There now exists a general dissatisfaction with the present sunk condition of higher learning; complacency having trickled away, reform is conceivable…

For a quarter of a century, the higher education in America has been sinking lower. Agreement on this subject is so widespread that I need not labor the point: others will offer you melancholy particulars. Nobody is more painfully aware of this decay than is the perceptive undergraduate nowadays.

What do we mean by the term “decadence”? My favorite definition is that by C.E.M. Joad, in his book Decadence: a Philosophical Inquiry (1948). Decadence occurs, as Joad tells us, when a people have “dropped the object”—that is, when they have abandoned the pursuit of real objects, aims or ends—and have settled instead for the gratifications of more “experience.” In society, the characteristics of decadence are luxury, skepticism, weariness, superstition; also, in Joad‘s words, “a preoccupation with the self and its experiences, promoted by and promoting the subjectivist analysis of moral, aesthetic, metaphysical, and theological judgments.” By this definition, the higher learning in America is decadent, having lost object or end.

Once upon a time, the higher learning was an intellectual means to ethical objects. The disciplines of college and university were intended to develop a philosophical habit of mind, in John Henry Newman’s phrase, “of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.” But nowadays most graduating seniors never have heard even the phrase “a philosophical habit of mind.” That ignorance is what I mean by decadence.

I am suggesting that formerly the mission of the college, in this country or elsewhere, was to help to form the minds—and through the minds, the consciences—of a body of young persons who would become leaders in many walks of life. The college pursued an ethical end through an intellectual means. The old-fangled college aspired to rouse the reason and the imagination of the person; and through such improvement of the person, to improve the republic. No society can endure very long without the existence of a class of persons in whom right reason and moral imagination are awake—a class of persons who leaven the lump of any society. But in recent years we have pretty well forgotten about such notions, and instead, the typical college pretends to be the means to material success and cheerful sociability.

At this point, someone may murmur, “An Elitist!” Living as we do in an age of ideology, nearly all of us are tempted to believe that if we have clapped a quasi-political label to an expression of opinion, we have blessed or damned it; we need not examine that expression on its own merits. In educationist circles, “elitism” is a devil-term, for isn’t everybody just like everybody else, except for undeserved privilege? The degradation of the democratic dogma is fixed upon the mind.

But actually, I am an anti-elitist. I share wholeheartedly my old friend T.S. Eliot’s objection to Karl Mannheim’s theory of modern elites. I object especially to schemes for the governance of modern society by formally-trained specialized and technological elites. One of my principal criticisms of current tendencies in the higher learning is that, despite much cant about democratic university and college, really our educational apparatus has been raising up not a class of liberally educated young people of humane outlook, but rather a series of degree-dignified elites, an alleged “meritocracy” of confined views and dubious intellectual and moral credentials, afflicted by presumption, puffed up by that little learning which is a dangerous thing. We see such elites at their worst in “emergent” Africa, where the ignorant are oppressed by the quarter-schooled; increasingly, if less ferociously, comparable elites govern us even in America—through the political structure, through the media of communication, through the public-school empire, through the very churches. Such folk were in George Orwell’s mind when he described the ruling elite of 1984: “made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government.”

Now it is not at all my desire that university and college should train up such elites. What I am recommending is a mode of higher education which can leaven the lump of modern civilization—which will give us a tolerable number of people in many walks of life who possess some share of right reason and moral imagination; who may not know the price of everything, but may know the value of something; who have been schooled in wisdom and virtue.

I am suggesting that college and university ought not to be degree-mills: they ought to be centers for genuinely humane and genuinely scientific studies, attended by young people of healthy intellectual curiosity who actually have some interest in mind and conscience. I am saying that the higher learning is meant to develop order in the soul, for the human person’s own sake. I am saying that the higher learning is meant to develop order in the commonwealth, for the republic’s sake. I am arguing that a system of higher education which has forgotten these ends is decadent; but that decay may be arrested, and that reform and renewal still are conceivable.

The more people we have who are liberally educated and scientifically educated, the better. But the more people we have who are half-educated or quarter-educated, the worse for them and for the republic. Really educated people, rather than forming presumptuous elites, will permeate society, leavening the lump through their professions, their teaching, their preaching, their participation in commerce and industry, their public offices at every level of the commonwealth. And being educated, they will know that they do not know everything; and that there exist objects in life besides power and money and sensual gratification; they will take long views; they will look backward to ancestors and forward to posterity. For them, education will not terminate on commencement day.

Not long ago I spoke at a reputable liberal-arts college on the subject of the order and integration of knowledge. There came up to me after my lecture two well-spoken, well-dressed, civil graduating seniors of that college; probably they were “A” students, perhaps summa cum laude. They told me that until they had heard my talk, they had been unable to discover any pattern or purpose in the college education they had just endured. Late had they found me! Where might they learn more? I suggested that they turn, first of all, to C.S. Lewis’ little book The Abolition of Man; then to Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and to William Oliver Martin’s Order and Integration of Knowledge; were I speaking with them today, I should add an important book I have just reviewed, Stanley Jaki’s The Road of Science and the Ways to God.

Well, they went off in quest of wisdom and virtue, of which they had heard little at their college, and I have not beheld them since. I trust that they have read those good books and have become members of that unknowable Remnant (obscure but influential as Dicey’s real shapers of public opinion) which scourges the educational follies of our time.

Perhaps this present symposium of ours will attract more such recruits to that Remnant.

There are no lost causes because there are no gained causes, T.S. Eliot wrote. Like the Seven against Thebes, we educational renewers may be avenged by our children. In the realm of ideas, an object that has been dropped may not be lost irrevocably.

Can anything be done?

What we require is the recovery of objects in the higher learning. The obstacles to any such restoration are formidable.

In a recent book of mine, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (Regnery/Gateway), I list four principal afflictions of American university and college. These are purposelessness; intellectual disorder; gigantism in scale; the enfeeblement of earlier schooling. Also, I name two principal fallacies which have underlain the decadence of our higher learning: first, the misconception that the principal function of the higher learning is to promote utilitarian efficiency; second, the misconception that nearly everybody ought to attend college. With such impediments today, what hope remains for the recovery of wisdom and virtue as the ends of the higher learning?

Yet say not the struggle naught availeth. At least there now exists a general dissatisfaction with the present sunk condition of the higher learning; complacency having trickled away, reform is conceivable.

This reform of our higher learning must be radical: that is, it must go to the roots of our culture. Also, this reform of our higher learning must be reactionary: that is, it must react healthily against the intellectual diseases which have brought college and university to their present decadence. My old friend the poet Roy Campbell used to say that a human body which cannot react is a corpse, and that so it is with social institutions. With T.S. Eliot and Allen Tate, I am perfectly willing to be called a reactionary. These remarks of mine are reactions—salutary, I hope—against misconceptions and corruptions in the higher learning.

Here my notion of what we must do to restore the objects of the higher learning happens to coincide with the ideas of Dr. William Boyd, who became president of the University of Oregon in 1975. Dr. Boyd calls himself a radical. He is a sagacious radical: “The educational task before us is essentially a reactionary one—that of returning to a time when the purposes of a collegiate education were frankly moral as well as intellectual-useful but not utilitarian.” So Dr. Boyd told the annual meeting, late in 1974, of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, a body unaccustomed to hearing such language.

Ours must be an epoch of retrenchment and reform in the higher learning, Dr. Boyd continued: We enter upon an age of no quantitative growth. The coming phase of reaction and reform, he declared, must be a “value-driven model” freed from “the tyranny of ‘vogue’ and ’relevance.’” The university must cleanse itself morally, shake off hypocrisy, abjure “grantsmanship” and waste, and return to “the essentially moral purposes of education.”

Aye, there is good reason to worry about the decay of ethical meaning in college and university; and no less reason to protest against the decay in the study of even applied science and technology. Take, for instance, a passage from a book by Dr. L.G. Heller, published in 1973: The Death of the American University, with Special Reference to the Collapse of City College of New York. The folly of “open admissions,” Professor Heller warns us, soon will be felt most practically:

The most striking reductio ad absurdum of the process will be the consequences in the sciences. Who, for example, would care to undergo a kidney operation by someone who can barely tell the kidney from the liver? If that illustration is too extreme, consider driving an automobile over a bridge designed by someone who was weak in the computation of stress loads. Such a person would never have been licensed before. Tomorrow he will be straight-A by virtue of the comparative ignorance of his classmates.

From these and other causes of apprehension, nowadays parents suspect that something is seriously wrong with college and university; so do members of state legislatures; the rising generation has its doubts, and even liberal professors worry. So enrollments have ceased to grow, or have diminished somewhat. It seems probable that, with a number of local and regional exceptions, there will come to pass no more massive growth of colleges and universities, ever, in these United States. The Department of Labor, the Social Security statisticians, and others who sit in the seats of the mighty take gloomy note that soon there will be many more unemployed persons possessed of bachelors’ degrees. As the construction gangs depart from the campus, it seems as if, at last, the academic community may have to settle for thought instead of “career training.”

Yet what of the tremendous physical apparatus of higher education, with an outpost in nearly every county of every state in the Union? Will empty campuses be converted into old folks’ homes, prisons, lunatic asylums (called, doubtless, “development centers”), hospitals? What of the tremendous snobbery that helped to create these educational factories, many of which approach redundancy? Will not a large part of the rising generation continue to enroll in these institutions, intellectually and spiritually bankrupt though they have fallen, for the sake of the empty snob-degree and the shoddy version of the old fun-and-games varsity rag which lingers there? Is there any other way, indeed, to occupy the time of young people between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two than to lodge them in these quasi-custodial complexes?

What of the hundreds of thousands of professors and instructors and administrators, a vast salaried and tenured class, and what of the crowds of unemployed Ph.D.’s which the overblown graduate schools still turn out annually? How will they be kept busy and happy-or happy and paid, anyway?

In short, a powerful entrenched interest, with lobbies in Washington and in every state capital, fearfully resists alteration of the existing inefficient and ineffectual apparatus of higher education. Although the decreasing birth-rate soon will affect colleges as already it has caused the closing of many elementary schools, and although it is virtually certain that America will lack the material resources for keeping up these educational institutions in the style to which they become accustomed, still most of the dull dogs who run the big campuses set their faces against retrenchment.

What with this resistance to radical-reactionary reform, and what with the desire for the snob-degree or the job-certification degree which still strongly moves many parents and young people, the alteration of the present structure will be slow-supposing that a general economic collapse does not abruptly bring it down in ruin. Some of the existing teachers’ colleges (nearly all of which now are styled universities) eventually will be abandoned because the demand for new teachers has shriveled. Some state colleges already are giving up the ghost, and even some state university campuses may be vacated. Some community colleges, founded where the base was insufficient, will stand empty. Certain graduate schools, or departments thereof, will be abolished, following certain university presses down to dusty death. Still more independent colleges, especially those which can boast neither high academic standards nor any strong connection with a church, will be sold to anyone interested in acquiring their real property.

This dismantling of the present structure will be gradual but painful. As other public services require support in a static or a declining economy, the state and federal funds allocated to public higher education will be reduced, at least proportionately, despite the power of the higher-education lobbies—especially because both legislators and the general public have begun to doubt how much “higher” this education has been. Private benefaction also will be gravely affected by rates of taxation and by the chastened American economy. On many campuses, dormitories are sparsely tenanted already; others will be vacated, perhaps to be utilized as inferior public housing. The ugliness and shoddiness of most campus construction since the Second World War considered, it will be no great pity if there occurs widespread demolition of superfluous campus buildings. Plant the trees again.

While this attrition is in process, it is necessary for us to do what we can to restore ends and improve standards within the declining apparatus of higher education. If only from desire for survival, there may now occur competition in quality, by contrast with the competition in quantity which injured our higher learning from the end of the Second World War until very recently. Incidentally, survival seems to be the only real object to be discerned on nearly every campus in America: that is, nearly all colleges and universities, whatever their administrators and professors may tell prospective students, fond parents, possible benefactors, and public officials, actually are devoted to but one end; and that end is paying administrators’ and professors’ salaries. While it was easy to increase salaries by lowering standards, standards were lowered on the typical campus. Now that there appears some possibility of paying salaries by improving standards of instruction, standards may be improved.

Meanwhile, what do we do to provide occupation for the mass of young people, the Lonely Crowd on the campus of Behemoth State U., who really have no genuine interest in any form of higher learning? Gradually these pseudo-students will filter out of the dormitories into the workaday world. Plenty of them will be needed to turn the great wheel of circulation, what with an aging American population and a static economy. The average college graduate had expected to live the life of a consumer; but young people in the eighties must expect to live the life of a producer. Once more a college education will become what it was in nineteenth-century America, a privilege or a luxury, available to the deserving or the wealthy. And why should it be bestowed upon those who neither deserve it nor can pay for it? American society does not, on principle, give Cadillacs to welfare-clients, or good-conduct medals to juvenile delinquents. Higher education the real article, I mean, has to be paid for, as do all other costly goods and services; and sham “higher” education is becoming too much for America to bear. As to what the bulk of the rising generation will do to occupy themselves between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, that is beyond the scope of my essay here. There will exist plenty of work for them, if they find it necessary to undertake it. It always was foolish to maintain in comparative idleness millions of young people with no relish for the life of the mind.

I am not predicting or proposing a drastic reduction in the number of Americans to obtain a true higher education. On the contrary, we actually should be able to increase the number of genuinely educated men and women, despite economic difficulties. I mean that by the reform of educational methods, from kindergarten through graduate school; by relieving the educational apparatus, at its higher levels, of the immense burden imposed by a mob of unmotivated young people who ought to be somewhere else than in college; by returning to the objects of wisdom and virtue—why, we can waken the native intelligence of many now sunk in apathy and indifference, and we can insure that a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s, or a doctor’s, shall come to signify achievement once more. Reactionary radicalism in the higher learning will improve, not subvert, the American democracy.

This reform must commence now, whether we relish it or not. Let me quote President William Boyd once more:

Had prosperity continued, I suspect that complacency would have, too. One of the virtues—and one of the vices—of affluence is that it permits the unexamined life. When all things are possible, few choices have to be made. When few things are possible, all things become vulnerable. We are now moving from the one situation to the other, and we are ill prepared. Our mind-set and all of our habits, born as they were of an earlier version of a bountiful America, now serve us poorly, and threaten betrayal to our students.

Nothing does more than adversity to summon up wisdom and virtue. Out of our present confusion and tribulation may arise some apprehension of the higher learning more salutary than we have known before in this country.

However that may be, it scarcely seems possible that we can continue in the train of errors of the past quarter-century. Despite our prodigious expenditure of money and energy upon higher schooling, we have accomplished little toward clearing the way for the human potential in America; nay, we have obstructed that way in our higher learning. In this argument, I am reinforced by W.T. Couch’s serious book The Human Potential (Duke University Press, 1974)—a study ignored by most of the book-review media. Couch describes our present precarious and complacent state:

There is a functional relation between universities and the societies in which they exist that neither the societies nor the universities can safely ignore. Once the great institutions of society begin making caricatures of their functions, or even give the public the impression that in crucial ways they are failing, they and their society are in grave danger…. The time has come in human history when the cultivation of the human potential in ways that serve both the best interests of the individual and the general welfare is necessary if the level of human life is to be raised rather than lowered. There is no possibility that the present level will cease to move; and it can go down as well as up.

That is well said. W.T. Couch would endeavor to improve general education in the United States through “new institutions”: first, a special independent institute for general education in a free society; second, a new encyclopedia of ordered and integrated knowledge, capable of being a real instrument for the dissemination of learning. (The institute, among other endeavors, would develop the encyclopedia-which might become as influential as the eighteenth-century French Encyclopedia, though by no means framed on identical intellectual premises.)

Short of the new institutions which Mr. Couch outlines—and as yet nobody has done anything to bring them into existence—we must make what we can of present establishments. Who at Behemoth University and Brummagem University aspire to any such abstract ends as wisdom and virtue? I suspect that no imagination survives at Behemoth or at Brummagem; for that matter, I do not think that the healthy renewing impulse will arise out of Harvard. It has taken Harvard some eight decades to discover, in very recent months, that there has been something badly mistaken about President Charles W. Eliot’s “elective system.”

So I am inclined to fancy that the restoration of learning in this land will be the work of persons who do not doze in tenured dullness, and of such independent colleges, still on a humane scale, as still tolerate some thought and discussion superior to academic cant and slogan, academic fad and foible. What I say here may be one forlorn hope of the reactionary radical forces of educational reinvigoration. But permit me to try to suggest, very briefly, what a college with a stubborn independence from political direction and a surviving freedom to make its own collegiate choices, may accomplish even with very limited resources; and also what such a college ought not to undertake.

What the college actually ought to do, and can do, was better expressed by Irving Babbitt, at the beginning of this century, than I could put it: “The best of the small colleges,” Babbitt wrote in Literature and the American College, “will render a service to American education if they decide to make a sturdy defense of the humane tradition instead of trying to rival the great universities in displaying a full line of educational novelties. In the latter case, they may become third-rate and badly equipped scientific schools, and so reenact the fable of the frog that tried to swell itself to the size of an ox…. Even though the whole world seems bent upon living the quantitative life, the college should remember that its business is to make of its graduates men of quality in the real and not the conventional meaning of the term. In this way, it will do its share toward creating that aristocracy of character and intelligence which is needed in a community like ours to take the place of an aristocracy of birth, and to counteract the tendency toward an aristocracy of money.”

For the past seven decades, the average American college has disregarded Babbitt’s admonition, pleading that the college must give the public what the public seems to desire. But now the time is upon us when the college must heed the principles which Babbitt himself so well exemplified. Behemoth U. and Brummagem U. have so totally yielded to the presumed “public demand” for vocationalism, specialization, and intellectual egalitarianism that even the most complaisant college of arts and sciences no longer can compete successfully with its enormous tax-supported rivals for the favor of those students who desire, or think they desire, a shallow veneer of “culture,” a trade-school training with a college diploma, and four years of idleness. If the independent college competes with the state-supported institutions along those lines, the college will succeed in enrolling only those students who fail to meet even the relaxed academic requirements of Behemoth State U.—plus a sprinkling, perhaps, of students who are attracted by a college’s relationship to a Christian denomination, supposing that the college has bothered to retain anything of that sort. And few will be passionately interested in keeping alive a college which, for professors and students, has become not much better than an intellectual bargain-basement stuffed with rejects from the upper floors.

Thus out of urgent necessity, if from no higher motive, college policy-makers begin to reexamine the ends and means of the higher education. Reactionary radicalism is thrust upon them. Permit me to assert some general principles for reinvigoration.

  1. The college should reaffirm that the objects of the higher learning are wisdom and virtue, and that it seeks to attain an ethical purpose through an intellectual means.
  2. The college should make it clear that this ethical end is sought through disciplines of the mind, exacting in character, which regard “useless knowledge” as more valuable than simple utilitarian skills.
  3. The college should return to a concise curriculum emphasizing humane letters, history, the theoretical sciences, languages, moral philosophy, and religious knowledge.
  4. The college should set its face against amorphous “survey courses” and similar substitutes for intellectual disciplines. Such a smattering produces only that little learning which is a dangerous thing.
  5. The college should turn away from commercial vocationalism, resigning to trade schools and industrial “in-service training” what the college never was founded to undertake.
  6. The college should abandon its attempt to encroach upon the specialized and professional studies which are the proper province of the graduate schools.
  7. The college should emancipate itself from quasi-professional programs of athletics, an expensive and often anti-intellectual pastime in which it cannot compete successfully with Behemoth and Brummagem.
  8. The college should bear in mind that its “service to the community” consists in truly educating some young people who will leave the lump of society with their reason, their imagination, their moral worth; that otherwise the college is not a “service institution.”
  9. The college should reduce to a minimum the elective features of its curriculum, for one of the college’s principal strengths, formerly, was its recognition of order and hierarchy in the higher learning.
  10. The college should inculcate in its students a sentiment of gratitude toward the generations which have preceded us in time and a sense of obligation toward the generations yet to be born. It should remind the rising generation that we are part of a long continuity and essence, a community of souls transcending time; and that we moderns are only dwarfs standing upon the shoulders of giants. This consciousness lies at the heart of a liberal education.

If this be treason to Holy Modern Educationism, make the most of it. I stand content to insist upon one point, this: if, in a radical and reactionary way, we address ourselves to the renewal of the higher learning, we may yet live a life of order and justice and freedom. But if we linger smug and apathetic in a bent world, leaving the works of the mind to rot, we shall come to know servitude of mind and body.

Republished with the gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 1979).

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