Modern higher education tacitly accepts that any values pertaining to the intangible aspects of our experience, such as the humble appreciation of beauty or a passion for justice, are not real on account of being non-quantifiable; Socratic ignorance or wonder at life’s mysteries are lost, as are the moments of silence and grace during which the soul gains self-knowledge and grows humble.
American Heresies and Higher Education by Peter Augustine Lawler (St. Augustine’s Press, 2016)
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join the late Nalin Ranasinghe, as he discusses American education through the lens of Peter Augustine Lawler. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Although published as a collection of essays on higher education, and despite its having being compiled many months before the event in question, Peter Lawler’s brilliant and deeply reflective new book gives us the most adequate explanation of the surprising election of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president of these United State of America. It is also the best response to the fear and loathing released by our body politic surrounding this event, as toxic and unprecedented in its way as the 9/11 attacks were then. In short, while exoterically serving as the wisest book written on the state of U.S. education, superseding Allan Bloom’s famous book of a generation ago, Dr. Lawler also esoterically reveals the truest causes of our present political predicament. The running of representative government depends on an educated citizenry, but Dr. Lawler shows how greed, stupidity, and bureaucracy corrupt our colleges and spawn small-souled administrators, pseudo-specialized professors, slavish students, and spiteful voters. Magisterially impartial and yet disarmingly humble, our own Vergil guides us through the deeply wooded sacred academic groves of what was once thought a demi-paradise, a new Eden built by nature as a beacon of hope and example of amity. He reconstructs a sorry trail of dim-witted folly that brought our higher education system to where almost nobody wants it to be, but more importantly, he teaches us how, by making sweet use of this adversity, we could restore sanity and probity to our demoralized democracy.
Fittingly, for one who, like Nietzsche, can say in an entry what many can’t say in whole books, Dr. Lawler’s work consists of many “closely interrelated” essays. He says that while “each is meant to stand alone,” as written for particular occasions, when put together they “explore who we think we are and what we are supposed to do as free and relational persons these days.” In other words, while these very essays stand in a free and relational association with each other, presumably by being originally addressed to heretics of one or another stripe, star, or bar, they add up to and cover the full range of heresies that define and animate us. Dr. Lawler muses that while the U.S. is “rife with heresies,” this is not to be deplored. Each heresy is a hyperbolic expression of a lost cause; it affirms an aspect of reality that may be denied, denounced, or ignored. We can only unite as one nation under God if we recognize and reconcile these many partial truths to each other.
This leads to the main theme of Dr. Lawler’s argument. If his earlier writings showed our postmodern condition to be a state where we are “stuck with virtue” and as such unable to avoid using value categories (even as our scientists denied freedom and our economists extolled the good of selfishness), Dr. Lawler here explores the various sets of often conflicting moral hash marks defining the spaces human beings share by their being both free and political animals with a need for others. Although seven heresies await our attention, Dr. Lawler first takes on the two regnant ideologies best embodied by Locke and Darwin that posit either one man’s total freedom or mankind’s determined animalism. Born of Descartes’ dualism (soul is mind, and body a machine or pantheistic social organism), it is not by chance that fanatical believers in either absolute freedom and total necessity would choose to gut the humanities before then turning on each other; but we are now faced with keeping a polity without educational institutions that foster the virtues required for thoughtful citizenship and generous humanity. So as conservatives are corrupted by their base, and donor base, to the point that they depend on white racist votes, demonize all refugees, despise the poor, and derisively call mercy or compassion Marxist buzzwords, academic liberals are now banal social engineers who teach victimhood, champion perverse causes, or abuse tenure while muffling their dead souls and muzzling the howls of nihilism made by victims of their best practices. The only choice, albeit available only to a few, is between being a predator or a victim, and voters sense that our bipartisan elites care only for themselves and their families. Only fools and losers seem to believe in the possibility of virtue or the real presence of moral obligations towards less fortunate members of society.
Both the Libertarian descendants of Locke (who radicalize or fetishize freedom) and the evolutionary social scientist offspring of Darwin (who see us as “eusocial” animals–determined by nature to seek only the good of the whole) agree that goodness be not sought for its own sake; it comes indirectly, either from trickle-down selfishness or by unconscious pantheistic instinct. Either way, the human soul, self-knowledge, and the insights of the Classical-Christian tradition into our nature are dismissed; man is either violently taken from nature or abruptly thrust back into it. While part of the blame must be taken by Augustine, Luther, and their scorn for classical virtues and the pagan city, the greater damage was inflicted by those who either broke with Christianity or used the Calvinistic heresy of limited redemption to see the New World as a Promised Land where they could act as the Chosen People, preach Exceptionalism, praise Jesus, and forget his Gospel.
Thence came Southern slavery, Indian wars, and the aggressions inflicted on immigrant labor in the North. But once these indignities receded and the world’s greatest middle class came into being, a new set of threats loomed over the new democracy. Technology, which changed the very nature of productivity and work, became allied with money. As neither impersonal force had regard for national boundaries, environmental concerns, or human rights, millions of people became unemployable, addicted, or dehumanized by consumer culture; even the rich and most privileged were stuck in a meaningless world ruled by excess and ennui.
While Locke’s most ardent followers overcome their boredom with rapturous talk of being subsumed into the Singularity, Darwin’s pantheists preach the imminent environmental apocalypse with only slightly less enthusiasm. Both groups await the apocalyptic reductio-ad-absurdum of their respective principle, be it radical freedom or biological determination, without seeing that since neither Locke nor Darwin can give life meaning, freedom, and relatedness, must join forces. Just as Locke’s libertarians formed valid instruments for humans gaining freedom through technology, Darwin’s disciples have found a genuine basis for solidarity with all of humanity. To this extent, they both surpassed what traditional unreformed religion could offer man. It is only by trying to be gods or seeking union with Gaia that they overplay their respective hands and duly succumb to apocalyptic nihilism. It is necessary that both ideologies should be deflated and brought into dialogue with religion and philosophy. This is Dr. Lawler’s goal. In short, mankind must be fully educated to meet the daunting challenges lurking ahead of us; neither artificial intelligence nor earth worship can be trusted. This is why the faith tradition of the West can no longer be upheld by blind obedience to sacred precedent, infallible authority, and rigid dogma. All human souls must share in the Logos. This may clarify Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address. It certainly explains his abdication. Ratzinger’s deep soul saw what his mind could not say from his Petrified see.
But we are yet faced with the question of how education should be restructured to give Logos meaning in an age ruled by money and technology. In short, Prospero is not returning in glory to chastise Caliban; the “thing of darkness” runs the world left by Prospero who, as we recall, loved his library more than his dukedom. This means that while many or most of Prospero’s subjects still pay him lip service, they are content to be ruled by Caliban; they cannibalize their souls to feed their bodies. Likewise, most of our religious colleges are run by soulless accountants and touchy-feely deans of student life; financial exigencies rule everything, and it is assumed that students want middle-class jobs as urgently as administrators wish to hold on to theirs. There is little sense of the good life, vocation, or leisure; student loans must be paid off along with bills and mortgages, and while students typically juggle jobs and internships along with classwork, their professors have neither the time nor the desire to read books or talk to each other about ideas. At day’s end, teaching is just a way of buying consumer comforts for the kids. What Locke freely gives with one hand, Darwinian necessity takes with the other. Each graduate is certified ready to run the endless race Hobbes described; they enlist in his “war of all against all” and learn that nothing profitable is unjust or untrue.
Dr. Lawler argues that it is only by sincerely recovering our Christian heritage, rather than using it for marketing purposes, that we can hope to save education from Lockean bean counters or Darwinian ant-farmers. Only by seeing the true meaning of freedom and relatedness, a truth as essential to our faith as the Holy Trinity itself, can jaded post-modernity come to understand itself rightly. Claiming that “a free person privileged by nature and God with rights is also a rational and relational person with invincible responsibilities,” Dr. Lawler can show us how real Christianity is as far from the pessimistic pre-Vatican II Roman Church (which cared more for the rights of God than the rights of Man) as it is from Libertarians who deny all obligations towards others and extoll the virtues of selfishness. As we saw, many forms of American Evangelicalism have far more in common with Libertarianism than with the Jesus of history. By contrast, Dr. Lawler shows how the relational focus of the traditionalists can be compatible with the inalienable rights of Locke’s irreducibly free person. Life is only truly good and meaningful when we can give of ourselves and love others. This insight, held by both the Classical Greeks and the Gospels, is what liberal education must instill in us. In short, Augustine’s bleak political vision should not turn us away from Jesus to Hobbes.
Perhaps the blessings of technology, rightly used, could save us from the ugly pessimism of Augustine, dictating as Hippo awaited the Vandals, and usher in a relational gift economy that values love and generosity over strife or fear; even if this is impossible in the real world, it should be realizable at a liberal arts college. “There is no reason that modern technology can’t serve dignified human ends.” What Dr. Lawler calls the “aristocratic experience in our oligarchic democracy” must be learned at a place where souls can learn to flourish. The U.S. is doomed if it lacks citizens who have lived in Arcadia; only by witnessing the link among self-knowledge, self-rule, and eudaimonia can we hope for genuine statesmen: wise humans who can be trusted to use money and technology for the good of all.
The best argument I could make for this seemingly absurd or utopian vision is a recapitulation of Dr. Lawler’s grim account of what passes for U.S. higher education today. Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” comes all too readily to mind when we soberly observe the obscene moral contortions and grotesque feats of Kafkaesque logic that academic administrators and accrediting agencies perform as they educate and certify the next batch of college-degree holders. It would almost seem as if the graduates of the future are being trained as slaves to work beside “genius machines” that have powers of intellect and concentration far beyond their comprehension or imagination. This suggests that they are merely vying for the dubious privilege of being the violinists at Auschwitz; those who lead the Last Men to the Singularity can scarcely be expected to have either moral virtues or any knowledge of what was once held to be high culture or philosophy. The neo-Lockean logic that governs education and the economy today effectively demands that while AI provides the brains to run this brave new world, tech-friendly humans must serve as its informed/deformed matter. Justifying the ways of God to man, or explaining that there is no alternative, they will interface with the rest of us and constitute the transition between civilization and the Singularity.
The thin edge of this wedge is already quite visible to those who find themselves to be the last generation of teachers; education of the soul, the basis of human consciousness, moral judgment and individual differentiation, is ignored for the sake of producing team players who obey unquestioningly and reliable flunkies who loyally justify and rationalize. This change makes logical sense since the human activity of thinking, which was redefined as calculation just a generation ago, can only be performed by AI or genius machines today. That is why it is no wonder that the sole unquestioned authority on campus is “Coach.” It could even be said that moral habits are far better instilled via draconian mimetic means in a locker-room than through the rational discussion and free deliberation supposed to occur in a classroom. Since obedient jocks mimic their coach even if he strings banal clichés together, laconic Sparta thus triumphs over garrulous Athens. This is why many liberal arts colleges, recruit athletes rather than students. It is easier to justify the high price of higher education if guarantees with regard to a reliable end product can be given. By worrisome contrast, too much thinking could lead to eccentricity or dissent. A brand name’s integrity must be defended at any cost! Yet education in this way is truly a sin against human plurality and the soul itself.
Since any emphasis on true educational content, the very matter that nurtures and individuates the human soul, reading “the best that has been thought and said,” is too easily subjected to PC-driven attacks, our crass administrators and educators instead focus on instilling skills; these are as easily measured as a football player’s neck size, forty-yard times, BMI, or weight-room reps. This kind of “assessment regime” not only ends up teaching to the test, it also tacitly accepts that any values pertaining to the intangible aspects of our experience, such as the humble appreciation of beauty or a passion for justice, are not real on account of being non-quantifiable; Socratic ignorance or wonder at life’s mysteries are lost in this Bermuda Triangle of spite, positivism, and sophistry. Stress, strategizing, and a sick obsession with speed replace scholarly leisure and occlude the moments of silence and grace during which the soul gains self-knowledge and grows humble.
There is never any curiosity about the big picture or the ultimate questions. It is assumed that anything worth knowing may be accessed via Google or Facebook. The lines between edification, entertainment, and education are all but obliterated, often with the explicit encouragement of evil executive educators enraptured with efficiency. At the end of the day, these academic vampires care only for their jobs and families. Their ultimate goal is to replace tenured faculty with cheaper, easily exploited, adjuncts; these poor drudges will “teach” scripted and easily assessed classes on-line thus following the “best practices” of the higher education industry.
Meanwhile, the students will learn just enough to follow instructions and paint by numbers. It is assumed that the truth lies beyond their comprehension or interest; they only work for money to pay their loans and bills or to buy the latest gadgets.
The mad logic of consumerism also invades college life. Dr. Lawler’s studies show that since colleges are compelled by accreditation rubrics and market demand to produce identical standardized graduates, they only differentiate themselves (as they vie with each other to attract more of the small pool of wealthy students) by offering opulent residence halls, fitness facilities, and dining options. Ultimately, a college is found to be more about bragging rights, internships, and networking than education. What is called the ‘Chivas Regal effect’ has colleges artificially hiking tuition rates so as to keep riff-raff out and offer the offspring of the powerful a rare chance to meet and mix socially with the spoilt kids of multi-millionaires. If President Obama had been truly serious about his older daughter’s education, he would have sent her to Hillsdale or Kenyon and maybe en passant won a swing state and the election. Instead, she will join Harvard to pursue Flimsy Studies!
Dr. Lawler argues that our angry and divided nation can only be saved when we learn to measure progress by what is done to serve the needs of the free person: “It is surely Christian to demand that science, politics and economics have to be justified through the elevation of ordinary lives.” The Christianity of bygone years was far too mistrustful of ordinary people to entertain the possibility that they could be given civic freedom and political power. As a result, political liberation was only achieved through heretics like Locke, Jefferson, and Lincoln. But it is now time for the essential teaching of Christianity, the revelation of a personal relational God, to be brought to bear on our predicament. Democrats who worship social science and Republicans who prostrate themselves before the free market must learn to renounce Darwin and Locke. Instead of engaging in endless internecine warfare, the two factions should admit to the flaws of their respective positions. Both the crass violence of the free market and the slavish determinism of pantheistic science can be remedied once we admit that man is both free and relational. While this is the very heart of Christ’s Gospel, institutional Christianity, which did much to protect the West over the Dark Ages, was slow to abandon its arcane ritual, sterile dogma, and corrupt curia. The toxic inheritance of Constantine bound the popes to pagan glory and power; it stopped the church from proclaiming Jesus’ essential message of love and mercy to a broken world.
While Dr. Lawler’s work is very much informed by the spirit of Orestes Brownson and John Courtney Murray, two American Catholics who labored nobly to reconcile their church and nation to each other, the thinker who seems to have the deepest influence on this book is the Russian émigré and confessor A.I. Solzhenitsyn. It was Solzhenitsyn who rediscovered the resilience of the soul under barbed wire, and it was his stirring account of the Soviet Gulag that broke the credibility of the USSR. It is clear to this reviewer, at least, that it is now the turn of the U.S. and the Church to perform the actions of repentance and self-limitation the Russian writer preached to his nation. In short, just as the two parties must unite for the nation’s good, the Catholic Church’s liberal and conservative factions, all men and women doing the work of Mary and Martha, must end their feud and resurrect the Gospel.
Dr. Lawler offers a unifying vision of humanity based on every soul’s capacity to bear grace and practice virtue. Politically this means that every child, regardless of her race or economic status, has the right to be educated at an institution that offers self-knowledge and instills civic literacy as well as competence in a discipline or technical skill. Less devotion to sports and technology is a small price to pay for this; the war on terror is also best fought by targeting more money to rebuilding our own country and by spending less on making new enemies worldwide. But, most importantly, Dr. Lawler stresses the “Christian good news that we’re all born to live in the shared truth about our personal origins and destinies.” We can’t tolerate any more “noble lies” or smug political theologies that deny Jesus’ words for the sake of clerical expediency or “reasons of state.” These myths are the truest cause of today’s crisis. Those who tell lies run the risk of believing their own untruths and end up caught in mad language games. “Live not by Lies,” Solzhenitsyn told us, yet the worst lie is an implicit belief in a god appeased by power, money, or ritual. Thank God, we finally have a pope brave enough to put people before power!
Dr. Lawler tells us the whole truth. Despite being a Catholic conservative, he does not feel obliged to defend corporate interests or justify his church’s tragic history. This reviewer must humbly confess that he has barely summarized the surface of this incredibly important and substantial book. Many honest academics (a silent minority) will find themselves agreeing with Dr. Lawler’s authoritative call to arms and recognizing both our dire plight and the brave steps needed to fix it. There is so much here worthy of close attention, that faculty groups could spend an academic year profitably studying this work for enlightenment, edification, and inspiration. If we do not act, to make America straight again, it will be our own damnable fault.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in May 2017.
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The featured image is “In the Classroom” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.