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Toward the Renewal of Humanistic Education in America

Joseph M. Keegin
Joseph M. Keegin is a writer and editor at Athwart and The Point Magazine currently living in Chicago. He blogs at www.fxxfy.net.

Higher education is in bad shape. This has been the case for decades, of course: by the time Allan Bloom published his bestselling polemic against the state of the academy in 1987, a handful of other, arguably more prescient critiques had preceded it: Illich, Barzun, Carne-Ross. The critiques point to a common hollowing: the American academy churns out degreed technicians who have had the love of humane learning drummed out of them, or who had never been given a taste for it at all. Even William James had recognized the drift of education toward credentialism all the way back in 1903: “The Doctor-Monopoly in teaching, which is becoming so rooted an American custom, can show no serious grounds whatsoever for itself in reason. As it actually prevails and grows in vogue among us, it is due to childish motives exclusively. In reality it is but a sham, a bauble, a dodge, whereby to decorate the catalogues of schools and colleges.”

And (surprise) things are worse now. Colleges and universities have ignored these Cassandras and charged headlong into all of the trends that contribute to its degradation: obsessive credentialization, tuition inflation, a fondness for gratuitous abstraction, “publish or perish” prioritizing of dubious research over teaching, elitism. As I wrote last October in The Point, the academy that once served as a “serious house” (in Larkin’s phrasing) for the cultivation of intellectual and moral excellence has become a training center for bureaucrats—contemplatives and the curious need not apply.

The academy has become a training center for bureaucrats—contemplatives and the curious need not apply.

Now, however, it faces perhaps the most serious destabilization in its recent history, on account of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass shift to virtual classrooms and online education. Can universities continue to justify their exorbitant tuition rates while offering no student amenities, no hallowed halls to stroll, no proximity to celebrity professors, and nothing resembling the “college experience” that countless young people anticipate? How many more schools will shutter in the next year, knowing their slim endowments won’t be able to rescue them from financial collapse? What will happen to education as we know it?

Anastasia Berg and Jon Baskin raised these questions recently in the New York Times: “In the midst of such an existential crisis for higher education,” they ask, “is it even reasonable to expect the humanities to survive?” The financial crisis faced by higher education, they argue, forces the question not only of the university’s survival but also of its purpose—which is, or should be, tied to what we call the humanities. The academy has pushed the humanities to the margins, in favor of “scientistic knowledge accumulation, political activism and the cultivation of ‘analytical skills’ thought to be prized in Silicon Valley.”

But the beating heart of Western education has always been those burning, fundamental questions that motivate deep, serious thinking: “Is there freedom? Is there punishment for evil deeds? What is a good society? How should I live?” And if the universities won’t house the humanities, they suggest, then perhaps the humanities will find more fertile soil to grow in outside the campus walls.

The beating heart of Western education has always been those burning, fundamental questions that motivate deep, serious thinking. And if the universities won’t house the humanities, then perhaps the humanities will find more fertile soil to grow in outside the campus walls.

When facing this problem, many, including Baskin and Berg, propose the formation of new institutions to serve as the new home of the humanities. And here, they see room for optimism: since the pandemic reached our shores, “millions of Americans have gravitated to online reading groups and book clubs, attended Zoom panels on the burdens of history and the meaning of open discourse, watched philosophy lectures on YouTube and flocked to longform, humanistic magazines.” But they insist that a successful rehumanizing of America will need to involve more than the diversification of media channels. New kinds of educational enterprises should be founded that make humanistic reflection their central pursuit:

This could include helping to design robust liberal arts curriculums for secondary-school students or supporting the growing stable of “great books” schools like the Living Water School in Maryland; working with companies like [email protected], which use English professors to moderate seminars about short stories in workplaces; and valuing continuing education courses . . . as seriously as we value traditional undergraduate education. And it means undertaking those activities not as experts or sages, but as partners in a continuing dialogue about how we should live together.

Their list is a good one, and one quite representative of proposals of this kind. But notably absent is any reference to one of the few institutions of the old American civil society that still enjoys some popularity: the church. Though those universities originally founded as Christian institutions have left their commitment to that Light behind, many Christian traditions have long understood the educative potential of the local house of worship. Along with the operation of parochial schools and programs for children, parishes have long been home to Bible studies, book groups, panel discussions, guest lectures, and other opportunities for moral, spiritual, and intellectual development. My parish in Louisville had an adult forum that had offered lectures by guests and parishioners for years; my new parish in Chicago invited me and several other younger adults to give talks as part of a Lenten program series last spring. And there is a thriving Christian classical education movement, inspired by Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which has revitalized traditions of humanistic learning based on the classical trivium. Schools and homeschool groups, some linked to specific churches, some nondenominational, are preparing at least some students for serious humanistic study in universities that may or may not themselves be prepared to give these students the food for which they’ve been given a taste.

However, the plurality of churches in America are not exempt from the same rot that pervades the rest of our civic institutions. Sunday attendance across the full breadth of American Christendom—with perhaps the sole exception of megachurches—had been in steady decline for decades before the pandemic landed; many parishes and seminaries are selling off church property to real estate developers. In 2019, 76 percent of baby boomers and 67 percent of Gen Xers claimed the mantle of Christianity. By contrast, fewer than 50 percent of millennials—those born between 1981 and 1996—did. Those numbers, we can assume, will continue to dwindle, and parishes will continue to shutter.

This rapid decline of American social capital has long been a subject of academic documentation and debate. And the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing. The entropic force of liquid modernity appears as strong as ever, and despite repeated efforts to rescue and reform traditional humanistic learning within the academy, pressures to provide metrics, to turn out particular sorts of people with particularly narrowed sensibilities, particularly tailored opinions, seem to be overwhelming. The problem, it seems, isn’t the institutions, but the barrenness of the ground beneath the institutions. Where much should grow, nothing is thriving.

The problem, it seems, isn’t the institutions, but the barrenness of the ground beneath the institutions. Where much should grow, nothing is thriving.

This problem was very familiar to the Austrian Catholic priest and social critic Ivan Illich. Responding to the progressive education movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Illich saw that the education on offer had little to do with the classical goal of education: training in the trivium and quadrivium, the moral and aesthetic cultivation of young souls. Rather, he saw it as mere “schooling,” a kind of management and training that serves primarily as “a ritual of initiation into a growth-oriented consumer society.” This is the “hidden curriculum” of modern schooling: not education for the good of the student, but the shaping of the student in accordance with the demands of an industrial economy—which requires more and more schooling. In our postindustrial economy, students must be shaped somewhat differently: they must be shaped as those who will be subject, during their working lives, to the ever-changing demands of the managerial class. They must be taught above all not to offend. It is a parody of Christian friendship, made in the image of the human resources department.

In our postindustrial economy, students must be taught above all not to offend. It is a parody of Christian friendship, made in the image of the human resources department.

What lies behind this “hidden curriculum,” for Illich, is the problem of institutionalization. “The future,” Illich wrote in his Deschooling Society, “depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies. We need a new set of criteria which permit us to recognize those institutions which support personal growth rather than addiction.” It is not enough to simply call for the creation of new institutions: this kind of demand more often than not results in the repetition of the same problems it seeks to solve. Rather, institutionality itself must be brought into question. Why is it that the institutions we make—especially those with an educational mission—tend toward their own self-preservation above all else? Why do so many supposedly contrarian educational initiatives recapitulate the same logic of prestige, exclusion, and credentialization that defines industrial schooling writ large? Why does the proposal always seem to be “more years of schooling, but different”?

One need not follow Illich to his ultimate conclusion—the “disestablishment” of education and the creation of new “convivial” institutions for self-education—to agree with his critique of modern schooling. Nor must you agree with the goal of deschooling society at large to agree that our education system excels at enforcing social and political conformity and largely fails to help the young develop responsibility for their own learning and thinking, intellectual courage, or true curiosity. Such intellectual virtues are always scarce, but especially so in our age of widespread institutional corruption and collapse, under an oligarchic government occupied by pitiless careerists and warring fanatics.

It is not enough to simply call for the creation of new institutions. Rather, institutionality itself must be brought into question. Why is it that the institutions we make tend toward their own self-preservation above all else?

As Illich knew, Christianity is uniquely suited to address this problem of institutionality, and ultimately to reinvigorate humanistic education in America. Christ came into the world not to make us perfect political subjects, compliant employees, or maximally productive contributors to the economy, but to direct us toward holiness and to make us members of a community grounded in divine love, justice, and mercy rather than acquisitiveness and human caprice. Christianity inaugurates a way of being together that is at once individualistic and communitarian: in Christ we are knit into a community of believers, but we are also made responsible for what we say, think, and do. Christian community demands that we be our brother’s keeper, that our concern always be directed toward helping liberate others from the various tethers of this world in order to take on freely the easy yoke of our Lord’s justice and mercy. A Christian approach to education cannot ever take as its chief goal subsuming the student more seamlessly into a political or economic system, helping her maximize her earning potential, or training her to be a more effective political actor. The guidance of the soul toward the good is the only aim; everything else is incidental.

And ultimately, no institution can replace the lifelong pursuit of the human person striving to know wisdom, that desire which is inseparable from holiness. To renew humanistic education in America is to renew the love of wisdom. And that is the place to start.