The Ivy League as a Mirror of the World: A Response to Anthony Esolen

Last week, Prof. Esolen reflected on the biases and pretentious political opportunism exhibited by many American elites—particularly those who have brought a sense of exceptional privilege and arrogance to the levers of centralized government. I heartily agree with the crux of that argument, and with the deserved criticism directed at certain renowned institutions of higher learning, including Princeton University. Still, the satirical element of that discussion ought never be misunderstood. Having read much else of Prof. Esolen’s admirable prose, and invoking the freedom of a fellow Princetonian, I would like to add my own postscript to that article—an addendum with which (hopefully) the original author will largely agree.

Let me begin thus. History provides no shortage of horrid examples, wherein small cliques of ruling elites have stunned and oppressed the disenfranchised masses—have taken the whole of a nation’s traditions and beliefs, and attempted to turn them inside-out and upside-down. Tyrants and oligarchs have sometimes made men slaves, and bewitched them into the pursuit of profitless endeavors, even unto death.  The Protestant Reformation in England was in some ways a manifestation of exactly this type of elitist cabal—“a tyranny of literates over illiterates” in G.K. Chesterton’s simplistic, but not altogether misleading, phrase. But let it be clearly seen, that the threat we face at present—as an American nation, and even in the wider sphere of the Catholic Church—is not strictly cast in this mold.

We need not speak of places like Princeton University with the hushed tones that imply the presence of a wizard or puppeteer behind the curtain. It is true that a disproportionate, and perhaps inordinate, percentage of our modern politicians and supposed cultural leaders proceed from the halls of such places. And it is disturbingly patent, as Prof. Esolen eloquently describes, that too few of these persons “habitually examine their consciences”; too few “enter the confessional”; too few bring faith and humility into their daily lives and vocations.

But the sad, sobering humor about a place like Princeton, or every other institution of culture or learning which has surrendered to the tide of unbelief, relativist morals, and distorted reason, is that it pretends to lead, and has lost itself in its own illusion. With all the trumpets and fanfare of a bygone age, Princeton would proudly emblazon its escutcheon “In the Nation’s Service and In the Service of All Nations”—and would then proceed to throw another multimillion-dollar grant and tenure to a Freudian psychologist investigating the sublime therapeutic value of recycled-sheet-metal Cubist sculpture. The substance and vigor of such places are pouring out, as from bloody wounds, and they are living on through reputation and stowed capital. Princetonians indeed average among the highest salaries and largest accumulated wealth of our citizenry—after having been steeped for four years in the socialistic flavors of wealth-hatred. They are, just like the world-at-large beyond their gates, awash in incommensurable contradictions. Amidst all their glamour, the highest citadels of the American intellectual tradition have simply become profligates and flatterers to the temper of the times; they are little more than mirrors of the world.

Therefore, we may rightly condemn these universities, and the guardians who have carried them to this end; but we condemn them especially because they were meant to be something more. Out of a perfect maelstrom of greed and indifference, they have surrendered their supreme trust; they have dropped the mantle; they have bent and twisted the laurel crown. But it is indeed all the worse for us, because we expected better from them.

One might argue that we were misguided in thinking so well of such institutions, since supposed sages and wise men have too often been exposed for frauds. Collegiate faculties, it seems, are increasingly crammed with intellectual dwarves very neatly dressed up in robes. However, we need only appeal to a rudimentary sense of history, to know that scholars were not always to be mistrusted, and learned men had sometimes really been learned. It is not the case that universities or colleges inevitably devolve into this sort of intellectual dissipation and moral degeneracy. Even in a world where the credentialed Doctor or Magister seems utterly unable to teach, still someone must know something, and someone will be seeking to be taught. The point is, when the best minds, or best academies, have no articulate answer to the deepest questions of human life, you can be certain that a horrible filth and rot has drilled through the very core of an entire society.

That the wealthy, or educated, or influential classes of the twentieth century increasingly found civilization too heavy a burden to uphold is not a thing to be celebrated. That the strongest man was cut down, or the finest actor laughed off the stage, is simply the stuff of tragedy. It is undoubtedly true that many erstwhile decent souls, enraptured by fads and fashions, have followed supposed elites into the riot and confusion of libertinism; every day so many Western eyes turn with mockery and scorn away from the saving cross of Christ. Yet, in every experience of life, when the noble beacons are put out and the highest citadels fall, it is much the worse for the good man, since he is the one left bereft and alone.

In his article, Prof. Esolen observed with some just indignation, “The world of the Ruling Class is not real.” Indeed, it is not. Yet, what exactly do we increasingly find in the world of every other human being? No one could deny that the artificiality of our surroundings is ever-growing. As if a distaste for reality is in the air we breathe, we turn to every type of media, every semblance of machine or device, so that even the poorest and simplest among us are surrounded by it. If some are unemployed, unwanted, unhappy, unloved, at least Americans console themselves with the knowledge that none are unplugged.

In every nation of the earth, in every class and walk of life, there are certainly many good and decent people struggling for their families, for their livelihoods, and for their faith. But the heart of the problem is not simply Princeton, as it is not simply Yale, or Ohio State, or the Massachusetts General Court, or America itself.

Returning, then, to the origin of this article, I believe that there is indeed a kind word to be said on behalf of all once-noble colleges and schools—and perhaps especially on behalf of a place like Princeton. There is a common thread that links all modern universities with their medieval forerunners at the apex of Christendom: that is, the pursuit of the Truth. It is a need that is at the root of Man, signed upon him by God the Father who gave him being, and Christ the Son and Logos who was his Redeemer.

All true universities, albeit with variable proportion and effectiveness, manifest this pursuit. Institutions that seek to efface this aspect of their mission must set about the impossible task of destroying themselves. The emptiness of modernist and relativist doctrine cannot bear the weight of any university’s purpose and lineage; the greatness of old Princeton, or old Oxford, or any other such school, must wholly vanish, lest it collapse upon itself. In some quarters the hourglass is already running low. I am reminded, therefore, of a quotation that was especially dear to me during my time at Princeton, which I first saw inscribed upon a lancet arch amongst the university’s stone halls. It reads: “Here we were taught by men and gothic towers democracy and faith and righteousness and love of unseen things that do not die.”

Were all the pedants lost in peevish madness, still the majestic ordered beauty of Princeton’s gothic cloisters and quadrangles would set earnest young gentlemen and ladies on the path to God. The moldering books in the vaults of the library would tell them of the one Truth, which is Christ, that some have intentionally obfuscated or disguised. For “if these shall hold their peace, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)

Editor’s note: The image above depicts the crest of Harvard University.

James P. Bernens


James P. Bernens graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 2008. He also holds a J.D. from the William & Mary School of Law, and is completing an M.A. in philosophy at Boston College.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    #1 These once institutions with lofty ideals are now museums.
    #2 What would it take to have published in the Princeton university magazine/ newspaper both this and Prof Esolen’s piece?

    Thanks to both James Berens Esq and Professor Esolen for sharing with us their insights about their alma mater and that of so many others like it.

  • Steven Jonathan

    There is indeed an enchantment, a spell cast by the “literate” as you call them, over those same souls the “teachers” have insured will remain “illiterate.” The kind of death perpetrated by the elite cognoscenti who dare to call themselves “professors” on innocent Americans brings to mind the warning in Mathew 10:28 ” And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

    The death at places like Princeton is a soul death inspired by the father of lies and carried out by an army who has ignored St. James warning about the dangers of becoming a “teacher.” Princeton is beautiful and has more charm and allure than any other university I have ever seen, and the students are literally the “cream of the crop.” But to make the suggestion that students who go there can be won over by the “stones crying out” “books moldering in the library” absent of the wisdom of tradition and fatherhood leading the way, seems madness to me. There is no defense for what has been happening at our Ivy League schools. “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” I hope you are right and I am wrong. Nonetheless, beautifully written defense.

  • hombre111

    Give this man a golden thesaurus. He matched Dr. Esolen lofty phrase by lofty phrase. Couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.

    • Art Deco

      OK, which $2 words did he use?

      • hombre111

        Mmm…. Crux, cabal, escutcheon, sublime therapeutic, citadel, profligate, magister, maelstrom, laurel crown. But it is not a matter of words chosen, and I am not really meaning to criticize, because I enjoyed the article. But the sentence structure and general use of language is quite complex and very ornate. A real intellectual critiquing an intellectual. Kind of like reading old essays in literature class. Myself, I write for the masses and tend to use the power words of our language, which are words of Old English and Germanic origin.

        • thebigdog

          “Myself, I write for the masses..”

          Don’t remind us.

          • Adam__Baum

            I think he slipped an extraneous “m” in there, towards the end.

        • Art Deco

          You fancy that “crux, cabal, sublime, citadel, profligate, maelstrom” are $2 words? So much for seminary, ca. 1960.

          • hombre111

            As the recipient of five first place National Catholic Press Association awards, I am very careful about my use of language. When I am commenting on Crisis, I don’t bother with the agony over words, word order, and paragraphs.
            As I said, I enjoyed the article. It was written by a PHD and got a PHD style response: witty, clever, articulate. Made me smile. So, the Golden Thesaurus award.

            • Adam__Baum

              That should be enough to expose you.

  • Darren Szwajkowski

    “The following propositions have been urged: First, that some faith in our life is required even
    to improve it; second, that some dissatisfaction with things as they are is necessary even in order to be satisfied; third, that to have this necessary content and necessary discontent it is not sufficient to have the obvious equilibrium of the Stoic. For mere resignation has neither the gigantic levity of pleasure nor the superb intolerance of pain. There is a vital objection to the advice merely to grin and bear it. The objection is that if you merely bear it, you do not grin. Greek heroes do not grin: but gargoyles do—because they are Christian. And when a Christian is pleased, he is (in the most exact sense) frightfully pleased; his pleasure is frightful. Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the facades of the mediaeval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.”
    1st paragraph of Chapter 7 “The Eternal Revolution” in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

  • cestusdei

    I have no hope for Princeton. One of their professors, Singer, is so reprehensible as to beggar description. He teaches ethics and morals no less.

  • Tony

    Thank you, James. Sometimes, when I think about what Princeton was, even though they probably would not have admitted an Italian kid like me, I want to weep.

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  • tom

    UNseal Barry’s dismal school records to show we’ve been had…Big Time. Then, ask him why he gave up his law license so no one could question his credentials successfully.

    • Art Deco

      He let his law license lapse because he had quite practicing law. Michelle Antoinette did the same about a decade earlier.

      He graduated from Harvard Law School with honors. His academic record is adequate. He just had no committment to following a particular trade.

      • Newark

        As I understand it, a person, once admitted to the bar can not “give up” a licensure. I myself can’t stop being an “Architect” responsible for his work through licensure , state administered. To say you don’t practice means little. Responsibility is the meaning of the law.

        • Adam__Baum

          You can generally surrender a license. It would preclude you from doing those things that the license emplowers you to do. In my state, professional licensure is regulated by the “Department of State”, which has boards dedicated to regulating individual professions. Lawyers are regulated through the Bar Association, because it is a guild.

          If I surrender my accounting license, I would be precluded from opinion on financial statements (or other “assertions”) or preparing tax returns and representing individuals before the IRS or other taxing authorities.

          On the flip side, I am not in “public practice”, so I don’t perform any of those tasks professionally. Surrendering my license would relieve me of the $100 biannual licensing fee, as well as continuing professional education requirements and free me from certain other requirements, that might apply even when not engaged in accountancy. I maintain it as a matter of personal pride and as credential in the event of a need for new employment.

          Who knows what Obama’s motivations were-it could as simple as he couldn’t be bothered to keep up with required continuing (legal) education requirements. He does seem to have a demonstrated preference against having any requirements imposed upon him and a strong bias to leisure activities.

      • Right, I don’t think the point of these pair of essays was exactly that people at elite universities are dumb, but that they are amoral and narrow-minded. It’s simply not possible to get through Harvard Law School if you aren’t fairly intelligent. And it takes a reasonably high IQ to get through a PhD program in Queer Studies; the problem is that nothing is actually leaned, it’s just all so much sophistry and politics. Even the so-called “hard sciences” have their fair share of empty navel gazing. I’m finishing up a master’s in computer science, and I can tell you that some of the stuff that gets published in peer-reviewed journals is simply pointless theorizing, graphs describing graphs describing graphs — but another publication to add to the CV!

  • Tony

    James — the other day I saw, but didn’t buy (not this time), an old book in an antique store, called Carmina Collegiana. It was a book of about two hundred college songs, organized by the colleges; songs for Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and so forth. A couple of them were rousing drinking songs; all of them were innocent. I picked up two other books instead. In one of them, a book of the poetry of Bliss Carman, I found a message in a bottle; I’ll be writing about this. It was a folded piece of paper, with a typewritten paragraph quoting the conclusion of the commencement address by the president of Cornell, in 1896. A different world.

    • J. P. Bernens

      Thank you, Prof. Esolen. I typically do not comment or respond in these forums, even to the best thoughts that appear, lest I detract from an article. But in this case I will make an exception, because I want you to know that I appreciate your kind thoughts regarding what I have published here. I look forward to your next piece.
      To all of the others who have thoughtfully commented above, I thank you as well.

  • Bob

    Christ was a carpenter. His mother was a stay at home mom at age 14. Most of his first bishops were fishermen. None of them had overpriced Phd’s, JD’s, MBA’s, MD’s from overpriced “impressive” universities. There’s a message there.

  • I was reminded of this article when I read this blog post about some comments Peter Higgs made upon being awarded the Nobel Prize in physics: