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Conservatism and the pursuit of excellence
Multicultural education and the decline of quality
January 31, 2013
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

Originally published November 29, 2005

When President George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court in Oct. 2005, it was a prototypical example of how multiculturalism has a deadening effect on quality. Miers was a woman and an evangelical, the image bearer of two groups in the identity politics smorgasbord. A crony of the president, she was unqualified and unsuited for the job as such nominees often are.

However, with the rise of the influence of the Conservative movement, multiculturalists do not always have their way as they formerly did. Breakthroughs like the rejection of the mediocre Miers are only the beginning of a long cultural war. The re-establishment of the ethos of quality as a dominant cultural value will require a prolonged war against the cult of multiculturalism.

When Miers dropped out, the substitute nomination of Samuel Alito was the prototypical choice of quality at the expense of political correctness. Alito, a white male, is the second Italian on the court and the fifth Roman Catholic, giving Catholics a majority. The Catholic judges are Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy. With the possible exception of Kennedy, the Catholic judges give a boost to the intellectual quality and judicial restraint of the court. All the Catholic judges occupy or lean towards the Conservative wing of the court, except for Kennedy, who is a moderate swing-vote judge. Among the four non-Catholic judges, all are predictable liberal votes.

The Catholic majority on the court may not look good for multicultural photo opportunities, but the intellectual discipline of the court is greatly improved. The commitment of the court to the Constitution, to statutory law, and to legal precedent is bolstered by the Catholics' majority.

Catholic judges and excellence

Why are Catholic judges so often intellectually impressive and conservative in their approach to law? It has something to do with the nature of elite Catholic education. At Catholic schools, one has to study St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Saint Anselm, Cicero, Virgil, and many other Christian, Roman, and Greek classical writers. The students must read the classics in Latin and Greek. Literary fluency in languages makes for more articulate and loquacious advocates in court, and better writers and critics of court decisions. A mastery of Latin enables the Catholic scholar to take readily to the study of law, which is heavily salted with Latin words. One who has studied Quintillian's rhetoric in Latin and has mastered the arts of debate, dialectics, and oratory – of which Quintillian was the master – is brilliantly prepared for law. He will often be able to reduce his debating opponents to tongue-tied confusion. Imagine Samuel Alito debating the inarticulate Harriet Miers.

Why are Catholic colleges less prone to the deleterious effects of multiculturalism? One cannot follow Aquinas's complex syllogisms if one's mind is cluttered with irrational, politically-correct group-think imperatives. After one learns to think brilliantly in a Catholic college, it is difficult to teach one to reason stupidly at law school. The fallacies of politically-correct thought are readily apparent to those who have studied Quintillian. A course in canon law at a Catholic university is great preparation for law school and is an antidote to the liberal indoctrination of law school professors. The perspective of canon law cuts the intellectually lightweight, social-engineering law professor down to size in the eyes of the student.

In sharp contrast with elite Catholic education, much of American public and private education has been dumbed down because multiculturalism has trumped excellence as the supreme value of academia.

Multiculturalism, the enemy of quality

Some readers might be surprised that multiculturalism is incompatible with the pursuit of excellence. The editor of my home newspaper claimed that "diversity" is necessary for a quality education. He made this assertion as though it is a first principle that needs no explanation or supporting arguments. His assumption is widely shared and rarely examined, which is precisely why many folks may be surprised by the idea that multiculturalism is the enemy of quality.

The tricky part of the equation is that excellence can suffer from too much cultural homogeneity, as well as from the cult of multiculturalism. The editor of my newspaper is not entirely wrong. A certain kind of cultural diversity that is free from the contamination of identity politics and the intimidation of politically-correct commissars can sometimes work in favor of quality. Historically, intellectual ferment and original thinking occurred more in cosmopolitan port cities and trading centers than among culturally-isolated and homogeneous ethnic groups. Free discussion and inquiry and a merit system in promotions in the midst of a diverse cosmopolitan city can draw out the intellectual and cultural gifts of ethnic groups with unique cultural heritages. A perfect example is the rise of Catholic judges to high judicial rank.

My college debate team adviser, Terry O'Donnell, was a handsome, red-headed Irish Catholic law student, and he was smart as a whip. He told me his goal was to be the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He now is a white-haired elected justice on the Ohio Supreme Court. My debating partner at that time was a very clever Jew with the colorful gift of gab and a knack for telling stories. As a nineteen-year-old Anglo late bloomer, I was clearly the junior member of this sprightly menage a trois, and lucky to be included on the team. My claim to fame was to go to a debate at the last minute. I did all my preparation in the car on the way to the debate, and yet held my own during the debate. Our team was a tour de force of multicultural synergy.

Unfortunately, the editor of my newspaper was not referring to this kind of synergistic multiculturalism when he said "diversity is necessary for a quality education." He was talking about racial quotas and window-dressing diversity of numbers at universities. The universities in question have not encouraged the diversity of ideas or free discussion. In some cases, dissenting opinions contrary to the politically-correct codes of the universities have been ruthlessly crushed in the name of multiculturalism. This kind of politicized group-think in education is fatal to quality and to the development of reason and the pursuit of excellence. This is why the editor's canned statement that multiculturalism is necessary to a quality education was perverse. His assertion was a classic case of unexamined presuppositions.

The pursuit of excellence for its own sake has badly faded in our public schools and colleges. This disaster has been brought about by five causes: (1) the rise of multiculturalism and identity politics in education; (2) the decline of old ideals of liberal education and the formation of the "complete man;" (3) the rise of utilitarian schemes of education for careerism and social engineering; (4) the rise of the narrow academic specialist, who has no interest in knowledge outside his field (doctoral theses are often designed to be incomprehensible to all but a tiny group of specialists, and are often deliberately indifferent to human life and void of practical application); and (5) the inflated scale of tax-supported institutional diploma mills, following a misguided public policy of trying to send every high school graduate to college. When our diploma factories crank out scholars like sausages, our scholars will be as mediocre as our sausages. This essay shall primarily concentrate upon causes #1 and #2.

The rise of liberal education

During the Middle Ages, those attending universities were mostly clerics, because leadership in cultural and civic matters fell heavily upon the church. Monarchs often chose churchmen, like Thomas a Beckett or Cardinal Wolsey, for high government office. During the years surrounding 1200 A.D., many kings were political vassals of Pope Innocent III, and depended upon the church for moral, intellectual, and cultural leadership. The beauty of this system was that the church believed in the pursuit of excellence for the glory of God. Even the corrupt Renaissance popes sponsored excellence in the arts, literature, and education.

During the Renaissance, the leadership of urban society gradually passed out of the hands of the church and into the hands of the "gentleman." The rise of the gentleman was foreseen by Petrarch (1304-1374) and Boccaccio (1313-1375), two of the greatest Christian humanists of the late Middle Ages. During the later years of these famous men, they both lived in Florence, Italy, and became fast friends, with Petrarch as the mentor and Boccaccio the protege. One of the recurring topics of discussion of these two great men and their small circle of associates and followers was what kind of education would be appropriate for the formation of the Christian gentleman to prepare him for the leadership of society. The two old sages were particularly interested in developing future leaders for the Republic of Florence.

Coluccio Salutati, a disciple of Petrarch, became the Chancellor of Florence in 1375. He was the first of three great humanist Chancellors of Florence who sponsored a "Republic of Letters," a phrase later borrowed by Thomas Jefferson, when he was laying the foundations for the University of Virginia. All three of the great Chancellors of Florence were renowned classical scholars, and all were devout Christians who performed important services for the church. They represented three generations of scholar-statesmen.

The three great Chancellors were Salutati (1331-1406), Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), and Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459). Bruni, the most famous of the three, developed a program for the education of the Christian gentleman who would subsequently provide leadership in civic reform and cultural renewal. He enumerated the principles of a classical education. Bruni wanted the West in general and Florence in particular to have a brilliant culture, devoted to the pursuit of excellence under the leadership of Christian gentlemen.

Bruni's vision was grounded in a conservative worldview, because it was built upon the ancient Western cultural heritage. He sought to draw upon the finest Christian sources as well as classical Greek and Roman literary manuscripts for the education and formation of the gentleman. Bruni advocated that students read a wide selection of Christian, medieval, and classical manuscripts. Most of the texts were many centuries old, and this injected a note of conservatism into Renaissance scholarship. Christian ideals, the fresh scholarship of classical texts, and the pursuit of excellence combined to form the ethos of the Renaissance educational project.

The cult of classical literature did not stifle new ideas. The more Renaissance men studied the ancient texts, the more their minds were stimulated. As a result of this intellectual impetus, they became remarkably versatile and original in their thinking. Great literature awakens the mind and equips it for pioneering adventures.

Poggio Bracciolini, the successor to Bruni as Chancellor of Florence, recovered a complete manuscript of Quintillian's Institutio Oratio (first century A.D.) and was a pioneering scholar of this key document. The Institutio had been used in the education of Roman aristocrats. Bracciolini developed an educational theory and a rigorous curriculum based upon Quintillian's ideas.

Three great schools for the gentleman

From the foundations laid by Salutati, Bruni, and Bracciolini, three great schools were founded for gentlemen in Renaissance Italy. The greatest of these was "La Giancosa," in Mantua, founded by the scholar Vittorino da Feltre (1378-1446). Guarino da Veronese (1374-1460) founded a renowned school at Ferrara. Cosimo de Medici founded the famous Platonic Academy in Florence, and its headmaster was Marcello Ficino (1443-1499), the great Christian Platonist.

Federico da Montefeltro was the best student at La Giancosa. When he became the Duke of Urbino, he balanced his time between the arts of war, an enterprise in which he was never defeated, and literature – his preferred vocation. His court became famous for its brilliant manners, the eloquent conversation of its courtiers, the devotion to the arts and humanities of its scholars, and its magnificent library that was more extensive than the more famous Library of San Marco (Saint Mark), at Florence.

Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) was a frequent guest of the Court of Urbino at the time of Guidobaldo, the son of Federigo. The illuminating conversations at the court inspired Castiglione to write The Courtier (Il Cortegiano), which was considered a Western literary classic until the rise of anti-aristocratic sentiment in the nineteenth century.

The era of the gentleman

The Courtier was required reading for every gentleman in Europe for the next three centuries. All of the American founding fathers read The Courtier. Southern gentlemen read it until the Civil War. This remarkable literary invention used an elegant dialog of several individuals to explain in detail what an ideal gentleman is, how he thinks, what he aspires to, how he behaves in a variety of situations, and what his courtly manners and masculine gallantry consist in.

The Courtier was the last word in what it means to be civilized and cultured. The ethos of a Christian gentleman should be the classical virtues, the Christian character qualities, the honor of an aristocrat, and the social codes and mores of refined courts. A gentleman is not to be a merely an intellectual, or merely a warrior, or merely a dandy of the courts, or a creature of political intrigue. He should be a polymath in his studies, and at home with music, dance, poetry, and literature, and preferably an original contributor to these fields. He should be graceful in sports, hunting, and the use of weapons, and equally adept in his table manners.

The true gentleman is a man of quality who is devoted to excellence. He is a magnificent generalist who cares about all aspects of human life and every department of culture. He is the master of etiquette, courtesy, and diplomacy, and flawless in his manners and grace while in the presence of a lady. He possesses aesthetic discrimination between good and bad quality in the arts and literature.

The Courtier combined the idea of "excellence" with a harmonious breadth of interests and the whole of life. A gentleman is not to be a narrow specialist, but a complete man, a man for all seasons, as exemplified by Federigo, Guidobaldo, Castiglione, and most notably by Sir Thomas More. The brilliant culture of Europe that flourished from the Renaissance to the French Revolution is not understandable apart from the realization that it was the era of the gentleman, par excellence. The brilliantly educated and cultured Christian gentlemen who were the leaders of that era created a culture of excellence.

The concept of a liberal education for a Christian gentleman spread from Renaissance Italy to the great European universities such as Oxford and Cambridge in England. From England, the concept spread to the Ivy League colleges in America and to many small liberal arts colleges. Most of the liberal arts colleges were founded by Christian denominations and were imbued with the ideals of the devotion to truth, virtue, and excellence. All the colleges had a core curriculum consisting of the humanities and the arts and sciences, designed for the molding of the complete man.

Rejoicing in excellence

"La Giancosa" literally means "the house of joy." It was no accident that Vittorino da Feltre chose this name for his school in Mantua, which held classes in a palace and in sunny gardens adorned with classical statues and filled with music. There is a special joy in the pursuit of excellence. The students at La Giancosa were noteworthy for their esprit de corps, their life-long nostalgia for their school, and their enduring affection for da Feltre.

Da Feltre was a pioneer in admitting poor students who showed aptitude in scholarship. Precisely because he had joy in quality scholarship, excellence trumped aristocratic exclusivity at his school. Building men and developing minds was his passion and his joy, and he had no time to worry about building an exclusive club for aristocrats. His school was founded to produce gentlemen, presumably as a finishing school for sons of the gentry. At the same time, da Feltre's passion for excellence drove out social class snobbery.

All the Renaissance schools for gentlemen welcomed visiting scholars from abroad. The Platonic Academy at Florence was especially eager to lure scholars from Greece to their school. Philosophers from the University of Paris were also in demand. The pursuit of excellence trumped both social class and national origin. The British aristocracy often admitted renowned scholars of humble origin or foreign birth as honorary members of their elite clubs and social gatherings.

Philosopher John Rawls made this statement about Aristotle's principle of excellence and joy: "Other things being equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capabilities (their innate and trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity.... Human beings take more pleasure in doing something as they become more proficient at it, and of two activities they do equally well, they prefer the one calling on a larger repertoire of more intricate and subtle distinctions." In other words, if one can discover his greatest natural talent and develop it to its greatest level of ability, the use of this ability in challenging projects involving complexity, subtlety, and breadth of understanding is accompanied by an experience of bliss.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow called the attainment of mastery in areas of talent "self-actualization. "Maslow's concept of self-actualization has the connotation of personal development and fulfillment. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used the term "flow" for the experience of bliss during high performance. Flow is a state in which one becomes so engrossed in a challenging activity that one forgets oneself and is oblivious to the passage of time. One's performance is optimal during flow, and one remembers the experience with elation.

Aristotle said that every creature has an end (final goal) and an excellence. Man's excellence is to pursue transcendent good, which Aristotle defined as "the true, the beautiful, and the good." Every work in the arts and literature can be approached from the vantage point of the true, the beautiful, and the good. If one uses highly developed talents to pursue such transcendent goods, one shall be familiar with joy.

Charles Murray, author of Human Accomplishment, said, "If a culture has a coherent, well-cultivated sense of what constitutes excellence" it can lead to "human flourishing." Murray pointed out that original works of genius tend to be concentrated at certain times in history and particular places because the gifted person requires a culture of excellence to help him develop his talent into full-orbed creative genius. Murray pointed out that the culture vicariously shares in the joy of the genius as he pursues excellence.

The experience of joy in excellence is not identical to joy as a Christian "fruit of the Spirit" – but the two kinds of joy are compatible. If a person is designed by God to excel in a certain field, and if he pursues excellence in that field, it is pleasing to God. Such achievement follows His plan and fulfills a human destiny. As the Olympic gold medal winner Eric Liddell said, "God made me for a purpose and he made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." Therefore, it is possible to simultaneously have joy as a fruit of the Spirit and joy in excellence.

In contrast to the joy of excellence, a culture of mediocrity stifles gifted people. The culture is depressed as the people vicariously share in the sorrow of the dashed hopes of those who could not find a foothold to develop their gifts. The cultural murder of our young Bachs, Mozarts, Michelangelos, and Shakespeares is vicariously felt by all of us in a vague sense of general grief.

The rise of excellence brings times of joyous light. It is no accident that great Western masters of oil painting were preoccupied with light. The decline in excellence occurs under melancholy, dark, overcast skies of the mind. It is no accident that many of our contemporary movies are shot in depressingly dark settings. The mediocrities who make these sorry films are either depressed or too embarrassed to display their incompetent arts in brilliant lighting.

Our mediocre public schools are dismal places where doleful children learn to forget about the charms of the mind and imagination as they toil in unchallenging, uninspiring, and highly-structured lessons. Many gifted students suffer from severe intellectual boredom in second-rate public schools, and never find out about their talent. They grieve all their lives for their crushed gifts without knowing what it is that went wrong.

Decline of liberal education

During the 1920's, the Ivy League schools noticed that rewarding excellence had unexpected consequences. When the admission was purely based upon measurable academic achievement, the enrollment of Jews in some schools soared to 40%.

Jewish parents begin to inculcate the value of scholarship in their children at a tender age. I attended a public high school that was predominately Jewish, and the academic standards were like those of an elite private school. The students were one or two years ahead of the average American high school. In order to survive in that rigorous academic environment, I had to learn discipline and perseverance in my studies. In fits and starts, I discovered my intellectual powers. At age 16, I had my first flash of intellectual illumination in the discussion of serious ideas. Ah joyous moment, to awaken from the long slumber of the mind at last, and to feel alive! As I struggled to catch up with the Jews, my mind opened wide like a many-splendored thing. During my life among the Jews, I learned about scholarship and the mind, and about chutzpah and sarcasm.

The Ivy League schools decided in the 20's that their loyalty to the clubby Anglo-Saxon elite of America was stronger than their loyalty to excellence. They rigged the admission requirements so that the Jewish enrollment fell to 20%. This was a disastrous mistake. Elite American education with an Anglo-Jewish academic culture of excellence might have proven superior to the prestigious schools in England, France, and Germany. Instead, American universities chose the path of clubbable mediocrity, and the students became more enamored of the class ring and the alumni club, gridiron glory, and fraternity high-jinx than with scholarship. A generation of devotion to alma-mater nostalgia and country-club values instead of scholarly excellence produced embarrassing mediocrity.

The universities were flooded with scholars from Germany and other European countries after World War II. The transplanted German professors made no secret of their intellectual superiority and their contempt for American scholarship.

Mediocrity comes quickly, and the pursuit of excellence takes time. Once the ideal of excellence is thrown over the gunwales, it is hard to fish it back from the brine. However, American universities enjoyed a short-lived renaissance in the 1950's, thanks to the demanding European professors and the young veterans of World War II who were highly motivated students and were susceptible to the guidance of their teachers. The day of reckoning was postponed until the 1960's.

Multicultural Gotterdammerung

The habit of pandering to the alumni club and to the spoiled children of rich parents, and to athletes who never study, left university administrations and departmental deans with backbones of jelly. When confronted with the student demonstrations of the late sixties, college presidents faced a direct challenge to their authority, and promptly surrendered. To appease the black militants, they formed departments of black studies. To appease feminists, they formed women's studies departments. Native American studies and gay and lesbian studies soon followed. This ersatz "scholarship" was dominated by the political agendas of the left. The administrations excused these multicultural departments from criticism, no matter how much the classes were used for political indoctrination. Scholarship in these classes ranged from the mediocre to the cartoon level of farce.

Two examples of unbelievably bad scholarship will suffice. Black students were taught that Egypt's Cleopatra was black. In fact, Cleopatra was a direct descendent of an army general of Alexander the Great. She was a mixture of Macedonian, Greek, and Persian blood. Alexander's generals were of Greek and Macedonian blood and were required to take Persian wives. The Greek pharaohs who descended from Alexander's generals were inbred to avoid the infusion of African blood. It is a historical certainty that Cleopatra was not black.

The feminists have taught their students that prior to the invasions of Indo-European warriors, the tribes of the earth were ruled by women and the world enjoyed a peaceful feminist utopia. The conquering Indo-European warriors introduced war and oppressive "patriarchy." But it is just not so. No evidence of persistent female rule of ancient tribes has ever been discovered in archeology. Literature about "amazons" (female warrior tribes) is fanciful unsubstantiated yarns. There is no evidence of an extended era of peace in antiquity. Relative peace for a few centuries for large regions of the earth has only been enjoyed by empires that were built through war. The status of women was generally better after the rise of civilization than it was in primitive subsistence tribes. Judaism and Christianity further improved the status of women. Feminist "history" is a mixed-up mess.

Conclusion

For most of European and American history, the culture was stimulated by the pursuit of excellence in education. This precious heritage has been squandered during the last eighty years among modern Westerners. Mediocrity now prevails in education and in the culture. The cult of multiculturalism stands in the way of the revival of the excellence in education. Various promising experiments have been tried to restore excellence in educational venues outside of the mainstream public schools. However, a large majority of our children and college students still wallow in wretched mediocrity. A national revival in educational excellence cannot occur until liberal multiculturalism is decisively discredited. That is the task of the intelligent conservative using the arts of reason and persuasion.

Whether it is time for a modern Petrarch and Boccaccio to plan a new revolution in education, I cannot say. However, every day is the right day for new initiatives in excellence. The rise of the American Conservative movement to political influence has opened a few windows in the multicultural barriers to excellence. The replacement of the mediocre Miers nomination in 2005 with the excellent Alito nomination could not have happened ten years earlier. Many experimental charter schools have recently been established in my own city. Protestant denominations are once again sponsoring academies devoted to the humanities and the study of the classics in Greek and Latin. Christian philosophers are once again teaching metaphysics and ethics at major universities.

The dismal shroud of mediocrity may yet be cast aside, and the sunlight of excellence may yet return to rejoice the hearts of men. Perhaps God is once more renewing the world prior to the end of the age.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31