The Swindle of Higher Education

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By Anthony Esolen, The Cardinal Newman Society, May 8, 2018

Every day seems to bring to public awareness some new offense against common decency, against the life of the mind, against the spirit of man on a quest for truth and beauty and goodness, and against the possibility that he can come together with others to see what they have seen, and to show them what he has seen. In other words, every day comes a new story from the nation’s second biggest swindle, higher education.

Today I came upon an academic discussion of someone’s mad thesis, that Pliny the Younger wrote the letters of Saint Paul, and that the Romans in general wrote the New Testament to protect their institution of slavery. The author says that they employed a “royal language,” opaque to the commons and so secret that not one iota of evidence for it has survived to our time. Of course the target is Christianity. Then there’s the foul-mouthed and immensely vicious professor of creative writing who danced on the grave of Barbara Bush. And the new course at the University of Texas—note well, Texas, not Vermont—that purports to relieve young men of their “toxic masculinity,” clippers and nippers to be purchased by the patients themselves. And a staging of Romeo and Juliet, held at a college in Colorado—note, Colorado, not California—which distinguished itself by having everybody except Juliet cross-dress; I was not sure whether that meant that a soprano Romea was dressed as Romeo in tights with cotton wadding, or a baritone Romeo was dressed as Romea, with pretty pink flounces.

I do not believe that such things are properly to be regarded as exceptions. The mafiosowho shows up at your grocery to demand your monthly protection money is not an exception, even if the great majority of people in your neighborhood are not mafiosi. He is diagnostic of your way of life. The duelist who shoots his opponent through the heart on account of a dispute over honor is not an exception, even if only one person in a thousand in your neighborhood has ever fought or will ever fight a duel. He is diagnostic of your way of life. Most white people in the ante-bellum American south did not show up at the market to purchase slaves. The market was diagnostic of their way of life nonetheless.

Businesses now use the college as a filter, a provider of credentials, not because young people learn anything in college that the businesses need them to know, but because completing high school no longer means that you can be trusted to show up for work on time, to write a letter that makes any sense, to do a little complicated arithmetic, to dress in a becoming way, to speak decent English, and to be able to maintain an interesting conversation for five minutes. The result is that college has sagged in order to pacify the many young people who do not belong there. It is a social, not an intellectual enterprise, or rather an antisocial enterprise, befitting the anti-society wherein the young people hope to realize their ambitions for “being somebody”—the church, the town, the neighborhood, and the family having vanished from their horizons of meaning.

Providence College, my place of employment for 27 years, had long fought a thankless fight to bring the great works of Western Civilization to students who were, in the main, agreeably bored by them, while professors themselves across the college condemned the whole enterprise as “racist,” effectively burning books they had never read. Its recent controversy over a student and his pro-marriage poster is diagnostic of its way of life. Most people there are not anti-Catholic bigots, or at least do not want to be such, but anti-Catholic bigotry is now well-established, as just one edge of a general bigotry against people with names like Homer, Cicero, Augustine, Dante, Milton, Bach, and the civilizations that nourished them. Marching to protest the “offense” of saying that a marriage is between a man and a woman is diagnostic also of what people believe a college education simply is, or is not. It apparently is not about truth. It is not that the opponents disagreed. It is that they denied the very possibility of disagreement. Outside of the natural sciences, nobody really has truth uppermost in his mind, and even within those natural sciences, truth has little breadth for ranging. Goodness is reduced to believing a long, growing, and ever-changing list of political dicta, and as for beauty, forget it.

The colleges are caught in a maze of their own construction. They have allowed themselves to feed from government-backed loans. They rely upon sheer numbers to pay the bills, but can only attract those numbers by means of fancy exercise buildings, cafeterias, stadiums, and other things that have nothing really to do with education. The swelling of the non-educational in the lives of the students has encouraged the swelling of administration at all levels, at enormous financial expense. The collapse of the American family has, however, meant that there are fewer students for the schools to chase, and that fewer of them will be well-enough adjusted, even if they do possess the requisite mental powers, to profit by a genuine college education. Those students must be caught in any case, so the schools advertise majors and minors and programs that bear little resemblance to reading Tolstoy or integrating a function over a surface or studying the arctic expeditions of John Muir; the degrees become simultaneously more of a burden to the family and the state, and cheaper in value.

In this situation, it behooves all faithful men and women, Catholics and other Christians, to sever themselves from a sentimental attachment to schools that really no longer exist. Let them go. Real colleges will need your support instead.


ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.