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Professor Harvey Graff’s May 6 essay is the fourth response to my essay on general education and the humanities. I thank Inside Higher Ed for offering a space for lively exchange in this age of academic conformity. 

Graff’s entry is, indeed, a passionate one—and unsparing. The rhetoric works simply by contrary assertion, but the heat is high. My essay fails to “define either the humanities or gen ed,” he says, which is “indeed debilitating.” I suffer, too, from “ahistorical, conservative convictions.” Worse, I have the arrogance to “write[ ] with unbounded timelessness,” and I “fabricate[ ] a scenario of great decline.” I propose “with no evidence or explanation” that humanities majors have slipped because of the professors’ retreat from great books and grand narratives. I am “effusive” and “romantic” about those tired old Western Civ requirements, he continues. My assertion that Stanford’s existing requirements offer no “majestic formation” is, he says, “a complete fiction unacceptable for anyone claiming the mantle of a humanities scholar.”  I “misrepresent,” “confuse,” “disrespect,” and “falsely dichotomize.”  In sum, I am but a “salesperson” for great books courses. 

I find all of this highly offensive. I am not a salesperson—I am a salesman. 

I’m offended, too, at the awful slur against those Stanford people who, as I quoted, explicitly pressed the very thesis that Graff terms a “fabrication.” To cast them as "no evidence" is a slur on the noble Cardinal.

I object, also, to Graff offending Inside Higher Ed readers when he asserts that they are so incompetent that they need commentators to define gen ed and the humanities for them. 

Most of all, Graff’s description of The Iliad, Oedipus, St. Paul, Confessions, Beowulf, Chartres, “Friend, Romans . . .,” Cogito ergo sum, F = ma, Federalist 10, Trafalgar, La Traviata, The Communist Manifesto . . . as “a rigid, antiquarian, conservative curriculum” is an insult not to be endured. The students at Stanford and Columbia and other great books courses didn’t see them that way, and it has always been my policy to listen to the kids and to honor their sensibilities (see my two Dumbest Generation books). 

But let’s be serious. Professor Graff terms it a "myth" that “literacy by itself is transformative, that proximity to the classics remakes the person.” Here, in crystal clear form, is the downfall of the humanities: a professor who has so little confidence in the value and the power of the masterpieces, so little interest in distinguishing the great and momentous and deep from everything else, that he cannot profess with force and charisma the works that uplifted young Frederick Douglass, pulled J. S. Mill out of his breakdown, shored up the ruins of T. S. Eliot, and gave 100,000 young Americans in the midcentury a taste of profundity and beauty and wit. This is decadence hiding behind indignation. 

--Mark Bauerlein

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