An Education for Our Time
Josiah Bunting III, Regnery, 1998, 246 pages.
After religion and the family, education ranks at the top of almost any society’s priorities. If any of these elements is not healthy, a society is in serious peril of dissolution. Josiah Bunting III’s An Education for Our Time is a bold, provocative book on this all-important theme of education. Bunting is already a man of impressive accomplishments: Army major general, novelist, and, above all, educator. He has been president of three colleges and headmaster of one of the premier prep schools in the country, Lawrenceville in New Jersey, and is the current president of the Virginia Military Institute. This book shows he has not only received an excellent education, but has insights into literature and history as they pertain to character and leadership. He brings these studies to bear in An Education for Our Time, his own Utopia.
Like More’s work, the ideas at first glance seem unrealistic, but they are intended to shake up those serious about classical education. The book is discursive fiction, but its conceit is so effective it has already fooled more than one reader. Bunting’s speaker is one John Adams, and the name is no accident. President John Adams had the largest personal library in colonial America and appeared to be a deist more in love with the classics than with God. Bunting’s Adams is a Midwesterner, a graduate of the University of Chicago (home of one of the first Great Books programs, following the example of Columbia), a Rhodes scholar, a seriously wounded Marine Corps veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima, a Pentagon policy analyst, and an eventual technology billionaire who is dying of cancer. Having sold his company, he plans to leave behind his fortune as a permanent endowment for a personally designed, small liberal arts college in the plains of Wyoming. Adams wants to do what Newman attempted to do at the University College of Dublin and Hutchins attempted at the University of Chicago: to design the perfect college according to a Platonic ideal and make it into an Aristotelian reality. Adams’s college would be a cross between a military academy and a Great Books program, conducted in the spirit of a strict Cistercian monastery.
The chapters—largely in the form of letters written to Adams’s attorney—lay out his plans for the new college: its vision, student body, way of life, program of study, faculty, and administration. Adams claims in his first chapter to be one of those “whose life is dedicated to discovering how radical change can address ancient challenges.” He bemoans the shift in emphasis at the early American liberal arts colleges, from religious devotion and the cultivation of character and intellect to vocational education. Adams believes that “the business of undergraduate education remains the cultivation of character and mind, of instinct, and of ability to lead and to serve. . . . I see the education of character and virtue at least as high among our obligations as the preparation of intellect for a life-time of self-education.” He goes on to say that “this quiet credential for our graduates must proclaim that the bearer is an American citizen of integrity, of an avid and cultivated patriotism, of intellectual self-reliance, of a willingness to earn and re-earn wisdom, indifferent to the blandishments of celebrity and money and things.”
The students, all of whom would reside on campus, would number approximately 1500 men and women (a surprising recommendation, considering Bunting was a fierce opponent of coeducation at VMI). Students would undertake a five-year course of study that includes a compulsory year of military service. The students would be selected not on the basis of intelligence and extracurriculars, but rather “for a compound of practical intelligence, mother wit, determination, courage, certain early signs of selflessness, and a demonstrated willingness to go against the grain of expectation. . . . What we want is an admixture of mettle and demonstrated independence of judgment and character.” Adams’s students would enter at 15 or 16 years of age, after their sophomore or junior high school year, so they could be more easily formed.
The students would live in households of approximately 50 to 60 students with three or four mentors. They would take meals in common and their shared life would center around a “willing commitment to do their duty to the community, to their colleagues and friends before they attend to their own needs or wishes. . . . All aspects of college life would be centered around an ethos of responsibility rather than privilege, of duty rather than impulse, of need rather than want.” All of the students’ needs—transportation and the ordinary expenses of frugal living—would be provided. The schedule would allow for three or four hours of classes and study, meals, physical training, and a required one hour of “contemplation,” preferably outdoors, to reflect better on the beauty of God’s nature.
The curriculum would be heavily weighted toward history (30 percent), with survey courses emphasizing Roman, Greek, American, and military history. Students would master two foreign languages and take courses in science, logic, philosophy, theology, ethics, composition, and rhetoric. They would be required to gain computer literacy in a month-long orientation and would take courses in what he refers to as “Atonement with the Machine”: teaching students how to do practical and useful things with a basic mastery of modern tools and construction techniques. Each student would also be required to commit to memory two thousand lines each academic year for recitation before their mentors.
As for the faculty, Adams wants “persons passionately devoted to the pursuit and propagation of the truth, wherever it leads them, and who are loyal to our students and the mission of the college.” He wants no university departments, academic ranks, or tenure systems. He divides the faculty into two classes: mentors, who would live in villages with the students, and academic professors. Adams wants his faculty to be made up of “men and women who have not been afraid to tackle the larger issues in their disciplines and who are committed to communicating their conclusions and arguments to lay citizens as well as other scholars.”
It is no surprise that the book has received such ringing endorsements from the likes of Lewis Lapham, Bill Bennett, and David McCullough: Bunting’s dream college and its purpose are totally at odds with American’s reigning educational culture, which these authors have frequently criticized. What the college lacks, however, is religious vision. From a Christian point of view, this education is not enough to prepare students for their proper end of eternal life. Bunting is eclectic in his choice of many sources for his ideas, both in terms of books and persons. However, it is highly questionable at this particular millennial moment that such an institution could be founded, much less survive or flourish, without a strong Christian commitment as the founding principle and sacred theology at the center of the curriculum as the queen of the sciences. Today it is virtually impossible to build men of virtue and character if their formation, intellectual and otherwise, is not based on both the natural law and divine revelation. Unfortunately, General Bunting disparages John Cardinal Newman and his ideas several times in his book, showing a lamentable misunderstanding of Newman’s project and his famous “idea of a gentleman.” Without Christian revelation behind it, the college envisioned by John Adams could produce leaders, but would they be men of faith?
This review originally appeared in the December 1998 edition of Crisis Magazine.