The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Higher Education and the Liberal Arts

ISI recommends reading through the introductory essay before following the embedded hyperlinks or before working through the course itself. The essay can orient your reading and reflection so that like Caleb and Joshua you are calm and perceptive in the face of the intellectual giants you will find in this land.

At least since William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale became a best-seller in 1951 (if not before), the state of higher education has been a pressing concern for American conservatives. In that book, Buckley lamented that although Yale University ostensibly had a Christian mission—it had been founded in 1701 by Congregationalist ministers to train orthodox clergymen, Harvard having fallen into Unitarianism—its Religion faculty by the middle of the twentieth century promoted cool skepticism at best and out-and-out atheism at worst. What’s more, although Yale had been lavishly endowed with the wealth of entrepreneurs and businessmen, its Economics faculty promoted socialist collectivism. Buckley connected the defense of Christian orthodoxy and free market economics at Yale to the larger American struggle against atheistic Communism; the Christian capitalist U.S. could hardly resist the Soviet enemy abroad if American youth were being taught to reject key pillars of their civilization. Perhaps most pointedly, Buckley derided the professorial retort to his criticism—“academic freedom”—as a “superstition,” setting in motion a discussion on that subject among conservatives that would last a decade, or longer. In fact, that discussion continues today, with much disagreement.

God and Man at Yale

While the particular items in Buckley’s bill of indictment may now seem antiquated to us, trapped in the historical amber of the Cold War, in general terms his polemic captures much of the essence of the conservative case against American higher education: The professors have embraced an adversarial stance in relationship to the society which supports them. They are therefore failing to transmit the high civilization of the West, which is their function. This failure constitutes both a civic abuse and an intellectual abuse. Buckley also pioneered a conservative tactic in response to the academy’s failings, calling for alumni and trustees to use their influence to ensure that universities returned to their true mission.

One hundred years earlier, John Henry Newman had articulated a vision of higher education and the liberal arts in his Idea of a University that was conservative of the finest traditions of the West. It is to Newman’s educational vision that most conservatives perennially return. For Newman, a university is a place for teaching “universal knowledge”—and so it is only secondarily a place of specialized research. By broad exposure to all branches of learning, and in deep conversation with a community bound by intellectual friendship, students develop a view of “the whole,” a view of the entire range of knowledge in all its interrelationships. Thus equipped with a “philosophical habit of mind,” a liberally educated student readily sees connections—how “one thing leads to another”—and he is protected from the intellectual error of mistaking a part for the whole. For Newman, possession of this “philosophical habit of mind” constitutes the “health” of the mind: it is the perfection of human nature with respect to the intellect.

In Newman’s own historical circumstances, he was concerned to defend the place of theology in university studies—against proposals by the British government to construct state universities that would exclude the controversial subject and focus instead on “useful” studies. But more broadly, Newman was concerned to defend the classical liberal education offered at Oxford and Cambridge against proponents of Wissenschaft, or empirical research in “science” narrowly conceived. Education in Wissenschaft—so called because it was patterned after the German model—would promote specialization in particular disciplines of research, especially in the natural sciences, to arrive at “new knowledge.” (The essentially relativistic colors of such an illiberal, “scientific” education were later shown by John Dewey, the leading American proponent of such an educational model, who rejected all notions of fixed and eternal moral truths in favor of “critical thinking” devoid of specific content.) “Useful” education, it was claimed, would fit men for the modern world, training them in knowledge applicable to their professional lives and the “real” problems of an “evolving” society.

Against proponents of these utilitarian approaches to education, Newman contended that knowledge is a good in itself, and to be sought for that reason. Knowledge sought for its own sake gives one a breadth of mind that is not only good in itself, but also turns out to be useful. It is useful because, contrary to the advocates of scientific specialization, knowledge of the liberal arts allows one to find the whole in the particulars and escape being mentally trapped by the limits of a certain discipline. Education in the liberal arts enables a student to see things as they really are; it keeps a student’s mind open, so that at length, with due circumspection, he can at last close in upon the truth. This is the mark of the gentleman, or what today we might call a civilized man—not good class background or fine manners per se, but the philosophical refinement of the intellect that is achieved through the gentle discipline of liberal learning.

University College, Oxford

Newman’s vision of the university won many converts among those who wished to preserve the preeminent place of the liberal arts against the encroachments of the social and natural sciences: an echo of his themes may be found in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, which describes liberal education as coming into familiarity with “the best that has been thought and said” on all subjects of human interest. But Wissenschaft breached the walls of academe in late nineteenth-century America. Theology was dethroned and replaced by a dizzying succession of disciplines and sciences, both natural and social. This development only accelerated after World War II. More and more students were entering American colleges and universities to avail themselves of the benefits of the GI Bill. Their goal was not to study the liberal arts, and so to perfect their human nature; rather, it was to “make it” in American society.

In response to the increased, government-subsidized demand, many American university administrators in the 1950s marketed higher education like any other commodity, attracting consumers by multiplying major fields of study, lowering admission standards, and promoting profitable extracurricular distractions like intercollegiate athletics. Moreover, after the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, the competitive pressures of the Cold War prompted generous government funding for research in the natural sciences, enhancing their prestige and economic cachet for university presidents and students alike. Higher education became big business.

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