Home > General > The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.II. Miseducation (Part I)

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.

Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman

Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman

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.

  1. Dr. S. Petersen
    June 30, 2009 at 9:52 am

    This is a first-rate blog. I sense that the writer is very young, perhaps even a student, but his thinking is clear and develops logically in a solid prose style.
    However, “successfulness” is a howler. If your noun isn’t up to the job, turning its adjective form back into a noun with another suffix won’t give it any more strength.

    • David
      June 30, 2009 at 3:12 pm

      Aristides – interesting post. But I wonder – doesn’t the fact that there are these colleges with “orthodox Catholic identities” fly in the face of your claim that the university has turned into a “relativistic cultural center?” Moreover, isn’t it a bit bold to claim that *all* faculty and students at *all* (you seem to want to generalize) universities since the “mid-20th century” don’t have the truth in mind?

      A final question: can we only call “universal principles” true? Or can a biology (or sociology study, &c) experiment also correlate to the word “true”?

      Look forward to your thoughts.

  2. David
    June 30, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Whoops – my “reply” to Dr Petersen was supposed to be its own comment – apologies.

    • June 30, 2009 at 4:05 pm

      The post did speak in generalities, and of course there are and have been exceptions. Such are some the orthodox Catholic colleges of which I spoke, but which are getting stronger as part of a reciprocal relationship with the revival of the Church.

      And as I said, even many of those who embraced relativism may have had noble intentions, may have even been striving for some vague concept of “truth” – but without the liberal arts, without a hierarchy of learning that coheres by virtue of studying universal principles, they ultimately ended and will continue to end in failure.

      Certainly there is truth in biology and chemistry and all of the so-called “hard” sciences. But an understanding of the similarities in the DNA of a human being and a banana (roughly 50%) elevates the mind to the merest fraction of a fraction, in comparison to even a vague conception of “the good.”

      • David
        July 1, 2009 at 12:44 pm

        Thanks for the reply. I’m not sure I understand you, however. Are you saying that only those who study the liberal arts have access to the truth (let’s bracket the question of Revelation as true and speak only about reason)?

        Moreover, since you seem to have some idea in mind about what “truth” and “the good” are, can you give those to me in a few sentences (channel Aquinas’s style!)?

  3. July 1, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    I’ll answer the second question first: no. Of course I will attempt to convey some idea of the true and the good, but both are topics on which one can write endlessly and never fully satisfy the questions; any discussion of the transcendentals is something like a Pandora’s Box.

    Part of the difficulty of defining truth and goodness is that neither concept correlates exactly to anything particular. In other words, there are things that are true, to which we can point, which we can demonstrate (1+1=2, for instance), but pointing to the truth itself is an impossibility. However, we can understand, to some degree, what the truth is.

    In one sense, being and truth are one and the same; insofar as a thing is, as it has existence, it has the grounds to have truth predicated of it.

    In another sense, which does not essentially differentiate the true from the existent, truth is the agreement between what one says or predicates of something, and the thing itself. For instance, if I were to say “The tree is outside,” taking inside to be the outermost limit of that within which I myself am contained, and the object referred to as that which is signified by the word “tree,” if it is in fact a tree and is in fact not within the aforementioned limit, then my statement is predicationally true. That is why we have different words for being and truth.

    The same is true of the good; just as we take the true as that which in itself is but looked at from the human perspective, it is that aspect of predication, of the intellectual acquisition and reasoned articulation of some aspect of a thing’s being, so too do we know that the good is, but the aspect known by the human mind, that which is signified by the term “good,” is that completeness, that perfection which lacks deviation or perversion. The more perfect, less incomplete a thing is (“completion” designated some end towards-which the thing acts), the better it is; the more the being of a thing is known and articulated, the more truth of it is had.

    Like I said: Pandora’s Box. Hopefully the first question should now be answered easily.

    Since truth, essentially (as the grounds for the possibility of the articulation of truth), exists within a being, anyone who knows anything, who studies anything, is studying some amount of truth. Amongst the hard sciences, however, truth is study as a series of facts; truth is not considered “as truth.” Contrariwise, the liberal arts, which admit a hierarchy culminating in either philosophy or theology, depending on the religious persuasion of those who set the curriculum; regardless, the closer one gets to either culmination (all good theological study is carried out in a philosophical manner), the closer one gets to studying truth as truth.

    I hope that makes sense. Sorry it is so long.

  4. ELC
    July 1, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Where did you get that photo of Cardinal Newman?

    • July 1, 2009 at 10:04 pm

      I found the photograph here via Google image search

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