Most reactionary intellectuals–and many non-reactionary intellectuals–agree that college education as it exists today is producing hordes of over-specialized barbarians with little in the way of humane culture, independence of mind, or appreciation for the treasures of Western civilization. Here is a good recent example of this lament. Let’s take its truth as given. The cry goes out that we need a return to the “great books”, the classics of Greece, Rome, and Christendom that broaden the mind and refine the soul. This is true as far as it goes; exposure to these works is a great treasure. However, my readers know I have a perverse need to contradict everyone: I argue that universities should remain soulless research factories, and that the proper setting for passing on Western culture would be something far different. I assure any “great books” advocates among my readers that I share their goal and desire only a discussion of the means. I am quite ready to revise my opinion.
Here is the model of humanistic education I would argue against. First one gets an education in the great books–Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Pascal, etc. This gives the student refined moral sentiments, a philosophic cast of mind, and broad sympathies. Then this newly minted wise person goes out and lives his life–marriage, career, civic engagement, etc–drawing throughout on the spiritual formation given him. The key point is education first, life second.
Many humanities professors would say that, of course, they don’t imagine a person’s reading and education should end with college. College is just the end of the introduction. The question then is how big a part of a person’s humane education college is supposed to be. If one says it’s a small part, then one must agree with me that the bulk of one’s liberal education must come from some other setting and that it’s about time we gave some thought to this other setting. If one says a large part, then one’s position has the difficulties of “education first, life second”.
I’m not sure the great books are meant to be learned this way. There are many things that one can’t appreciate until one is thrown into the thick of life. Sometimes one has to be confronted with a problem oneself before becoming really interested in how other people have tried to solve it. Boys aren’t interested in love stories until their own hearts have been broken; then we become more sentimental than the ladies. I’ve often thought that a major reason for the idiotic political and social beliefs of students–the thoughtless, reckless, irresponsible rebellion against order and custom–is that these are people who haven’t yet had the experience of maintaining a social order, not even on the small scale of parenthood. Say to an adult “all is permitted” and it conjures in his mind spectres of meaninglessness and social chaos. Say it to a student, and they think “Cool! No bed times!” Yes, I think student Leftism and atheism really is that juvenile. The solution is not better arguments; they wouldn’t listen. The solution is responsibility: fatherhood, motherhood, neighborhood, work.
None of the great books was written for students: not Hesiod’s Theogony, not Plato’s dialogues, not Augustine’s Confessions, none of them. They were written for adults in the world. To appreciate the great books, first become part of the audience to which they are addressed.
Another problem: college is short. Even with two years of nothing but great books gen-ed requirements, this would mean reading (or, out of necessity, skimming) lots of classics at a frantic pace, all the while thinking “Will this be on the test? Will this be on the test?” Even a great teacher can’t get around the time crunch. And yet, is this the proper way to read these books? Think of one of them that you love. Wouldn’t you almost a student didn’t see it at all than that he be exposed to it–and have it ruined for him–in this way? The issue may be summed up this way: these books must be read in a spirit of leisure. As Josef Pieper explained, “leisure” in its classical meaning doesn’t mean effortlessness or entertainment, but it does mean contemplation. One retires from practical concerns to contemplate the Good. I don’t say this never happens in college classes, but I do say that they are not an environment that naturally fosters such an attitude. A good professor must battle against the inherent logic of the arrangement.
What is the university for? People often complain that the university is supposed to be for education, but that it has been perverted, and now the primary activity is research (the triumph of the “German” model). From the perspective of American history, this is roughly what happened. Colleges founded by churches for the formation of clergy and gentlemen secularized themselves and changed their mission from passing on knowledge to generating new knowledge. However, from the perspective of the larger history of the university, from the commission of the University of Bologna in the twelveth century to the present, this is more the university returning to type. The original purpose of the university was not to provide a liberal education; its purpose was to perform research in scientific fields–law and theology above all–for the service of the Church. This is why the fifteenth and sixteenth century humanists despised it so much. Humanists like Erasmus were in many ways the precursors of today’s “great books” advocates. They saw education as soulcraft. Duns Scotus’ long proofs might be incrementally advancing humanity’s knowledge, but how much less do they develop a reader’s sensibilities than an oration of Cicero!
Universities are designed for research, that is for the progressive, scientific fields. This is not to say they’re doing a wonderful job of that either. In coming weeks, I’ll be reviewing books by Lee Smolin and Bruce Charlton arguing that the natural sciences are in deep trouble. However, let us acknowledge that if the university does anything well, it’s science teaching and research. When we ask the university to provide a liberal education, we are asking it to do something it’s not designed for.
What, then, should we do?