What's happened to 'higher' education?

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

If the term "higher education" is to be distinguished from other forms of learning or training, surely the distinguishing feature cannot simply be the number of years students have devoted to the cultivation of an ability. Were that the case, the longer one worked at the grinding wheel or in the paint shop, the higher one's education would be.

No, what the term refers to is the study of things that are themselves higher; higher in the order of abstraction, higher in that plane of thought and of action on which the examined life is lived. Understood in these terms, higher education found itself a century and a half ago on a collision course with what the general public was equally pleased to call "the real world," the world of commerce, careers, and popular estimations of success.

The collision finally occurred on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Western democracies awakened to the news that the Soviet Union had launched the satellite Sputnik. This event, more than any other in recent times, seemed to vindicate criticisms that had been directed at colleges and universities for decades, namely, that the prevailing curriculum of study, except for the parts that were expressly preprofessional, were irrelevant to life, indifferent to the real needs of society, out of step with the modern world, and plagued by the perspective of the prep school headmaster.

Our arch adversaries in Moscow knew better than to squander the national brainpower on idle chatter. It was time for the US to know better, or else! Several days after Sputnik was launched, The New York Times carried ominous warnings from Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, director of the American Institute of Physics: Unless future generations appreciate the role of science in modern society and understand the conditions under which science thrives, he said, "our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction."

Within a decade, stimulated by the civil rights movement and an unpopular war, criticism moved to a decidedly shrill part of the register, dismissing all traditional features of higher education as simply irrelevant and – shame of shames – elitist.

All this, of course, had been said long before. In 1692, the great English philosopher John Locke warned against an education that would trade "your son's innocence and virtue for a little Greek and Latin." He disparaged "the learning now in fashion in the schools of Europe," insisting that "a gentleman" can well do without it.

We see as early as the Age of Newton, and in the writing of Newton's most committed disciple, an impatience with attention to the remote past at the expense of a future that stands to benefit from the achievements of science and the practical arts. One does not reach the moon by way of Plato's dialogues.

The roots of higher education

"The learning now in fashion," as Locke put it, was the bequest of the first great and true universities established in the High Middle Ages. These evolved from the abbey schools mandated in the 9th Century by Alfred the Great in Britain and by Charlemagne in Europe. By the 11th Century some of these were already centers of serious scholarship and teaching. The University of Paris, by the 12th century, would come to define the genre, so much so that when Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola judged his own scholarly preparation to be hopelessly defective, he took himself to Paris.

From the first, the very atmosphere of higher education was alive with criticism, with the "Sic et non" that conduces not to skepticism but to inquiry; with the "viva voce" that every aspiring don must endure as more seasoned minds test and taunt for the purpose of cleansing and empowering.

Ignatius was not simply studying in "Paris" for some seven years. His principal collegiate affiliation within the University was Sainte Barbe, which, by the time of his arrival, had taken the lead in developing the long-opposed program of humanistic study, and chiefly the study of classical Greek and Latin sources.

These were understood as foundational for all other studies. But defenders had to argue this curriculum into being. One might say that what they were arguing into being was the spirit of the Renaissance itself.

Thus, as early as 1542, Ignatius is found writing to students that it is to be their Latin studies that will ground all the rest, and that these studies are therefore mandatory. The study of Greek would soon be added and for the same reason. All this was in specific opposition to prevailing practices at Italian colleges where students were free to choose to study whatever they wished, in any order and, we might surmise, with no compelling purpose or reason (how contemporary!).

By 1599, there were nearly 250 Jesuit schools. All of them called for scholars in scripture, Hebrew, Greek, theology, mathematics, philosophy, and moral philosophy. Nothing in the curriculum was "sectarian," for a common humanity erases the traditional barriers of sect and party.

All in all, in the long and still intense struggle between urbanity and provincialism, it would be the university that would revise the maps of thought and set loose the instructed mind. Locke's reference to "the learning now in fashion in the schools of Europe" was chiefly a reference to this education, which had been his own: an education that shaped the Anglo-European mind and bequeathed it, with refinements and ever more daring possibilities, to the Founders of the American Republic.

The Scottish influence

The intellectual and philosophical sources of greatest use to and influence upon the American Founders were the productions of the classical world, interpreted and systematically presented in the major works of British – primarily Scottish – and Continental scholars. Much of this was delivered by way of the Scottish Enlightenment and, indeed, by native Scots.

Scottish education, with its distinctively "humanistic Calvinism," was widely adopted in the Colonies and then in the states of the Union. The diffuse influence of Scottish thought, itself beholden to classical sources, did much to immunize the Founders against metaphysical extremes, which were all too often followed by extremes of action. This same influence protected the colonial consumer from most of the products still minted in Europe's frippery shops.

A balance was sought and even found between the speculative and the practical, between lofty and sincerely held principles and the dangerous business of genuine self-governance. To speak of this influence is indirectly to speak of that culture of criticism and of piety that can be traced to Homer, to Plato and Aristotle, to the Stoics, to Cicero, and to so many others in the long list of those who do what is finally "the work of the world."

The century that supplied our contemporary world with the most compelling arguments for liberty, for self-government, for the authority of reason over that of mere tradition or even revelation; the century that hosted tumultuous revolutions under the banner of the Age of Reason, never lost sight of the classical past, and generally invoked its models to render its own conclusions and aspiration more credible. Alas, there is a lesson here. We do not reach the moon by way of Plato and Aristotle but, without them, we might not know what to do when we get there, or why we should even make the attempt.

Science and the humanities

Thanks to Sputnik, American colleges and universities came to host what now is called "big science," once the exclusive preserve of the largest corporations. After Sputnik, there was less room for and less patience with the mere dilettante. Vocation gave way to profession, and profession to career.

The ethos of the academic world, for so long collegial and perhaps even a bit unworldly, metamorphosed into something ever more focused, ever more entrepreneurial. America entered something called "the Space Race," thought at the time to be an event within that larger and macabre Olympiad known as the cold war. With all this going on, and in light of the great stakes, there could be little room for Latin or Greek.

But of course there is always something going on and, if only for this reason, it may be that there must always be room for a literature, a culture, a means of self-critical appraisal found in purer form within the classical context. If Sputnik awakened the complacent West in the middle of the 20th century, it was Darwin who did the same a century earlier.

By the time "On the Origin of Species" appeared, the divorce between science and the humanities was effectively complete, so much so that when the Birmingham Technical Institute, thanks to a large gift from Josiah Mason, emerged as Mason College, the very terms of the gift would include the stipulation that humanities not be taught.

The college's founder's day address, titled "Science and Culture," was given by Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as "Darwin's bulldog," he was one of the most acute intelligences of the Victorian era. Huxley tested his audience with a question: Suppose a youngster hoping to have some good effect on the world had to choose between two curriculums while at university? One, says Huxley, featuring a pair of dead languages, perhaps of use to some future reviewer of books, the other based on the laws and principles of science by which one can comprehend the operations of the natural world. Huxley took this to be an easy question. Is there any doubt, he asked, in anyone's mind, as to which of these should be chosen? He answered that the only ones who could doubt were those famous "Levites in charge of the ark of culture," notably Matthew Arnold.

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."

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.

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