The main reason we should cherish liberal education as “great books” is that they almost all are—whether written in the form of prose, poetry, plays, or novels—poetic in this sense: They are all about showing, rather than telling. One of the great prejudices of our time is that the truth can be reduced to theory and information expressed directly through “critical thinking” that can, in principle, be displayed through logically ordered PowerPoint slides. But the strangest and most wonderful being in the cosmos—each of us—is too elusive and mysterious to be known through that mode. This means the poetic, indirect, or slow and circuitous mode of knowing could be even more rigorous and rational in its own way. The reason Socrates didn’t write at all, and the reason Plato wrote “dialogues” or really wordy plays, is that books themselves can so readily get in the way of wondrous love and “the joy of discovery” if they are viewed as one-dimensional prose. The difference here is the one between the “great book” or even a “real book” and the “textbook.”
The one true progress has little to do with political institutions or technical devices: It’s the progress that occurs in the directions of wisdom and virtue over a particular unique and irreplaceable human life, and our struggle today is to remember to focus at least some of our higher education on encouraging that personal progress.
—Technocracy Versus The Great Books
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A similar insight is precipitated by Quentin Skinner’s Forensic Shakespeare, which like A Will to Believe had its origin in a series of lectures delivered in Oxford. As delivered, Skinner’s lectures were marvellous examples of the lecturer’s art — meticulously prepared, vivaciously and wittily delivered, enlightening and entertaining, and seasoned with a little well-directed malice. Now enlarged into a book, the scholarly underpinning of the argument is more to the fore, as is only natural. Skinner contends that, during a certain period of his career, Shakespeare’s dramaturgy was shaped by the tropes and precepts of forensic rhetoric — that in these late Elizabethan and early Jacobean plays “there are numerous major speeches, as well as several complete scenes, that are basically constructed according to the classical rules governing the inventio and dispositio of judicial arguments”. Here Shakespeare follows the precepts of the rhetoricians “with a remarkable degree of tenacity and exactitude”.
–“Why The World Still Loves Shakespeare“
That is the biggest problem with our society right now. You very rarely see two or three generations of success in a row because that one person gets the success and what do they say? They say, “I never want my kid to go through what I went through.” When what they went through was exactly what made them a success.
So what do they do? “I’m going to send you to the best school. I’m going to send you to the best college. I’m going to give you this, I’m going to give you that. I’m going to give you all the things I never had” –without them ever having to work for it. And so by giving them things they’re kind of condemning them to a life of mediocrity.
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The modern left is built around a trio of laudable principles: protecting the environment is good, racism is bad, and so is demonizing a person over his or her sexual preferences. (In the chapter of his book Intellectuals titled “The Flight from Reason,” Paul Johnson wrote that “At the end of the Second World War, there was a significant change in the predominant aim of secular intellectuals, a shift of emphasis from utopianism to hedonism.” ) But just as the Bircher right began to see communists everywhere, the new Bircher left sees racism, sexism, homophobia, and Koch Brothers everywhere.
They’re lurking around more corners than Gen. Ripper imagined there were commies lurking inside Burpelson Air Force Base. They’re inside your video games! They own NFL teams! They’ll steal your condoms! Disagree with President Obama? Racist! (That goes for you too, Bill, Hillary, and your Democratic supporters.) Not onboard for gender-neutral bathrooms? Not too thrilled with abortion-obsessed candidates like Wendy Davis and “Mark Uterus”? Sexist! Disagree with using global warming as a cudgel to usher in the brave new world of bankrupt coal companies and $10 a gallon gasoline? Climate denier!
And as with the original Birchers, don’t get ‘em started on fluoride.
The original Birchers weren’t bad people, but their Cold War paranoia got the better of them. Similarly, as Charles Krauthammer famously said, “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil,” which illustrates how a John Birch-style worldview can cause the modern leftists to take an equally cracked view of his fellow countrymen, to the point of writing off entire states and genders.
–“The Rise of the John Birch Left”
“Italy, more even than France, is the sick man of Europe — and it is also the dying man of Europe. Italian women used to have more children than anyone else in Europe. It is common to meet old men called Decimo (‘Tenth’). Yet for decades the birth rate in Italy has been among the lowest in the world, and if it were not for immigration the population would be in decline. When Italian women refuse to make babies, it is a clear sign of a terminally sick society.”
–“Italy’s in terminal decline, and no one has the guts to stop it”
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