What’s Wrong with the World

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The University: Reform if you would preserve.

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.

Comments (11)

Look to restoring liberal education during the primary and secondary years. That's the age when languages should be learned. John Milton recommended learning those languages that contained the most wisdom (with time left on Sunday for Hebrew).


De Tocqueville recognized a tension between democracy and literacy:

Why should I say more, or who does not understand what is about to follow before I have expressed it? Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in the periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science, and art; its form, on the contrary, will ordinarily be slighted, sometimes despised. Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, over- burdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books; there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir the passions more than to charm the taste.

The antidote:

All who aspire to literary excellence in democratic nations ought frequently to refresh themselves at the springs of ancient literature; there is no more wholesome medicine for the mind. Not that I hold the literary productions of the ancients to be irreproachable, but I think that they have some special merits, admirably calculated to counterbalance our peculiar defects. They are a prop on the side on which we are in most danger of falling.

Fine passages. Whence do they come?

This is an eloquent and impassioned indictment of the willful dissipation of a matchless inheritance, coupled to a plea to conservatives to undertake the measures requisite to its restoration, Paul.

I have but one general counsel for conservatives contemplating the sad fate of the university and the humane pursuits of a truly liberal education: turn a deaf ear to the crabbed and often philistine pragmatists among us who yet prate against "impractical" and "unprofitable" educational pursuits and attainments, recommending instead that our youth turn to the study of the techniques of amassing mere quantities of wealth. For by heeding this counsel, and yielding to this impulse, generations of conservatives who could have stanched the grave loss of civilized vitality from our universities, who could have laboured mightily to construct or reconstruct a humane and Christian culture, have not; and their omission has been the loss of our civilization to its adversaries. How is it that these adversaries, who more often than not believe that there exists nothing beyond the goods of this terrestrial life, so willingly sacrifice the opportunity to master those goods, while we, who believe in transcendent goods, so seldom evidence a willingness to sacrifice the passing goods of this world for the sake of those which are more enduring?

We have not been so much conquered as occupied after a willing abdication, I think.

Whence do they come? They cam'st from thither to hither.

I'm not at all sure that reform is possible for the big institutions and even for some of the small ones that have been fully taken over. What are you going to do? Abolish the departments of Women's STudies and Africana Studies? I'd love to, but it ain't happening. Even administrators might well quail at the prospect. And the really crazy thing in an institution is that sometimes people who are doing junk as research are doing excellent and important service for the institution in other ways--someone may be, surprisingly enough, a poor scholar but an excellent administrator. Then loyalties get formed and people understandably don't want to chuck the person out of the institution or even encourage him to leave, since he's doing work that no one else wants to do. So it's all a mess.

At institutions that have been totally taken over it seems the best thing we can do is sweep our own hearths. Do your work honestly, try to make every hire count in the sense of hiring someone who will be a good scholar and teacher and have the integrity of the discipline. Teach your students well in your subject.

Otherwise, I think it important that with our own children, we help them choose their classes carefully and not just send them off to some institution where they get immersed in the oeuvre (sp?) and take whatever their friends are taking. Just to give one example, I'm trying every which-way to help my daughters not have to take English Composition at a secular college when the time comes, even if they get their degree therefrom. We're hoping for AP credit. English Comp has become the place of choice for indoctrination and making kids read trash.

Finally, new schools need to get started. And here I think some of what I was saying in the evangelicalism thread is pertinent. I tend to think that Patrick Henry College in Virginia looks pretty good, even though it's very evangelical and probably would refuse to hire a Catholic. Nor, though I'm sorry they've limited themselves in this way, do I think it would be wise to press them on this point. I think they have to develop into their own "thing" and try to be the best they can at what that "thing" is. I myself wish it were broader in base, but if they can keep out the po-mo's this way, maybe it's all for the best.

if they can keep out the po-mo's this way, maybe it's all for the best.

Well, you can't keep out the schmucks and spies or arrogant lies by excluding Catholics or Protestants.

PHC does have a niche, but I can't help remark that reactionary education--and PHC is reactionary--easily loses the original sense of a liberal arts education. For a school like PHC, it's Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, the answer is always Jesus. No doubt that can do a lot of good, but it leaves another larger niche unattended.

I hate to admit that I, too, am pessimistic-about the larger bureaucratic institutions. I may have picked it up from Solzhenitsyin, who noted in his Harvard address "A World Split Apart", something that also applies to faculty in higher education:

A statesman who wants to achieve something highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; thousands of hasty (and irresponsible) critics cling to him at all times; he is constantly rebuffed by parliament and the press. He has to prove that his every step is well founded and absolutely flawless. Indeed, an outstanding, truly great person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind does not get any chance to assert himself; dozens of traps will be set for him from the beginning. Thus mediocrity triumphs under the guise of democratic restraints.

There must a thousand and one well-meaning graduate students who are confident enough they can withstand the beast. But by the time they arrive at their destination , their skills will be honed for other purposes: you have to be a sly fox to know the traps!

I agree that PHC is reactionary. IMO, that's not so much the problem as that they are way too narrow. The two don't always have to come together. It wd. be possible to be reactionary against various forms of pernicious nonsense in the university while still retaining a broader view of what a Christian college could be.

Sometimes the emphases of colleges are fairly odd. For example, in my post on evangelicalism I talked about Biola's new president who has a sort of "big tent" liberal sound to him in one newspaper quote. I read on a blog recently (don't have the link right now) about a Q & A with him at Biola last week. Evidently everybody was asking him nitty-gritty theological questions about, for example, whether he believes in eternal security. This is because he's from an Assemblies of God background, and AG usually don't believe in "once saved, always saved." Neither do Catholics, many Anglicans, and Lutherans. He was also questioned on whether he believes in speaking in tongues and whether he had ever spoken in tongues in public. The implication is that it's very important that he not believe in speaking in tongues. But as far as I could tell no one quizzed him on his views on abortion and embryonic research, despite the fact that he had also appeared to minimize those issues in the quote that had concerned people. In other words, his disassociating himself from the views of the Assemblies of God that are different from those of many other evangelicals was regarded as more important than his being, perhaps, a political liberal on life issues or at least regarding life issues as of minimal importance. I find this troubling, as I think it reverses the true order of importance. Heck, I don't believe in eternal security in the Baptist sense myself. Nor was this the traditional view of the church hundreds of years ago, nor is it unequivocally taught in Scripture. It's just ridiculous to think that a belief in eternal security is more important to the future of Biola as a Christian institution of higher education than a firm and even passionate belief in the sanctity of human life. If, in five years (say), they have a pro-abortion commencement speaker and everybody is up in arms (at least I hope they would be up in arms), they may realize this.

Paul, The University of Notre Dame is currently in the throes of deciding to either continue its efforts to join the elite secular universities(which do not allow even the mention of God), or to return to its Catholic roots. Naturally, they would like to have it both ways and, as many of us believe, they can have it both ways. In fact, that is the way to be a great university. Presently, Notre Dame is discussing how to maintain a majority percentage of Catholics on its faculty. I expect the reaction from secular academia will be harsh and Notre Dame's academic status will begin a long decline( according to the all important US News and World Report ratings). I am hopeful that Notre Dame will withstand the pressure and join the fight to maintain the tradition of Christian liberal universities. .


A few revelant quotes about education I picked up here and there. I haven't verified them all, so caveat lector.

“A nation's system of education is much more important than its system of government; only a proper system of education can unify the active and the contemplative life, action and speculation, politics and the arts."
-- T.S Eliot, Christianity and Culture

“When we establish a New Order and bring in a New Way, we intend to make something that is better. But should we have to give an account of that betterness, and not merely assert it, but show it, we always end up justifying the New Way by discovering its license of legitimacy in the Old Way" -- Richard Mitchell, editor and publisher of The Underground Grammarian and Professor of Classics at Glassboro State College

“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil."
-- C. S. Lewis

“The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”
-- Dorothy Sayers

“I am afraid that the schools will prove the very gates of hell, unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the heart of the youth."
-- Martin Luther

“To seek utility everywhere is most unsuitable to lofty and free natures."
-- Aristotle

“I have become convinced that of all that human language has produced truly and simply beautiful, I knew nothing before I learned Greek. . . . Without a knowledge of Greek there is no education.”
— Leo Tolstoy

“America's founding fathers did not intend to take religion out of education. Many of the nation's greatest universities were founded by evangelists and religious leaders; but many of these have lost the founders' concept and become secular institutions. Because of this attitude, secular education is stumbling and floundering."
-- Billy Graham

Reforming our present "education" system is impossible. It is so huge and so corrupted that fixing it would take way too long. The bigger problem is that there is no one to fix it. Who would take on this gigantic task? The overwhelmingly majority of the population has been so dumbed down that they cannot possibly imagine what a good education would be, much less the specifics of what it would look like, and so could not change it even if they wanted to, which they do not -- they're too busy playing games and watching TV. No, the only solution is to start over, while holding back the horde. Homeschool now, ask me how.

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