Notre Dame professor sees colleges churning out 'success machines'

Socrates | pan_media/Shutterstock.com
America’s education system turns students into success machines, but those machines lack a basic understanding of their common history and philosophy,  the author of a popular essay on the website Minding the Campus wrote. 

Patrick Deneen, the author of "How a Generation Lost Its Common Culture," is a professor of political philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.  He argued in the essay that the education system has created an army of nomadic, autonomous individuals, perfectly suited for success in a globalized economy but with no knowledge of the key events and texts that drove Western civilization.

The essay began: “My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation."

Not surprisingly, the essay provoked a huge response, Deneen told Higher Education Tribune, perhaps in part because it takes an unusual tack. Deneen said that although writers and others have tackled what is seen as a failure of the education system to properly teach history or historical texts, they are often issuing an indictment.

He, on the other hand, would argue that the system has been a roaring success, albeit a sad one.

“This is a result of an education system that creates success machines.” Deneen said. “It is providing just the type of worker that our economy needs, and citizens that our politics demand.”

As evidence, he points to the high number of the top graduates in the country going into financial careers.

What Deneen said he encounters in the sophomore classes he teaches are students with little to no knowledge of key events in American history, including the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Constitution. Few have knowledge of history's greatest thinkers and documents, from Socrates and Plato to "Inferno" to the "Federalist Papers."

These are among the brightest students in the country, Deneen said, but they arrive at college having been schooled in elements of social history, without learning few hard facts through middle and high school.

Deneen said this loss of traditional learning has happened over a number of years, and entire generations now walk through life as nomadic individuals with little sense that they are part of a common tradition with a highly developed ideology built over centuries.

This in turn creates a disconnect in which people might have a sense of social justice, but it is entirely separate from their professional life, he said. 

“You can show your compassion, but just put it on another part of your resume,” Deneen, who also has taught at Princeton and Georgetown universities, said.

He ended the essay: “I can’t help but hold the hopeful thought that the world they have inherited – a world without inheritance, without past, future, or deepest cares – is about to come tumbling down, and that this collapse would be the true beginning of a real education.”

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