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What's happened to 'higher' education?

We've traded the foundations of elevated thought for the allure of scientific progress.

(Page 4 of 4)

It would not be long before Arnold accepted the challenge and published his instructive reply, "Literature and Science." There Arnold politely acknowledged Huxley's authority as a man of science, not to mention a "prince of debaters." He then shared with his readers some lines he had read in Darwin's "The Descent of Man," where we learn that "our ancestor was a hairy quadruped, with pointed ears and a tail, probably arboreal in his habits."

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Arnold is prepared to accept this characterization of our common ancestry. But he went on to note that, regarding "this good fellow," this hairy quadruped with pointed ears and a tail, no doubt arboreal in his habits, he must have carried in his nature something that inclined him to Greek! There must have been in him a veritable necessity to Greek.

The point should be clear enough. To know thyself, in the full meaning of that command, is not to look back upon a primordial past when the very marks of humanity are few and doubtful. It is to look instead at what has been achieved in our finest hour and what it was that nurtured and impelled such achievement.

Huxley was not unaware of the need to understand the human condition within its political and social context. This very understanding, however, was, on his account, not to be enlightened by higher education but by science. Let's listen to him again: "I confess, I should like to see one addition made to the excellent scheme of education propounded for the College, in the shape of provision for the teaching of Sociology."

Think of that: delete the classics and add sociology. The commitment to relevance and to practicality inescapably leads to politicized and trendy teaching, for to be "contemporary" is, alas, to be contemporary in one's knowledge, one's methods, and one's passions. To follow Huxley is to leave the world of ancient Greece and partake of the methods – the methodology – of the social sciences. Thus did the biblical king Rehoboam trade gold for brass.

It is a higher education that pulls us up out of the distractions of the moment and allows us to see further; to see more clearly where we've been, what we've done, who we are, who we might become. Higher education exposes to a bright light all forms of counterfeit: ingratiating talk as the counterfeit of teaching, rote learning as the counterfeit of thought, mere opinion as the counterfeit of judgment, enthusiasm as the counterfeit of principle.

Perhaps under prevailing conditions such an education is simply beyond the resources – material, personal, even moral – of our colleges and universities. Perhaps the now universal practice of counting publications and tracking grant revenue as the means by which to establish and reward members of a faculty is so deeply entrenched that there can be no genuine community of scholars, no systematic and disciplined examination of the moral dimensions of life. Perhaps the very organization of today's colleges has gone too far to be reversed. Might an acceptable compensation be a successful lunar landing?

Daniel N. Robinson is a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University. He sits on the editorial board of "Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good," a publication where a longer version of this essay first appeared. (It's reprinted here with permission). This article is based on a lecture he gave for the James Madison Program at Princeton University.