Recently, Rush Limbaugh tied his whole brain, not just half of it, behind his back. In the process he ended up sounding a whole lot like the cultural barbarians he claims to be fighting.
Limbaugh, channeling his inner Gradgrind (see Hard Times by Charles Dickens), launched a tirade today against classical education, saying that a classical studies degree from college is a “worthless degree.” Provoked by a sign-carrying Wall Street occupier who bemoaned her “useless” classical studies degree and her resulting lack of employment, the conservative talk show host charged colleges with scamming students by not telling them that their degrees in classical studies are “worthless” and won’t result in being able to find a job.
“Can you tell me where you would go to apply for a job with a classical studies degree?” asked Limbaugh. “[S]omebody at the university ought to say, ‘Babe, you are wasting your time in a nothing major, we are stealing your money, you’re going to be qualified for jack excrement when you get out of here.’”
He then went on to question what the term even meant:
Any of you at random listening all across the fruited plain, what the **** is classical studies? What classics are studied? Or is it learning how to study in a classical way? Or is it learning how to study in a classy as opposed to unclassy way? And what about unclassical studies? Why does nobody care about the unclassics? What are the classics? And how are the classics studied? Oh, so you’re going to become an expert in Dickens? You’re assuming it’s literature? You’re assuming we’re talking about classical literature here? What if it’s classical women’s studies? What if it’s classical feminism? Who the **** knows what it is? … For all of you young skulls full of mush out there, … when you go to college, do not do classical studies. What the **** is it anyway?
Limbaugh’s extended soliloquy on the subject was, to be charitable, a confused pastiche of half-thought out rants about liberal colleges and socialism and communism and feminism and postmodernism, the perceived association with which is somehow supposed to constitute an indictment of classical education. It’s times like these that Limbaugh’s own lack of formal education begins to loom large.
Limbaugh was right, of course, about the state of higher education, about colleges who don’t tell students that taking out loans for majors that are not designed to make you marketable is not a good financial investment, and even about the state of many classical studies departments. But the state of higher education has affected the fate of all the academic disciplines; going into debt as a business major (or political science, or economics, or psychology, or a whole host of majors) makes you in many cases no more marketable and no less financially unsound than doing it to fund a classical studies degree; and if many colleges have given way to political correctness in classical studies, that is hardly an indictment of reading the classics. The fact that the academic left has corrupted many classics departments is not a reason to train our fire on the classics: it’s a reason to defend them.
The classics are the natural ally of conservatism, and when a prominent conservative like Limbaugh uses the excuse of the liberal assault on him to assault them himself, he is only contributing to the decline of the civilization he prides himself on defending.
In fact, in many ways Limbaugh’s attack on classical education was an unfortunate case of friendly fire. Before the advent of the modern education agenda we see at work now, studying the classics was what education consisted of—almost exclusively. In fact, we ought to be glad the founding fathers didn’t have Limbaugh’s attitude about classical studies, since it was through their knowledge of classical political theory that they were able to frame the government which we still enjoy to this day.
The education of the founding period was universally classical. When you went to school, you studied Latin and maybe Greek—only occasionally Hebrew. And you used that knowledge to study the great works of Western civilization in their original languages. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson all had a solid classical education and quoted classical authors interminably. The framers were soaked and steeped in Aristotle’s Politics, Publius’ Histories, and Cicero’s De Re Publica, De Legibus, and De Officiis. They read them, they quoted them, they discussed them, and they debated them—and they leaned heavily on them in their construction of the American republic.
I defy anyone to read the letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and say that these men weren’t thoroughly grounded in the great works of Western civilization—or that it didn’t make a difference in what they thought and did.
Without this knowledge, this country would not exist as we know it.
Lurking behind Limbaugh’s remarks were assumptions that real conservatives have no business employing, among which is the idea that the purpose of education is job training. In fact, part of the irony of Limbaugh’s remarks here is that he’s marching under the same flag as people like Hilary Clinton, whose utilitarian views on cultural issues, including education, Limbaugh claims to despise.
Modern education is a confused and toxic admixture of progressivism and pragmatism. Progressivism is the idea that schools should be used to change the culture, and is on clear display in the political correctness and secular religion of Diversity that infects schools from kindergarten to college. Pragmatism is the idea that schools should be used to fit students to the present culture, and takes the form primarily of vocationalism.
Many people think that public schools fail at what they try to do. And that is partly true. They do a pretty good job of political indoctrination—a process that is not terribly complicated—but do a pretty poor job making students employable. But the primary problem with schools is that they don’t even try to do what they should be trying to do.
The alternative to progressivism and pragmatism is the philosophy of education that preceded them: classical education. The purpose of classical education was neither to change culture through political indoctrination nor to fit children to the culture through vocationalism. The purpose of every school before the advent of John Dewey and others in the late 19th century was to pass on a culture, and one culture in particular: the culture of the Christian West.
The sad thing about comments like these from Limbaugh is that, although he spurns the progressivist half of the liberal political agenda, he accepts the pragmatist half of it hook, line, and sinker. The utilitarian idea that education must make a quantifiable contribution to the money economy is the product of the thinking of those that Edmund Burke, the progenitor of modern conservatism, called “sophisters and calculators.”
In fact, the modern conservative tradition that extends back to Burke, and that lives on into this century in the heritage of T. S. Eliot and Russell Kirk, will have no truck with the idea that education is a purely instrumental concern. In fact, when I listened to the recording of Limbaugh’s show yesterday, I couldn’t help but imagine people like Burke, Eliot, and Kirk turning over in their graves.
Finally, let’s answer Rush’s main question: “What the **** is ‘classical studies’?”
Classical studies—and this may come as a shock to people who don’t read very carefully—is studying the classics, and it is a part of the broader educational program that is more commonly called “classical education,” which is, in its ideal form, a study of literature, language, and the humanities, as well as the disciplines of math and science. It is the academic focus on what Matthew Arnold once called “the best that has been thought and said,” as well as training in the linguistic and mathematical disciplines of the liberal arts. It not only teaches what to think, more importantly it teaches you how to think—something most of our academic institutions have admittedly abandoned.
An education like this would certainly have prevented Limbaugh from making such a misguided attack on a program of study that ought to be championed by conservatives, not spurned by them.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2013 edition.