What do Universities Teach?

Several recent occurrences have put me to thinking about universities in particular and education in general. One was marching in the Eucharistic Procession through the streets of Cambridge, MA, in support of the Blessed Sacrament against the planned Black Mass at Harvard Memorial Hall, sponsored by Harvard Extension School — though not by the University per se. Two thousand people converged on Harvard Square, and entered St. Paul’s Church where a Holy Hour of reparation took place, attended by University president Dr. Drew Faust and Dr. Lucy A. Forster-Smith, Senior Minister in the Harvard Memorial Church — who both sat in the front row. The worshippers were joined by other Catholics who had said the Rosary at the intended site. The diabolical ceremony was withdrawn from Harvard by the students responsible and later held clandestinely at a nearby Chinese Restaurant, whose disgusted owner did not know what was going on until it was over.

The second was a meeting in Connecticut with a legendary academic and his wife a few weeks later. When I asked them why they thought general scholarship — the “life of the mind” — had declined in our time at University, she replied that part of the reason in her view, is that Ph.D.s are teaching undergraduates. “They tend to teach from their dissertations, and as the number of doctoral candidates has exploded these have become ever more focused on very small fragments of learning.” Certainly this provides a partial explanation for the ever-increasing lack of basic historical and cultural knowledge by college graduates — and their professors.

The third factor on my mind is simply that June is the month of university graduation ceremonies across the land, and indeed the globe, when “these Festival-rites, from the Age that is past” signal the eruption into the work force of another crop of university products. In a flurry of processions with university marshals and maces, academic caps and gowns, faculty chains of office, and heartfelt singing of alma maters, the young folk are released in to the “real” world. There shall be a baccalaureate service (or Mass, if the institution in question is at least nominally Catholic) in tandem with the other rituals.

Now we all know the fate that awaits many college grads today: an inability to find jobs in the field for which they were trained, leading to an employment career commencing with a fast food establishment. Of course, even if they do find jobs commensurate with their training, they enjoy mountains of debt. One might be forgiven if wondering whether or not an “education” is worth all the fuss and expense.

Part of the problem is that we no longer really know what “education” is or should be. But just as the robes and rituals of the judiciary; the uniforms, drill, parades, and regimental traditions of the military; the para-liturgies of parliaments and cities; the coronations and inaugurations of heads of state; and all the other State ceremonies serve as reminders of those institutions’ history and original intent, so too with the colorful costumes and punctilio of college commencements.

Universities as we know them developed from Medieval Cathedral and Monastic schools, and were much involved with teaching their pupils the Trivium and Quadrivium. These, married to a deep commitment to Theological enquiry, were intended to provide the student with sufficient knowledge to spend the rest of his life in pursuit of wisdom — not a “job.” Students at a given university were organized into colleges or “nations” (as at Oxford or Cambridge today). The teachers, on the other hand, were arrayed in “faculties,” such as Theology, Canon and Civil Law, Arts and Letters, and Medicine. Scholars wore the cap and gown to show their status, various rituals (such as Magdalen College’s May Morning or the Christmas Boar’s Head Feast) punctuated the school year, and the University church or college chapel played a huge role in the lives of under grads and grads alike.

Countries absorbed by the Protestant revolt saw their theological faculties similarly change hands, though little else altered. The aforementioned Trivium and Quadrivium became the basis of the “Classical Education” offered to all University students (a small minority of the European and diaspora population). Amongst other things common to this education was a grounding in Latin and Greek, providing a point of unity among the educated that lasted into the mid-20th century (which is why C.S Lewis and Frs. Giovanni Calabria and then Luigi Pedrollo could carry on their famous Latin correspondence).

Although the European and Latin American revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries saw the destruction of Catholic theological faculties in most of the Church’s heartland (and the creation in response of specifically Catholic universities in those regions so effected), Classical Education in itself continued in the face of both political unrest, the industrial revolution, and scientific advances. Of course, in the face of the latter two developments, more “technical” training also began to enter university level education. In the meantime, secondary education also began to alter; alongside university preparation, education for trades or technical schools was commenced in a second stream.

The 19th century saw in America the birth of the Public School, which sought to provide a general education suitable for either university or trade-bound students. It was secular (although generically Protestant prayers were provided, until banned as a clear and present danger to the constitution by their honors of the Supreme Court in 1962). Whatever its defects (and they were many, necessitating the birth of a parallel Parochial School system), academically this sort of schooling, with its McGuffey Readers and Spencerian Penmanship, was far more intensive and far-reaching that what is offered up today in many American universities.

That century also saw an explosion of European colonial empires across the globe. Armed only with their standard Classical Educations, administrators from Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Germany went out to the far corners of the Earth. They settled local disputes, built dams, bridges and roads, revitalized local agriculture, fought diseases, and in general introduced European infrastructure to places that had never known such wonders — and all with a minimum (if any) of technical knowledge taught them in University. The reason for such an amazing phenomenon is that Classical — or Liberal (in the sense of “freeing” the mind) — Education gave them, in addition to its prescribed subjects the “habit” of learning: such folk were adept at picking up whatever skills they needed for the particular challenges they faced. But again, such an education was the preserve of the few.

After the World Wars and their concomitant destruction of faith in traditional Western Civilization, the idea arose — especially in the United States — that modern ideas of equality required everyone to have a college education. So it was that after a while, no matter how skilled someone might be, his chances of getting a decent job were almost nil without the proverbial “sheepskin” — those without it were considered inferior. But at the same time, as the landmark 1955 study Why Johnny Can’t Read pointed out, schoolchildren were failing to acquire basic skills at an ever-growing rate. Much of American University education was accordingly dumbed down: “Soft” — but financially attractive — topics in Business, Sociology, and the like, came to be considered, due to their “practicality,” the equal or superior of the older disciplines. Latin and Greek were made optional, and what remained of Liberal Education after their elimination renamed “Humanities.” These in turn were subjected to the kind of specialization touched on at the beginning of this article, and so came to seem ever more irrelevant to “real” life.

In Europe, the dumbing down process was far slower; but the Continent saw the ever-loathsome “Generation of ‘68” force universities across Europe to drop such “elitist” trappings as gowns and graduation ceremonies, as well as the ejection of religion even further from student life (thankfully, the life of the various “Student Corps” in Central Europe continued unabated — in that area such groups as the KOEL often remain islands of sanity in an ideologically insane academia). Great Britain was more conservative: Latin graces and arcane rituals were preserved, even as co-education was introduced and political correctness invaded curricula.

In America, 60s-era Marxists found refuge in Academia, and with some success managed to ideologize their subjects. Moreover, even as the gray relics of the Woodstock era continued to mouth their nostra for a gender-and values-free world to hapless and ignorant students, the disciples of “deconstructionism” in the Humanities declared that nothing really meant anything anyway (why bother to pay people to tell us this important truth was a question apparently never asked).

A reaction set in, to some degree, in these United States. As early as the 1920s, academics such as John Erskine, Mortimer Adler and Mark Van Doren began the Great Books program, whereby students would approximate the heights Medieval learning had reached by careful study and analysis of the Great Books or Western Canon — those volumes that created the intellectual life of Western Civilization. This scheme, used either as a “common core” in such universities as Chicago or Columbia, or else as the sole ground of study as at St. John’s College, has definitely had a certain success. But it is certainly NOT the mainstream of American education. Thomas Aquinas College was later created to reunite this Western Tradition explicitly with the Catholic Faith from whence that Tradition had come and which gave it its reason for being.

There are, today, several concentric problems facing those interested in University Education — and particularly the parents of potential undergrads. Pace the egalitarianism of a graduate with a degree in Business flipping burgers while trying to fend off crushing student loan payments, is this really a good plan? If the career an individual wants does not really depend upon a degree, why waste four years and thousands of dollars? Far better to go to a good trade school or on-the-job training, and give oneself the extra leg up in tool and die or whatever. One might do better in improving his mind and life by working online with the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas.

But if one REALLY must go to University, another problem emerges. Does one settle for a purely employment-based training, or does one attempt to obtain as much of a real education as the college chosen allows? Does one strive to enter an elite private school, a large public university, a specialized liberal arts college, or one of the Great Books programs? In a very large school, of course, one might well be able to assemble a liberal arts education purely out of the right elective courses. A very good aid to making these extremely individual decisions are the college guides issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Another issue is religious. This is quite apart from the fact that an attempt at a purely secular liberal arts education necessarily leaves out a huge chunk of the reality that such an education is supposed to equip one to explore. As much as the caps and gowns, etc., chaplaincies at secular colleges are relics of the days of yore. But that does not mean that they are without value. Due to the need to attend to extremely diverse student bodies, such outfits tend by nature to be syncretistic and what we Catholics would consider indifferentist. Nevertheless the Catholic members of such teams (as currently at Harvard, Columbia, and USC) may be much more orthodox — and more helpful to the souls of their students — than many a nominally Catholic or Jesuit school’s chaplains. Yet even such places, as at Georgetown and Notre Dame, sometimes feature student-initiated Tridentine Masses and/or other orthodox practices. Military Colleges and Academies offer Catholic chaplaincies that vary wildly. There are of course also solidly Catholic small colleges, such as TAC, Christendom, Thomas More, Magdalen, and Wyoming. But these are by definition small, with the advantages and disadvantages that implies — such intimate atmospheres are wonderful for some students and not for others. There are no “one size fits all” solutions here either.

At the end of the day, if a University or College education is effective, it shall give the student the following gifts, in addition to knowledge of the specific subjects taught: critical thought; the ability to look things up; a thirst for ever more knowledge; and an ever-growing realization of the part God plays and the Church ought to play in the world. In short, as with anything else worthwhile, an individual’s education ought to assist him further in his quest for Salvation.

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