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By Benjamin Myers, First Things, 3 . 19 . 19
In The Republic, Plato’s Socrates tells of a man who lives with a beast. The beast is demanding, and the man must cater to its whims. Soon, the man becomes so accustomed to placating the beast that he comes to define what is good by what the beast wants, and what is bad by what the beast rejects. Plato ends this story by asking, “does this man seem any different from the man who believes it is wisdom to have figured out the anger and pleasures—whether in painting, music, or particularly, in politics—of the multifarious many who assemble?”
In the field of education today, the beast is known as “consultants,” “educational trends,” or “best practices.” Our colleges and universities now have vast appendages devoted solely to ministering to (the root meaning of ad minister) this beast of popular opinion. The result is an educational establishment that has abandoned the permanent things that give meaning and true sweetness to human life. Instead, our institutions of “higher learning” devote their energy and resources to chasing the flimsy trends of the moment.
Universities reduce or eliminate foreign language requirements to make sure that no “unnecessary” work stands between a student and his career-defined degree. They shrink the core curriculum (permitting pre-professional majors to inflate their share of credit hours) under the supposed pressure of maintaining accreditation from various professional societies—all so that their graduates can gain expertise in techniques and technologies that will be obsolete in a year or two. Perhaps worst of all, they replace the unified and coherent liberal arts core with a grab-bag of “gen-ed” requirements, so that the student who doesn’t wish to read Cicero or Shakespeare can instead study soap operas or comic books and still call himself “educated.” For regardless of what one has learned, it is the claim of having been to college—and the more name recognition for that college, the better—that earns one respect and a good job. It is in light of this decline in educational standards that we should understand the recent college admissions scandal, in which Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and others paid large amounts of money to get their children, through bribery and fraud, into “elite” universities.
If education is what the beast says it is, a mere means to the end of greater wealth and prestige, then what these parents did makes perfect sense. If the point is to possess credentials—not knowledge and wisdom—why wouldn’t those with wealth use it to fake their children’s credentials and accomplishments? Many of those outraged by the behavior of these celebrity parents share the foundational assumptions that make sense of such actions—that the point of education is not to “get wisdom,” in the words of Proverbs, but to gain prestige. The parents who bribed their kids’ way into college were just feeding the beast, the same as everybody else.
Universities are flailing and failing not despite their infatuation with the preoccupations of “the flies of a summer,” but because of it. As many have noted, an alarming higher education bubble now exists, analogous to the housing bubble which burst in 2008. Never has the American consumer willingly paid so much hoping to get so little. Universities addicted to government-backed money are finding it harder to get their fix. As cheap alternatives to the multitudinous campuses offering mediocre education at premium prices pop up online or in storefronts around the country, the law of supply and demand kicks in. The watered-down, mediocre, and aimless college that can’t survive on the life-support of government funding is destined to die. The private university will have to get serious.
Private colleges that want to survive and even thrive must rediscover the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Few “consultants” understand this, but devotion to the summum bonum, to a deeper understanding of human thriving, is the path to healthy academic institutions. It is also good business. The classical education movement in K-12 education is rapidly growing across the country, with many students and parents looking for a more meaningful form of education than the dreary factories we call public schools. Students who started kindergarten as the classical school movement began to pick up steam a decade ago are now looking for colleges that reflect and honor their intellectual values. The number of students seeking real education, focused on great books and the Western tradition, will continue to grow as more classical schools are founded each year. Astute colleges and universities are already courting these students by adding or expanding their offerings in classical languages and by creating great books programs. Meanwhile, other universities continue to feed the beast of popular opinion, which will eventually devour them when there are no more students to eat.
In a recent opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith called for a turn to “visionary traditionalism” as the best remedy for what ails higher education. In Smith’s diagnosis, America’s colleges are “drowning in B.S.” He lists the abandonment of a belief in objective truth, the neglect of the liberal arts, the fragmentation of the core curriculum into ever-greater specialization, the one-sided political atmosphere on campuses, and the absurd coddling of students as among the contributing factors to this gruesome suffocation. As Smith recognizes, the best response to this state of affairs is not restless “innovation,” or a chase after whatever “best practices” other mediocre universities have been pursuing for the last fifteen minutes. Only a “visionary traditionalism”—a bold return to long-standing educational principles in the West—can rid our universities of corrosive “B.S.”
Visionary Traditionalism means a return to the great books and important ideas of the Western world. It means reviving classes in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, despite what consultants might say about the beast’s demand for more pre-professional programs. Universities, especially private Christian universities, stay relevant not by chasing the needs of the moment, but by addressing themselves to the lasting questions in human life.
Benjamin Myers is Crouch-Mathis Professor of Literature at Oklahoma Baptist University and the 2015–2016 Poet Laureate of the State of Oklahoma.