Why Bother Going to College?

In his famous introductory chapter to A Guide for the Perplexed, the economist E. F. Schumacher talked of his “perplexity” at going to Oxford, perhaps the most famous university in the world. The title of Schumacher’s book was the same as that of a book of the medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides. The perplexity of the medievals was over the origins of the utter brilliance of Aristotle’s reasoning, which they had just rediscovered and needed to relate to contents of the books of revelation. Faith sought reason—fides quaerens intellectum. The perplexity of the modern student, on the other hand, is rather about what he is taught in college. Does it have anything to do with the reality he knew by his daily experience? The best short book to read on this issue is that of Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages.

After some dismaying experiences in the university, Schumacher discovered that the important things about life, death, and reality — including the fact that there is a reality — were simply never treated. Such issues did not constitute a part of the “core curriculum.” This “core,” if there is one, needs to be carefully examined at any institution. Look even more carefully when a school has a core or an agenda but does not tell the student what it is. It is true that no one would need to go to a university if he already knew everything taught there. On the other hand, there is something called, with Newman, The Idea of a University, that, like Plato himself, stands in judgment of actual institutions.

The important questions and their answers, Schumacher observed, were not dealt with in his university experience. Moreover, the reason that they were not addressed was said to be “scientific.”  That is, the scientific methods taught there were so brilliantly designed that most of the important questions of human life were excluded from consideration on scientific grounds!  Such issues did not come under the object that the methods were capable of treating. Therefore, they were assumed not to exist. This approach is usually called “reductionism.” What we see in the academic world is not determined by what we see with our own eyes but by methods designed by men to see what their theories allow them to see. It is not that such methods are not valuable and worthy to do what they are designed to do. We can know much of what is important, but not by such methods alone.

Chesterton put it well in his book, St. Thomas Aquinas, a book that should not be missed:

The abstract philosophies of the modern world have had this queer twist. Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each (modern philosophy) started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view.

A student at any college will often sense a conflict between prestige and truth, the prestige of the teacher, the school, or the culture. He will soon learn that everything contains some truth worthw knowing about, and that the best way to deal with error is to see the truth in which it is embedded.

Or, again to change the metaphor, college life is a minefield, studded with all different kinds of devices, waiting to be crossed. Wise young people will read independently in reliable books, to locate and identify hidden explosives rather than step on them. But the venturesome student will in fact want to know what such mines really are, and how they came to be constructed and buried. They will follow the example of Aquinas, who insisted that the accurate understanding of error is quite a necessary and legitimate side of our learning and living. Thus, we want to know how they function, how the mines are hidden. Yes, we want to know how to avoid stepping on them and indeed how to eliminate them, the first step of which effort is to know what they are and why they were made.

These mines of which we speak here, of course, are found not in the ground but in the mind, or better in institutions that presumably deal with the mind. The ones usually called universities or colleges are our subjects. Their energies absorb a good percentage of our gross national product and occupy the lives of about half the population at one time or another in their lives. But thinktanks and media of all sorts, even libraries and museums, must be included as these are also the places where things learned filter out into the world. Very famous men have contributed to construction of these mines. Actually, they are usually connected with each other. (For how this is so, see Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience; no other book makes us more aware of how things fit together.) We are amazed at their intricacy and outward hiddenness. We do not often know that they will explode until we chance to step on them. Sometimes they erupt with almost nuclear force.

All disorders of the polity begin in disorders of the soul. There is no reform of polity that does not include a reform of the men who constitute it. No study of politics or economics can be found that does not presuppose a study of the soul, that does not presume a metaphysics and a theology, even though it claims to reject the existence or necessity of either. It was Plato who first, for most of us, taught the polity’s relation to the soul. The polity is the soul writ large. Plato will still teach us, if we read him. Indeed, there is no such thing as a real university or college in which the constant reading of Plato does not go on in the minds and hearts of both students and faculty. To attend college and never to have read Plato there is, in essence, not to have gone to college.

But, one might object, Plato is an “ancient,” not a “modern.” Wasn’t there a “war” between ancients and moderns? Plato lived before almost all the “revolutions.” This distinction between ancients and moderns, based on the idea that somehow a thing is more “relevant” or “true” because it is more recent, most students will find amusing — once they really read Plato or Aristotle or Augustine. They will find these latter and others like them (Cicero, Sophocles, Thucydides, Tacitus, Origen, Bonaventure) more exciting and up-to-date than anything that is said to have taken their place.

We often find that our academic courses begin in 1900, or perhaps with the French Revolution, or the Protestant Reformation, or Machiavelli, or the discovery of the New World. Whenever we see this happening in our courses, we must be ready to look elsewhere and seek out what we are not presented. The fact is that very few human truths or errors were not already treated by the Greeks, by Plato and Aristotle. Not to know this is a very serious intellectual impediment.

Another common misdirection is to think that one goes to college in order to get a job. Colleges and universities, even philosophies themselves, are said to be for pragmatic purposes, for practical things. There is nothing wrong with jobs or making a living. It is a normal part of normal lives. But we must ask ourselves the question of whether this making a living is what a college is about. Are there not questions about the whole, about what everything is all about? It is the greatest of human confusions to pursue something as an end which is merely a means.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Sarto

    I was a campus minister twice, for a total of sixteen years. Fr. Schall’s thinking seems to describe a liberarl arts curriculum and I am 100% in favor of that. Unfortunately in many ways, universities have become advanced technical schools for careers in education, medicine and its spin-offs like pharmacy and nursing, business, finance, science, and agriculture. In the universities where I worked, liberal arts students were in the minority.

    One thing I noticed was the student’s discovery of more lifestyle options than he/she could ever have imagined. And while different religious organizations were trying to reach out to students and given them understanding of their faith and spiritual support, the whole secular attitude of the university was overwhelming. Plus, there was a pagan culture of weekend binging, “hookups” and irresponsible sexual behavior.

    And yet I used to be amazed that the students were as good as they were. But a lot of them were involved in illlusion–they imagined that they could behave irresponsibly during their college years and then, somehow, go on in their next life unencumbered by alcoholism, sex addiction, and a shallow attitude about life.

  • MMC

    And yet I used to be amazed that the students were as good as they were. But a lot of them were involved in illlusion–they imagined that they could behave irresponsibly during their college years and then, somehow, go on in their next life unencumbered by alcoholism, sex addiction, and a shallow attitude about life.

    You nailed it. The reason they were so good was b/c they had 18 years of parental authority and it hadn’t rub off yet. But you are quite correct…the illusion of “leaving behind” binge drinking, anyone goes sex, and shallow living without treating the wound it leaves is delusional. Nowadays parents are paying for colleges to steal their child’s soul.

  • Mack Hall

    All of you have made very good arguments and have supported them very well, so my response is not about any of you at all, it is about this:

    Why are so many university graduates now fashionably against younger people attending university? The idea of amending and correcting certain enormities in universities seems not to be considered.

    • Matt

      As a person who is finishing up his PhD (in a technical scientific field), I would put myself in category of people who is ‘against young people attending university.’ I am not against it because I do not value education, but because I see how little education is actually done on a college campus. Most of this, as Fr. Shall pointed out, is because most of the courses either science or the humanities are lacking in scope.

      Modern day ‘liberal arts’ programs are nothing more than a person going off and cementing the biases they have prior to attending a University. Graduate programs naturally weed out people with classical viewpoints as most programs are obsessed with the ‘novel’ vs. ‘truth.’ This combined with the stress of graduate studies (combined with the personalities of their professors) usually pushes these individuals out of programs.

      Consequently, I favor alternative models of education that bypass the rigidly dogmatic academy (which is ironic as they are usually against dogmatism), and thus think for most people a ‘University Education’ is a complete waste of time.

  • GodsCountry

    Developed minds are revealed “on the job”, no matter what job it is. The person who can think, act and lead in tune with reality will succeed – even without a parchment.

    • Sylvia Vitale

      I agree with your statement except most jobs require the parchment.

  • Adrian Lanser

    As a willing collective we have gutted our true and functional (read ideal and pragmatic) standard for those aspiring to be educated. No Latin or Greek is taught at any level. Civil discourse means a compromise of principles not respectful dialogue; we no longer teach rhetoric.

    We drift on a sea of a fatuous and apocryphal belief that our degrees signify an accomplishment of the intellect.

    My grandfather, classically schooled, told me the following pun: How does one conjugate the verb Dog? Dogo, Dogere, Pups I, Bite’um. No one I know gets the joke. Latin’s usefulness is not obscure jokes, obviously; it is a discipline with which one builds a competence in language.

    Bring back classic and rigorous learning to lift our nation and our world.

    • Sylvia Vitale

      Well said.

  • Peter Freeman

    While I concur with much of this column’s spirit, I wonder if we sometimes don’t approach this debate anachronistically. Universities today serve a far larger and more diverse population of students, and our universities have to prepare students for a vastly wide range of disciplines and sub-specialties. We have a hyper-abundance of knowledge, wisdom, and learning at our fingertips. We have countless new ways of approaching the world that the classics could never have even imagined.

    I’m not sure our higher education system is necessarily an embarrassment so much as it is an embarrassment of riches. So much new information comes at us that us academics are often like kids on Christmas morning panicking over which toy to play with first. (Although we might do better to wait to open them until after Christmas Mass.)

    • The problem is, that the curriculum is just a collection of the least enlightening morsels of all the new information; the problem lies in the choice of what to study and not the lack of things to study.

  • I love this quote from Voegelin in a lecture on universities:

    here is quite a very good remark here by Nisbet: If you make “a university a microcosm of society” — one of the slogans advocated by certain revolutionary students — “The university should be a microcosm of society” — that means it should be exactly as rotten as the society that it is supposed to balance. Then, you would have an institution that is neither useful for any purpose in society nor is it worth the expense. Sooner or later the people who pay the money will find that out. They will close it down.

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