At best, what the typical college has offered its students, in recent decades, has been defecated rationality. By that term I mean a narrow rationalism or logicalism, purged of theology, moral philosophy, symbol and allegory, tradition, reverence, and the wisdom of our ancestors. This defecated rationality is the exalting of private judgment and hedonism at the expense of the inner order of the soul and the outer order of the republic…

Nearly nineteen years ago, I addressed the Association of American Colleges on the very topic of this essay. Much water has flowed under the bridge since that time, and some colleges have been swept away by the flood—a score of them since the academic year of 1973-74, I believe. With greater urgency than in 1956, we need to renew our understanding of a primary duty of the independent college: the duty of conveying to the rising generation an apprehension of moral worth.

Time was when parents took it for granted that their offspring would acquire at Podunk Ecumenical College considerable ethical understanding—together, perhaps, with a touch of the unbought grace of life. Strange to say, some parents still labor under the illusion that the typical American campus will improve the morals and the manners of the rising generation. Yet actually a well-appointed bordello would be a residence more decorous and less costly, for four years, than are the co-ed dorms of Behemoth University. Doubtless one would learn more of the art of worldly wisdom in a bordello than an undergraduate learns in the various “counter-culture” programs which have been accepted on many a campus as a sop to ineducable pseudo-students. And the company of an Athenian courtesan or a Japanese geisha might be positively elevating, by the side of discourse in one of our campus teenage ghettoes, which suffer from the cruel tyranny of the peer-group.

Not long after I addressed the Association of American Colleges on this topic, I was invited to take part in a symposium at one of the more famous liberal-arts colleges of New England. There I was selected as the person among the visiting lecturers who seemed least incongruous as a weekly chapel-speaker. In the old chapel, I spoke to the boys about normality and the moral imagination. My audience was not displeased, but somewhat puzzled. Two or three of the boys said to me, “That was good. But it’s the first time we ever had a lecture about morals or religion in chapel.”

In those days this incident was sufficiently amusing for me to mention it in public addresses elsewhere. But now it is the usual thing at college chapels. Not a few of those chapels have fallen almost totally into disuse—like the London churches of Orwell’s 1984: Their very function is forgotten by the undergraduates. Perhaps that is just as well, considering the uses to which other chapels have been put. One thinks of the magnificent chapel of a famous old university in New England—which in recent years was converted into a kind of fortress by, simultaneously, black militants, homosexuals, militant pacifists, narcotics pushers, and campus arsonists.

But I need not prolong this Iliad of our woes. My intention is merely to suggest that the concept of “moral worth” has subsisted on short commons for the past decade and more, not only at Behemoth State University or at Dismal Swamp A. & M., but sometimes at Bruno-Servetus Evangelical College or at Our Lady of the Sorrows Catholic College for Young Women. It now becomes a question of survival, in a dual sense: the survival of the understanding of moral worth in our age and our nation, and the survival of those colleges and universities whose especial original function it was to join right reason with the moral imagination.

My general thesis is this: a principal achievement of liberal education in America has been the imparting of a sense of moral worth among the more intelligent of the rising generation. This apprehension of moral worth, as taught by the liberal and the scientific disciplines, has been losing ground, throughout the present century, to what John Henry Newman called the “Knowledge School”—that is, to utilitarian and pragmatic theories and practices, which tend to regard moral worth—so far as they regard it at all—as merely the product of private rationality and social utility. Success, increasingly, was substituted for virtue in our curricula; facts, for wisdom; social adjustment, for strength of character. In more recent years, mere sociability and counter-culture boondoggles have driven out of the college catalogues, too often, what little remained of the ethical disciplines and approaches.

Even the students, or a good many of them, have grown aware of this deficiency. Not a few undergraduates complain that their college offers them no first principles of morality, no ethical direction, no aspiration toward enduring truth. This complaint may seem strange enough, coming as it does from students who rejoice in their defiance of bourgeois conformity, and whose private lives distinctly are not modeled upon the precepts of Jeremy Taylor. Nevertheless, what such students say usually is too true: The hungry sheep—or goats, perhaps—have looked up on occasion, and have not been fed.

At best, what the typical college has offered its students, in recent decades, has been defecated rationality. By that term, a favorite with me, I mean a narrow rationalism or logicalism, purged of theology, moral philosophy, symbol and allegory, tradition, reverence, and the wisdom of our ancestors. This defecated rationality is the exalting of private judgment and hedonism at the expense of the inner order of the soul and the outer order of the republic. On many a campus, this defecated and desiccated logicalism is the best which is offered the more intelligent students; as alternatives, they can embrace a program of fun and games, or a program of “social commitment” of a baneful or a silly character, wondrously unintellectual.

The consequence of this altered view of the ends of American education, it seems to me, if it is carried to its logical culmination, will be the effacing of that principle which for three centuries has breathed life into the unwieldy bulk of our educational apparatus. I do not perceive any practicable substitute for this old sustaining principle. Therefore, I recommend that we do whatever we can to restore a consciousness that the aim of American higher education is this: the imparting of a sense of moral worth, ascertained through right reason. Without a proper understanding of moral worth, there is no point in talking about human dignity, or education for democracy, or adjustment to society, or training for leadership, or preparation for personal success. For what gives the person dignity, and what makes possible a democracy of elevation, and what makes any society tolerable, and what keeps the modern world from becoming Brave New World, and what constitutes real success in any walk of life, is moral worth.

Our colleges and universities cannot undertake the whole task of introducing the rising generation to moral worth. If a student comes to college with no morals, or with bad morals, it is improbable that the college can do anything to improve his understanding of moral worth, whatever it may do for his defecated intellectuality. The mission of the college it is to reconcile moral principle with right reason, rather than to undertake some eleventh-hour didactic exhortation. What the college can do, nevertheless, is to remind its students that intellectual attainment and moral worth are not incompatible, and that intellectual attainment does not grant to men and women a license of emancipation from the claims of moral worth.

Socrates, discoursing with his friends, concludes in effect that morality cannot be imparted through formal teaching. The virtues, indeed, may be taught—or taught about—as intellectual concepts; yet the acquiring of moral worth is a more difficult business, beyond the confines of the modern classroom or of paths along the banks of the Ilissus. Still, Socrates believed the end of learning to be ethical, and that reason would support virtue. He implied that the union of the virtuous life with the wise life was to be achieved by elaborate and subtle processes, rather than by formal indoctrination. Socrates’ daemon is a prompter, like grace or conscience or the “inner check,” somehow above and beyond pure rationality.

Learning’s end is ethical, then, Socrates held; but learning alone cannot make a man virtuous or truly wise, if his spirit moves him otherwise; and formal education cannot of itself turn a man to good courses. Thus it remains today with our colleges and universities. They cannot make vicious students virtuous, or stupid students wise; yet they can endeavor to prove to their students that intellectual power is not hostile toward moral worth, and they can aspire to chasten intellectual presumption with humility. In his first discourse on university education, Newman makes it clear that the university’s mission is to improve intellects rather than consciences. Yet Newman’s was a profoundly ethical concept of higher education, with theology supreme. The university, though it could not inculcate a sense of moral worth directly, might work toward ethical ends by training its students in those intellectual disciplines, and introducing them to that literature, which tends toward the union of intellectual attainment with moral principle. At the considerable risk of facile generalization, I suggest that the college’s and university’s ultimate achievement is moral; but that their method is intellectual. And at no time is the work of a college or a university purely intellectual, nor yet purely moral.

We cannot set up a course of instruction called “Moral Worth 101” and expect to confer upon students, along with three credits, an apprehension of what man is, and wherein his duties lie, and in what his dignity consists. Far more than through formal instruction or through processes immediately rational, we learn through the faculty which Newman calls the “illative sense”—illation, the eductive process, rather than the institutionalized educational process. Colleges and universities cannot adequately compensate for deficiencies in the recognition of moral worth in the family, or in the secondary schools, or in society at large. Nor do formally-educated persons enjoy any oligopoly of the appreciation of moral worth: prejudice and prescription, by which “a man’s virtue becomes his habit,” can and often do make the unlettered man as morally worthy as the scholar, or even the scholar’s moral superior.

Yet I believe that if the intellectual leaders of a society deny the value of long-accepted morality, or are ignorant of that morality, then the mass of men will not long remain obedient to the moral dictates of prejudice and prescription. I do not ask, then, that our colleges should assume the task of moral instruction directly, or undertake to carry burdens which other organs of society ought to perform. I am asking only that our colleges and universities, for their part, acknowledge the primacy of moral worth, and that they not set their face against moral learning as being somehow archaic, authoritarian, and unscientific.

Unassisted, our colleges cannot restore or maintain among us the concept of human dignity as expressed in standards of moral principle. But our colleges do have the negative power of discrediting the whole idea of human dignity by consigning to the Kingdom of the Fairies, along with other old notions presumably exploded, the intellectual tradition of moral worth. They can ruin the belief which inspired the Roman humanitas and the Christian caritas; they can ignore or deny that moral worth is the crown of wisdom.

If we forget the primacy of moral worth in our scheme of education, we will establish not a domination of unchecked liberty, but instead an unprincipled congeries of warring ideologies and private appetites. Take away from the scholar his rights and duties as a member of what Coleridge called the clerisy, and we have left an intellectual in the root sense of that Marxist term: an adventurer, an ideologue, alienated from society and gnawing at its foundations. Take away from the student his patrimony of moral imagination and ethical knowledge, and we have left, perhaps, the secularized Pharisee, ignorantly denouncing as “immoral” the imperfect but tolerable order to which he owes his existence.

With less excuse, some American professors have been betraying their order by an indifference—or a positive hostility—toward the old idea that the grand function of formal education is ethical. A belief in enduring moral principle was the line of demarcation, in classical times, between philosopher and philodoxer. In modern times, it remains the line of demarcation between the educated man who hesitantly calls himself a scholar (slow to claim that dignity) and the educated man who calls himself, without hesitation, an intellectual. The philosopher and the scholar acknowledge the primacy of moral worth, not merely in private character, but in any scheme of education. The sophist and the intellectual declare the primacy of defecated rationality, not merely in personal aspiration, but in school and university. This latter cast of mind ultimately does violence both to the scholar and the educational system.

In fine, Thrasymachus is not my model for an educator; nor Callicles. I think, instead, of Orestes Brownson’s exhortation at Dartmouth College, in 1843, when he spoke on “The Scholar’s Mission.” The following passage is as pertinent to the concerns of college faculties as it was some hundred and thirty years ago:

Bind on, if need be, your tunic of coarse serge, and feed on water in which pulse has been boiled, as did Saint Bernard de Clairvaux, or sew you up a suit, ‘one perennial suit,’ of leather, as did the sturdy old George Fox, and putting your trust in God, thus defy the world, and maintain, in all their plenitude, the freedom and dignity of scholarship. Ask not what your age wants, but what it needs; not what it will reward, but what, without which, it cannot be saved; and that go and do; do it thoroughly; and find your reward in the consciousness of having done your duty, and above all in the reflection, that you have been accounted to suffer somewhat for mankind.

Now a good many American scholars still heed Brownson’s exhortation, but many do not. It is my hope that the professors of our independent colleges still understand Brownson’s sentences, and are moved by them. In such convictions, our independent colleges originated.

Many of our independent colleges, neglected in an age (until recently) of profusion, seem already reduced to the equivalent of water in which pulse has been boiled; perhaps their presidents would like very much to possess “one perennial suit” as durable as George Fox’s; and they already are privileged to suffer somewhat for mankind. I do not presume to offer here any neat scheme for the alleviation of these privations.

I do suggest, nevertheless, that the survival of colleges’ independence, and indeed of American scholarship, may be bound up with a resuming of old obligations. There really are good students who perceive that Behemoth State University is a whited sepulcher, lacking order and integration of knowledge, lacking any concern for the relationship between right reason and moral worth. There really are many parents and potential benefactors who inquire earnestly after some college or university which dedicates itself to the permanent things; which pursues an end genuinely ethical through a means genuinely intellectual. In fun and games, the independent college and university cannot compete successfully with Behemoth State; nor in the immense apparatus of specialized research; nor in an obsessive sprawling vocationalism. But the independent educational foundation can, and should, stand head and shoulders above Behemoth State University in its joining of ethical apprehension and the higher reason. Thus the path of duty may be also the path of survival.

The purpose of the traditional American college never was that of the sophist, to teach success; nor that of the utilitarian, to teach pure facts. A high old function of the American college, and of its professors, has been the chastening of American materialism and American enthusiasm by a renewal of moral awareness. The universities of other nations have been more distinguished for sheer intellectual power, or for training great gentlemen, or for accomplishment in the arts, or for dedication to pure science. The peculiar achievement of the American college, by way of contrast, has been the leavening of a democratic nation by imparting to the better minds and hearts of the rising generation a union of reason and moral worth—and so developing better human beings and a better society.

Our colleges did incalculable good, in the past, by providing a counterpoise to the besetting vice of democracies – gluttony, against which Alexis de Tocqueville warned us:

Materialism, among all nations, is a dangerous disease of the human mind; but it is more especially to be dreaded among a democratic people because it readily amalgamates with that vice which is most familiar to the heart under such circumstances. Democracy encourages a taste for physical gratification; this taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is matter only; and materialism, in its turn, hurries them on with mad impatience to these same delights; such is the fatal circle within which democratic nations are driven round. It were well that they should see the danger and hold back.

So Tocqueville wrote in the second part of Democracy in America. Our colleges, together with our churches, often have striven to hold us back from this fatal circle. They have modified our natural egoism by reaffirming our religious and moral patrimony, and have helped us to escape from the consequences of presumption by remembering that we are only part of a great continuity and essence. As a body, they still resist the claims of defecated rationality. They have clung, however feebly, to Newman’s conviction that literature and science, unaided, cannot give answers to the grand questions of modern life. In short, our independent colleges have been conservators of moral worth. I trust that they will continue to be.

I do not mean that our colleges ought to be merely schools for the recitation of moral platitudes. The imparting of the principles of moral worth, like many other things in life, is better attained by indirection. I suspect that little understanding of the true nature of moral worth is obtained from most courses in “democratic living” or “civic responsibility” or “marriage and the family”—let alone “sex education.” Secular indoctrination in approved conduct, whether or not it is an essential part of the curricula of elementary schools, ought not to occupy much of the time of institutions of higher learning.

But I believe that study of Plato, or Plutarch, or Cicero, or Virgil, or Augustine, or Dante, or More, or Bunyan, or Dryden, or Eliot, opens to the college student views of human worth that elevate the rising generation, and that make society seem something better than a producer-consumer equation. I believe that associating with scholars who meet Orestes Brownson’s requirements will give young men and women a better education than almost any amount of exaltation of private rationality, or any amount of “social involvement,” could give.

We might assimilate our colleges to what is called our “business civilization”; or devote them to training an intellectual elite intended to govern some future gorgeous egalitarian domination; or employ their facilities for undermining our social and moral order. But if we do any of those things, we break with the beneficent patrimony of American higher education. That education has been deficient in some respects, but one thing it has accomplished fairly well: to keep some part of each generation free from Tocqueville’s “fatal circle.”

Our colleges, or some of them, have not been afraid to defend what Burke called “the contract of eternal society.” They have not renounced dedication to moral principle. They have not, generally, abdicated the claims of learning in favor of the claims of appetite. They still recognize, many of them, the vocabulary of a dispossessed and forlorn orthodoxy. They may sustain that orthodoxy, that defense of human dignity, against the triumph of mass appetites and ideological infatuations.

Santayana writes:

What irony there would be in having learned to control matter, if we thereby forgot the purposes of the soul in controlling it, and disowned the natural furniture of the mind, our senses, fancy, and pictorial knowledge!

The independent college has not yet surrendered unconditionally to this irony. In an age of consolidation and aggrandizement, many American colleges still respect the humane scale. These are hard days for such colleges. Yet if they stand true to their own principle of the primacy of moral worth in a system of higher education, they will win through to better days.

Imagination rules the world, Napoleon said. One may add that moral imagination, in the long run, will rule the realm of intellect. No longer can the independent college guarantee to its students, or to their parents, even a temporary immunity from the demands of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Yet the independent college, if it retains the courage of affirmation, still can offer us that manner of intellectual discipline which teaches us what it is to be fully human. Those of the rising generation who obtain some understanding of moral worth may be trusted to resist the follies of the time.

This essay is based on an address at the annual meeting of the American Association of Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities, Scottsdale, Arizona, December 2, 1973. Republished with the gracious permission from Modern Age (Winter 1975). 

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