Transmitting Culture from Generation to Generation
April 2004By Mitchell Kalpakgian
Mitchell Kalpakgian, who taught at the college level for 35 years at Simpson, Christendom, and Magdalen Colleges, is currently a teacher and Academic Dean at Mt. Royal Academy in Sunapee, New Hampshire. He is author of The Marvelous in Fielding's Novels (University of America Press), The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature (Neumann Press), and the forthcoming An Armenian Family Reunion (Neumann Press).
As someone who has lived 62 years, who as a college professor and teacher has taught younger generations for 36 years, and as a father of five children ranging in age from 29 to 16, I feel obliged to pass down some of the wisdom of age and experience that I have acquired over the decades -- truths that college students and young married couples rarely hear from popular culture, from schools and universities, or from their peers. Writing in this vein, I hope to follow in the tradition of Cicero's advice to his son in On Duties rather than imitate Polonius's notorious counsel to his son Laertes in Hamlet. Throughout his discourse, Cicero exhorts his son always to prefer the good and the moral to the expedient and the advantageous: "it is axiomatic that where there is wrong there can be no true advantage." He explains, "A man who has in mind an apparent advantage and promptly proceeds to dissociate this from the question of what is right shows himself to be mistaken and immoral." Citing the example of a merchant, Cicero explains that one must never deceive a customer or adopt the mentality of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) for the sake of advantage, must never commit the immorality of hiding the defects of his goods in order to maximize profit from his sales.
Cicero's gift of moral wisdom to his son clashes with Polonius's self-serving counsel to his son when he cautions, "Give thy thoughts no tongue"; "Give every man thine ear but few thy voice"; "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." In other words, be on guard, take no chances, trust no one, and always act on the basis of one's own selfish gain, for advantage always supersedes the good and the moral. In large measure, popular culture disseminates to the young the politic counsel of Polonius rather than Cicero's moral wisdom.
In offering these perennial truths to younger generations, I am fully aware of their chief objection: The times have changed! We now live in the 21st century! You cannot expect us to live our lives exactly as you did forty years ago! After all, your life did not exactly duplicate that of your own parents! Although times, manners, and mores change, eternal truths, moral principles, and common sense abide forever and transcend all times, places, and societies. The greatest legacy of an older generation to a younger generation is the transmission of hard truths that illuminate the path toward true happiness. These truths are not in vogue nowadays, because they are politically incorrect, old-fashioned -- and biblical. But, like Cicero, parents who love their children, and teachers who love the truth, dare to challenge nonsense and clear the mind of "cant," a word that Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eminent 18th-century man of letters and moral sage, used to expose fantastical theories and unfounded ideas. When James Boswell, Johnson's friend and biographer, romanticized the noble savage -- a fashionable idea of the age popularized by Rousseau -- Johnson sternly rebuked Boswell: "Don't cant in defense of savages." Innovative theories that defy common sense and the universal experience of mankind amount to nothing more than cant -- pretentious affectation and insincere pose, the futile attempt to make blatant nonsense sound like superior enlightenment.
Likewise, youth today need to clear their minds of cant in all the various postures it assumes. A prevalent form of cant that shapes the lives of many college students is the casual attitude toward large college loans, the naïve assumption that enormous indebtedness to the tune of, say, $25,000 per year for college (plus another $8,000 for room and board) poses no complications or severe burdens. Such debt is a cumbersome liability for young men and women in their 20s as they consider the prospects of marriage, the purchase of a home, and the raising of children. This exorbitant indebtedness inevitably delays the normal, natural stages of young people's lives. Marriage is postponed until college loans are paid; children must wait until the couple feels some relief from debt; the purchase of a home requires a down payment that cannot be saved for because of outstanding educational bills. Delayed marriages and late home purchases often result in smaller families and two-career households to relieve financial anxiety. Thus, education is purchased at the expense of life, and careerism receives priority over the vocations of fatherhood and motherhood. The command of God to be fruitful and multiply loses its urgency.
Prudence says that no one should buy at too dear a price. Many college educations are not only overpriced but also poor in quality. Consider the academic merit of some of the following courses offered at the nation's most expensive schools: "Elvis as Anthology" (Swarthmore); "Pornography Writing of Prostitutes" (Wesleyan); "Sexuality: Bodies, Desires, and Modern Times" (Princeton). The radical ideologies of feminism, multiculturalism, and homosexuality now rule traditional liberal arts colleges, which now pass off propagandistic agendas as education. Students no longer acquire the virtues or habits of mind that Cardinal Newman equated with a classical liberal arts education -- wisdom and universal knowledge. For Newman the quintessence of liberal education is the enlargement of mind, which allows "a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these upon one another; without which there is no whole, and no center." The cultural relativism that prevails on college campuses scorns the heritage of Western civilization, the literature of "dead white men," the tradition of natural law, and the philosophia perennis, thus defeating the very idea of the university, "a place of teaching universal knowledge" that honors and transmits the wisdom of the past as a noble patrimony. How sensible is it to pay a fortune for an education that no longer teaches, in Matthew Arnold's famous phrase, "the best that has been thought and said," but instead substitutes indoctrination for learning, that replaces courses in the Great Books with ethnic and sexual minority literature obsessed with issues of race, class, and gender?
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