The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.II. Miseducation (Part I)
An issue perennially of concern to the average parent is the education of his child. Without fail, it is a crucial part of every major politician’s campaign; every candidate for a significant position in government has a plan to educate the nation’s children. This universality of attempts at institutional education is inherently problematic. In the words of Jacques Barzun, author of From Dawn to Decadence and former Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University, there is an important distinction instructing students and attempting to educate them:
You instruct people in how to do things and you cannot educate them. An attempt to educate is bound to fail. Education is a process that goes on in the self, by the self, maybe with a little advice here and there, but with the elements that result from instruction; such as thinking straight, separating one thing from another, not being dazzled by formulas, “ideas” – “ideas” in quotation marks, all those things that float around that are not really ideas, but just slogans or phrases – all that housekeeping of the mind, has to be done in the lower schools through teaching arithmetic, composition, and all the rest.1
Unfortunately, the sagacity of men such as Barzun has gone unheeded in the last hundred years, as the University – the pillar of Western education which arose in the 12th century – has undergone countless fluctuations of aims and methods, effecting the destabilization of the entire educational system in the United States and consequently much of the West.
What is, or ought to be, a University? Though founded and developed as a place to develop the life of the mind, nourished by the intellectual acquisition of universal principles, reactionary academics of an insubstantial utopian ideology were sadly admitted to the teaching ranks in the mid-20th century and effectively de-universalized the University. What ought to be not a place mere self-directed intellectual stimulation but guided intellectual development turned into a relativistic cultural center; that universality which made the University was removed; universal truth as the bond which held the institution together was supplanted by political, social, and cultural movements that, to adopt Pope Benedict XVI’s phrase, have as their ultimate goal nothing but one’s own ego and desires. Consequently, the entire institution of the University has crumbled into a chaotic and discordant atmosphere composed of hundreds if not thousands of flawed humanitarian ideals. Ever since the replacement of intellectual dialogue – the intersubjective exchange of multiple voices seeking the truth – with various ideological monologues – calcified locutions which admit no change, no discussion, which claim the totality of truth without the totality of reason – the means to education have progressively devolved into the instillation of vocational skills, constantly conforming to the material demands of an increasingly consumer-driven society.
Amazingly, John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University, the most important work ever written upon the subject of higher education, and perhaps all education, was first published only 136 years ago, in 1873. Much of what Newman described, of what he envisaged, first started to bloom in Western universities between the first two World Wars: even if there was not universal agreement upon the subject of truth, there was at the least universal interest; philosophical inquiry underwent a resurgence and the old ideas of the sapient Greeks were once again considered across many disciplines, as can be seen in the New Critic movement of literary criticism. This fertile culture of intellect in the early 20th century and Newman’s seminal work of incalculable value were a revitalization of a University system that had not dramatically changed since its Western gestation, but which had lost its spiritedness by the oppressive theories of materialism and nihilism. Thus, the seeming dominance of contemporary University liberalism and relativism – which seems so monstrous, pervasive, and immutable – is really but an aberration from a long history of true intellectual pursuits.
Fortunately for those who would see the University yet again an institution of true intellectual development, the fruits of Newman, of the New Critics, of the serious philosophers of the early 20th century (particularly the Thomists), survived the truly devastating battles that were lost after the Second World War. Indeed, the seeds sown by such men and their works took root at the very time when all seemed to be crashing down, and are now beginning to bloom. Thomas Aquinas College, whose 1969 important and instructive founding document, A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education, opened its doors to 33 students in 1971 and now holds an international reputation for the excellence of its academics. Christendom College, founded in 1977, is prospering in the 21st century. Magdalen College, in New Hampshire, following the same model as Thomas Aquinas College, deliberately keeps its entire population below 100 students. The Catholic University of America, which although not a liberal arts school and in need of undergraduate reform, boasts a philosophy faculty of geniuses. Meanwhile, Benedictine College in Kansas, since re-establishing its Catholic roots, has prospered in the past 10 years; Belmont Abbey, in North Carolina, is likewise being revitalized in the rediscovery of an orthodox Catholic identity. The University of Dallas has, for many years, fostered a core cirriculum that does wonders for the mind, and boasts a fine graduate program, particularly in literature. A new school in North Georgia, which opened its doors just four years ago, Southern Catholic College, shows great promise in its academic formation, despite financial difficulties. Finally, Hillsdale College, founded before John Henry Cardinal Newman converted to Catholicism, continues to adhere faithfully to the liberal arts and the life of the mind. The more these schools demonstrate the successfulness of their educational methods and aims, the more the rest of the American educational system conforms to the standards they set.
A fact revealed by these institutions, and most displeasing to the equalitarian ideologues of a social utopia, is that a University education is not for everyone. Some people, be it by a poor upbringing, a lack of motivation, or by lacking the intellectual equipment, cannot attain with clarity the universal principles which allow further intellectual development. There is a need in the world for trade schools; but the instruction of a skill or a craft does not belong to a University, to that which, as will be explored in a later section, enables “the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”2
1 These remarks were made in a series of talks with conservative intellectuals for the Online Library of Liberty, entitled “The Intellectual Portrait Series,” sponsored by Liberty Fund, Inc.
2 Newman, John Henry Cardinal. The Idea of a University. Binghamton: Yale University, 1996:92.