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Religion & Liberty: Volume 32, Number 3

Education as the Fullness of Life

    Plato, in The Republic, complains that in democratic times a teacher “fears and fawns upon the pupils, and the pupils pay no heed to the teacher … or to their overseers either.” The youth ignore their elders, while those supposedly wiser and more experienced “are full of pleasantry and graciousness, imitating the young for fear they may be thought disagreeable and authoritative.” Augustine in his Confessions bemoans the intransigence of his students as well as their unwillingness to pay him. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure contrasts the academic seriousness of Jude Fawley with his classmates, whose commitment to their education leaves much to be desired.

    The problems with modern higher education are all too familiar, but solutions are closer to hand than one might think. Start with “do your job.”

    Our generation may not have invented academic corruption, but we have gone a ways toward perfecting it. Still, it is worth remembering that every generation has its scoundrels and saints, good and bad students and teachers. In many ways the basics of education haven’t changed that much: There are things worth knowing that require much study; those that engage in that study seek to communicate what they’ve learned; the knowledge gained proves both useful and generative of personal growth. Granted, one can alter how such knowledge gets communicated, and one can diminish the authority of the teacher as well as the natural curiosity of the student (indeed, one might think of our school systems as devices for turning naturally curious five-year-olds into jaded and disengaged 18-year-olds), but you can’t completely efface the desire to know.

    One shouldn’t despair too readily over our contemporary state of affairs. I’ve written widely on the derailment of our educational institutions and the winnowing of standards. If that’s all there was to the story, it would be difficult to explain why I’ve stuck with it for 30-plus years. The answer is simple: I’ve loved what I teach and who I teach, and I’ve been able to teach with a great deal of freedom. The average college professor knows he has an employer who exercises some authority over him and presents him with hoops he must jump through, but he also experiences a great deal of autonomy. I’ve been critical of my employer in print with no serious repercussions, and I’ve never been told not to teach material I’ve judged worthy.

    More to the point, I’ve been fortunate to have my classes populated with bright, eager, hardworking young persons. Certainly there have been slackers and ne’er-do-wells, and some hardworking kids who don’t quite have it and other kids who have it but don’t work hard; but every year I’ve been in this profession, I’ve had students who I knew for a fact had both a better mind and a better soul than my own. It’s been a privilege to stand in front of them and sit alongside them and contribute in my own way to their development. A teacher who forgets this ought to do the honorable thing and find a new career.

    As I said, we didn’t invent academic malfeasance, but we seem committed to the project. The academic enterprise, however, is resilient, and it’s no mystery why: To quote Aristotle, all men by nature seek to know. This desire can never be eradicated, and while we might dim its flame by not fueling it, we can never snuff it out. When things look dark, the love of learning may burn brighter than ever. What it needs is the right environment.

    We need to recapture the proper idea of a community and to understand America as a community of communities. Therapeutic or familial or ecclesial models do not translate well to academic communities. These must, like all communities, satisfy deep human longings for meaning, for belonging, for status, and for a strong sense of self. Evidence indicates that our colleges and universities are failing on this score, and one of the reasons for that, I suggest, is because they are far too self-conscious about it. Take the desire for meaning as an example. We experience its absence when we are engaged in activities that carry within them no intrinsic relationship to the good pursued. One doesn’t wrestle on the ground with one’s young children asking what the point of it is. The point is fully present within the activity, just as you as a participant are fully present in the activity.

    The Saint Augustine Taken to School by Saint Monica, by Niccolò di Pietro 1413–15
    (Image credit: Public Domain)

    This defense of the liberal arts as historically understood laments how education has become instrumentalized. Learning for the sake of learning is the natural default of human beings. Nietzsche wrote that a man’s seriousness consists of having “regained the seriousness he had as a child at play.” Even so. Recapturing the curiosity we had as children at play is the path forward. Instead, we encourage students to see themselves as consumers and education instrumentally. In the process we derail their natural desire to know.

    Neither do we provide students with answers to the question of what it means to be a human being that takes seriously the four years of leisure college provides. Newman argued that in a liberal arts education the modes of action have their ends in themselves; they are not primarily directed to extrinsic purposes such as satisfying a requirement or getting a good job. A community requires for its perfection persons dedicated to contemplation, who are literally use-less (because human beings, like education, ought not be instrumentalized). Such contemplation would necessarily involve an opening up of the self to the transcendent, to learn to be in a receptive mode.

    Joseph Pieper in his Leisure: The Basis of Culture argues that the active life dedicated to work is not the opposite of idleness but a species of it. Acedia is a lack of being-at-one with oneself, of not wanting to be fully human. In the modern world we tend to see acedia as a lack of ambition or lack of productivity. Rather, Pieper sees acedia opposed not by “the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living” but instead by the “the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God.” (One wonders why at least one college hasn’t adopted this as its mission statement.) A certain kind of inactivity, leisure, then, is a fulfillment of the command to keep the Sabbath, while “industry” may violate the idea of resting in and with God.

    Such rest, connected to our eternal nature, frees us from mere idleness or mere labor, and directs us, Pieper claims, toward worship and festive hope. Knowing born of leisure cannot be directed by anything or serve a purpose other than itself—or else it would be servile rather than liberal. To subordinate liberal education to the needs of the state or the economy is to destroy liberal education, for then it becomes merely a means rather than an end.

    Rest in God unifies the self. Without the unifying movement of activity into such rest (and the underlying conception of what it means to be human), we become diffused and dissipated. Not understanding leisure, neither can we understand work. And not understanding work, neither can we understand how to fill students’ days, or our own, in any meaningful way. We vitiate the classroom of its noble purposes and we create an indulgent but not a coherent education.

    Students spend fewer hours on their studies, and schools compensate for this releasing of time by building larger recreation centers, greater opportunities for amusement, a budget-crushing student life organization, and, tellingly, a revolving door on their counseling center. The rise in mental health problems among students has been dramatic in the past decades, and the percentage of students who seek counseling services has these offices operating on a nearly 24-hour basis. Current students have about a 50/50 chance of becoming clinically depressed while in college. A Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory questionnaire demonstrated that students were five times more likely to experience anxiety and depression as were students during the Great Depression.

    It is now more important than ever that liberal arts colleges rethink what they are and what they are doing and work to create alternative modes of community. Surely this is what Alasdair MacIntyre was getting at when he noted that resistance to the Roman imperium coalesced when individuals “ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with that imperium” and instead began to form new communities where the moral life in its wholeness could be sustained amid the coming barbarism. Perhaps the liberal arts college that serves the American imperium least serves it best.

    A simple affirmation of what is good or beautiful has more power than a hundred criticisms of what is wrong, and affirmation and criticism shape the soul in different ways.

    This relates to Michael Oakeshott’s claim in The Voice of Liberal Learning that “the idea ‘School’ is that of detachment from the immediate, local world of the learner, its current concerns and the directions it gives to his attention.” A college or university, he argues, “is a place apart in which the heir may encounter his moral and intellectual inheritance, not in the terms in which it is being used in the current engagements and occupations of the world outside (where much of it is forgotten, neglected, obscured, vulgarized or abridged, and where it appears only in scraps and as investments in immediate enterprises) but as an estate, entire, unqualified and unencumbered.”

    Oakeshott affirms that the university is part of society yet does not contribute “to some other kind of activity in the society” but is concerned only with “being itself and not another thing. Its first business is with the pursuit of learning.” Universities have lost their way when they no longer encourage students to be “in search of their intellectual fortune” but instead to “desire only a qualification for earning a living or a certificate to let them in on the exploitation of the world.”

    We’ve witnessed no shortage of educational reform efforts in the past few decades, and for the most part they have failed. The failure can best be explained by the loss of focus; that is, they’ve looked at environmental or other factors while taking their eyes off the student. No educational reform can work if it neglects the reality of young persons as beings with both a capacity and a desire to know.

    That’s all rather abstract, however. What concrete effects does such attention yield? How might our educational institutions better develop this capacity and desire to know? I know of no one-sized-fits-all solution, but I do think there are general principles. Some of the controversy over the recently proposed University of Austin at Texas centered on the financial and logistical implausibilities of starting a new college. These critics seemed to have forgotten that all colleges started at some point, most of which because a donor or group of donors could make the large-scale capital investment necessary to create the institution. These institutions were typically created for specific purposes or out of a certain tradition or to serve a particular community. Like any institution, schools have had to deal with the tension of being both inward-looking and outward-looking. Too much inwardness and they can quickly become stale or calcified; too much outwardness and they can get unmoored quickly, losing the “distinctiveness” that makes them genuinely interesting.

    This tension manifests itself frequently in the hiring process. Schools that hire only their own graduates or graduates from similar schools tend to get stuck in their ways and may miss out on genuine progress. Conversely, schools that eagerly adapt “best practices” and aggressively hire people from outside their tradition soon become indistinguishable from all their competitors. This homogenizing of American education effaces the very thing that makes American education not only interesting but, in many ways still, the envy of the world. After all, we produce most of the world’s Nobel Prize winners and lead the world in patents. Young people come from all over the world to study on our campuses, all too often outperforming their American counterparts.

    I’m suggesting that when schools begin to lose their way it’s usually because they’ve become too outward-looking, the proper response to which is to become more inward. When your tradition is slipping away from you is precisely the time to double down on it, and to do so unabashedly. This may mean actively recruiting graduates from your college to return and share with a new generation of students the same fanning of the flame they received when they studied there. It means hiring for mission rather than credential, for good citizen over gifted climber.

    In order to maintain their mission and academic integrity, schools may want to revisit the uses and abuses of tenure. Tenure and promotion are both carrot and stick, but once given, the tenured, not the coachman, are now in possession of the horse. As a result schools have very few tools to compel compliance with basic faculty expectations. The fact is, there is a great deal of shirking that takes place and very little accountability. Faculty miss classes with seeming impunity. They often give a student’s paper a cursory reading at best, if they read it at all. Frequently not preparing for class, they’ll go in and talk about whatever tickles their fancy that particular day or, worse still, turn class into an encounter session.

    Plato identified not doing your job as a particular mode of injustice in that it upsets the harmonious balancing of parts. College campuses face an epidemic of people not doing their jobs: Faculty don’t teach the subject they are paid to teach and will often use class time to discuss matters outside their field. Student evaluations at the end of the semester not only don’t solve the problem but distract from the mechanism that can—administrators actually going into the classroom and seeing faculty at work, as well as meeting with students to get honest feedback. The administrative bloat on campuses would be much more tolerable if it resulted in greater accountability for faculty and staff.

    Plato and Aristotle in "The School of Athens" by Raphael
    (Image credit: Public Domain)

    At the same time, we must insist on the maintenance of academic standards. Getting something for nothing creates crises of confidence. Students disengage in classrooms when they know there are no repercussions for doing so. Schools should focus on making sure conferring degrees represents serious effort and struggle on behalf of students. This requires not only addressing grade inflation but also restricting admissions. Fewer students will mean fewer colleges, or at least colleges with more modest ambitions. Let’s state the obvious: Not every high school graduate should go to college, and not every college is going to produce global leaders.

    The identity crisis on campus mirrors the absence of academic standards in another way: Rather than creating communities of learning, we are busy creating communities based on accidental characteristics. This fragmenting of the academic community has a number of effects. For one thing, it invites students to think of academic learning as subordinate to group identity. The search for truth is substituted with the possession of “my truth.” Secondly, academic success relates to one’s relation to a peer group. Students learn more and can become more resilient and develop more active minds when they are challenged by their peers in informal conversations. Certainly learning takes place in the classroom, but a good deal of it takes place outside the classroom. Schools such as Hillsdale that make learning “cool” are adept at supporting and cultivating these kinds of interactions. Faculty should be involved in helping to form these communities of learning but also need to be as absent as possible so that students may create their own dynamic. Getting rid of affinity groups may encourage students to reconvene on a different basis, and that will likely be an academic one. When I was in college, our coffee table was an “all-comers” corner. It didn’t matter what race or sex you were; the only thing that mattered was whether you were smart, engaged, informed, and ready to mix it up. It was invigorating and humbling and got us outside ourselves.

    Having said that, I would not for a minute discount the itch affinity groups scratch. The original title of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind was Souls Without Longing. It’s not inconsequential that the publisher replaced souls with minds. Students had souls back then and they have them now; and while we might be doing a poor job cultivating their minds, we haven’t fully quieted their souls. But restless souls that are not given a positive direction, particularly when we allow feeling and not reason to rule, will soon settle on anything that promises to give them that sense of meaning they so desperately need.

    Rather than suppressing the desire, we should understand that student groups respond to a genuine human need and offer a means to satisfy the desire. Here is where the academy’s loss of confidence makes of itself its own gravedigger. The restoration both of disciplinary integrity and high academic standards will give students a sense of accomplishment, dissipate a lot of the ideological battles taking place on campuses, better prepare students for life outside college campuses, and provide a tonic to the poison of boredom that infects undergraduate life.

    I’d be remiss here if I didn’t remind the reader that rigor accompanies genuine academic work, and this academic work in turn cannot be thought of simply in instrumental terms. Subordinating academic work to bourgeois notions of career development or advancement or progressive or conservative notions of preparing students to fight the culture wars distracts us from genuinely unifying engagements with transcendentals. The open-ended search for truth contrasts with closed ideological formation; it’s the difference between education and indoctrination. Among the many objections against indoctrination is that it is predictable, and therefore dull. It’s no wonder that our students are so bored. We seldom place in front of them the prospect for open-ended discovery, the excitement that accompanies it, or the joy involved in rigorous effort.

    Neither ought we neglect the place of beauty in their lives. Truth attracts us while error repels us, and this is a fundamentally aesthetic insight. Eros drives us to penetrate ever deeper into the truth. Thus, either misdirecting or suppressing the soul’s longings is an act of de-eroticization. The solution involves reawakening those desires, and art and beauty are the mechanism of such reawakening. Schools must intentionally avoid whatever is coarse or grotesque or otherwise ugly (including much rhetoric) and stimulate the twitch for beauty.

    Concretely, this means using books or essays that are well crafted and engagingly written. Where possible, avoid the mind-numbing and soul-crushing prose of textbooks and much of academic writing. With effort and attention, most any class, especially in the humanities and social sciences, can be taught using books that people want to read instead of have to read. Likewise, books should not be assigned on their ideological merits but on their literary ones. All too often we view education as an opportunity for students to form their identities rather than to engage dialectically with something attractive. Perhaps the best metaphor for this is that many young men on our campuses would rather view pornography than date an actual young woman. The former is a perverted and artificial notion of attractiveness, one that is replicable, indistinct, and replaceable. The latter is beauty itself: inexhaustible, irreplaceable, unique, and significant. The former is an escape and the latter an adventure. The former is solipsistic and the latter communal. The former is isolating and the latter integrating. The former brings with it shame and the latter joy.

    Beauty has always been the pulley by which humans have lifted themselves out of despair. Our crisis is not simply that we don’t have a clear idea of what beauty is or why it matters; our crisis is that we no longer care to ask the question. To the degree we think about beauty, we reduce it to matters of taste. This subjectivizing of beauty has serious consequences, and not only as regards the search for truth. Young people need as much as ever to discover the joy of a Mozart concerto; the pain, angst, and triumph of a Mahler symphony; the exquisite tension of Brahms; the infinite ingenuity and piety of Bach. The Four Seasons aren’t The Four Seasons. Unless truth retains its intimate connection to a more fulsome notion of beauty, it too becomes highly subjectivized. It’s little wonder then that our notions of what is good suffer the same fate, buttressing themselves through humanitarian sentiment rather than individual obligation.

    This struggle against subjectivism shouldn’t be misconstrued. I’m referring here to a set of standards and cultural artifacts that can make some headway on the depths of human longing, and suggesting that colleges do themselves a disservice when they ignore such. A simple affirmation of what is good or beautiful has more power than a hundred criticisms of what is wrong, and affirmation and criticism shape the soul in different ways. Professors on both the left and the right suffer from a tendency to negativity. Indeed, by elevating “critical” thinking over mere thinking or, worse still, over piety, we put students in an adversarial relationship to their culture.

    The appeal of negativity only lasts so long. The mind may open, but eventually it wants to close on something. Affirmation compels assent more than negation does. This is, of course, part of the appeal of identity politics, and simply complaining about it reinforces that appeal. The key is to present an attractive alternative. Part of that must involve building relationships with students, relationships grounded in a shared academic enterprise. Students will quickly realize that if you don’t care about their politics you are much more likely to care about them.

    Sticking to teaching what the school pays you to teach makes this all the easier. If Plato is to be trusted, “do your job” is a principle of justice, for it leads to a harmonious balancing of elements. Part of doing your job also means not doing someone else’s job, and not letting someone else tell you how to do your job. I’m not the president of the college. I am free to let him know how I see things, especially if asked, but I am not free to tell him how to do things. One obvious reason for this is that I’m not required to attend to the big picture, nor to attend to all the different stakeholders and interests; nor, for that matter, am I responsible for the decisions that get made. Accountability is related to office and function; faculty who weigh in on how the college ought to be run should be reminded it’s easy to make those calls from a couch.

    Students will quickly realize that if you don’t care about their politics you are much more likely to care about them.

    “Doing your job” makes academic work all that much more attractive and keeps it from being polluted. Politicization necessarily divides the class and creates fear in the classroom. But sticking to a subject matter frees students up because the emphasis is on what’s being talked about and not about either the intentions of the speaker or the effects of such speech on someone else in the classroom. A lot of disagreement can be handled with the simple question, Is it true?

    Colleges and universities may be independent of society, but they are not separate from it. They operate within a historical context, one that can cruelly sort out institutions. My alma mater, Calvin College, has spent the past 10 years gutting the humanities and social sciences, slashing programs and faculty positions, but also now building a $22 million business building. The message is clear, and the school is in the process of becoming something other than what it was. On a macro level, many schools will fail altogether, and others will survive only by becoming something different. The sad fact is that the market can’t bear the weight of colleges being the kinds of institutions I’ve described. But for those that have the capacity to be so, they ought to pursue the path unabashedly. The result will be a pluralized educational environment that provides possibilities of technical training, action, and contemplation that reflect the fullness of life.

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    Jeffrey Polet is professor emeritus of political science at Hope College and director of the Ford Leadership Forum at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.