Two years ago, I wrote a column for this site titled “Graduation 2009.” As I come to the end of this scholastic year, I would like to return to the same topic: What do college graduates learn before they graduate? Depending on the student and the faculty, the answer ranges from “not much” to “an amazing amount.”
If they have read their Plato, as they should, new graduates will have been warned, no matter what their start, that they have barely begun. Most of the important things take life experience that, at age 21 or 22, they have yet had time to acquire. Hopefully they read the same point in Aristotle. Graduation thus is more of a beginning than an ending of our learning about what the world is like. If they have been lucky, graduates will have an inkling of the fact that the world itself is not just about the world. Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est, as Aquinas put it — man is, properly speaking, not human, but superhuman.
Most professors realize by the time they are tenured, if not sooner, that out amid their students are minds and lives sharper and more virtuous often than their own. Learning something occasioned by students is more than a ritual that periodically happens while reading their papers or tests. Recently, a student sent me this email:
I also started to reread Aristotle’s Ethics. It sometimes frustrated me when I find myself wanting to delve deeper into a particular subject, but soon realize that university life makes it nearly impossible (between internships, other classes, events, etc.). It almost seems as though we are trained to feel guilty for wanting a moment of leisure. I didn’t realize until this semester how important these books are. I feel like I have learned more about life and myself from reading classical philosophy than from all of my international relations and political science classes combined.
Needless to say, Schall, for one, is pleased at this reaction. It’s what it’s all about.
The lack of leisure in universities has long concerned me. I sometimes think that compiling résumés that list internships, classes, jobs, sports, interviews, and campus activities is the biggest enemy to present-day university learning. Time is found for everything but leisure, the most essential freedom that we have. On seeing such outside activities, Pieper would turn over in his grave.
I think I must add to that list the “social justice” options that are supposedly designed to make the student realize that he is in a world of real problems. Students are sent off into the world before they realize just what might pass under the recently discovered name of “social justice” and how to critique it. As many young ideologues are produced by ecology and poverty programs as were ever created by reading Marx and Lenin. Basically, no one can help the poor unless he knows how the poor are, in fact, helped. We have a country that too often has made the lot of the poor much worse by nobly advocating government programs that do anything but help the poor to their real good. We have confused justice and charity, only to end up with neither. We use compassion to overturn basic morality.
Often I am asked whether the students of today are “better” than those of 20, 30, or a hundred years ago. My standard answer is the same: Students in college are always 20 years old, give or take a year or two. The ones today are no better or worse than any previous group. Today’s students have proportionately the same brains and zeal, or lack thereof. They are all stunned to see what Plato or Aristotle or Augustine or Aquinas did by the time he was about their age. They are also struck by how much more insightful these writers are than anything else they are likely to read in college.
What is exploding on campuses today is not teaching or learning but administration. As a 2009 Forbes article indicated, the bureaucracy of the university is where the real cost lies. All sorts of things that deflect from leaning can be traced back to administration, and behind that to government regulations imposing various and dubious social policies.
Advice to graduates? In 1976, in Toronto, Eric Voegelin remarked that we do not have to participate in the aberrations of our time. But this freedom is conditioned by what we know, how we form our souls. We need to have pursued not just learning but the truth. In an era in which relativism is presupposed, we need to find and read not just “great” books but those that tell the truth. Any student is fortunate who graduates in any year knowing these things; those who do not, graduate with empty souls — no matter what is on their résumés.