Henry Lewis Gates and the Debasement of American Education

By: Thomas E. Brewton

More consequential than Professor Gates’s racist rant against a Cambridge police officer is the core rot in American education introduced by his academic specialty, black studies, which is an excrescence of 1960s and 1970s student radicalism.

Harvard’s Professor Henry Lewis Gates is, of course, not solely responsible for the muddle-headed mess that is American education today. But the politically-correct, identity-politics education, of which he is a champion, has destroyed the historical purpose of education, leaving us an ignorant and divided people.

Student radicals of the late 1960s and 1970s demanded “relevant” subjects, but those subjects gave them no useful knowledge or skills, thus leaving them outside the mainstream of employment and contributing to their bitterness and feelings that they were victims of discrimination.

Black studies and the other identity-politics specialties are radicalizing preparation for work as community organizers. Their effect is to establish a separate culture that is critical of the ethos upon which the United States was founded.

They produce attitudes like Michele Obama’s declaration in February, 2008: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country…” and her 1985 Princeton senior thesis: “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘blackness’ than ever before. I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances underwhich I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”

One of Professor Gates’s notorious fellow black-studies teachers was City College of New York professor Leonard Jeffries, who in the 1970s spoke of Africans as “sun people” and whites as “ice people.” In forthright Afrocentist bigotry, he proclaimed that “whites are cold and cruel; blacks are warm and compassionate.” Jeffries was outspokenly and viciously anti-Semitic, attributing the slave trade and racial oppression to the Jews (in fact, the slave trade originated, and still does, with African Muslims who bought captives in tribal warfare, then sold sold them to slave dealers).

Professor Gates’s black studies field, and similar ones such as feminist studies, queer studies, and Hispanic studies, have steered too many callow students away from hard academic subjects and taught them to wallow in self-pity, to carry a chip on their shoulders, and to see the United States as an imperialistic, oppressor nation.

Near-bottom-of-the-list performance of American students in science and math, compared to students in other countries, can in part be laid at the feet of Professor Gates and his fellow professors in the racist and sexist academic specialties. Since the late 1960s, they have attracted too many aspiring, minority students away from analytical fields such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, economics and finance, and foreign languages. Academic standards in soft subjects like black studies, are lower than in the hard subjects, contributing to proliferation of mediocrity.

Technological excellence is the essential for economic competitiveness and creation of jobs. We will almost never equal or beat Asian nations on production labor costs. We must stay ahead of the curve by inventing new technologies and new products. But soft subjects in school leave us unprepared.

In that regard, Yale University historian Donald Kagan, in an article he wrote for Commentary Magazine, quotes former president of Harvard University Derek Bok and Dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis, along with the late Allan Bloom.

Mr. Bok:

“Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education. Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language. Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning or acquired the knowledge needed to be a reasonably informed citizen in a democracy. And those are only some of the problems.”

Mr. Lewis:

In a recently published book on the decline of Harvard, “Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education,” [Lewis] cites the excuse offered by one member of the faculty committee: the committee thought the best thing was to put a row of empty bottles up and see how the faculty wanted to fill them. Lewis responds, acidly:

“The empty bottles could be filled with anything so long as the right department was offering it. . . . But there is absolutely nothing that Harvard can expect students will know after they take three science or three humanities courses freely chosen from across the entire course catalog. The proposed general-education requirement gives up entirely on the idea of shared knowledge, shared values, even shared aspirations. In the absence of any pronouncement that anything is more important than anything else for Harvard students to know, Harvard is declaring that one can be an educated person in the 21st century without knowing anything about genomes, chromosomes, or Shakespeare.”

Allan Bloom in “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987) suggests the underlying malady:

“As they see it, discourse on campus is seriously inhibited by the orthodoxies of political correctness. Affirmative action has undermined the integrity of faculty hiring. The great canonical masterpieces have been downgraded to make room for lesser works whose principal virtue seems to be that they were authored by women, African Americans, or third-world writers. The very ideals of truth and objectivity, along with conventional judgments of quality, are thought to be endangered by attacks from deconstructionists, feminists, Marxists, and other literary theorists who deny that such goals are even possible.”

In addition to degrading the hard-subject competence of minority students, black studies, feminist studies, queer studies, and Hispanic studies are antithetical to Western civilization. Their perspective is that people are the victims of European, dead, white males.

Historically, education’s function was character formation, which involved passing along to the younger generation the traditions of Western civilization. See The Ideals of Education vs. Tyranny:

In his “Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture” (1933), Werner Jaeger capsules the classical Greek conception of education, another standard against which we can measure present-day secular education ideas. He wrote:

“The ancients were persuaded that education and culture are not a formal art or an abstract theory, distinct from the objective historical structure of a nation’s spiritual life. They held them to be embodied in literature, which is the real expression of all higher culture.

Plato said of the Iliad that Homer was the teacher of the Greeks, who dramatically presented the ideals of honesty, courage, loyalty, patriotism, friendship and other qualities that educated Greeks valued as essential aspects of Greek culture. In the “Symposium,” speaking of the Iliad, Plato has Phaedrus say, “Now Achilles was quite aware, for he had been told by his mother, that he might avoid death and return home, and live to a good old age, if he abstained from slaying Hector. Nevertheless he gave his life to revenge his friend, and dared to die, not only in his defense, but after he was dead.”

Professor Jaeger continues: “…Education is the process by which a community preserves and transmits its physical and intellectual character…. men can transmit their social and intellectual nature only by exercising the qualities through which they created it – reason and conscious will. Through the exercise of these qualities man commands a freedom of development which is impossible to other living creatures – if we disregard the theory of prehistoric mutations in species and confine ourselves to the world of experience.”

Contrast this to the liberal-progressive-socialistic practice of multi-cultural and PC education, designed expressly to degrade and erase the foundational traditions of Western civilization, particularly Judeo-Christian morality.

Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

His weblog is THE VIEW FROM 1776

Email comments to viewfrom1776@thomasbrewton.com

About The Author Thomas E. Brewton:
Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

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