It is said that in the depth of the Dark Ages, after the various barbarian hordes had done their best to destroy classical culture, it was the Roman Catholic Church that—here and there in lonely, out-of-the-way monasteries—kept the fragile flame of learning alive. Decade after decade, century after century, anonymous monks busied themselves transcribing and preserving sundry fragments of an endangered tradition, ad maiorem dei gloriam. Of course, it was not until the Renaissance that the rediscovery and embrace of our classical inheritance really burgeoned. But we all owe the Church an enormous debt of gratitude for preserving the rudiments of literacy at a time when intelligence and culture were everywhere besieged.

What happened? The Church itself may still be a force for tradition and literacy, but certain prominent elements within its fold seem to have apostatized, at least on the matter of culture. We are thinking in particular of the recent news that Georgetown University, a well-respected Jesuit college in Washington, D.C., has decided to join the multicultural bandwagon by undermining the integrity of its program in English. A headline in The Washington Times, which first reported the story, summed it up: “Classical Authors Dropped: Georgetown Changes English Curriculum.”

“Classical Authors Dropped: Georgetown Changes English Curriculum.”

The upshot of the change is that, beginning with the class of 1999, English majors at Georgetown will be able to graduate with a degree in English without ever having read Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton. We can only speculate about what other authors they will be able to avoid reading: if we are to downgrade Shakespeare then why not Donne? Why not Johnson, Pope, Swift, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning? Henceforth, students ostensibly studying English at Georgetown will be allowed to indulge in “Studies in Culture and Performance,” an area of study that, according to an English-department document, will “focus on the power exerted on our lives by such cultural and performative categories as race, gender, sexuality, and nationality.”

Ah, yes: “Race, gender, sexuality . . .” It’s become a veritable mantra in those academic precincts where legitimate scholarly and pedagogical activities have come under ideological attack. So: instead of reading The Canterbury Tales, students at Georgetown will be able to batten on something called “History/Theories of Sexuality.” Forget about Hamlet: “Women, Revolution, and Media” is much more exciting. And who in this Jesuit institution needs to expend energy studying Paradise Lost when it is so much easier to sit through “Unspeakable Lives: Gay/Lesbian Narratives”?

One of the most outrageous aspects of this development at Georgetown has been the response of the faculty who favor the change. Their basic argument—it is one frequently encountered from academics attempting to mollify parents, trustees, and other critics—is that the adulteration of the English major is nothing to worry about. Professor Jim Slevin, chairman of the English department at Georgetown, has apparently done yeoman’s service attempting to conciliate the various factions in his department. But his bleating about attempting to be “inclusive” is pusillanimous hogwash when being “inclusive” means granting the current crop of multicultural clichés parity with Shakespeare.

It is an insidious situation. Quoth one professor, “I can reassure you that Shakespeare is in no danger of disappearing from the curriculum.” Really? The idea is that since students will still be allowed to read Shakespeare, the change in requirements for the major is no big deal. But this is disingenuous, at best. For when academic rigor is sacrificed academic achievement suffers correspondingly. No doubt there will continue to be English majors at Georgetown who will sedulously acquaint themselves with the treasures of English literature; but there will also be many who will opt for multicultural maundering. This may be fashionable in the short run, but the long-term effect will be to diminish the reputation of the Georgetown English department and, likewise, to depreciate the value of a Georgetown degree. We wonder whether students have considered petitioning for a refund of their tuition, since what they are being offered is clearly worth a lot less than what was advertised when they matriculated at Georgetown.

There is also an important subsidiary evil. In places where courses like “History/ Theories of Sexuality” or “Women, Revolution, and Media” are championed, canonical authors, when they are taught at all, are often reduced to pawns in some contemporary ideological campaign. Thus Shakespeare is studied not as a great playwright but as a coefficient of early British colonialism (viz The Tempest), while Milton is examined in the light of his deplorable misogyny. (Imagine: “He for God only, she for God in him.”)

We recognize that the situation at Georgetown is far from novel.

We recognize that the situation at Georgetown is far from novel. Many, many institutions of higher learning (higher than what?) have abandoned all manner of traditional academic requirements in order to join the P.C. diversity brigades. Syracuse University was one of the first to jettison the requirement that students of English actually study the classics of English literature. That was several years ago. In the meantime, campus after campus has capitulated to the contemporary Visigoths and Vandals who are out to sack the curriculum and push the study of the humanities into a new multicultural twilight. What makes the case of Georgetown so disappointing is the fact that the college is run by a teaching order that has traditionally, often in the face of great adversity, upheld the highest intellectual and pedagogical standards. The Jesuit motto is ad maiorem dei gloriam: “to the greater glory of God.” Alas, that may now have to be emended to read: ad maiorem ignorantiae gloriam.

There is, however small, a silver-lining department in this story, and that concerns the students at Georgetown. According to reports in The Washington Times and The Washington Post, the prime instigators for this latest assault on higher learning came not from students but from the faculty. This, in fact, has become a typical pattern at many colleges and universities. Often, the main impetus for embracing the radical, multicultural agenda comes from an entrenched faculty and administration that, weaned on the liberationist nostrums of the 1960s, have never outgrown their adolescent yearnings. The students, on the contrary—or many of them, anyway—are repelled and angered by the spectacle of their teachers’ derilection. To be sure, one student at Georgetown was quoted complaining that the traditional English major was “very limiting” and extolling the new plan for its “multicultural approach.” But many other students were outraged, rightly, that such radical decisions affecting their education and the value of their degrees were taken without consulting them. As one senior English major put it, “The mere possibility that one could graduate from Georgetown with a major in English never having experienced Shakespeare, Chaucer or Milton is disgraceful.” We couldn’t agree more.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 5, on page 1
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