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

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

The University, though developed in the West from the time of Plato’s Academy, was cemented as the cornerstone of Western education in the late 12th and 13th centuries.  Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and Naples, as well as other important educational institutions, were all founded during the same 75 year period.  To the Catholic and anyone genuinely interested in truth, for whom the work of St. Thomas Aquinas is invaluable, the 13th is perhaps the most important century to the intellectual life.  Truly, St. Thomas owed much of the refinement of his ability to the universities he attended, to the men who taught him, and even to his fellow students, who turned to him for help and thus prompted him to produce a number of his more obscure works of a more philosophical nature.  Indeed, the University was brimming with life, packed full of students all seeking an erudition comparable to that of St. Thomas.  But who were most of the students?  From where did they come?  Almost all who attended the great universities of the medieval period in an official capacity were seminarians or religious, as were almost all of the teachers.  The University was not for the peasant, for the farmer, for the pauper; a fact often grossly distorted by the modernist enemies of Christendom, who wish to portray the medieval as elitist oppressors.  The simple truth is quite different: it was entirely impractical for the common man, who worked long hours in order to feed himself and others, to also spend long hours also in study.

This “elitist” nature of the University persisted throughout the medieval period right up until the 20th century.  The education changed, but gradually and subtly.  As religious intellectual fervor faded under an inconsistent and oftentimes sadly corrupt Church hierarchy and the Protestant Revolution dramatically fractured the unities of Christian Europe, the University returned to ideas of an older Western intellectual virtuosity: the liberal arts took on a distinctively humanistic, Greco-Roman tone.  The gentleman, often the aristocrat, was chosen to supplant the theologian and philosopher of the religious order as the primary student in Europe: “There was logic in this choice, for the gentleman is a secularized expression of the same thing.”1 A secularized yet still nominally Christian humanistic education dominated the intellectual tradition of the West for several hundred years. Eventually, in the 19th century, there came a dramatic split.  While the average student of the University was still either a clergyman or a gentleman, men started drifting either to a stronger religious persuasion, such as happened with John Henry Cardinal Newman and the Oxford Movement, or towards an anti-religious nihilistic despair, as was the case with Friedrich Nietzsche.  The semi-religious sentiment which pervades the work of men such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant, could not persist forever: either faith needed to truly cooperate with reason, or reason needed to reject faith – which ultimately led to the forsaking of hope.

Jacques Maritain - Thomist of the 20th Century

Jacques Maritain - Thomist of the 20th Century

Of course, this history is a very rough generalization; but it is nonetheless clear that a faithful intellectual revival began to grow up between the cracks of an inherently disjointed secular reasoning which all too frequently started to toe the edge of the abyss.  Like most great moments of intellectual development and revitalization, that which came at the fin de siècle found its first manifestation in literature.  What common thread runs through the works of Hardy, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden?  What similarities pervade the works of Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, and Evelyn Waugh?  What could link such diverse authors of such varied works?  Consciously or not, all expressed, by a dissatisfaction in the humanistic, in the banal and mundane, a yearning for something more, for something deeper, for a murky mystery that hinted the existence of something that would give life a greater, more significant meaning.  Thus, when the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the births and educations of men who would later revive the great wisdom and learning of St. Thomas Aquinas, the unarticulated desires of the poets would be fulfilled by the philosophers.  Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, Etienne Gilson, Josef Pieper, Alasdair MacIntyre, and especially Jacques Maritain, among some other lesser thinkers, caused (and continue to cause through their writings [MacIntyre alone still lives]) Thomistic philosophy to burst upon the wider intellectual world with an effectiveness unparalleled since the life of the great saint himself.  The Western world suddenly began to overflow with works of Thomism.

Then something happened.  In stark contrast to the study of philosophy sub species aeternitatis, of eternal truths and principles, some universities, particularly those in America, were overrun by men obsessively interested in current events.  Becoming enmeshed in the history of the cultural revolution of the 1960s is an entanglement to be avoided: simply, it can be said that the justified impetus of the Civil Rights movement was perverted and boiled over into a prevalent equalitarian mentality – widely adopted by pacifist intellectuals unwisely entrusted with the responsibility of teaching – which ultimately twisted not only the Civil Rights movement, but also prevailed upon the University.  Instead of courses on metaphysics or medieval literature, universities adopted curriculums focused at best on subjects such as chemistry, physics, and specialized pre-medical programs, and at worst on topics such as “Women’s and Gender Studies” and “Cultural Perspectives: Islam,” (actual course titles from an actual university) the latter an example of revisionist history which ignores the larger half of facts about the spread of the Mohammedan religion, the former a sexually-oriented abomination of rationalization.  While there are signs of hope today in the aforementioned institutions (see Part I), the future is still overcast by the majority of schools which adhere to misguided ideologies of universal equalitarian “tolerance” and opportunity.

When such equalitarian standards are accepted by an institution, it effectively ceases to exist as a university: it becomes some mixture of a glorified trade-school and a morally relativistic cesspool of self-indulgence, ironically dogmatic about accepting anything except the possibility of being wrong.  As Barzun said, there simultaneously came cries for allowing everyone to attend the University and for universal excellence among students.2 It is no wonder that the standards for academic rigor, particularly within the liberal arts, had to be removed: the only way to ensure that everyone can succeed is to make the standard for success that which the worst student can achieve.  Granted, a grain of common sense remained in the scorched intellect policy seemingly adopted by social progressivists in the latter 20th century, and standards never dipped quite that low.  Yet anyone familiar with the absurdity that is the relative bell curve knows how easy it can be to “succeed” in some places.

The University (or whatever institution is perceived as being a university), as the foundation, the cornerstone of education, that with which man engages in his early adult life, affects the educational standards of both post-graduate education and pre-undergraduate education.  Once, primary and secondary schools focused on giving students a good foundation for their lives, on giving an intellectual formation to the person: now, as part of the glorified trade-school educational model, the K-12 system of the United States instead prepares students for college – which means instilling them with artificial skills that correlate to little in life beyond passing standardized tests.

1 Weaver, Richard M. Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948: 54.
2 In the same “Intellectual Portrait” interview.

  1. David
    July 2, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Aristides – thanks for the longer reply on the first post below – it’s a subject that requires some heavy thinking, so no apology needed for length, as far as I’m concerned.

    For the most part, I like your explanation, except I think you missed two things – (1) con-natural knowledge, born of experience and reflection. This has, as I’m sure you know, little to do with the liberal arts, but is based (at least, according to Maritain) primarily in the emotions. The spiritual tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola also affirms the “truth-finding” character of a cultivated affective life. (2), Truth as predicational… I think you’ve got this wrong, but I won’t get into it because of limited space and it’s something of a tangent.

    Secondly, I want to point out that you have avoided a difficult issue in your critique of higher education in (primarily, it seems) America. The liberal arts, which can so beautifully lead an adept mind toward the very summit of being, are not taught in America because of the plural nature of American society. As you noted, there is a strong correlation between being and truth – and thus, for the Christian, between truth and God. But now there is a growing segment of the population that is not Christian – so is it even feasible, or morally correct, (if you were in a position to do this, say) to start teaching the liberal arts to our college-bound students?

    This bit about being “morally correct” brings up the final point I’ll ask you about: the changed nature of freedom from the invention of the liberal arts through our current era. As you know, the ‘freedom’ of the individual has significantly increased – there are far less constraints (culturally and legally) than there were in the 12th century. This is the nature of our society. This allows for a greater good, it seems to me, in that the individual has the opportunity to give their obsequium to the faith – to truth – versus a pro forma agreement of more coercive times. In other words, our modern period, with all its freedom (including in education) allows for the possibility of a great good in the religious believer. Unfortunately, this means that we must also be open to the possibility that the freedom invovled – including education freedom – can be grossly misused.

    Look forward to any/all thoughts.

    • July 5, 2009 at 12:19 pm


      Firstly, as regards con-natural knowledge: for various reasons I have avoided explicitly addressing the epistemological question and everything that goes along with it. Furthermore, moral development, the cultivation of an affected life, is something that is dealt with throughout in this series of essays and will be addressed explicitly in a later part. As far as truth as predicational – it is a subject which requires significant exploration, and again is part of the epistemological inquiry, but one which necessarily deals with metaphysics (the two subjects are really one; they can be treated separately, and ought to be, but ultimately each needs the other for any sort of completion). As I emailed you, St. Thomas Aquinas in De Veritate, Q.1, A.1, deals with this question. The key text is the penultimate paragraph of the reply: “In another way truth is defined according to that in which the notion of true is formally perfected, and thus Isaac says, ‘Truth is the adequation of thing and intellect,’ and Anselm in On Truth writes, ‘Truth is rectitude perceptible to mind alone’ – by this rectitude is meant a certain adequation – and the Philosopher says in Metaphysics 4.16 [1011b25] that we define the true as ‘to say that what is is and that what is not is not.'” The third way (the previous quote was the 2nd way; the first was truth in the thing-itself, or what is sometimes called “ontological truth,” contrasted to the second way, “logical truth”) goes on to say that truth is declarative and manifestive. It is only as predicational that we can speak of truth as being a thing’s property; as a transcendental, we speak of it only to a great degree of analogy, and from the finite side of the ontological, a thing is “true” according to the manner in which that it is known; i.e., as that which can be predicated. There is much more to it than this, obviously. I recommend Msgr. Sokolowski’s Phenomenology of the Human Person.

      Plurality, as it was said in the email, will be dealt with in the next part (whenever I get around to it). So will the feasibility of teaching the liberal arts to everyone. As for its moral rectitude, I will answer your final point and thus ought to answer that clause as well.

      I think it fitting that you put “freedom” in scare quotes in saying that it has significantly increased in current times; because what has increased is not freedom, or liberty, but license. It is, as I addressed in Part I of the Crisis series, common to mistake the principle of freedom and the principle of license as being the same. Freedom is an internal quality of self-possession, which manifests itself externally by actions and possessions (usually earned by righteous societal action) in accord with the nature of the self. License is the issuance of permission that has no necessary connection to the natural self as a recognition of supposed competency (and if you think there are fewer legal constraints today than in the 12th century, I suggest you compare the number of laws today to the number then). For instance, the generally promulgated acceptance of low sexual standards (by which I mean non-monogamous matrimonial intercourse) is in no way a liberation of the person: it is mere licentiousness. Now certainly I think no person ought to be forced to publicly profess that which they do not believe. I think that is fitting with the human person’s dignity as a possessor of free will. But at what point does acceptance of their deviation from that which is fitting for them, namely belief in the Divine, that which alone can fulfill man, become the granting of license? Certainly they will believe in something; nihilism must ultimately believe that there is nothing worth believing in, which results in an endless cycle of paradox (if man does not believe that he can believe then he believes that he cannot believe… this prompts an infinite regress).

      Regardless of whether or not someone is forced or pressured to profess a belief, their freedom to do so cannot be taken away from them; for the public profession is meaningless without the internal conviction; there must be an act of will to accompany the act of the mouth. There is no more religious freedom today than in any other era (and considering that man’s freedom is enhanced by the acceptance of that which is fitting to his nature, some might say less), only more license granted to the practice of that which individuals want. His Late Holiness said it well that the Church never imposes, She only proposes. A liberal arts education is the intellectual equivalent of the proposition of the Faith. While others may choose otherwise, it is the duty of Catholics to uphold the supremacy of the Church and to propose such to others; likewise must men of a liberally educated mind propose the superiority of such education to others.

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