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.
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.