Higher Education in Hell
A politicized education is illiberal by its own inner compulsions. It has almost the hideousness and chaos of hell itself, so inextricably coupled it is with the mire and passions of the passing day.
In “That perfection of the Intellect,” wrote the lucid John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University,
and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.Each of the five qualities of mind that Newman describes is almost something that God may grant to the most blessed of the saints in their lives on earth: the foresight of Isaiah, the insight of John Vianney into a sinner’s heart, the boundlessly patient charity of Mother Teresa, the solid equanimity of Thomas Aquinas, and the rapt gaze of Bernard of Clairvaux. Perhaps we may say that just as reason arrives at truths that are preambles to faith, so does the university dwell in the precincts of the Church. Newman had to distinguish a liberal and Catholic education from training in a skill, defending it from the utilitarian and secular impulses of industrial England. Still, he could take for granted that his readers would acknowledge the goodness of the ideal he was drawing, though they might not feel drawn to attain it in their own persons. We do, after all, need engineers, architects, and inventors.
One thing united the philological and theological dons of Oxford with the chemists of Manchester: a matter-of-course commitment to truth, insofar as they could discover it, cherish it, or deepen their gaze into its beauty. In that quest, no man’s feelings were of any consequence. Opponents may have delivered body blows to one another in the halls of debate or in the pubs afterward, but everyone would have scorned the idea that the possibility of hurt feelings might dictate what a man might say or how he might express it. What Newman calls “littleness and prejudice” would be scouted not by accusation but by intellectual dismantling. Truth loomed above them like a clear night sky powdered with stars. To that sky they might turn and forge those precious intellectual friendships that do not fail, because the ground of the union does not alter with the passage of years, much less with the rise and fall of the stock market or of a political party.
Well, we are far from the Mount of Contemplation. Modern man, afflicted with a variety of itches, sees no use in poetry and the rest of the liberal arts, unless they can teach him marketable skills such as writing a half-sensible memorandum. Hence the study of literature, with its rich content steeped in history, has given way to “communications,” a subject unmoored from both history and culture. Defenders of the liberal arts themselves, having forgotten the divine origin and end of the pursuit of wisdom, appeal not to freedom but to compulsion: at first the compulsions of the workplace, and now the compulsions of partisan advocacy, or of the self-fashioning and self-presentation of identity politics.
Newman defended the reading of Homer while his utilitarian opponents were building railroads and ships. We now have to defend the reading of Homer while our opponents are busy reducing cultural castles, town halls, and cathedrals to rubble, and producing—at great expense—millions of graduates whose knowledge of the arts, history, literature, philosophy, and theology is paltry at best and morbid at worst. These are people who lack the practical and necessary arts of the farmer and who have traded his honest and natural ignorance for an ignorance that is mendacious, man-made, and reactive.
A politicized education is illiberal by its own inner compulsions. It is a dreadful thing to visit upon young people. We see its effects all across the country. What does it produce if it is allowed to progress to its consummation? Allow me to revise the words of Cardinal Newman:
It stumbles and is almost blind in its ignorance of history; it is almost heart-frozen from its refusal to acknowledge human nature; it has almost a demonic hatred in its reductive dismissal of great works and its swiftness to condemn what falls afoul of its political projects; it has almost the restlessness of infidelity, and yet is surprised by the failures of its demagogues; it has almost the hideousness and chaos of hell itself, so inextricably coupled it is with the mire and passions of the passing day.