Cardinal Newman wrote very astutely, if a bit acidly, that it is a misfortune to be self-educated. It may be a misfortune; often it is a joy and a calling. But even where joyous it must always be an exception, unless barbarism is ascendant. In that sense we might almost say of a society which, by lassitude, heresy or avarice, forces many men to become autodidacts: “there is a society oppressed by barbarism.” Upon reading a devastating essay by Larry P. Arnn in the Fall 2006 issue of The Claremont Review of Books, one is left with that distinct impression. Ours is a society oppressed by barbarism. Misfortune will be the lot of Americans for some time to come — at least for those Americans who believe that “education” contains a notion of diligent immersion in, and exploration and veneration of one’s own civilization.
What Arnn — President of Hillsdale College — lays out in some detail is an arraignment of education in America so shattering as to induce the reader to a kind of despondency, followed by, it is to be hoped, a very solid kind of defiance. As Arnn tells it, with subtlety and incision, the agents of barbarism are in the driver’s seat; and the would-be defenders of civilization are reduced by bafflement, misconception, and disarray. Deriving from work by a committee of the President’s Advisory Council, the verdict is grim: “our kindergarten students rank with the best in the world in their knowledge of science and math. For each year that they are subjected to the capable attentions of our public education system, they fall a step behind. By the time they graduate from high school, they rank at the 10th percentile in math internationally, struggling to keep ahead of the unschooled goatherds of the Third World.” It might be added, of course, that a goatherd at age eighteen is probably the master of quite a variety of useful skills, such that his education is, in its own way, quite adequate.
Arnn’s estimate of American higher education is, if possible, even bleaker. And his demonstration of the complicity of the Republican Party in the educational debacle is thoroughly convincing. Title IV of the current Higher Education Act (a derivative of a bill first enacted in 1965), for example, “includes now more than 300 pages of regulations.” Almost no one, it appears, can make much sense of them — least of all the government charged with enforcement, which must routinely call the same law firm, and seek the same clerk for advice, as many of the institutions themselves — and yet failure “to comply in a material respect [with these regulations] can lead to heavy fines and imprisonment.” The party which, on sound principle, once made abolition of the Department of Education a part of its platform has by now embraced the Act which made that Department with wild abandon. It is “the bog upon which the Republicans now seek to impress their seal, the entangling web upon which they seek to erect their legacy.” Apparently the party means business too: “Since 2001, the year of the September 11 attacks, defense spending has risen 47%. Higher education spending has risen 133%.”
There is a particular madness here. As anyone with any grounding in the Conservatism that emerged in mid-twentieth century America knows, it has from the beginning contained a profound and well-developed critique of the modern theory of the University — a theory which was itself a critique of the classical understanding of this institution. For the University, of course, can in no way be described as “modern.” It was an achievement of the Mediaeval Age. Under a sirens’ song known to history as Progressivism, men sought to transform this ancient institution, and have perhaps succeeded in destroying it. Athwart this revolutionary enterprise, Conservatism made one of its original stands. Then one day, this Conservatism, which long enjoyed primary sources of influence outside official channels — in the instincts and sentiments of republican men, in their tradition of patriotism and their innate good sense — found itself with access to a political party that just might be capable of carrying its ideas into implementation. And the madness lies in the particular corruption that power brought: On the question of education this selfsame party, by its deeds if not as much its words — though the latter were there too — repudiated its old and cherished principle, and became the consolidator of a system antithetical to it. America’s right-wing party adopted a new and terrible principle: it would be a conservationist of the aged decrepitude of American education. It would shelter the destructive revolution made in how men are raised into their cultural inheritance. The Republican Party would outspend Democrats on education, would indeed “heap money” upon “the arsenals and training ground of [its] enemies,” would expand and celebrate the bureaucracy its leading men once railed against; on the whole, it would lend its authority, not to a reversal of the revolution once espied with horror, but to a consolidation it.
The effect of the Republican consolidation of the revolution in higher education is to render only certain progressive voices “official,” and to drive the defenders of the older ideal of the University from the field. Arnn notes that a recent Draft Report out of President Bush’s Department of Education, “does not mention religion, God or morality. It does not mention history as a subject of study. It does not mention the Constitution, either for what it commands or allows, or as a subject of study. Although busy governing, the Report does not mention government as a subject of study. Philosophy, literature, happiness, goodness, beauty are not to be seen.” Arnn continues:
The Draft Report is devoid of any echo of the purpose of education as it is trumpeted in our first national documents. It contains no whisper of the sentiments from the Northwest Ordinance, those regarding “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.” It does not so much as murmur the hallowed idea that students should learn the lessons upon which our republic was built, the teaching of which is the reason government would be interested in education in the first place.
This Report emanates from the public mind of an administration thought to be conservative — indeed thought by many to be among the most conservative ever. The folly is complete. Its poverty of imagination is only the natural working-out of the revolutionary principles Conservatism once opposed. It signifies the abandonment of the classical idea of the University — an idea which came to these shores by means both organic and deliberative — by the political party which imagines itself the conservator of the nation.
Let me try to restate this argument another way. One of the “issues” in the current contest between Conservatives and Liberals — the contest, that is, which constitutes the central and guiding drama in the politics of our day — has for some time been the issue of the true purpose or nature of higher education. I say “issue” because, despite a great deal of confusion, there does exist, or at least has existed, a clear disagreement of sufficient depth as to be irreconcilable and thus conspicuous. Liberals believe one thing about why we have institutions of higher learning and Conservatives believe another, and the two are quite incompatible. Now this whole question has long been freighted with a bewildering mass confusion about who is who, what is what, and why. This confusion has been on occasion so at once overwhelming and subtle that it is not always clear even to the immediate contestants which side they are really on. There have been men who, on the showing of many other issues, are plain Liberals, yet on this one fall into the Conservative ranks; and there are certainly many people who fancy themselves Conservatives yet lend their strength to the Liberal enterprise in education. We might say that down there on the battlefield the fog of war has made hash of things, and soldiers and even field commanders find themselves lost, or grappling against enemies in the most unlikely of places. Thus the victory, in such a case, will likely go to the side which can best keep its wits about it.
A further confusion, but one easily cleared up, is that much of the battlefield itself has traditionally been given the label “liberal,” as in “liberal arts” or “liberal learning.” But this “liberal” bears little resemblance to the Liberal party which — let’s not mince words — currently has the upper hand in the battle. A liberal education is not an education in Liberalism, at least not yet; it is liberal, rather, in its breadth of study, in its openness to all truth, beauty and goodness, in its ambition to introduce the student to the great richness of our civilization. As John Zmirak puts it in his introduction to All-American Colleges, “the liberal arts are the proper study of someone who hopes to achieve true liberty, which consists in the capacity and inclination to choose the good.”
The theory (or theories as they are a fissiparous lot, these Liberals) of education advanced by modern Liberalism is at variance with all this. It doubts the existence of “the good” as such. It doubts the presence of much that is really admirable in our civilization. It renders the field of literature, variously, as a study of power relationships that are concealed by cleverness; as an attempt to discover the roots of creativity purely in the internal psychology of the author, or in the iron determinism of exterior environment; or merely as a template for political indoctrination. Elsewhere Liberalism conceives of education as a kind of instruction in technique and students as potential cogs in a great machine; or it attempts to bring into the humanities the narrow precision of hard science, thus driving out what was is actually humane in them. Still elsewhere it puts higher education at the service of Capitalism, a thing of prestige and relationship not knowledge or engagement with the past. There may be something to most of these theories — certainly it would be foolish, for example, to study an author with no account taken of his psychology or his circumstances — but they drive hard against the older idea of liberal learning which aimed at a veneration of the great minds of the past, their approach toward truth, and set the student at their feet under a discipline of self-denial.
In short, Liberalism in education is at odds with Conservatism; and between them is a struggle which cannot really be reconciled. One will triumph and the other will fail. And I think some real indication of the movement of this battle, some suggestion of the course it is taking and the conclusion toward which it proceeds, can be gleaned from a document like the one noted above by Professor Arnn. A conservative administration has produced a Report which “is devoid of any echo of the purpose of education as it is trumpeted in our first national documents” — in short devoid of any Conservatism in educational theory.
One answer to this crisis — perhaps the simplest one — is to say simply: “Well, Sir, this riddle can be solved if we just recognize that the current administration is Liberal not Conservative.” A formal recognition of this sort, not merely from obscure scribblers like your correspondent, but from men deep in the counsel of official Conservatism, will indeed do much to dispel the confusion that envelops us. However, I do not think we can prudently hope for this. The power of interest is strong, and the interest of such men vitiates against any mass conversion along these lines. This hope also runs hard against the force of popular opinion. It is just not popular to argue that American education is broken; that most of the proposed fixes are no better than abetment for the system which has broken it, and continues to break what remains of it; and that no easy or short-term correction is possible. Because of the alliance between Conservatism and the Republican Party, the pressures of popular opinion will always weaken unpopular truths.
But let us consider this matter more carefully, and realize that ideological simplicity is not enough. It can be demonstrated that this Great Reverse has occurred; let us indeed work to expose and then establish this fact, of destructive Liberalism under the guise of some kind of conservatism, in the public mind. But let us also consider how vital it is that we retain memory of the older tradition. Not “retain memory” in a stale kind of ceremonial way, but live in it, as an active tradition. It is a very fine institution, the ancient Christian University which endured through much of modernity on the British Isles and came to these shores, basically unchanged until the 19th century. No other society has created a really comparable thing. It is worth preserving, under God. Perhaps the remaining specific institutions that exist — Ivy League and the rest — are beyond reach and must sadly be abandoned; but new ones will be founded. Even the oldest in a tradition was founded once upon a time.
And indeed fine Christian institutions of liberal education, of patience and industry, of brave dedication to our various heritages of Antiquity refined by the Creed of the Cross — these heroic enterprises have been springing up nationwide impressively. They deserve support and encouragement. Let us, the Conservatives, do all we can to conserve this great and noble thing, a glory before all men. (And let us underscored that as Conservatives, here, we are emphatically Christian, for beyond all doubt the University as we know it was a fruit of the Christian mind at work in the created world.) Purchase and refer to Mr. Zmirak’s new book. In your own mind — and perhaps, mischievously, in the occasional presence of Liberals — subvert and denigrate the prestige of the great bastions of Liberalism, which have fine names but are rotten. Tactfully place before your children’s eyes the greatness of this thing, and the nobility of attempts to revive it. In my boyhood, my father sneered so often at the mention of Yale that I came to hate the place long before I realized it was hateful. He instilled in me a beneficial prejudice, and I am thankful. This is a school, the reader will recall, that opened its doors to the former Foreign Minister of a Power admitted by all observers to be at war with the United States, and indeed, in its own principles of jihad, against the whole infidel world: namely, the Taliban.
If I may put the matter in metaphoric terms: cells of alien subversives have captured many of our universities. Hurling them back will be no small feat; but it need not be the only one we attempt. Their nostrums and pathologies will destroy their hosts, and they will have nothing left. We need always not risk open battle; we may maneuver by means of circumstantial resources, patience, shrewdness and resolve. Wise as serpents, as our Lord counsels, we may preserve what they are destroying: even if some illusion or other convinces them they are conserving. But as Burke said, sometimes nothing is more vital to the preservation of a thing than the willingness and ability to reform it.