colleges and MIT (and its like) want to tell students what they must study. Most colleges offer a cornucopia of choices, and most of the choices are bad.
The bad choices are more attractive because they are easy. Picking not quite at random, let’s take sociology. That great American democrat Archie Bunker used to call his son-in-law “Meathead” for his fatuous opinions, and Meathead was a graduate student in sociology. A graduate student in sociology is one who didn’t get his fill of jargonized wishful thinking as an undergraduate. Such a person will never fail to disappoint you. But sociology has close competitors in other social sciences (including mine, political science) and in the humanities.
Part of the problem is the political correctness responsible for “Gender Studies,” a politicized major that has its little echoes in many other departments, and that never fails to mislead.
Fundamental to this phenomenon, Mansfield writes, is the notion that science has “facts,” whereas the humanities have only “values.” We believe we can gain knowledge about facts, but that any knowledge about values must be biased. Some in the humanities field try to sell their wares as science-economics being a dismal example. Mansfield writes:
Just as Gender Studies taints the whole university with its sexless fantasies, so economists infect their neighbors with the imitation science they peddle. (Game theorists, I’m talking about you.)
Now the belief that there can be no knowledge of values means that all values are equally unsupported, which means that in the university all departments are equal. All courses are also equal; no requirements can be justified as fundamental or more important. Choice is king, except that there can be no king.
It’s no wonder, then, that students make poor choices, avoiding difficult courses, stumbling into easy ones, embracing counterfeit majors. One might hope that with common sense they could learn from experience, but according to the fact-value distinction, experience cannot be shown to give one better judgment. There is no “better” judgment. That’s what colleges teach their students these days.
Whatever Arnold would think of today’s university students, I can imagine them saying to him something like, “Dude, there’s no such thing as the best. It’s all biased.”