Culture

Is Higher Education Still Possible?

(Photo: Kasto80/Dreamstime)
Institutions are disregardng true education in favor of offering a ‘college experience.’

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Anthony Esolen’s new book Out of the Ashes.

Any dispassionate observer must conclude that higher education in the United States, and in many other Western nations, is in a bad way. I am not talking about troubles that are easily remedied or errors that require adjustment and reform. I am talking about whether higher education as the West has known it for eight hundred years is any longer possible.

The frieze beneath the rotunda of the state house at Providence, the city where my college is located, proclaims, in the words of Tacitus, the happiness of the times when a man “may think what he will and speak what he thinks.” This may still be true of men sitting at a diner or a bar, drinking beer and arguing about politics. Rational argument and freedom of thought, like the exercise of religion, has retreated into the realm of the private. You may still think what you will, so long as you keep it to yourself. You may not think or speak freely in our political assemblies, our newspapers, and our colleges.

Here the reader may supply plenty of anecdotes about professors, insufficiently “liberal,” who have been driven from their jobs or burdened with legal troubles because they violated the new iron etiquette that governs the public sphere. My favorite, if such it may be called, involved an instructor of composition at the University of Winnipeg who remarked, near the end of a semester, that the most important work that most women do will be to raise their children well. For that remark — which would have struck sensible people alive three cultural minutes ago, both men and women, as a bland truism — the instructor was relieved of his duties forthwith, barred from his office, and forbidden even to administer his final exam.

People who say that such events are rare and therefore not to be taken too seriously are either fools or liars. A thousand public lynchings are expensive and tiresome. Two or three will intimidate your enemies very nicely and save you the sweat and the struggle against your conscience. That is especially true if the victim is powerful and visible, as was Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard who opined that the difference between the numbers of men and women pursuing the natural sciences at the highest level might be due rather to predilection and intellectual inclination than to sexism. Again we are dealing with a bland truism; but the long knives came out, and Summers was dispatched.

This etiquette is related to the cry for “safe spaces,” as college students, a majority of them female, demand to be protected from ideas and utterances that somehow, as they claim, deny their very existence or would cast doubt upon what they claim are their incontestable experiences as members of some historically underprivileged group. Their critics laugh at them and say that such students, “snowflakes,” want to lock our colleges into an orthodoxy that is unenlightened and medieval. These critics are wrong in their diagnosis and inaccurate in their criticism.

It is also something of a mistake to point at the students and laugh at them for being weaklings. The students hold the hammer, and they know it. Yes, it is true that mere teenage boys in decades past — lads who stormed the bluffs of Normandy, sailed on ships cutting through the ice of the Northwest Passage, and slashed their way with explorers through the fever swamps and forests of Borneo — would not be preoccupied with hurtful words, and that a “trigger warning” in those days was the clutch of a rifle being loaded. But in our world of inversions, power is granted to people who claim that they have no power and who resent the greatness of their own forebears. They do not seek “safety.” They seek to destroy. The strong man is bound and gagged, and the pistol is pointed at his head — the seat of reason itself.

In such a world, it is insufficient to say that higher education suffers. Except in the most technical of disciplines, and perhaps even in those, the very possibility of higher education comes to an abrupt halt. If a professor must negotiate an emotional and verbal and political mine field before he opens his mouth, then he is no professor any longer. He is a servile functionary, no matter his title and no matter how well he is paid. He instructs his students not in freedom but in his own servility. That many of the students demand this servility of him and of themselves makes their capitulation all the worse.

The colleges have not abandoned moral considerations utterly. Relativism is an unstable equilibrium — imagine a pyramid upside down, placed delicately upon its apex. It might make you break out into a cold sweat to stand in its shade. The question is not whether some moral vision will prevail, but which moral vision. The colleges are thus committed to a moral inversion. High and noble virtues, especially those that require moral courage, are mocked: gallantry in wartime, sexual purity, scrupulous honesty and plain dealing, piety, and the willingness to subject your thoughts, experiences, and most treasured beliefs to the searching scrutiny of reason. What is valued then? Debauchery, perversion, contempt for your supposedly benighted ancestors, lazy agnosticism, easy and costless pacifism, political maneuvering, and an enforcement of a new orthodoxy that in denying rational analysis seeks to render itself immune to criticism. You sink yourself in debt to discover that your sons and daughters have been severed from their faith, their morals, and their reason. Whorehouses and mental wards would be much cheaper. They might well be healthier, too.

— Anthony Esolen is a professor at Providence College and author of Out of the Ashes

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