Near the end of his recent book, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (highly recommended), the English philosopher Roger Scruton makes a very interesting observation about what is possible in America but not in Europe. As he puts it, the burden of American conservatism has been to define the customs and traditions most in need of protection. Our conservatism has to show how these customs and traditions “might endure and flourish from their own inner dynamic, outside the control of the state.” He praises, as does Alexis de Tocqueville, American civil associations, and writes that “one effect of the American genius for civil association is of particular importance in this connection: the liberal arts college. This has created an extensive system of higher education, in which schools can choose their curriculum, their values, and their aims without reference to political factors and, if necessary, in defiance of political correctness. And the vastness of America, its great wealth and opportunities, mean that other such initiatives are always occurring, and new things are always growing.”
Wyoming Catholic College would not exist if this were not the case. I had occasion week before last to speak about WCC to a number of Europeans gathered at the Vanenberg Conference at Oxford University, to which my wife and I were invited. I was met with curiosity and, in some instances, a little envy. In the European context, it is almost impossible to conceive of a college like ours, which came into being specifically to address some of the central problems of our day. As one of the theorists of our founding put it, most good people “have a faint notion of what went wrong”; they sense “that the Western traditions have been discarded without anything to replace them except mass culture, addiction to diversion, and radical individualism. God is irrelevant because He is completely absent from the mass culture.” In America, we can do something to address the situation, and WCC’s founders did. It was a great deal of work, and it took the grace of God and the generosity of many wonderful people, but here we are. A good friend of WCC recently described us as the “miracle in the mountains.”
In Europe, however, one senses that the age of miracles has passed. One enthusiastic supporter of Wyoming College whom I met—an American woman married to a prominent European intellectual—told me that it is virtually impossible to do in Europe what we have done in Wyoming. Why? For one thing, the tax rates for most Europeans are around 40% of income, and a great deal of that money goes to support educational institutions. There is virtually no philanthropy directed toward education anywhere in the European Union. The idea of a college like ours that rejects federal support, relying instead on tuition and donations—well, good luck with making the argument. Moreover, it’s difficult to counter the dependence on government social support that seems characteristic of Europe in general. By accepting the conditions of that dependence, educational institutions yield to the political correctness that is also silencing honest intellectual discourse at American colleges and universities for the same reasons.
All the colleges at Oxford must fly a rainbow flag for the whole month of September. One man from Sweden told me about a Pride Parade required for kindergarten. I’m sure we could duplicate both stories on our shores. The similarities are alarming, and this conference was so illuminating in a number of ways that I will be returning to it for several weeks, simply to try to assimilate some of the insights and new perspectives it provided.
One thing is very clear. If we do not fight the good fight to protect our essential customs and traditions, the truth of our faith, and the greatness of Western culture, we see from the example of Europe what lies ahead of us in America. But we can also take from the conservatives of Europe extraordinary examples of courage, as I hope to show next week.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Black Stain” (1887) by Albert Bettannier (1851-1932), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.